Windhammer Prize for Gamebooks

The Windhammer Prize is a prize for short traditional-style gamebooks: distributed in PDF, but designed to be played with a pencil and paper and sometimes dice. Windhammer contestants have to be short — no more than 100 segments allowed — and the contest is run yearly. It feels a bit odd, especially now that the IF community itself produces so much choice-based literature, that there’s so little discussion of gamebooks or awareness of the surrounding community. So as part of my continuing mission to cover IF-adjacent material, I tried out a bunch of Windhammer contestants.

Some highlights follow.

2014 winner: The Sacrifice (Paul Struth). The Sacrifice is a zombie story set in England just after the Great War. The returning dead are the lost soldiers, and you have to figure out what is going on and why in order to halt their invasion. Given the emphasis on detective work, the country house settings, and the séance subplot, The Sacrifice is generically more reminiscent of a Christie- or Sayers-style mystery than of most zombie apocalypse literature.

My experience is admittedly limited, but I thought the gamebook notetaking worked to particularly good effect here. As you play, you advance the day of the week, which functions as a countdown and provides helps ratchet up the suspense. You also have three lives, so scenes that might be fatal won’t end your story as long as you don’t encounter too many of them. Twine or another computerized system could easily handle these variables, but making the player track them by hand added (I felt, anyway) to the sense of foreboding.

I also particularly appreciated the fact that, at the beginning of the midgame, the player is allowed to pick their own objective from among three possibilities: the choice of objective doesn’t (as far as I saw) change what you’re allowed to do, but it does provide a nice moment of character reflection and clue the player in about what sorts of outcomes are going to be possible in this story. There are a couple of puzzles, but it isn’t necessary to solve them completely in order to reach an ending, and I felt they were fairly constructed. The narrative often gave an idea of what sort of information I could hope to gain by talking to a particular person, which made it easier to choose what to pursue. If you play all of the objectives, you’re likely to come away with a fairly complete understanding of all the plot strands.

One structural element I thought was odd: in the midgame, you’re allowed several chances to visit the same three people. In theory, you could use all of your chances to visit the same person repeatedly, which would send you back to read the same passages more than once. The book seems to assume that you’ll simply know better than to do that, but it doesn’t include any rules to this effect. Some of the other gamebooks I tried have a similar structure but explicitly tell you not to revisit previously-seen nodes.

Overall, I found this a very satisfying experience. Struth has a couple of other gamebooks in past Windhammer rounds; I haven’t tried them yet because I wanted to sample different authors, but I may go back and have a look.

(And because I can’t not mention this, a totally pedantic point that will not affect most readers: at one point the story uses Greek letters incorrectly, using an odd form of omega and putting σ at the end of a word when it should have used the terminal sigma ς. It’s possible that’s effectively a typo, but in case the author [or anyone else] has trouble finding correct forms of unicode Greek letters, I recommend the Unicode Greek Inputter.)

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2014 merit award: The Empire’s Edge (Chan Sing Goh). This gamebook is set in Penang in 1811, and concerns the effects of British colonizing powers on the region. I’m always a sucker for historical IF, so I was immediately interested by the blurb. This one wears its research a bit heavily; it starts with a long background on local history, and intersperses its descriptions with glossed words in various languages, like so:

The day is young. The sun is barely dawning from the hills across the narrow sea. It’s light forms a blanket of dark orange waters dotted by the occasional black spots with large white sails. The shadows slowly creep back into the rows of shophouses lined along a simple muddy street. At the end of that muddy street is a junction on which an inconspicuous Chinese coffee-shophouse is located. The coffee-shophouse is two stories high. It is a simple narrow and long brick building painted white that looks like it had seen better days. The ground floor is a simple Chinese coffeeshop which serves coffee to the island’s many Chinese taukehs(Hokkien: Bosses). Although you have never tried its coffee, you have heard many stories about how the place serves the worst coffee in Penang.

I like the detail, but the prose is cumbersome and repetitive in spots (“simple”, “coffee-shophouse”/”coffeeshop”) and could use editing to tighten it up. And there’s an it’s/its error, alas.

There’s a lot to like here as well, however. The story plays out as a mystery with an introductory passage, a hub from which you can investigate four different strands, and then a conclusion. (This intro-triple hub-conclusion structure seems to be common across a number of the gamebooks I looked at from Windhammer, but this is probably not surprising: it allows for a not-totally-linear experience without introducing the kind of branching that would be hard to maintain in only 100 sections of content.)

The plot concerns a sabotage aboard an English ship, but thematically it is about prejudice and racial difference. You can choose to play as Indian, Chinese, or Malay, with your choice of language knowledge, and these decisions will affect your playthrough at least as much as your skill stats. A number of passages contain text in Tamil, Malay, or Hokkien, and you’re allowed to look up the translations of these in the back of the book if you have a character who speaks the correct language. I really liked this approach to presenting how your experiences might differ given different racial history and linguistic access; I don’t know very many IF pieces that do this (though see Bolivia By Night for a somewhat watered-down version of that effect).

As you play, you discover additional layers of prejudice: you’re treated not very well by a young lieutenant, Callum, but he in turn is mocked by English officers for his Highland roots; a long-established Chinese merchant you meet refers disdainfully to fresh-off-the-boat Chinese whom he sees as inferior. Though the story is perhaps too short to get very deep into these issues, it does suggest a world with a number of different hierarchies operating side-by-side.

The choices in the story also ramp up in intensity, as during the late game there’s a question of how much you want to put on the line in order to defend an Indian from summary execution.

It’s possible, if you play the game exactly right, being just sufficiently assertive, clever, and effective in combat, to get an ending in which you’ve earned some respect from the Europeans and particularly the young lieutenant. I didn’t manage this myself, and I know about it only from having read some additional passages of the story after I’d finished my own playthrough. And I’m not really sure how I felt about having that as the Ultimate Ending: on the one hand it suggests a better experience for the protagonist in the future, but on the other hand, I kind of wanted the opportunity to disregard their approval as worthless.

But that’s a luxury perhaps the protagonist cannot afford.

*

2010 winner: Sharkbait’s Revenge (Stuart Lloyd). This is a pirate story set in a land that is all tropes and no history: there’s a Blackbeard character, but he’s rather divorced from the historical Blackbeard, while the locations and major forces are made up. The writing also moves at a breakneck pace a lot of the time, relying on cliché for the setting and handling action sequences with maximum speed:

You and your men head to the governor’s residence. The building reeks of decadence. At the top of the white marble staircase is a large façade held up by white ionic pillars. The front door is made from heavy oak which must have been imported from hundreds of miles away. Statues of lions and gargoyles stand on the roof, warning intruders not to enter. There are two guards standing at the top of marble stairs in front of the door, but your men overcome them quickly and enter the building.

The structure is fairly loose: I didn’t always have a good feel for how far into the story I was or what the main stakes were supposed to be, and a few times one had a definite sense that the author was making things up as he went along. There is also something that happens in the late game that I felt totally jumped the shark.

At the same time, there’s a roller-coaster swiftness to this that kept me playing until death (which was pretty near the end of the story, I think). Combat is straightforward to calculate and deterministically depends on what inventory you’ve collected so far, which means that you never have to spend much time working out whether or not you survive the fight. (Contrast “Final Payment”, below, in which combat is pretty much the point of the experience.)

*

2012 winner: Final Payment (Zachary Carango). The introduction to this one put me off a bit: an it’s/its error, the phrase “struck a cord”, and the said bookisms all suggested that prose wasn’t going to be its strength. The setting is a generic cyberpunk hitman future in which you have assorted augments that you can use when going to take out targets. Descriptions are minimal and often a bit generic:

You take a seat in your favorite dive bar and call for a drink. The few windows in the room are drawn so the place is dim no matter what the hour. The bar smells like a dumpster, but it’s cheap and quiet. Ascension may be the city that never sleeps, but here you can at least rest your head. Most of the time you’re the only one in here besides the barkeep. He’s not the type to ask questions. After emptying a few more glasses, you’re ready to go.

“You are in a stereotypical dive bar,” in other words: there’s nothing unique about this world, nothing characteristic about this bartender. Or, a moment later:

Your employer has sent you details about the three targets. Their names are Roman Pilsner, Allan St Froid, and Elaine Rush. Decide whom you want to attack now and mark their name off.

As seen here, descriptions often don’t give you enough information to make a particularly informed choice about what to do next, though you can spend in-game money in order to gain limited precognition in the form of looking ahead at one choice.

The strength of “Final Payment” lies in its combat sequences. There’s a dice-based system that you use to resolve all of your (many) battles in the course of the game, and this opens up some mildly interesting choices about how much to burn through your resources in any specific instance.

Overall, though, this experience reminded me of some D&D campaigns I’ve been party to, where we spent 10 minutes on story and 90 minutes rolling to determine battle outcomes: terrific if you like that sort of thing, but the wrong proportions for what I’m looking for in an interactive story.

*

Some design thoughts. One of the questions I brought along when trying these was “is this piece materially different than it would be if it were executed in ChoiceScript, Twine, inklewriter, or StoryNexus? What does the paper gamebook medium offer that those don’t?” And I’d identify two main things:

A majority of the gamebooks I tried (and I played at least a portion of several that I didn’t review here) contained at least one form of hidden choice, where the player has to add or subtract numbers at just the right moment in order to unlock a paragraph that isn’t otherwise accessible, or use a secret option that he’s been told about in advance. (E.g., “When you read the sentence ‘Snow is falling’ in the text, you may go to section 47.”) Computer-mediated choice games can do something like this by unlocking hidden choices if you’ve seen the right passages, or by including inventory that can be used at critical moments, but because as the player you have to remember to use the right trick at the right moment, there’s a level of effective agency that feels more like parser IF than most choice-based IF I know.

Many of the gamebooks also featured some kind of tactical combat play, which we also mostly don’t see in the formats I listed earlier — though you do see them in apps adapted from gamebooks, such as Cubus Games’ work or Tin Man Games. I felt the quality of these varied a good bit, and that I generally felt like they were a distraction from the parts of the gamebook that I was most interested in, but I realize tastes vary and that for some people these might be the Good Bits.

14 thoughts on “Windhammer Prize for Gamebooks

  1. I grew up playing gamebooks and loved them because it was a sort-of RPG-in-a-book that I could carry around and entertain myself with. (I especially loved Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, with its intriguing evocation of world and its Spell Book, and really need to…actually play the Inkle version of The Shamutanti Hills on my iPad, but I haven’t had a ton of brain for gaming this year.)

    And yeah, the combat system in the Fighting Fantasy books especially was one of the draws for me. I enjoy some old-fashioned hack-and-slash and it’s a nice way of getting my dose without having (usually) to learn very complicated mechanics.

    I tell myself I will enter Windhammer some year, but Life keeps punching me in the stomach. But I’m glad it exists!

  2. I can think of one case where a gamebook was translated to electronic form with negative impact: the Sherlock Holmes Solo Adventures (I believe they’re on if-archive). I recall you even reviewed them and thought they were too linear, but the actual format of the books is sometimes to have not a “choice at the moment” but a “choice based on stats which you previously selected”. That is, there *is* a choice, but it was done before reaching the branch, and if you are responsible for flipping the page it feels like ramifications for your actions whereas if the computer automatically chooses for you it feels linear.

    (Example: “If your Observation level is above 7, flip to 21, otherwise, flip to 32.” In gamebook form, this feels like a choice, albeit one made before the page turn arrived; in electronic form, it doesn’t.)

    • FWIW, some of the Sherlock Holmes Solo Adventures have also relatively recently been turned into mobile apps; I can’t speak however to how faithful the conversions have been in terms of maintaining that particular texture.

  3. Many thanks for the mention and the comments, Emily! I would love it if there was more interaction between the IF and gamebook communities, especially as gamebooks are a subset of IF and that gamebooks that have been turned into apps are becoming closer to IF. I need to sample more interactive fiction and try out some programs to experience it.

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