Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lost Games: Bodies On The Docks

It’s popularly accepted by fans of old-school gamebooks that the coming of age of video games finally knelled the death for the paper-and-dice brigade. Gamers no longer had to shirk their computers for truly immersive experiences. But is this the way it had to have been? Surely the new technology ought to have provided new way to play text-heavy gamebooks, allowing them to be played in a way that didn’t have other, irrelevant paragraphs visible all the time and where cheating was not possible?

Someone out there clearly has thought of this- check out the Fighting Fantasy Project, a site where gamebook-style adventures are available to be played online. Though the site uses the trappings of Fighting Fantasy (and some images), it clearly doesn’t have the rights to use all those classic FF books. Instead, it uses original gamebooks written by amateur authors. As such, the quality varies quite a bit; there are some absolute classics, a LOT of slavish imitations of the FF style, and bizarrely, a lot of Douglas Adams-style stuff. In any case, it’s a great resource for wannabe gamebook writers.
And so I will begin a quest: To chronicle my own adventures through these amateur efforts. In place of ordinary reviews, I will instead report on my efforts to play through them, in the style of the great blog Fighting Dantasy (sorry Dan. Hope you take it as a compliment!)
First up is Bodies In The Docks by Simon Osborne- for no reason, really, except the title reminds me of Boys On The Docks by Dropkick Murphy’s.
Here goes.
The story begins in the real world in the 1920’s, and not in the usual FF Tolkien-lite fantasy world. Interesting. Straight up, I’m warned that weird things are abroad in the world, though the narrator is rather vague about what they might be. It’s hinted that the carnage of the First World War might even have been due to such malevolent forces. Little other background is provided. Fair enough, I’m interested.
Next up, I’m asked to decide between being a doctor, a detective or a gangster. Obviously I choose the gangster, figuring that a gangster in the 1920’s might get to experience a bit of jazz and maybe even a little Louise Brooks. I select my occupation, only to learn that the story is taking place in Britain. Nuts to that, so.
Having given up a life of crime (what? I didn’t choose to be a retired gangster!), I find life becoming rather dull, until I receive a phone call from a mysterious man ‘in the wilds of Leicestershire.’ I drive to his house, and then I’m asked to choose some skills. I choose to be proficient with a bunch of weapons, and just for good measure, library use as well.
Anyway, I meet the rich stiff in his drawing room. Naturally, he’s sitting by the fire in a smoking jacket. He starts jabbering about how the world is full of strange and terrible things, things man would ‘shiver at in the darkness’ (uh-oh. Sounds familiar…). Then he asks me if I believe in the paranormal. Like any sensible chap, I tell him that I’m open-minded, but that I’d need more evidence before accepting extraordinary claims. He seems to take to this ok. Then he tells me that he wants to investigate strange murders that have been taking place in… Portsmouth. For some reason, I believe that this may answer questions I’ve always had about the paranormal. Striker (that’s his name) tells me that I may discover some terrible truth ‘of which I may not speak aloud,’ (uh-oh), and that, for this possibly sanity-shattering experience, I will be paid the princely sum of twenty-five pounds.
Oh, shoggoth.
So, off I set the next morning. I decide to take the train (hopefully Striker will cover the ten shillings). There are some weird people at the station (probably Belgians), but I ignore them and start chatting to a vicar on the train, who turns out to be a right old bore. I’m rescued by an attractive woman who thinks I’m her husband. I meet her in the dining cart, but I accidentally offend her and she leaves me to pay for an expensive dinner. I don’t meet her again.
A few hours later, the train arrives in accursed, fog-shrouded Portsmouth.

I ramble the dark, misty streets for a bit and head into an inn. I try the local ale and retire after one pint (what?!). Next morning, I wander around Portsmouth a bit more. It’s a dying town, full of people who shun outsiders. I decide to head straight down to the docks- hey, I’m no sailor, but it’s in the bloody title, so it must be important. I take a sea-captain for a drink in a bar (really?). I get him all liquered up and he’s bangin on about his son who never sees him, when he drops the bomb- the seamen here have been seeing creatures.
Creatures called Deep Ones.
Oh my God, it’s a Lovecraft story. Who could have known? Obviously, the dreaded fish-creatures from New England have taken up residence in the south of old England.
I go back to the inn, and find that the innkeeper has taken to bolting his door at night. I flip him a few more quid for another night’s stay.
Next day, I decide to head to the library. Hey, I’ve got the ‘skills’, right? Plus, I might just dig up an eldritch tome or two. I head straight for the occult section, and test my luck. I’m lucky, and immediately find some good info about the Deep Ones- in particular, their aversion to silver. I also find a book by Aleister Crowley (!) about a cult that worships a sea-demon called Gilgamesh (wait, but wasn’t he…).
I spend another night at the inn with the paranoid owner. Next day, I decide to use my ‘underworld contacts’ to find out some more info. Eventually I meet up with a smuggler with the original name of Fat Tony. To get into his club, it looks like I’m going to have to rough up some of Tony’s staff.
I throw my knife at one of them, but they kill me anyway.

So there you have it. I never even got to meet the Deep Ones, but I did have some fun with this game before coming to a sticky end. I like the atmosphere of mystery that’s attained throughout. The Lovecraft connection is not laid on too thick really, and it’s especially effective the first time you play, given that there’s no hint of it at the beginning. Also, there’s lots of detail- even minor characters have good background details, mostly to do with how they’ve been affected by the Great War or the 1918 Flu Epidemic. It’s all nice stuff that adds to the flavour. The writing throughout hints at the fact that the author is slightly more interested in actual literature than many standard FF writers.
What will the next adventure be?

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