Mini-Review: Choose Your Own Pounding In the Frozen Lake

After two expeditions to more far-flung locations, Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of gamebooks has returned to the familiar territory of Billings, Montana – the core locale of the Tingleverse RPG and a major landmark of Chuck’s wider body of work – for Expedition to the Frozen Lake. This casts you as a retired archaeology professor from Montana State University who is called on by Noro Bibble (an activist Bigfoot) to help oppose the devilish Cobbler Industries, who are drilling for chocolate milk reserves they believe are found underneath the Frozen Lake just outside of town.

To prevent the environmental devastation the drilling will cause, Noro wants you to see if any interesting artifacts can be found in the Frozen Lake, since if there archaeological finds in the lake there will be a legal basis to block the drilling. It won’t be easy, though; whilst there is indeed a temple of the legendary true buckaroos down there, there’s also the force of the Void itself – and cultists eager to serve its whims. And that’s not taking into account professional saboteurs from Cobbler Industries, or the mysterious, murderous Apple Trapper…

If you’ve followed Chuck Tingle for a while – particularly his social media presence – the Frozen Lake will be familiar to you as a signature locale in his personal mythology. From time to time he will Tweet about Sweet Barbara, lost to the mortal world in some disaster and now residing in the lake as a curious entity, her nature partaking of both the conventional Tingleverse and the Void but belonging wholly to neither, speaking with a voice like grinding marbles. She gets to be the cover star this time, and naturally, you get to meet her in this book – as well as facing down the forces of the Void, well-established as being a baleful force. (Those who’ve read The Void Campaign Setting will find its themes make a return here.)

Four books into the Select Your Own Timeline series, Dr. Tingle now seems to have enough of a grasp of gamebook design to try out some really neat experiments. For instance, there’s one point in the book where if you also have Escape From the Billings Mall, you can be dispatched to endure that adventure before continuing this one – because, of course, that timeline includes a Void incursion, so it makes sense that Void cultists from this particular timeline would be able to propel you there. Since the Void’s followers are a bit more aware of the fourth wall than others, their interest in you is in part due to the fact that they have identified you not just as a person intending to meddle with a site important to the Void, but also a gamebook reader – and thus someone capable of steering the timeline of the gamebook. (Chuck reminds us that we have a similar ability to steer our own lives.)

In addition, replay value is added by having some plot elements which can be pieced together to tell a larger story, but which you can only wholly put together if you play the book multiple times. See, there’s two ways you can end up going down into the Lake itself in your adventure: either using Noro’s submarine, or with a more haphazard diving setup provided by the Apple Trapper, who if you make certain choices can end up capturing you for her own purposes. There’s a backstory to the Apple Trapper which makes sense of her motives, but it only becomes evident if you took Noro’s route and discovered a disturbing photograph carried by one of Cobbler Industries’ sadistic agents.

The book is structured such that, if you survive to get back to Billings, you will almost certainly have at least one item of a nature which prompts a halt to the drilling process; what this means for which ending you get depends on the item in question. Maybe you end up on a Delta Green-esque anti-Void task force, captured once again by the Apple Trapper, confronted with your self from a different timeline, or any number of alternatives. On my first playthrough, when I made the choices which seemed best to me before I went back and started experiment to see what else was in here, I ended up Mayor of Billings and was fairly content with that.

But the task force ending is interesting to me; it implies more continuity with Escape From the Billings MallExpedition To the Frozen Lake is not just a fun gamebook in its own right, but also has me intrigued to see just how far Chuck is going to take this gamebook line. By and large I trust Chuck to move on before they get stale, but he’s also got a good knack for keeping a good thing rolling and constantly reinventing it. (His basic Tingler schtick remains funny some six to seven years after its inception. for instance.) Let’s see just how deep this spaghetti-like entanglement of timelines goes…

Choose Your Own Pounding – In Tinglewood and On the Highway

After kicking off Select Your Own Timeline, his own take on Choose Your Own Adventure, with Escape From the Billings Mall, two-time Hugo Award winner and greatest living thinker Dr. Chuck Tingle proves love is real again with two more gamebooks set in the Tingleverse – a realm littered with familiar places, sentient objects, dinosaurs, Bigfeet, and all the other things you find in his books or RPG material.

First off is Trouble In Tinglewood, in which you head down to the City of Devils – the Tingleverse equivalent of Los Angeles – to try and make it in showbiz so you can tell your story for the world. As you make it into town, it turns out that the place is in peril: a serial killer known as the Tinglewood Slashman is on the loose! Will you be able to find creative fulfillment and stop the murder spree, or will you just be one more victim of the Slashman and/or the unforgiving world of showbiz?

Compared to Escape From the Billings MallTrouble In Tinglewood has a much looser structure, where much of the plot of any particular runthrough will depend on who you choose to try and befriend and how those friendships go – or, conversely, whether you go it alone (though the more solitary you are, the more likely you are to be targeted by the Slashman). As a result of having to accommodate a very wide range of possibilities, any particular playthrough is likely to be quite short, but that’s handy in its own right since it means attempting other options is fairly easy.

The usual Chuck Tingle humour -in its safe-for-work form – is on show here; no poundings in the butt, just wholesome jokes in a surreal world. On any particular playthrough you might go to Chocolate Milk Anonymous with well-known triceratops Bob Downer Jr., confront a rampaging horde of cannibal Valley Girls, join a hippie crew’s recording session or help a punk biker unicorn with her artwork. It’s fun, but the lack of focus makes it feel a bit less substantial than Escape From the Billings Mall.

By contrast, Highway to Heck is more structured. This casts you as a trucker for Truckman Trucking, undertaking your final delivery before retirement. It should be a routine run – just pallets of chocolate milk, delivered from Billings, Montana down to San Diego. However, notorious devilman Ted Cobbler has taken a downright infernal interest in your payload. What is your real cargo? And can you keep it out of Ted’s evil clutches and deliver it safely?

Road trip-style plots have been used in gamebooks before – think of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter – and they’re a good concept if you want to cook up interactive fiction with a strong central plot. Players can better accept a more linear plot if it makes sense for the concept in question – there’s only so many ways you can go from Billings to San Diego, after all. You can weave in elements of interactivity and choice by doing a string-of-nodes structure: have various bottlenecks that the player must visit on the route (here it’s Billings, San Diego, and a few points in between like Las Vegas), and then give them their choices between each node. Chuck uses this to good effect here.

Though the book could do with a few more nods to trucker culture – not once did I get to use a CB radio! – I think Highway To Heck might be his best-designed gamebook yet, particularly for the way it offers a wealth of valid ways to make your way through the book without becoming completely diffused and unfocused.

Choose Your Own Pounding In the Butt

After branching out in to tabletop RPGs via the Tingleverse RPG, Chuck Tingle has once again expanded his range outside of his usual surrealist comedy erotica niche by producing a gamebook. Specifically, he’s written Escape From the Billings Mall, the first of hopefully several Select Your Own Timeline books.

Spoofing the Choose Your Own Adventure series in both trade dress and execution, it has essentially no pornographic content and instead presents a comparatively wholesome scenario with a horrific twist. It’s the day before your son’s birthday and you’re running a little late, but you just have time to swing by the shopping mall in your home town of Billings, Montana to buy him something. However, all is not well, for a timeline rift by the local lake has caused an outpouring of the dark forces of the Void. Besieged in the mall by Void Crabs, hunted within by a handsome unicorn security guard who has been warped into a hideous Void monster, can you navigate the mall, avoid perils like your Reverse Twin, and escape to safety?

Continue reading “Choose Your Own Pounding In the Butt”