Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction is a yearly competition announced by Wayne Densley, author of “Chronicles of Arborell“, a series of gamebooks, stories, board games, etc. set in the same world of fiction, and so ambitions that it would deserve by itself a whole series of articles.
Nevertheless, since its beginnings in 2008, the Windhammer Prize, a competition whose objective is to promote the gamebook genre, has started having a life of its own, and turning into the most important yearly competition related to gamebooks. And, to prove that it’s still on a great shape, now on its eighth consecutive year it features no less than sixteen original works, all of them fulfilling the strict requirements of this competition, that is: size restrictions (a maximum of 100 sections and 25000 words) and the need for them to be original works, with unique worlds and characters.
I managed to read some of these works, and I will give my impressions on them.
After the Flag Fell (Felicity Banks)
This is the first one I read, and the one that impressed me less. Maybe because it tried to achieve something excessively ambitious; to take an historical tour through the life of Peter Lalor – an activist and politician, whose role in the “Eureka Stockade” (the scene this gamebook starts with) is identified by many as the beginning of democracy in Australia – in less than 100 sections (63 in total).
Due to the size restrictions on this competition, a great part of the events are described in such a brief way that we cannot delve into the historical period of the character, nor empathize with his situation. Especially at the end of the story – I guess due to a shortage of time – the choices feel unnatural and out of context. (Do I become a politician, do I start to fight or do I go back to work as a railway worker?)
The gamebook even tries to add some Steampunk elements to the story, perhaps to make it more interesting to the reader, but even those seem out of context and unnecessary.
Alchemist’s Apprentice (John Evans)
In this story, we play the part of the last son of a peasant family which, due to the amount of descendants, is forced to look for an apprenticeship in any profession. He is rejected by the blacksmith, the magician and the warrior of the village, so he ends up being accepted only by the alchemist. Our goal in this story is, therefore, to look for ingredients and to mix potions in order to impress our new master enough for her to accepts us as an apprentice.
The game world is the usual “parody” of traditional role playing games that is slowly turning into a cliché. The text is agile, and it manages to be funny whenever it tries to be, which is not usually the case for these kind of parodies. However, what interested me most was the design of the game world; the gamebook is completely structured with the “free roaming” technique. Since we will be constantly looking for ingredients, mixing them, taking advantage of the power of potions in order to get new ingredients, etc., the vibe we have in this story is similar to that of old graphic adventure games, like “Monkey Island”, with its parodic and memorable characters.
In general, I enjoyed a lot reading this “Alchemist’s Apprentice”. I think is a well made design, competently written and well tested.
Tower of Atrocities of Corruption of Obscenities (Chan Sing Goh)
With this title, we could expect to find the exaggerated parody of a Conan tale. And there’s something of that, of course, but this “Tower of Atrocities” has much more to it than it seems at first sight.
The “gimmick” of this gamebook is to turn the narrator into another character. We will see the narrator bitterly complaining when we take some choices, or even refusing to go on with the narration, and forcing us to start from the beginning of the story, BUT changing some elements from it in order to “make it more enjoyable” to us. This much tampering from a gamebook to a reader I haven’t seen since the times of Dragontales. However, when we reach one of the most difficult to reach endings, we are revealed the reason for this tampering, and everything starts to make sense. Just because of that final nod, I think it’s worth playing this gamebook.
It is an immensely innovative concept, that of “the game that modifies itself“, and I would love to see it more developed in larger works. Not everything is perfect in this “Tower of Atrocities“, of course. The writing is poor at some points, and the humor is a bit too scatological for my taste in some passages. But even so, I think it is worth reading because of its brilliant concept.
Frogmen (Nicholas Stillman)
I have enjoyed “Frogmen” enormously. From the concept of the world (a dystopic future in which the few free people are those tho flew the repression of the continent by living on the sea) one of the most original dystopias I have seen recently, to its narrative voice, very appropiate to the harsh and sharp tone of the future reflected in this work, but rich enough to allow us to grasp the many nuances of this future world without resorting to the “info dumps” so common in science fiction works. Through conversations and several flashbacks, we get an idea of what has happened and what are the reasons for the existence of a world like this.
Since, in addition to that, the characters are distinguishable and “lovable”, with well defined and beleivable personalities, I think that “Frogmen” is probably going to become one of my favourite works in this competition.
A Saint Beckons (Robert Douglas)
Here we have, as in the first of the gamebooks reviewed in this article, an historical setting, although this one is done much more succesfully and with a lot more love for details. In this case, the story is set in the english middle ages during the “War of the Roses” between the house of Lancaster and the house of York. We play the role of a Lancastrian solider mortally wounded, that is miracoulously healed by the brothers of a priory, and by the effect of the “hand of Saint Milburge“, a relic from the monastery. When a couple of souldiers steal the relic, we will have to start looking for it, investigating its whereabouts and the reasons for that theft.
The story, with all its changes of direction and unexpected revelations, works perfectly well, like clockwork. Not only allowing us to feel part of the historical times – very well documented, either when describing the arms of the soldiers, the villages that existed at the time, or even through the colorful language used by its characters – but managing at the same time to make the story interesting by itself, and keep us on the edge until the end.
The restrictions of this competition allow for some kind of thematic or structural experimentations very difficult to find in other published works. I have seen works here that would have great potential if they were developed as longer works. I would love to find gamebooks with the writing style or the setting of “Frogmen”, historical tales as well documented as “A Saint Beckons” or structural experiments as innovative as “Tower of Atrocities”.
And I wonder why it doesn’t happen like that. Is it because it’s easier to innovate when writing a smaller work that is most surely never going to be published, or is it because the publishers would never dare to accept those innovations, and would prefer to repeat time after time the same “classic” gamebook themes?