Sunday, June 30, 2019

Trap for Winners: a gamebook that turned into a computer game

Most of the time, I write about Gamebook Theory and I enjoy every single keystroke on that subject. However, this month, my post will be about a very good gamebook, which just recently became a computer game.

Let me first start with a little bit of gamebook history from the 1990s!

 After the fall of the Soviet Union, most of Eastern Europe suffered serious economic problems. In the winter of 1996/1997, Bulgaria's recession went even further and the country was hit by a few months of hyper-inflation. As a result, nobody could afford to buy a computer or a game console. These, otherwise unfortunate events, allowed the more affordable form of gaming - branching narrative literature - to become the kid's main choice for personal entertainment in that era and created a whole new generation of gamebook fans. In the midst of those events, a true legend emerged: the gamebook author Michael Mindcrime. According to his own words, after reading a gamebook for the first time, he though "This sucks! I can write a much better one". The rest is history. He became the most recognized, the most published and the most notorious gamebook author in Bulgaria.

You are probably thinking that Mindcrime doesn't sound like an Eastern-European name. You are correct. Back then, the consumers disregarded anything that was made in the Eastern Block, so many of the local authors were forced to use fake English names or western hemisphere sounding nicknames, if you prefer. His real name is Dimitar, but his family called him Misho. That is short for Mikhail, which in English is spelled as Michael. He came up with the last name of his pseudonym while working on his first gamebook. The whole time, he was listening to the album "Operation Mindcrime" by Queensr├┐che. And there you go! Now the whole world knows how and why Dimitar Slaveykov became Michael Mindcrime.

"Trap for Winners" was his 22nd officially published gamebook. It saw the light of day sometime back in 1997 and it is one of his best works in the genre. For reasons I can't explain, I didn't get to read it back then, but everything else from that author was standing out from all other Bulgarian and English gamebooks I've ever seen. He is famous for perfectly balancing the difficulty in his gamebooks, for creating great informed choices and successfully integrating many logic puzzles and riddles in his adventures. The outcome in his games always depends on the player's choices and performance, not on blind guessing and pure chance.

So, when about an year ago, PrimeGames announced that they were about to make a computer game based on a Michael Mindcrime's book, I was absolutely ecstatic. I dug deep into my gamebook collection and there it was - the original, paper version of "Trap for Winners". I wasn't disappointed. It was a great read and I dare to say that the message it carries is more relevant nowadays than it was back when it was first realeased in 1997.

So, "Trap for Winners" puts the reader in the shoes of an undercover agent for the Department of Foreign Civilizations, who is dispatched to an enemy world. The adventure takes place sometime in the future when our home planet is trying to apply for membership in the Galactic Union of Advanced Civilizations.

After a devastating war with an alien race, Earth has emerged victorious and hastaken over  the hostile planet Dorya. As a part of Earth's Occupying Corps, the reader will have to investigate all the suspicious circumstances that have shaped the course of the war. He, playing as the undercover agent Steve Harrison, will have to balance between the pursuit of knowledge and securing the superiors' favor; between suppressing violent rebels and his own conscience. And what he'll discover just might change Earth's destiny forever.

See, even though, the book (published in 1997) precedes the War in the Middle East, many of the choices are similar to the problems the United States Military had to face there. The moral dilemmas of treating the enemy with respect or brutality are probably as old as the world. Also, should the locals, seemingly peaceful citizens, be treated as innocent people or handled with an iron fist? Would you be easy on the prisoners of war, let them rest and feed them well or would you rather push them to work harder in the prison camps? There are many choices like the ones above in "Trap for Winners". Neither one of them is entirely right or wrong. Depending on the reader, his preference and performance, there are three different victory endings available. Got you interested yet?

There are also many good things to be said about the computer adaptation by Prime Games too. First and most importantly, the translation from Bulgarian to English is excellent. Mindcrime was never famous for his literature, but his writing style is nevertheless pretty good. The translation and further editing allowed the quality of the text to be elevated at least one level up. It is easy to read, but not at all simplistic. The soundtrack is also very well selected. It helps the reader to unconsciously emerge into the world of the book. The gameplay is very intuitive. The few pictures in the game could have been done a little bit better and I wish there were more of those, but I also understand that this is one of the greatest expenses in the game design industry.

There is, however, one major difference between the gamebook and its adaptation for the personal computer and that is the minigame, which takes place during every mission on the planet Dorya. I've heard some complaints from fans that this addition to the original book distracts and takes the focus away from the actual story, but in my personal opinion, it is a well needed break from reading blocks of text. It took me a couple of failures to get the hang of it, but once mastered, I started enjoying these minigame missions.

Before I finish this post, I must say that Michael Mindcrime published a total of 30 gamebooks between the years of 1993 and 1999. Unfortunately for all his fans, he no longer writes interactive adventures. According to his own words, gamebooks can't provide enough income and he has moved on to other endeavors. However, 29 of his books remain unpublished in English, so I am hoping that the people at Prime Games would chose to translate and adapt many more of them in the near future.

In conclusion, I'd like to add that I've mentioned Michael Mindcrime, as an example of an outstanding gamebook designer, many times in my posts on Gamebook Theory, but never had a reference point to him for all my English speaking friends. I am going to be eternally grateful to Prime Games for translating his work into English and for making one of my childhood dreams - to play a computer game designed by Michael Mindcrime - a reality.

The game "Trap for Winners" is now available for purchase on Steam:

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

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