I'd originally planned this blog post to be a review of 'Proteus - the Tower of Terror', the app recently released by AppEndix LLC. It's a 200-section gamebook adventure written by David Brunskill and published in Proteus magazine in 1985, updated with some new art and SFX, and made available for iOS mobile devices. Great stuff. I ultimately decided not to do a full review of the app. I'll talk more about that in a bit.
Initially reading through the app's description, I spotted the following sentence: -
"Features dozens of ways to die!"
And, man alive, that gave me pause. That right there is a sentence that's indicative of the 80s off-target marketing notion that super-difficult gamebooks are also super-fun. Dying in gamebooks is not fun. Dying arbitrarily, without any chance to defend yourself, is even less so.
The app isn't bad. It's a dungeon crawl, in very much an early-FF style. Supposedly you have to penetrate the story's eponymous tower, but... it's a dungeon. There's no two ways around that. I began playing, and soon got killed by a trio of Death Bats. I started playing again, and died again. I played again, and died again.
And then, on my third or fourth playthrough, something wholly unexpected happened. I found myself wanting to cheat. I wanted to fudge dice rolls, and keep my thumb on the previous page. I wanted to peek a few sections ahead, to see if a certain passage would lead where I wanted it to. I wanted to sneakily read the story a little bit in between playthroughs, to see what treasure the tougher monsters were carrying, or to plan out my route the next time around.
Because, in an app, none of this is possible. In a dead-tree gamebook, it is.
And so I grew increasingly frustrated with this app. Not just because the dungeon crawl format is dated, and doesn't hold up against a lot of today's interactive stories - though this is true. But also because the sort of super-hard dungeon crawls you found in the 80s REQUIRE a degree of cheating in order to be fun. To reiterate: dying again and again and again isn't fun. Finally managing to get further than you've ever done before... only to be insta-killed by a pit trap because you turned right down the corridor instead of left... well, that'll make you swear out loud. Gamebooks were young in the 80s, and the medium was far from perfect. Having a physical book in your hands, that you could manipulate and explore as you wished, free from the constraints imposed by strict adherence to the story's rules... this was necessary in order to balance out the frustrating, unfair elements that were at times present.
I've been playing gamebooks for close to thirty years. I've only just come to the realisation that sometimes you're SUPPOSED to cheat.
Now, 'Proteus - The Tower of Terror' does give you ample opportunities to cheat - it's just that they come as in-app purchases. You can buy extra equipment, or bookmarks to save your place. You can upgrade your in-game map, so that it retains information from previous playthroughs. You have a 'keep playing' option, like in old arcade machines. But all of this comes with a real-world price tag, which I begrudge paying, even if the price isn't so high. I'm downloading the game from mainland Europe, where it cost me 1.79 euros - and that's a pretty good price, I feel. But for that, you are only getting the basic, strictly-by-the-rules game. Great for hardcore gamers, less so for miserly cheat fiends like me.
Here, a diligent, thorough reviewer would persevere with the game until the end, in order to give a balanced, informed opinion. I didn't do that. I gave up on it. I think I got pretty far - it took me seven playthroughs to fully explore the early parts of the dungeon, and to get through the door that marks the entrance to the dungeon's 'second level'. But that second part of the dungeon is pretty large as well, and I lost the will to play through the game another ten times just to explore it. It would have been handy to place a bookmark just after that important door, actually - if I hadn't been too mean to buy one.
The game is essentially a word-for-word reprint of the version first published in 1985, so I'll point you towards the review of that on Demian's Gamebook Web Page, which seems pretty much spot on. And in lieu of a comprehensive review of the story, I'll indicate what the new iOS app format adds to the mix.
- The price. At 1.79 euros, or however much that is in your local currency, it's pretty cheap. Though I'd have been happy if the game had been a little more expensive, and hadn't pushed the in-app purchases so hard. Yes, I know - that's where developers make a ton of money. Candy Crush has taught us that much. But still, one or two free bookmarks per playthrough would have been nice.
- The artwork. Demian's Gamebook Web Page slams this, but I personally rather like it. It has a nice retro feel to it.
- The special effects, sometimes. I like seeing blood splash across the page whenever you get wounded - and that creates a few genuine winces when you turn to a new section, and see that dreaded red smear.
- The auto-mapping is nice too - though for the 'magic map' that doesn't get erased after each playthrough, you'll need to fork out for an in-app purchase.
- The animation is a shade too slow. This is true in the title screen, and in the way the text fades into view on each page, and particularly during the fights. You might not notice so much the first time through the game, but by your seventh playthrough it'll be getting on your nerves. Some sort of 'fast animation' or 'fast fight' option would be nice.
- You can't reroll your stats. And you'll be wanting high stats to have any hope of succeeding. The only way to effectively reroll is to quit the app, delete it from your device's list of recently used apps, and then re-enter the app, to select a new game from the title screen. Given the slow animation mentioned above, it takes the better part of a minute each time you want to reroll your stats.
- I've seen this in a few gamebook apps, but I'm not keen on the parchment-style backdrop to the text. It's pretty and all, but it makes reading the text just a little more difficult. My eyes don't work so well; I dislike having to strain them. Some sort of 'clean background' option would be groovy.
There you go. Truthfully, I'd like to know precisely why The Tower of Terror was chosen for adaptation, when it seems it can't be too hard to get somebody to rattle off a more up-to-date 200-section adventure. Was it a labour of nostalgic love? A noble enough motive, if so. Do AppEndix LLC plan to adapt every story from Proteus? If so, Demian's Gamebook Web Page suggests there are stronger entries in the series.
Anyway, if you're a fan of the classic dungeon crawl vibe, check out The Tower of Terror for yourself. And if you're hungry for other apps from AppEndix, I recommend their adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes gamebooks, particularly Murder at the Diogenes Club. It's a little heavy on dice-rolling, but still great fun. Plus I luuurve the Sherlock Holmes stories. So that's a plus.
(post by Paul Gresty)