Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Beneath Nightmare Castle - Part 1

I CURSE MYSELF FOR AN INATTENTIVE FOOL: as I've mentioned before, somehow without my noticing, gamebooks have changed from being a fond and fuzzy memory of my youth to a full-blown web phenomenon. Who would have thought? To be honest, before I discovered this, I would have been hard-pressed to think of an aspect of nostalgia less likely to recurr in this electronic age. After all, who wants to have to keep their own scores and roll their own dice in games anymore?

And yet, there is a buzzing community of bloggers and tweeters - and indeed digital games developers - who conspire to keep this odd hobby alive online. Guys (c'mon, let's not fool ourselves) who still get a buzz out of the musty smell of 80s pulp-paper and choices that come pre-numbered. This still floors me. I've made a few tentative attempts to contribute to this alliance before, but I've not done a playthrough of an actual Fighting Fantasy book just yet. There are quite a few blogs already that do these playthroughs. Some of them are extremely funny, too. I've been intrigued, but I don't see me having the attention span to dedicate an entire blog to this. A one-off, however, ought not to be beyond my meager abilities. A recent bit of Twitter chat has resulted in one of those bizarre cravings that decided exactly which title I would choose for my preliminary dip into these dark waters. And wouldn't you know, it's the one that has the most tentacle ick in it.

My copy of Beneath Nightmare Castle arrived via Amazon exactly as battered and bruised as I remembered my old copy being as a kid (although this one is a leg up on my old one because at least it has a cover). Oddly, I never really wondered what the cover must have looked like back then. Though I bet I never though it looked like this. The only thing I really have to say about this cover is that the castle somehow manages to look like a miniature despite being painted (I held back on a Holy Grail joke just there. Don't say I ain't good to you). Some of the pages at the beginning of the book are falling out though.

Thrillingly, this is one of those second-hand-jobs that comes with some of the stats already filled in on the adventure sheet so that you can see just how badly some previous kid got whomped playing it back in the 80s. And I get bonus points, too: behold the selective colouring-in of the title page:
Guess someone felt that this VITRIOL ESSENCE just wasn't complete without this year's signature cerulean-blue ears and teeth. And what's up with the letters? Is it a code? BNHCA? Shit, I left my cipher-breaker in my other castle.

So anyway, I begin rolling up my character, quickly realising that I haven't owned dice in about three years and have to use an app on the laptop instead. The text lets me know that my character is feeling a bit beat-up from his (again, let's not fool ourselves; there are few lady adventurers in Titan) last adventure, so my hopes aren't high for good stats here.

This is how I laid it out on the page. Sure, it looks neat now. Although, since this isn't Howl of the Werewolf, maybe my page won't fill up with more monsters than the English Parliament before I've gotten three paragraphs in.

As the book begins, I'm making my back to the town of Neuburg.

I'm sorry, does that remind you of anything? Like, maybe Neuremburg, perhaps? Well the author is at least somewhat subtle with his German horror-town name-stealing, unlike Howl of the Werewolf with its blatantly-swiped town of Wulfenstein. At least Peter Darville-Evans removed an entire syllable from the name.

Anyway, I'm on my way to Neuburg to meet my old buddy the Margrave. Now I don't know about you, but I don't hear the word Margrave very often. Ever since childhood I've associated it with this book. Good old Peter Darville-Evans; he could have made this guy just a king or a Marquis or even a baron. But instead he went the extra mile and made him a Goddam Margrave. A Margrave is a title which is higher than a count but lower than a duke, in case anyone was wondering.

I'm told that the Margrave and I have history, being that we rattled our swords together for Neuburg before, during the famous battle of Helm Hill. I like to think that we also got riotously drunk and disgraced ourselves in each of Neuburg's many alehouses afterwards. And if anyone had a problem with it, I would have been all like 'I'm with the Margrave, you can't touch me.' Well, whatever the case, I know Neuburg of old, and it's a pretty sweet place.

Which is why I'm surprised to be captured just as I approach the town and strung up by Southern swordsmen who  dress in white veils, wield scimitars, and who are totally NOT ARABS. Seems that myself and the Margrave didn't do a good enough job of dealing with these assholes the first time, and now they're back to trouble the good people of Neuburg.

Not. Arabs.

As the proper, interactive bit of the game begins, I awake with that familiar Sunday-morning feeling, ie, that of 'a particularly insistant dwarf blacksmith' using my head as an anvil. I'm tied up in some kind of dark dungeon. A voice promises release; my first decision is whether or not to trust it. A giddy excitement takes over as I turn the pages, looking for the right paragraph to make my first decision. Ah, it's nice to get stuck into some FF! I decide to trust the voice. He releases me from my bonds, but then disappears.

I hightail it outta there, climbing to a room where I can see out into the streets of Neuburg. Boy am I disapointed; there's nobody on the streets, no ' revellers stumbling from the inns'. No glowsticks and boiler suits either, I'll wager. And this town used to be fun!

I bust my way out of the guard tower and am immediately railroaded towards a tavern. Thanks book, that's pretty much what I'd do in real life allright. It's called 'The Southern Star,' and I seem to recall that it's a decent establishment. I decide to let the innkeeper know about my history with the Margrave, hoping that we haven't trashed the place before during our frequent raucous nights out. He seems cool with this though, offering me some 'special Neuburg brandy' which I automatically refuse (thanks book...not!). He tells me about some of the spooky things that have been going down in the 'burg, and warns me not to leave the inn at night. I retire to my room, throw off my 'cloak and boots' (am I wearing anything else?) and go to bed like a sensible chap.

Next morning I stroll down to the square. Happily, I find a map of the town. I love maps; I find they make fantasy locations somehow feel more real. I also find notices about the 'permitted prices for meat pies.' Gods, what kind of totalitarian nightmare is Neuburg descending into? What happens to people who sell meat pies for higher or lower than the permitted price? What about veg pies?
I head to the merchants' quarter, where people are selling things such as 'curios from the mystic south,' indicating that orientalism is alive and well here on Titan. I get attacked by a nine-year-old girl thief who flees after one round of combat. Nice one, book. I pass up the opportunity to fight (and kill?) some more children and go buy some pies instead (for what I presume is the permitted price). Having done this, I am for some reason given access to a part of the market that I wouldn't have had I not bought some pies. Hmm. Not only that, but I end up buying a useless trinket off an old man, in a sure-to-be-significant encounter.

Now, I've always wondered about these characters. You know, the decrepit-but-wise old man type, the one that seems useless but is actually the most important person for you to meet, because they've got either important knowledge or an important artifact that you need to complete the quest. What I wonder is - how come they never use the power they've got to do anything to improve their lives? For example, here's this grotty little being living in a hovel in the merchant's district. I can't even be bothered to work out his species - he's 'short enough to be a dwarf and ugly enough to be a goblin,' I'm told. He's got a piece of the mighty Trident of Skarlos just lying around. He clearly knows it's something important. In fact, it's the only thing capable of defeating the evil Xakhaz. So why doesn't he get off his ass, destroy Xakhas, and set himself up as ruler of Neuburg, with an army of luscious dwarf/goblin women to serve him? No. Instead he stays in his hovel eating rats and waiting for a hero - inevitably human and probably white, too - to come and get the glory. This character is like Titan's own version of the Magical Negro.

I then walk to the Temple quarter, where an old priest - who happened to be the one who rescued me - fills me in on the scandal in Neuburg. Turns out that a bad sorcerer called Xakhaz is the one reponsible for all the bad stuff in town. Cue lots of talk about ancient evil, sealed entrances to dark places, and such. Well, what's a burly hero to do? The priest gets me to undertake a challenge - climbing a tree inside his temple - that ups my stamina and willpower. Now I'm rearing and ready to go take on the castle itself.

That's it for part 1. So far, in terms of gameplay things have been pretty predictable: listen to old wise people, investigate everything in the market, etc. Nothing remarkable. But there have been hints at things lurking just below the surface - animal noises during the night, robed swordsmen shadowing me in the market - that let us know that this book is about to take a turn for the weird. While I managed to avoid the more horrific encounters - monstrous blood-lurchers and snuff-hounds were in wait for me in Neuburg had I chosen differently - I still get the feeling that, though I'm in a (c'mon, admit it) fairly generic fantasy land, I have at least stumbled into a pretty weird part of it.

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