This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
Illustrations have often been a feature of gamebooks – the artwork in Fighting Fantasy books constitutes some of the most aesthetically interesting fantasy art of the era, particularly given the number of pieces which depict a first person viewpoint. But just how much can you incorporate illustration into a gamebook? Graphic Novel Adventures seeks to find out…
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
For some years, Makaka Editions in France have been producing a line of graphic novel gamebooks. The concept is that the paragraph numbers, whilst sometimes incorporated into accompanying text, are usually snuck into the illustrations themselves – sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly so as to provide rewarding secrets for eagle-eyed readers. The Graphic Novel Adventures Kickstarter campaign was mounted by Van Ryder Games, with an eye to producing English translations of a selection of five of the Makaka Editions line.
Specifically, the purpose of the Kickstarter money was to fund the print run. One of the advantages of the project for Van Ryder Games was that all of the artwork had already been prepared for the French editions of the books; all they needed to do was produce translations of the French text, insert those translations, and make any minor format tweaks necessitated by that. Whilst that isn’t a free process, that’s naturally much faster and cheaper than producing all the text and artwork from scratch, and Van Ryder could also look to Makaka’s experience in producing the original books to help avoid any production pitfalls.
As promised during the Kickstarter campaign, Van Ryder had the print files sorted out at the printer – all they needed to do once the project was done was start the printing process. This didn’t leave much scope for stretch goals, so they didn’t use them – but they did say that they would use the Kickstarter as a test balloon to see how much appetite there was for the books, and a strong response would make it more likely they would translate more of them in future. In the end, they raised $296,101 and had a $30,000 target, and have already announced that another tranche of five will be produced.
What Level I Backed At
The Full Set of 5 Books!
All 5 GNA Gamebooks including an exclusive custom slip case (only $15 per book)!
Delivering the Goods
The predicted delivery date was June 2018, I got mine in July, but this was down to issues entirely outside of Van Ryder’s control – the shipment of the products from the printers to them got flagged by customs and had to be inspected, meaning they didn’t get hold of the books to send them to backers until June was done. Still, given the epic delays other Kickstarters regularly suffer, I’m disinclined to hold this against them.
Reviewing the Swag
Your daughter has been kidnapped, and your kidnappers demand that you bring the ransom to a lonely old mansion in the French countryside, bringing a signet ring handed down in your family as identification. You head in with two friends tailing you at a distance – the idea being for you to gain entry and then bring in your backup so as to rescue your daughter. However, as you sweep the mansion, it becomes appallingly evident that the kidnappers are not at all interested in the money and have a far more esoteric interest in you and your daughter. The kidnappers are, in fact, a cult – and the dark powers they can call on are hideously real.
The first Graphic Novel Adventure, penned by Manuro and illustrated by MC, takes a full-bore Lovecraftian horror approach which is largely successful. It doesn’t have much in the way of a sophisticated system, but that’s fine because I have a very particular set of skills – skills I have acquired over a long career of playing gamebooks – which turned out to be enough for me to rescue my daughter. There’s a time mechanic whereby at certain junctures you have to add a tick to the time count, and occasionally when you come into an area different things will happen depending on whether it’s earlier or later in the evening, which all really helps create the impression that you are in a dynamic situation where stuff is going on out of sight.
As far as the actual story goes, it’s pretty solid. It doesn’t fall into the lazy racist pitfalls of Lovecraftian fiction to any obvious extent, and I quite like how the backstory gets revealed in dribs and drabs depending on what you choose to investigate as you search the house. Some repeat play value is therefore incorporated – even if you successfully save your daughter on your first run-through, you don’t necessarily have the full backstory on what the cult was up to in the first place, or what went down in the house when they took it over for their purposes.
Tears of a Goddess
Written by Manuro and illustrated by Jurdic, this adventure is set in a wuxia-esque fantasy Asia and casts you as a kickass bounty hunter. As the only woman to be a protagonist in this set, you’re tasked with retrieving the Tears of Nuwa – sacred seeds that have been stolen by a sinister trio, some of whom you have past history with…
On the one hand, it’s nice to see at least one of these gamebooks having a cast that isn’t predominantly white – the vast majority of characters are East Asian (or a closely corresponding ethnicity in this fantasy world). However, Jurdic’s artwork adds a nasty spin to this, in that he makes regular use of nasty ethnic stereotyping in character design. In general, important characters who we are meant to take seriously get a decent design – but the more minor or comical a character is supposed to be, the more they look like a racist cartoon. In some respects this feels like it’s riffing on the distinction in many martial arts movies between the photogenic heroes and villains and the more homely-looking comic relief, but it misses the mark in a really unpleasant way.
As for the game itself, it progresses briskly and at its best does give you the sense of being a deadly assassin. You get to pick a single special skill at the start, which adds some replay value. There’s a time-tracking feature like the one in Captive, though I think either it isn’t correctly optimised or I missed one of the timer icons – you run out of time to chase the thieves if you hit 11 time ticks by the end of a branch of your investigation, but after attempting the three branches I’d only accumulated 10, allowing me a second go at the one I failed.
About that failure: some of the game’s decisions seem a bit arbitrary. There’s at least one point where if you take one decision that’s just as valid as the alternative in terms of how it’s presented to you, you arbitrarily fail that spur of the investigation unless you picked the right skill at the start, and that really isn’t signposted at all. At the end I finished the game with a good score, but I admit to some cheating – which I feel justified in because the game doesn’t play fair with you.
It’s generic Medieval Fantasy Times, in the depths of winter, and you are Eoras, the apprentice to the wizard Thedocred. When Thedocred sends you out on a late night errand to obtain some urgently-needed herbs from the forest, you have an encounter with a rampaging werewoofle – one of the titular loup garou, in fact. You survive, but were bitten – becoming a woofle yourself – and worse, your wound was witnessed by the man who saved you, the elite werewolf hunter Salandar, who mercilessly intends to hunt you down and slay you. Can you flee, find more of your own kind, and overcome the challenges that face you and your new kin?
So, this is a gamebook which wants you to feel like you are controlling a big strong werewoofle, and part of that involves kicking some asses. The combat system seems somewhat inspired by Fighting Fantasy, but with some system tweaks that make it a bit smoother and faster. For one thing, you roll only one six-sided die (or spin a disc you can construct from a page at the back if you really want to, but who doesn’t own a physical or electronic six-sider?) and add your Strength stat to find your attack total, so combat is much less “swingy” and you have a bit more certainty as to how much damage you can expect to do per turn. For another, your opponents don’t roll Strength to hit you – instead their Strength is a flat rating which they apply each combat round (and tends to be a tad larger than yours
Lastly, your opponents don’t have a Defence stat – your hits subtract directly from their hit points – whilst you do, with your Defence rating subtracted from your opponent’s Strength before damage is calculated. (This means that if your Defence is higher than their Strength they cannot possibly hurt you.)
Unlike Fighting Fantasy, you actually earn experience points from successful fights, and each time you level up your maximum hit points and magic points go up a little and you learn an extra skill from the skill tree; between this and various things you can find to restore your depleted resources or boost your Strength or Defence ratings, you can get pretty badass over the course of the game, and intelligent use of skills can in particular allow you to prevail in combat even against extremely powerful opponents in a way which isn’t generally possible in Fighting Fantasy.
On the whole, then Moon clearly has an excellent knack for system design, and the rules are generally a joy to interact with. It’s particularly neat how taking on your woofle form makes you feel like you have legitimately unleashed hideous power – you get +5 to both your Strength and Defence, which is an absolutely enormous bonus on the scale the game operates at (though of course if you are not careful about when and were you transform you can get into severe trouble). In general, it feels like it will usually be possible to win the game should you play intelligently and make good use of your skills – as opposed to Fighting Fantasy, where winning is often a matter of sheer luck and can be effectively impossible if you roll badly at character generation.
In addition, the story as written and illustrated by Moon and 2D is really nicely handled. You have desperate chases, sanctuary in an unlikely werewolf clan, a mystery to solve in exploring town, dark treachery, a kick-ass battle sequence, and – if you make it to the end successfully – ultimate triumph which feels genuinely earned. It’s evident from the course of the plot that Moon took a lot of inspiration from the medieval woofles-vs.-vampires themes of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – the woofles even use the term “Lycan” to refer to themselves at one point! – but that’s a cool basis for a battle, and the overall story arc generally gives you lots of opportunities to feel like an awesome, primal, woofly-woof hero. It’s actually my favourite in the set.
This is a Western-themed game where you are a drifter who wanders into a tiny little town and decides to lend your skills in order to make something of it. Winning the support of the five people who currently live there, you’re given a 12 month term as Mayor, during which you’ll have to explore various areas, handle various events, and generally manage the place in order to accomplish your ultimate goals.
That’s fun in principle, but in practice it’s an absolute pain to implement as a gamebook. Designed and written by Shuky and illustrated by 2D, it clearly wants to be a fairly detailed town management game, but the upshot of this is that there’s an incredible amount of stuff you need to track, any of which might change whenever you do anything or go to a different panel. In fact, here’s a list of stuff you are given overt spaces to track on the character sheet:
- Buildings you have constructed, and where you’ve put them on the town map.
- Bank account.
- Monthly expenses.
- Esteemed residents.
- Gold pieces.
- Wanted outlaws.
- Hidden treasures.
- Visits to town.
That’s more than even quite complex boardgames expect you to track, and there’s further shit on top of that. For instance, if you build a carpenter’s shop, suddenly you need to track wood production. If you pick up a particular weapon, it might have special properties… which so far as I can tell aren’t actually explained to you anywhere. (Or if they are, you need to go to a particular place which might not be available at that point in time to get them explained, rather than referring to the already quite extensive rules section at the front of the book to get them explained.)
The experiments with the format don’t stop there. There’s a gunfighting system which I cheated on because it’s just absurd; it requires you to hold a pencil six inches above the page and them drop it, and if it hits the person or thing you are aiming at then you got ‘em. Sounds fine in the abstract, but not very convenient if, say, you’re playing from a PDF, or if you’re reading whilst on the commute or something. Then again, they probably assume that you are sat at a desk with your paperwork carefully laid out before you when playing this.
On top of that, because there’s limited space available in the book, the individual expeditions and adventures you have in between bouts of building and management just don’t have much meat to them – they seem rather sad, sparse things. The mostly-sepia tones of 2D’s art on the one hand captures the Old West wook quite nicely, but also makes it seem like the whole thing was finished in a bit of a rush. The book doesn’t even make good use of the panel budget available – I noted several panels which just illustrate you travelling from A to B without anything interesting happening, which could have happily been excised from the game without anything changing.
These are also used at points in Loup Garou, mind, and there as well as here I think they were used for the purpose of providing a sense of pacing and time passing. However, Loup Garou had a much stronger central plot than this one, and wasn’t trying to cram so many side expeditions into the page count available; as such, I think Loup Garou had room to play with this sort of technique, but Your Town doesn’t really have the same space. (Also, I tend to feel like the effect just plain worked better in Loup Garou, usually because it was better contextualised within the main plot.)
One thing I noticed when playing this (I played it second because I got the order of the intended numbering wrong) was that the graphic novel format for gamebooks has a major disadvantage over prose. In prose you can carefully avoid making any specific statements about the origins or identifying features or general personal presentation of the protagonist, which makes it easy for folk of any background to insert themselves into the story. On the other hand, doing an entire graphic novel adventure without depicting the protagonist ever would be a really difficult constraint – you’d have to depict all the panels from first-person view, and that’d look odd.
This isn’t so much of a problem for, say, the Sherlock Holmes book, because you expect to play Holmes and Watson there. Likewise, in Captive, Tears of a Goddess and Loup Garou you are playing a defined character with a specific background and ties to the setting – even though you’re referred to in the second person, “You” are still playing that specific character, rather than being expected to envision the character as a stand-in for yourself. However, for this one you’re expected to see “You” as being this slim manly cowboy type, and that’s going to have issues for a great swathe of audience members.
Ultimately, this is an interesting idea for a game implemented in entirely the wrong format. With this amount of shit to track, it would be far more convenient to implement this as a videogame – perhaps a Western-flavoured take on King of Dragon Pass. That would have also left space to lend some actual depth to the various encounters and adventures. As it stands, the whole thing resembles a proof of concept game design that a team might put together prior to actually commencing coding on a game, rather than something that should have been turned into a published gamebook.
Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations
Victorian London: at 221b Baker Street, Holmes and Watson are confronted with a flood of work. A dossier of four cases has landed in Holmes’ desk, sent to him by none other than his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. Only by investigating all four cases can you work out what the Napoleon of Crime is up to this time – and stop him in his tracks!
Written and illustrated by CED, this is a fairly gentle adventure to round out the set and will be broadly suitable for most readers, with some caveats. Holmes and Watson investigate crimes, these include a murder and someone being tortured, and what with forensic investigation being what it is some clues inevitably point to some details of how those went down. In particular, Watson is a doctor, so for those investigations where you choose to play as him you’ll end up examining wounds and corpses, which may squick out some readers.
That said, the art style is warm, charming, and somewhat cartoonish, so we aren’t dealing with especially realistic gore here. Moreover, the art and narration take no ghoulish glee in the violence they depict or the aftermath thereof. (They are even careful to make sure Watson looks suitably disconcerted when he realises what’s happened to the torture victim, so the subject definitely isn’t treated lightly.)
On the subject of Watson: after you play through the first investigation as him (it acts as a sort of tutorial), you get to choose to play through each subsequent investigation as Holmes or Watson. This has almost no real effect save to act as a difficulty level selector; Holmes is hard mode because he gets to ask less questions of witnesses than Watson (the Great Detective infamously not being much of a people person) and where Watson can automatically suss out clues by performing medical examinations or asking Holmes for hints, Holmes must arrive at the same conclusions through pure deduction. You score more points at the end if you solve cases as Holmes instead of Watson.
Another means of getting points is spotting typewriter keys that Moriarty has scattered about the place – one instance of the gamebook making good use of the graphic novel format to incorporate puzzles which you couldn’t do in a prose-only gamebook. Another way this happens is in the occasional hidden number appearing in a panel, corresponding to an option which you wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to follow up unless you spotted the number. (Some of the clue numbers are obscure enough that you are going to want to be somewhere with decent lighting when you read this.)
Sometimes these involve clues which strongly point to the solution to a mystery, though you can get the right answer in any investigation even if you miss some clues so the book doesn’t have any mid-playthrough “game overs”. Other times these involve entirely optional puzzles set by Moriarty, which reveal nothing except more typewriter pieces – and thus a better score at the end of the game. (Fittingly, Moriarty’s puzzles tend to be mathematically-themed, which is a nice tie-in to his background as a humble maths professor.)
On the whole, then, this is a genteel mystery with a slightly middling approach to diversity (there’s an archaeologist who’s a woman in one of the mysteries and numerous other named women with significant roles in the investigations besides, on the other hand I recall no PoC being sighted in the book whatsoever). At points the book feels like it’s suffered a little from a lack of research; for instance, CED doesn’t seem to have a particularly firm handle on what working class people wore in Victorian times, and this kind of shows in the artwork when you run into, say, a nice old couple whose sartorial style reads like it could fit anywhere between 1950 and now better than the late 1800s. It makes decent use of the graphic novel format, and also some use of the physical format of the book as well. (There is at least one puzzle which would be an enormous pain to solve in PDF format.)
Due to the mystery setup, it really doesn’t have an enormous amount of replay value, though it is at least relievingly simply after the complexities of Your Town.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong
I’d say Just Right. Whilst I’m not keen on Your Town at all, I found Sherlock Holmes quite endearing, Captive suitably tense, Tears of a Goddess a decent gamebook marred by some of the artwork, and Loup Garou absolutely excellent. And the fact is that whilst I consider Your Town a dud, I had to actually play it to hit that conclusion and would have wanted to try it if I hadn’t bought it, and the slipcase is a nice addition.
Would Back Again?
Absolutely – Van Ryder clearly understand how to run a fuss-free Kickstarter, and now I know the styles of the individual book authors better I can make a more informed choice as to whether I want to try all the books or just a sample.