With this article I will try a small experiment. Recently, I was suggested to review gamebooks published by spanish authors. Sadly, most of them haven’t been published in any other language, and it’s possible they never will. The works by J.L.López Morales, one of the best and more prolific recent gamebook writers in Spain, belong to this category. That’s why this article, in which I will be reviewing some of his works, will interest mostly those who are curious about gamebooks in other languages, regardless of ever being able to read them.
José Luis López Morales has been one of the authors that helped regenerate gamebooks in Spain during the 2000s decade. When the medium seemed dead after the 90s, it was him an other few authors the ones who gave new life to it with new ideas and mechanics, and a more mature approach. Sadly, after publishing the last two volumes of “Leyenda Élfica” (“Elf Legend“) at the beginning of 2013, José Luis started to focus on his role playing game “Reino de la Sombra” (“Kingdom of the Shadow“), putting gamebooks aside. I hope not definitely since, as we’ll see, he’s one of the most interesting spanish authors of this medium.
The works by J. L. López Morales can be classified in two series; “Leyenda Élfica” (“Elf Legend“), a conventional fantasy set in the world of Valsorth, and the “Slang” series, with a police theme, dealing with more adult subjects. We’ll take a look at each of them in turn.
1.- Leyenda Élfica:
“Elf legend” is a saga made up of four books. In them, we take the role of an elf prince, the youngest son of king Gerahel, in his struggle to achieve an agreement with the humans and prevent the ascent of the God King Abanath.
The first of the books, “El Bosque en Llamas” (“The Forest in Flames“) introduces us to the game world and some of the recurring characters, like our companion, the elf Miriel, that will follow us through the most part of this adventure. In this first book, we have to prevent the attack of the orks of Abanath (yes, the book uses “orks”, with a “k”) on the elvish capital. This gamebook has a very conventional structure, although it’s true that some of the elements of his style are starting to show, as the inclusion of many different paths to reach the objectives, in order to enhance replayability, or the use of key words to save the state of the adventure.
In the second book, “El Emisario” (“The Emissary“), our father the king Gerahel requests us to travel to human territory in order to set up an army to defeat Abanath. In this book, José Luis begins to experiment more with the structure of the gamebook. At one point, when reaching the ruins of an old city, the gamebook switches to a free-roaming structure (a kind of structure I explained previously in another article), something he will again try in another books, even some of this same series.
The third book, “La Abadía de la Traición” (“The Abbey of Treason“), the best in the series in my opinion, takes us to Eradun, the human fortress, where we will try to reach the agreement between elfs and humans. Here, unlike the account of a travel in the previous two titles, the whole story takes place in the same location, the fortress of Eradun, through several days. The general mood of this third part reminds me of “The Name of the Rose”, by Umberto Eco, being an investigation of a conspiracy and several assassinations in the vicinity of an abbey.
The fourth and last, “Aliados y Enemigos” (“Allies and Enemies“) places us in command of an army facing the hordes of Abanath. Here he introduces some rules for mass combat, to simulate the effects of exhaustion in battles.
To sum up, “Elf Legend” is an entertaining and well written series, that showcases some of the experiments in mechanics and structures of this author. Thematically, it’s one of the less interesting ones for me, as it follows fantasy standards so closely that it seems to be screaming “Tolkien” in every page. Nevertheless, this series is better written than most of other series that try to build “great epic fantasies”. Also, the third book is one of the best interpretations of the “conspirancies in the court” genre that I’ve ever seen in interactive fiction, and it must be one of the few gamebook series I know with a tragic ending.
José Luis started to write another series set in the world of Valsorth, “La daga del asesino” (“The Assassin’s Dagger“), of which he only arrived to finish the first book. I haven’t managed to read it, but it can be downloaded for free HERE.
And finally we arrive to the one I considered more interesting from J.L.López Morales‘ series. In “Slang“, a series of gamebooks inspired by the role playing game of the same name, he deals with stories of crimes and corruption, drugs and prostitution, in settings like the city of Los Angeles or Bangkok. It’s a series that doesn’t shy away from showing scenes of violence, and brings characters with a strong characterization, away from the archetypes of the “hero” in adventure novels.
In this series, only two titles have been published as a physical book, “Ángeles Caídos” (“Fallen Angels“) and “Cuando vengan a por mí” (“When they come to take me“). Another one was serialized on a magazine (“Asesina” – “Assassin“) and the other two were released as free downloads by his author (“El Cielo sobre Bangkok” – “The Sky over Bangkok“, “Sin Mirar Atrás” – “Not Looking Back“).
“Not Looking Back” is probably the most conventional one. A guy from New York knows about the death of his brother, and travels to Los Angeles to investigate his death. Finally, he has to face the “yakuzas” in Little Tokyo and wins the heart of the young, beautiful and angelic daughter of the Yakuza. Throughout this story, he will have to prove his courage in several illegal motorbike races, and win funds to improve the performance of his bike. If this story line reminds us of hundreds of different movies, we won’t be misguided. This gamebook reflects perfectly the usual “guy confronts evil and gets the girl” story, along with its two-dimensional characters and its stereotypes.
Much more interesting is the structure of this gamebook. Little Tokyo is constructed as a space we can explore freely, where we will have to increase our resources through several means, either legal (even cooperating with the police) or illegal. We will come back several times to the same places, but depending on the day and what has happened before, what we find in them may be very different. It also has another feature it shares with other gamebooks in the “Slang” series: the amount of different endings. Everything in this story is thought in order to allow experiencing many different stories, depending on our decisions and our luck with the dice.
“Assassin“, the serialized story, is curious for letting us take the role of the assassin in the title, a woman who gets paid for killing. The characters, as the one mentioned before, are less well defined than in other titles of this series, but the quality of the action scenes and the replayability – I was surprised to find out how the gamebook allows us to continue either if we fulfill our first assignment or if we fail, and reconfigures every later situation to reflect this, something that shows the skill of José Luis when handling game states – more than make up for the other issues.
With “When they come to take me“, we arrive at one of the best titles in the series. We play the role of Mike Rawlins, who was a soldier during the Gulf War, but now fights in illegal rings in the city of Los Angeles in order to survive, and has taken care of his nine years old daughter after the death of his wife. Suddenly, a series of deaths of his team mates during the war will lead him to investigate what is happening before they come to take him away.
The story is told through flashbacks between the present – Los Angeles, where he is an illegal fighter with a daughter in his charge – and the past – with the fights in Irak. And both what we decide in the past or the present, will have its influence at the moment of the final outcome, leading to a good number of different endings.
It’s also interesting to mention that in this story I have found the harshest and most violent scene I’ve ever seen written in a gamebook. One that clearly points to a fierce criticism on the Gulf War, and on the conduct of American troops, that I can only endorse.
We arrive to the two, in my opinion, best titles in the series. “Fallen Angels” and “The Sky over Bangkok“. I review them together since we play the part of the same character in both of them, Roberto Delgado, a police agent in Los Angeles in the first book who ends up being a bodyguard in Bangkok in the second.
In “Fallen Angels“, as a police agent abandoned by his wife and on the verge of alcoholism, we will investigate the assassination of a 17 year old chinese prostitute. Throughout the course of the investigation, we’ll get to know another prostitute called Amber, friend of the first one, and we will discover the corruption inside the police squad of Los Angeles. One of the endings, where we flee with Amber on a motorbike through the border with Mexico, is the one used to make the link with the second story.
In “The Sky over Bangkok” it is revealed that the love story between Roberto Delgado and Amber didn’t end up well, and they parted ways in Bangkok. She started running a brothel, and he started making a living for a bodyguard agency. A new assignment, in which we will have to protect Brenda Westwood, the daughter of an American entrepreneur, will lead us to a new story of treason and corruption, this time with Bangkok as a backdrop.
In this second story, the author repeats a similar structure to “Not Looking Back“, allowing us to traverse Bangkok freely, move between the districts taking several actions. The specific day, and the way we acted before that moment (all of that handled through a keyword system), will change what we find in every place.
What is it that I find so attractive in these two stories? Their characters, without any doubt. Here, more than in the rest of his works, we can see his talent to make us understand and feel attached with his characters, employing just a few strokes to describe them. Both Roberto Delgado and Amber are two tragic characters; two abandoned beings, used to live in a hostile world. They are wounded animals, wanting only to be loved, and failing constantly in the process. That’s why, scenes like the ending in the first book, with Amber embracing Delgado’s waist while they flee to Mexico, manage that difficult objective of being brief and subtle, and at the same time revealing a beautiful and complex reality; that of two losers finding each other accidentally.
There has been a lot of discussion on the difficulty of giving “personality” to a protagonist on a gamebook, and at the same time allowing enough freedom for it to be a “game”. I think that many things could be learnt from J.L.López in that sense. Roberto Delgado is a very well constructed character, but its personality is not “in our face” all the time, it is much more subtle. You can tell in the curt language in the descriptions, in his cynical view of the world – they say cynicism is the humor of the people who suffer. You can see it also in many of his actions, described “from the outside”, but allowing us to suspect a whole current of thoughts “under the surface”.
-Fuck, why did they give this case to me? – I protest while I finish the beer -. I’m useless for thrashing around blindly.
We stay drinking in silence for a while. A couple enters the bar and takes up a table in one corner. He takes her hands in his. Unwittingly, I stare at them.
-How do you feel? -Ben asks me in that moment. I turn around and find him looking at me.
-Scraping by, as always -I nod, turning my beer bottle around.
-I see you are still alone -he adds.
-Well, it’s not bad being like this -I shake my head while scratching the beer label.
-Do you know anything about Anna? -Ben articulates the words slowly, with caution.
-No. That’s over and done with.
-Yeah, you’ll find another.
-Always -I answer, looking at the side. The couple laughs and bend their heads until they are very close.
We keep on drinking in silence. Ben finishes his beer and goes away. I do that five minutes later.