Down Among the Dead Men has been floating around on the seas of fiction since 1993, when Dave Morris wrote it as book number 2 in the Virtual Reality Adventures series. The story is excellent, a seafaring tale of revenge against a truly despicable pirate foe, the black-hearted bastard Skarvench. In game terms, it allows you a wide variety of character builds, and presents a ton of different routes to explore, particularly in the early parts of the story. And that equates to a gamebook you can reread again and again. And indeed I have; my own copy of Down Among the Dead Men is a battered, ex-library copy. I've battered it quite a bit more in the years that I've owned it.
When I learned that Inkle had converted this book to app format, my first thought was that it was an excellent choice - containing no randomness, no dice-rolling combat, it seemed a fine candidate for conversion into a gamebook app with a fairly literary tone. My second, contrasting thought was to wonder if it would hold up against the interactive fiction of the last few years. Y'see, the challenge to 'beat the book' is quite out of vogue, these days. Story is all-important; you can complete the story well, or complete the story badly, but death or truly miserable defeat are increasingly rare.
I needn't have worried. One of the first choices you get to make in Down Among the Dead Men is about the nature of the world in which you live - is it an optimistic land of high adventure, a grim world of harsh realism, or somewhere in between these two extremes? For those learned in the lore of interactive fiction, it's quickly apparent that you're choosing your difficulty level - or, if you prefer, the type of reading experience you're about to have. Will you read the book as originally written some twenty-plus years ago, or do you prefer to read a story where you need not fear the protagonist's sudden death, and any unfulfilling lack of dramatic resolution that results from such a fate?
This update to the original book by the guys at Inkle is a lovely touch, and an example of the sort of flexibility that allows stories told through the Inkle motor a great deal more nuance than those in the classic gamebook format. Difficulty levels aside, other nuances crop up throughout. When I played as a changeling sorcerer, who knew nothing about my origins, I passed mysterious buildings that seemed oddly familiar, and I wondered whether I might once have lived there, once. When I played as a pirate queen, disguised as a man, I struggled with the difficulty of hiding my sex during my travels with my fellow pirate escapees. Like DM's previous Inkle project, Frankenstein, Down Among the Dead Men keeps the game mechanics - your character's skills, and so on - hidden away 'under the hood'. And so much the better - if the game does your bookkeeping for you, why bother with them? If you've never read 1993's Down Among the Dead Men, you'll have little Inkling of the variables at play here. I came away from this story kind of wishing that I didn't know the original so well, in fact - I'd have loved to approach this app with no knowledge of the gamebook elements at work.
Another point worth mentioning is the price of this app. Just now it costs 0.89 euros for iPhone/iPad, or whatever that is in your local currency. That's super-cheap. And probably a bit less than I paid for my battered ex-library copy of the book back in the day.
(Review by Paul Gresty)