If I were to start a cult based on idol-worship, somewhere in the pantheon of Stuff We Pray To, you’d find the gamebooks of the late 80’s and early 90’s, perhaps best represented by Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series (which, in the way that all adhesive bandages are called “Band-Aids”, is often used as an eponym for the genre).
I could write a treatise on these books, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll leave it at this: They’re important. They matter.
Gamebooks came to popularity at a time when mainstream audiences were first being introduced to interactive storytelling—those fast and furious years between the decline of tabletop and the rise of videogames—and they almost certainly wouldn’t have exploded the way they did in any other historical context. Yet they fell out of popularity when videogames subsumed them. Gamebooks, then, are a priceless artifact in the annals of gaming history: something our medium both created and destroyed.
At the same time, though, these books exert an influence on game designers even today, and that’s especially true for RPGs. If you were to put any Elder Scrolls or Telltale game on Jerry Springer, it would be the late R.A. Montgomerey who stormed out on stage to declare himself the baby-daddy and demand a paternity test.
So what would happen if you squared the circle? What might result, if you folded the blade back upon itself, and applied the time-honed design and storytelling conventions of a modern RPG to the classic gamebook format? This is a question mobile developers, particularly on Android, have been hurling themselves at for the past few years, with notable standouts including Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series, and the gorgeous mobile adaptation of Sorcery!, by gamebook veteran Steve Jackson (no, not that one).
It’s against the context of this storied legacy, then, that Ecnaris Games throws their hat into the ring, steps into the Android RPG space, and takes a crack at the digital gamebook genre. The result? An interesting but not-entirely-successful little title called Ambar’s Fate.
A Typical Encounter
Now, I want to take a minute and drill down into the meat. Let’s take a look at the grist, the gristle, the beating heart at the center of gamebooks and Android RPGs and AAA titles alike: that single moment of stimulus, reaction, and consequence called “the choice”.
You’re walking down a dank dungeon hallway.
Suddenly, an axe-wielding goblin shows up to wreck your day.
If you fight him, go to page 27.
If you run, go to page 43.
This is the core, the all-spark, the chocolate-coated center. These simple, binary decisions are what lie at the heart of the gamebook, where the order of the day is a wild, wacky experience. In modern RPG’s, the thematic goal may be different, but even twenty years later, the mechanism is pretty much the same:
You’re doing something.
Suddenly, something else happens.
If you want to respond one way, press A.
If you want to respond another way, Press B.
In an RPG, your choices define you. If you press A, you’re a warrior. If you press B, you’re a coward. This is the spinning cog that makes a game like Skyrim tick: your “role” is the phantasmal accumulation of a thousand tiny decisions.
To that end, videogames have a lot of mechanical advantages over tattered paperbacks—dynamic memory, for example—and over the years, we’ve picked up a few extra tricks. So today, a choice like the above might actually look more like this:
You’re walking down a hallway.
A goblin shows up.
If you fight him, press A.
If you run, press B. (You have a 50% chance of failure.)
Oh, by the way, if you have the [Goblin Friend] trait, you can press X.
Or if you’ve met the Goblin King, you can press Y.
Also, you’ve only got 10 seconds to make a decision, OH GOD, HE’S GETTING CLOSER, PICK SOMETHING
These are the tools Ambar’s Fate brings to bear on the gamebook format, and while the results are mixed, they’re certainly interesting. Gameplay consists of reading prose, then picking one of several options. If you’ve got certain skills or character traits, hidden options are made available, lending the game additional replayability (in theory, if not execution). In practice, the game feels like an on-rails text adventure with more florid prose. The fumes of nostalgia are potent.
If you’ve read a gamebook or played a visual novel before, you’ll probably be familiar with the bookmark system. At any time, you can choose to spend one of 5 bookmarks to save your spot in the text, in case your next page-turn hits you with one of those bold, 24-point THE ENDs. It’s a simple system, and by this point well-worn, but it works well at capturing that classic gamebook flashlight-under-the-covers feel.
Bookmarks are simple, functional, and nail the feel of a gamebook.
I just wish that level of insight were present in other areas of the design, which unfortunately fall short of the premise’s potential.
For one thing, the game is far too linear. If you were to pry open R.A. Montgomerey’s skull, I bet hard money you’d find some well-worn workshop aphorism about how the quality of a gamebook can be determined by the ratio of “pages where you make a decision” to “pages where you have to keep reading”. Ambar’s Fate has a lot of the latter, sometimes ending 5 or 6 pages in a row with the stultifying phrase “Keep going”.
In his amazing retrospective on Final Fantasy IX, Alex Crumb describes the sensation of changing discs on PS1-era RPGs as “a physical/mental friction point”, an act-break rendered in tactile form, which he argues is vital to the experience — and maybe there’s something to that. But in Ambar’s Fate, it’s just boring. There, I said it.
A lot of the story is boring, in fact, and that’s a major point of weakness, for a game that’s pretending to be a book. Choose Your Own Adventure books were thin in a lot of ways, but they were never boring!
You’re captured by pirates!
Now YOU’RE a pirate!
Now you’re stranded on a desert island!
HOLY CRAP, NOW THE ISLAND’S ON FIRE!
Ambar’s Fate fails the “holy crap” test; it seems to have forgotten the “adventure” part of its genre’s titular phrase. Even more egregiously, the setting is completely generic. That’s practically a crime for the gamebook genre, where a strong setting is 60% of the work.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look through CYOA’s catalogue.
Haunted warehouse! Undersea adventure! Scary jungle (which for some reason has deciduous trees and Chinese Native Americans)!
Almost every single book has a totally unique setting, and suggests an exciting new world that teems with possibilities — and most do so right there in the title. The world of Ambar, on the other hand, lacks that crucial spark. It’s a tedious place, and the things you do there are tedious, too. Mostly you pick one of two roads, and then get jumped by monsters.
That’s a shame, too, because the combat system is easily the weakest part of the game. You square off against monster-cards, with the option to attack aggressively, defensively, or neutrally. Whichever you pick, the result is the same: You smack the monster in the face, and then they smack you back. You and they take turns trading face-smacks until one of you gets bored and dies. It’s thin gruel, man, and it really just doesn’t work at all; battles feels completely divorced from the events of the prose.
Combat is dull, and it comes up way too often. At least the art is nice?
Speaking of prose: did I mention Ecnaris is a Spanish studio? Because there are quite a few instances of misspelled words, grammatical errors, and even text that’s just straight-up not translated—something I’m rapidly learning is par for the course when it comes to Android games. Most people won’t care, but I’m an English major, so this stuff makes my eye twitch. (Though there’s something festive about concluding a battle with “Victoria!”)
I think the biggest gripe I have with the game is that its cornerstone feature—conditional variables that unlock hidden choices—feels like it actually limits the player’s options, rather than expanding them.
Here’s an example: there’s a skill that lets you intimidate enemies. So when you run into an enemy, the game says, “You can fight him, you can run, or you can intimidate him”…regardless of whether or not you actually have the intimidate skill! This is a major problem, because it produces a lot of cognitive dissonance. Over and over again, the game tells you that you have the ability to do something, and then you scroll down to discover that no, actually, you don’t.
What makes this so irritating is that it feels like such an obvious mechanical oversight. If a game has conditional branches that only trigger when the player has one of a dozen skills, and a player can only select a handful of skills each play-through, then it’s a statistical certainty that the majority of conditional junctures the player encounters will be ones they can’t trigger.
Skills and Talents offer players hidden options…except when they don’t.
That’s fine if you’re creating an open-world RPG like Elder Scrolls, and you want these things signposted to communicate the game’s design. But if the goal of applying modern RPG principles to the gamebook format is to enhance it, then these junctures ought to be hidden from view. When they’re not, it means the game is constantly telling the player, “You could do X…if only you didn’t suck so hard.” It’s like slamming a door in the player’s face, and it’s the exact opposite of what playing a good gamebook feels like.
So in the end, Ambar’s Fate is a solid premise with some neat ideas that falls just shy of its potential. With that being said, there’s a lot of heart and passion here, and I’d love to see Ecnaris take a second crack at the same concept…as long as it’s set somewhere more interesting.
The emphasis on lengthy prose places Ambar’s Fate outside the reach of casual audiences — however, players who are used to deeper RPG mechanics will probably feel constrained by the lack of choice, and those used to richer worlds might be bored by the generic fantasy setting.