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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Cubus Games announce Necklace of Skulls app

More about this later in the month, but here's the first official announcement by Cubus Games of the forthcoming Necklace of Skulls app. If you're not already familiar with Cubus's great work on interactive story apps The Sinister Fairground and Heavy Metal Thunder, check them out and you'll see why we're thrilled to have them working on several of Fabled Lands Publishing's gamebooks. The vibrant artwork by Xavier Mula is a breath of fresh air after decades of a hobby dominated by clunky mail-clad dwarves and dank dungeons.

So this is quite a time for Critical IF, what with Inkle's adaptation of Down Among the Dead Men still riding high on the gamebook charts, Heart of Ice prepping for development, and of course the paperbacks all still available if digital isn't your thing. And before anyone asks, Necklace of Skulls should be out for Android as well as iOS.

And if you think all that is exciting news, wait till you hear about Jamie's new novel. If I had to Hollywoodize the pitch, I'd say it's Percy Jackson meets Galaxy Quest. Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you all about it.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Blood Sword redux: Doomwalk (part 3)

The final part of the Doomwalk designer's notes today, and as far as literary influences are concerned, the most obvious nods throughout the Blood Sword series are, of course, to Jack Vance. Those faltyns, for example: close cousins to the sandestins that were forever vexing Rhialto and the other sorcerers of Old Earth. I’m sure Shimrod in the Lyonesse books would know to be wary of a deal like this:
The faltyn flits through the streets, eventually leading you out of the north gate of the city along a rough track into the hills. There you see a jewelled door set in the side of a massive boulder. ‘What you seek lies beyond that door,’ says the faltyn. ‘As agreed, you will experience neither difficulty nor danger in obtaining it.’ With these words, it vanishes.
Why ‘faltyn’, incidentally? Doctor Strange fans, don't all shout at once. And how about this moment from Doomwalk for a typically Vancean way to get from A to B:
As soon as you have closed the cage door, the creature reaches down to seize an iron ring attached to the top and then launches itself into the sky. Despite its bulk and the burden of carrying you, it rises swiftly on its huge black wings. You are flung to and fro in the cage, but you manage to fight back your nausea until it has gained enough altitude to glide on the air currents.
(The picture here is from Pelgrane Press's superb Dying Earth RPG. Don't even read on until you've bought a copy.)

Now, I ought to warn you there are a few songs in this book. Not too many; don’t get alarmed, I didn’t go full Tolkien or anything. But you get a burst of the 14th century poem “Dou way, Robyn”, the Trickster gets to con some wights into thinking summer’s come to the underworld by singing a few lines paraphrased from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and a character greets his lover’s cruel rejection with a lament penned by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Blimey, you not only get heads rolling and demons ripping out guts, you get bloomin’ culture as well, eh?

The bridge that Modgud guards (or Móðguðr, if you must), which you need to cross to get from the nasty region of Sheol to the really nasty, is from Norse myth. You knew that. But the reason I included a covered bridge in the first place is because Roy Thomas and Gene Colan sent Karen Page across just such a bridge when I was at an impressionable age, and Gene the Dean was my first love in comics, so I had to build in a reference to his work somewhere.

But, raking over all these old influences and homages, I’m completely stumped by where these two oddities sprang from:
Forewarned that something inhabits the hill, you make use of the cover afforded by some thorn bushes to approach the summit unnoticed. Two odd creatures wait there beside an enormous treasure chest. One is a giant bat with crimson antlers sprouting from its head. The other is a dog the size of a warhorse, with white fur and a long beard flowing from its chin.
The Horned Bat and the Bearded Dog seem to be genuine originals and, my earlier reference to Afghan Black aside, I have no idea what chimerical vacuum spawned them. I know that I specifically didn’t want an illustration of them because I was trying for something like the encounters you get in dreams: elusive, ill-defined. Funny and creepy and odd at the same time. Are they characters animated by Disney or by Švankmajer? Would the movie be directed by Burton or by Spielberg? I know which version I see in my mind's eye, but reading is democratic. Having bought the book, how you choose to visualize it is up to you.

Just in case you're thinking this all sounds like serious stuff, let me assure you that there's a good lacing of humour through all the Blood Sword books, even when you're slogging through hell or counting down the minutes till Doomsday. Case in point: the talking boat figurehead whose conversation is limited to weather forecasts and continual re-estimates of arrival time. That example is unusual, in fact, because mostly I don't go for humour that pokes fun at fantasy tropes - too easy a target. Instead I take my cue from Vance, who always remembers that however desperate the situation - and often precisely because it's desperate - human beings will find something to laugh about. So next time you get on the wrong side of a bargain with a faltyn, try to see the funny side.

In the next "Making of Blood Sword" I'll be looking at the writing of the fifth and final book in the series, The Walls of Spyte - otherwise known as "The One Where They Blow Up the Universe". But that's still a month or so away. Next week we'll have Jamie's latest series and after that some really big Way of the Tiger news. Don't miss.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Splice the mainbrace!

Pirates are all the rage nowadays, thanks to Jack Sparrow, but back in the mid-90s it was a genre in the doldrums. The heyday of The Sea Hawk and The Crimson Pirate was a half century earlier, Polanski's Pirates in 1986 had failed to rekindle the buccaneering craze, and Renny Harlin with Cutthroat Island was just about to put a hole below the waterline.

I've always liked tall ships and I owned a copy of Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides - though I actually didn't get around to reading it till a couple of years ago. More to the point, Mark Smith and I needed to come up with a clutch of story ideas for the Virtual Reality gamebook series. The ink was barely dry on the deal, but the publisher's marketing department were already asking for a list of the first six or eight titles. We'd already decided not to set the books in one universe, and we'd both had enough of medieval(ish) adventures for a while. Mark went Cinquecento with Green Blood, Coils of Hate, and the never-published Masque of Death. I scattergunned off into apocalyptic SF (Heart of Ice), Mayan myth (Necklace of Skulls)... and Down Among the Dead Men.

It's not quite your traditional baroque frock-coated pirate thing I've got going on here. Dead Men is set in a more or less Elizabethan world, in which the kingdoms of Glorianne (England) and Sidonia (Spain) are getting into a shoving war on the high seas that grant them access to the New World. But your basic piratical ethic is intact, with room even for a few necessary anachronisms.

I always wanted to try my hand at fantasy in a Tudor setting, with conjurers like Prospero and Doctor Dee as character templates.In Dead Men, a slanderous reworking of Doctor Dee becomes William Wild (the real John Dee's granddad). And "El Draque" was a real Spanish nickname for Sir Francis Drake, though here it gets a bit of vampiric twist. And the inspiration for this Caribbean sky, and the scene that follows with its flying ships, comes from a late-night walk across Clapham Common, when the clouds opened up suddenly like an observatory dome to show me the blinding lamp of the full moon sliding across the sky, a galleon under dazzling canvas:
At last the storm blows over and the full moon appears – a blazing white beacon. The clouds go draining away like pools of quicksilver in the vast dark blue dish of the sky. ‘Ship ahoy!’ cries the lookout. ‘She’s the Rose!’ 
That sky whisked me right back to Nightmaster, the comic by Denny O'Neil and Bernie Wrightson, which was probably the first place I became aware of flying ships, or at any rate realized that one day I needed to put one in a book.

The book's title comes from an old song:
We are the red men,
Feathers-in-our-head men,
Down among the dead men.
Pow wow.
Apparently it's not heard much these days because of fears that it's a racial slur on American Indians. Nonsense; it was originally a drinking song. Red faced, feather-headed, you see. "Dead men" are the empty bottles under a tavern table. Hence this song, from John Dyer's toast to the King: "He who would this health deny, down among the dead men let him lie."

I liked the way Dead Men turned out. Its use of 16th century superstitions, of rapiers and flintlocks, felt fresh after years of gamebooks filled with clanking armour and broadswords. Like most of my worlds, there is no day-to-day contact with nonhumans like elves. The setting is so close to real history with sorcery spinkled on as a spice that Joe Humfrey and Jon Ingold at Inkle Studios suggested it could easily be relocated to a real-world historical setting. Queen Titania is obviously our own Virgin Queen (as played by Cate Blanchett anyway) so why not do the minor rewriting to make her so? In gamebooks twenty years ago I suspect that would have seemed strange, but it makes perfect sense today.

Ah, you noticed the reference to Inkle. That's the reason for this post, because today (which happens to be International Talk Like A Pirate Day - pure coincidence, I assure you) Inkle have launched Down Among the Dead Men as an app for iPhone and iPad. This was actually in development a couple of years back, but got caught up in Fabled Lands LLP's abortive partnership with Osprey Books. That was a big mistake that caused me to wrestle all summer long with an appallingly complicated interface (not Inkle's, I hasten to say) to create some epub3 books that never saw the light of day. It was one of those messy tangles of business and corporate politics that Jamie and I quit the mainstream games industry to escape from. And all along we would have much preferred to be working with Inkle anyway. So let me publically announce how glad I am that it all worked out in the end, Dead Men returned to its rightful harbour at Inkle, got refitted as an app rather than a mere ebook, and here it comes now with all guns blazing.

Click on old crossbones there, he'll see that you get aboard without undue keelhauling. Or go to iTunes here, and for a behind-the-scenes including the full flowchart, go to the Inkle blog here. Ah, and I see that a version of the "Down Among the Dead Men" tavern song features in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. Drink up, me hearties.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Four squared gamebooks

Not that anybody asked, but here are the gamebooks or interactive stories that I've personally written or co-written, displayed in order of how well they turned out, starting with Heart of Ice in #1 position and reading across.

The only one missing is the salmagundi that is The Walls of Spyte - which currently isn't even on the chart, but for the new edition I'm stripping out the engine and reconditioning the whole thing so as to try and get it up into the third row at least

No Keep of the Lich Lord? So you spotted that. It's tricky, because I'd put the original Fighting Fantasy edition at around #15 on the list, but the revised edition that's coming out next month might just edge up into the third row around #10 or #11. Maybe I'll revisit this list once I've got enough books to fill another row, then.

All the above my opinion only, of course. Everyone will have their own favourites, though I doubt if many would dispute Heart of Ice's primacy on this list. Take a look at reviews for the top row and see what you think:

Heart of Ice (review by Andy Wright)
Frankenstein (review by Laura Miller)
Down Among the Dead Men (review by Per Jorner - scroll down)
Necklace of Skulls (Per Jorner again)

(Incidentally, reviews are pretty much the only way books can get noticed these days, so let me thank all of the above-mentioned reviewers, as well as Stuart Lloyd, and Mrs Giggles, and Demian Katz, and Ed Jolley, and everybody else who takes the time to review not just my gamebooks but any in the genre. That flame won't go out as long as you keep blowing on it, guys.)

And the nice thing is, not only is the whole of the second row now back in print, but I'm currently involved with digital projects based on all four of the top row titles. The first of those is out tomorrow, so come back then.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Chalk giant

Any excuse for a classic Gary Chalk cover from the Golden Age of White Dwarf. But it's a good excuse. Gary has got together with the guys at Megara Entertainment to launch a crowdfunding campaign for Autumn Snow: The Pit of Darkness, a new gamebook set in the Lone Wolf universe.

For once it's not Kickstarter but Megara's own home-grown crowdfunding platform. In effect you're pre-subscribing to buy a copy of the book when it's ready, and for 29 euros you'll get a PDF and a black-and-white hardback with two dozen all-new Gary Chalk pics, plus fillers.

The new book is by Martin Charbonneau and features the adventures of a female Kai monk. I mean nun. She begins her adventures by picking a thoroughbred from the monastery stables, so a bit of a risk taker, then - which is just as well, as it looks like this mission will take her to the Darklands and beyond.

Money raised will go towards the purchase of dipthongs, digraphs and apostrophes... but more importantly, to pay for those lovely illustrations, meticulous editing by Richard S Hetley, and the deluxe printing we've come to associate with Megara. Oh, and the whole shebang is being overseen by Joe Dever, who will check every detail to ensure this fits in as an official part of the Lone Wolf canon.

I'll finish with Gary's own words, as he knows this world better than almost anyone:
"It’s great to have the chance to go back to Magnamund again, although this time my drawings will be featuring a new character: Autumn Snow. The servants of the Darklords and the warriors of Sommerlund are some of my favourite subjects, so I’d better start sharpening my pencils." 
Read more about The Pit of Darkness here and you can place your order for a copy here.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Blood Sword redux: Doomwalk (part 2)

fantasy gamebook
More designer's notes in "the making of Blood Sword" series, this time another look at Doomwalk. (Part one here.) The covers of this and the previous book in the series, The Demon’s Claw, now credit me as the sole author. Originally Oliver Johnson and I signed to do all five Blood Sword books, but Oliver’s job at Random House meant that he had very little time to spend on them from the start, having to bail out altogether shortly after we started work on The Kingdom of Wyrd. He did return – sort of – for the final book, but one at a time, eh?

Between The Battlepits of Krarth and The Kingdom of Wyrd, a week or so has passed. Between the latter and The Demon’s Claw, the characters are implied to have been adventuring for years. But Doomwalk begins with a Bourne-style cut, following on immediately after the events of the previous book. There’s no particular significance in this. I usually avoided cliffhangers because books couldn’t be ordered off the internet in those days, and I’d learned the hard way about the vagaries of distribution when all the copies of Dragon Warriors book 1 went to the south of England and all of book 2 went to the north. So I tried to make sure you could jump into a series like Blood Sword at any point and if you missed out a book entirely it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Except in book 5, when it really was the end of the world. But, as I said before, more on that in a later post.

I was glad to have the chance to fix the maps, which in the 1988 edition were printed the wrong way round. So you were presented with a map of Sheol at the start of the book, and if you managed to get to the lands of the dead and if you were lucky enough to find the ancient carving on a monolith there, you would uncover… a chart of western Legend showing the location of the island you needed to find in order to reach Sheol in the first place. I was aiming for a certain amount of dream logic, but not in Lewis Carroll quantities. So after twenty-six years it’s nice to be able to put the maps back where they belong.

Talking of maps, I noticed that the artist (not Russ Nicholson; he wasn't the original map artist) had written “burrow downs” instead of “barrow downs”. I’ve never had much luck with artists and barrows. In one early gamebook I described the character crossing a desolate moor at night when an old man steps out from behind a barrow. That became a picture of a geezer with a wheelbarrow. But I digress… All this talk of barrows at least gives me an excuse to run one of my top favourite of all of Russ's pictures, the wights who come out for a meet 'n greet when you arrive in Sheol.

It’s not obvious why we didn’t make more use of codewords as logic flags in early series like Blood Sword and Way of the Tiger. Instead the reader would just be asked, “Did you meet the scarred scholar and ask him about the carved pillar…” or whatever. If you’re playing the book for the umpteenth time, it can be tricky remembering which incarnation of you did what, and codewords help with that. I’ve written a few into Doomwalk including one to keep tabs on whether you’re accompanied by Cordelia’s ghost as you cross Sheol. (The codeword there, incidentally, is WANDER – a little tip of the hat to Team ICO.)

One more part of this reminiscence of Doomwalk to come. That's in a fortnight, and then we're on to The Walls of Spyte and the big Krarthian free-for-all on the final day of all Creation. But what about next Friday's post, you ask? Ah, or should I say Arrrrr!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Gritty adventure on the final frontier

If you've read Heart of Ice, you'll know I like my science fiction grim, dark and with no unequivocally happy endings. Actually, for the most part I like my fantasy that way too, but good SF demands an uncaring universe. In fantasy you can be saved by a mysterious prophecy and a saviour. In (too) many fantasy stories, if things look tough, having the right moral code deep down inside can count for just as much as knowing how to wield a sword or weave an intrigue.

But not in the best SF. That's the tale of mankind confronting a vast, awesome, bleak infinity that both terrifies and calls to us. For the brutal collision between guts and survival I'm talking about Apollo 13 or The Martian, for sheer wonder try Europa Report or Rendezvous With Rama, and for the great and terrible unknown take a look at Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three.

Now there's a new title to add to that list: Kyle B Stiff's Heavy Metal Thunder, released last week for iPad and iPhone by gamebook app developers Cubus Games. The art and sound effects are very stylish indeed, building extra layers of eeriness and menace into the story, which was originally published as a regular prose gamebook for Kindle. Humanity reached its golden age, only to have it all snatched away by alien invaders. The sola system is overrun. You have your wits and your courage. That may not sound like much, but it's what got us out of the caves and up into space in the first place. Now it's time to show those aliens the hard downside of picking a fight with the human race.

Even if SF isn't your thing, there's still a point to all this. Fabled Lands LLP have been talking to the guys at Cubus Games about some pretty exciting projects. (Yes, we have apps in the works with Tin Man Games and Inkle, but we have so many gamebooks that one or even two developers could never handle the workload. And on top of that, we like making new friends.) The plans with Cubus are very hush-hush for now, but you know me. Give it a few weeks and I'll be spilling the beans.

Before all that, though, come back Friday when I'll have the second part of the "DVD extras" for Doomwalk. See ya then.