Friday, 1 May 2015

#24: Creature Of Havoc




CREATURE OF HAVOC

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When the release of this book was first announced it immediately became probably the FF book that’s publication I looked forward to the most. A book where you get to play the monster was a prospect to relish and the image of charging around wreaking the havoc of the title whilst indiscriminately killing everything in sight for no apparent reason was a nice antidote to the usual business of playing a good guy adventurer. What would eventually see print was not quite what I, or (I would imagine) many other FF fans, could have anticipated.

The first thing that strikes the reader as a little bit out of the ordinary is the Introduction. Normally in FFs this is no more than three or so pages long and sets out exactly how YOU came to be in whatever situation the book requires you to be in. In CoH, rather than an establishing shot, we are instead presented with a 19-page mini-story explaining the nature of the Trolltooth Pass and its surrounding environs, as well as potted biographies of the key people who have been instrumental in shaping life in the area (quite literally in the case of Zharradan Marr!) but there is no mention of where YOU might fit into it all. (As an aside, for anyone who has read Jackson’s novel The Trolltooth Wars, many aspects of this back story (and, in some ways, parts of the adventure too) will seem familiar, but CoH came first and sets the scene for the novel that followed – clearly SJ had big plans for the characters that came from CoH and it’s pretty obvious that the two books were intended to flow together.) Interestingly, in typical SJ style, much of the information given in the intro is misleading but that only becomes apparent much later on as, on paragraph 1, the initial Act of the adventure proper begins and YOU find yourself waking up to a living nightmare devoid of identity or awareness of who or even what you are meant to be, almost as if you are being born. Then begins a voyage of self-discovery as you gradually become more and more sentient, pick up snippets of information, and find your way to your eventual double-goal of vengeance and, probably more importantly, of determining your true identity.

This book has what must be one of the densest and most satisfying plots of any FF, which, through constant changes of location, ongoing aims, and self-awareness, remains compelling and pretty intense throughout. Indeed, as long as the book is, it is difficult to put it down and, having beaten one area, you immediately want to move on to see what it will throw at you next - this is the most fundamental sign of a successful gamebook, not to mention a good story book in general and the fact that you want to read on and discover more of what it has to offer, along with the sheer determination to try to unravel the mystery due to the fast pacing and overall desire to find out what you are, sets this well above the average benchmark for a “decent” gamebook. And it is certainly very long, both in game/plot terms as well as in literal terms. With a paragraph count of 460 this is amongst the longest FFs ever and the adventure itself has an epic scale to it, although it can be roughly divided into two halves (the dungeon part, then the “outdoors” part) and leaves you feeling exhilarated once you reach the end, rather than exhausted and grateful to have got it over with (a problem that certainly blighted the later, more large scale, FF books.) The dungeon section takes up a large chunk of the book and is monumental in its scale and design, with decision points that often offer all of North, South, East, and West as options as you wind your way about its labyrinthine passages trying desperately to find the exit. I have to admit that, as a child, I could never crack it and get out into the outside world, and this is certainly a more adult book in terms of actually being able to get anywhere, although there is a lot of fun to be had as a younger reader just from lumbering about eating everything you meet and being unusually strong! So this is one for everyone then and I appreciate this fact.

The opening dungeon is the part of the book where you feel most like a monster, but also most like you are evolving very quickly, so the suggestion that you might not have always been quite so monstrous begins to come through from an early stage and the plot hits you from the get-go. In design terms, getting this concept across is no mean feat, and there is a sense that the very first few stages are a little rushed. You start by having such animalised instincts that even decisions on what route to take put you at the mercy of dice-rolling, but this quickly disappears as you develop reason, followed by the power of communication (although you are required to decipher a coded language in the dungeon part so you are still expected to play the role, as it were) and the ability to “use” items to your advantage. In the main, I feel that this is probably as well-handled as it could be, given that too much instinct-based material would leave you feeling that the dice, as opposed to the player, were calling all the shots and that you had very little influence over your progress. Equally, this would make the book so difficult to master that it would probably become frustrating at too early a stage to really grip the player on an involving level so the fast change from stupid monster to something semi-aware of what’s going on was unavoidable in gameplay terms, so we’ll forgive this. Interestingly, even in the final stages of the book you still cannot quite curb your animal instincts (your rage, in particular) so, in spite of your development, you are expected to still play the part of an “animal”, which is a nice touch of coherence and adherence to theme.

Escaping the dungeon is a major achievement and requires you to crack two puzzles inherent in the design of the book: the language code, and the hidden section gimmick. The language code revolves around you initially being unable to understand the human tongue (you yourself are mute, incidentally, and remain so for all of the game, although you can grunt and gesture to try to get your message across if you need to) which, in the dungeon section, is presented in what initially seems to be gibberish form. Once you gain the power of understanding you are told how to decipher the code, but the player must do this by using a three-point set of rules which are in themselves a little baffling until you get used to reading the gibberish which eventually becomes quite straightforward to understand once you’ve adjusted your eye and mind to it. The very earliest bits of speech can only ever be understood on subsequent playthroughs or by back-tracking, but they are of little real relevance. The really important language clues come after you have learned the secret and you MUST work out what each message you find from thereon means otherwise you will miss some key details that you cannot win without knowing. Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that a really nice bit of attention to detail comes when part of one message is in Orc language that cannot be decoded – in other words, you have learned the human tongue, and only that. Pretty sophisticated stuff! The hidden section gimmick was, by the time CoH came out, a Steve Jackson standard game mechanic, but its deployment this time is better executed than in either of its previous outings (#10 House Of Hell and #17 Appointment With FEAR.) Structurally, the approach is closer to that in HoH than the version in AwF, but the CoH approach is more fully-developed than either of these. Gone is AwF’s totally obscure use of hidden sections where you were left to randomly guess when to use a maths clue to find the optimum next section that made beating the book almost impossible, but the reliance on hidden sections is not as lethal as it is in HoH. CoH has more sparing use of red herrings than HoH had and you do not die almost immediately having missed a clue this time around. On the flipside this does mean that, if you miss a secret section, you can head off down completely the wrong path only to fail 20-odd sections later which can be a bit disheartening, but it does at least allow for some gameplay scope once you’ve missed what SJ wanted you to find. It also gives you the chance to map a bit more of the dungeon out for future reference and mapping is absolutely essential in this book due a) to the scale, and b) to be able to unravel all the interlinking and looping paths. In the dungeon there are four stages where hidden sections can be found, but only three use the word prompts that you are told to watch out for (unless you have the Wizard edition that rectified this, that is.) This has been the subject of considerable speculation – most regard it as an error and that is certainly possible given FF’s general propensity for printing mistakes, but there is also a school of thought that suggests that this is just another intentional trick by SJ that you have to overcome. My perspective is somewhere in-between the two: the section in question (213) certainly does not have the lead-line that we are told to look for, but this is the third of the four hidden section clues and is the key one for being able to get anywhere close to escaping the dungeon (although there is more maths needed to actually get out of it completely) but, once you realise that the jewel that finds secret passages for you only works when you are told you are in a dead end, this can signpost that it’s time to try to add or deduct 20 from the section you are currently on, so, if you are reading the text closely enough this is not a terminal problem. If you do miss this section on early playthroughs (which you almost certainly will), and reach the fourth of the four secret passages, you will be trapped in the fourth area and die which will sooner or later suggest to you that you have gone too far and that what you are looking for lies somewhere between the sitting ducks that are secret areas two and four. For me, error or no error, the missed opening line in paragraph 213 is irrelevant – the player should already know to look for signposting or more subtle prompts given what has gone before in this book, so I can accept this as it is. This book is extremely difficult, this is a fact that we cannot escape, so we can only expect the most important success or failure moments to be tough to beat.

The external act of the book replaces the language code trick with normal dialogue text. We have evidently beaten the part of the book that required us to decode the language. This symbolises two things: firstly, that YOU are now even more sentient which is important for both plot development and in feeling the character we are playing, and, secondly, that we are now expected to untangle some other sort of game mechanic, that being even more elaborately and cleverly disguised prompts to use numerical clues which are, again, signposted in a balanced manner and do not bring back nightmares of HoH or AwF. Yes, the red herrings, inter-looping mazes of paths (and in a particularly cruel moment you can end up accidentally going back into the dungeon!), and long treks towards death are all carried-over from Act One, but the emphasis now is on interaction with NPCs and, as best as possible, completely avoiding anywhere on the map on the inside cover that would normally be assumed to be important to visit (Dree, the Forest of Spiders, and the Bilgewater will all kill you), plus the more intriguing-sounding places that get mentioned in the long backstory that also seem important (Stittle Woad, the Rainbow Ponds) are totally inaccessible and don’t even feature in the plot of the game! In fact, the whole concept of this book is one huge puzzle that gradually reveals itself over multiple playthroughs and becomes all the more rewarding for each additional piece that you discover. The structural highlight for me is how your companion (Grog the Half-Orc) is managed. Firstly, the way you acquire his company seems totally counter-intuitive, especially as the rewards for not saving him seem better, but this is just another red herring for you to overcome. More importantly, you will fail if you do not have him with you and an interesting technique of alternate paragraphing comes into play when he is with you. Rather than the usual “do you have a companion with you?” question prompt (which makes cheating very easy and would be out of context here) we are instead asked to read sections that end in a 7 followed by another section that is that one minus 52 then proceed from there. This normally means Grog gives us some advice to avoid perils, but it also eventually means he dies instead of you. OK, so our companion winds up dead as usual, but at least his presence adds considerable value to the structure of the game in a design sense. If I have one qualm with the use of hidden sections in this book overall it is in the second to last code that we have to crack where we meet a key NPC shortly before finding The Galleykeep, as it is totally unclear that you have found him, but we’ll forgive this one slip in what is otherwise SJ’s best secret section exploitation overall.

Another interesting idea that ties together red herrings with the labyrinthine looping design is the three moments where you can literally get stuck in an endless loop of paragraphs, all of which will eventually make you die of Stamina loss rather than reaching an instant death section. One is a never-ending series of combats with Quimmel Bone who resurrects every time you kill him, the second involves an endless queue of Chaos Warriors who come at you one after another, whilst the third is a futile catalogue of attempts to break down the door to the outside world. It takes a while to realise that you are stuck in an infinite loop each time until you notice that you keep being switched between the same few paragraph numbers, but this is an original take on the “you are dead” failure ending as you keep trying to convince yourself that there is a way out of these traps.

On the subject of instant deaths, the way your character functions adds considerable depth to your belief that you are a large monster of some sort. Notwithstanding the regular references in the text to your tough hide, sharp claws, big fangs, growl, and back spines (which all certainly add colour to your believing in your role), you have a natural instinct to feed and, instead of having Provisions which would not make much sense here, you are frequently given the option to eat the carcasses of foes you kill. Some require combats, others (weaker foes) can just be killed outright without a fight, and some taste better or are more nourishing and will reward you with higher Stamina bonuses than others (and decayed ones will poison you.) You are particularly fond of eating Hobbits which, whilst a little immoral, definitely adds another layer to your role-playing. Due to your strength and your thick hide, wounds in combat will only reduce your Stamina by 1 which is another realistic touch, and this also gives you an understandable edge in most battles (and most combats are contextually pretty easy, too, which is another good inclusion.) Additionally, you have the power of Instant Death whereby, if you ever roll a double in combat you hit your enemy so hard that you kill them instantly. Realistically, this could happen quite a lot which is another convincing aspect, but it must be said that combats are not a main focus of this book and act more as a support function to give some FF context to the proceedings. Incidentally, there is one stage of the book where doing something particularly wrong can cause you to lose your Instant Death ability, so even that is not totally untouchable!

Your general size and strength advantages may suggest that this will be an easy ride in the stats sense and, all things considered, it generally is, but I don’t believe that the book is intended to focus on this aspect. Instead, the puzzles and codes are the book’s main design purpose, whilst making you feel alienated and bewildered is the effect it should have on the reader, which it does in an impressive way. Stat bonuses are frequent and generous (some of them are red herrings, though) and only a few items are needed, but this is not an item hunt, instead it’s an information hunt as you try to work out who or what you are. Instant deaths are used sparingly for the overall number of sections and exist to close down a dead end or wrong turn rather than to just make you die for sadism’s sake. There’s even one secondary win section where you sort of win, but haven’t found the optimum ending. Again, this adds more to the re-playability and plot expansion on show here. However, let’s not under-estimate the true difficulty level created by the structure of this book. This is easily one of the absolute hardest FFs of all, although it does generally seem fairer than most of the ultra-hard offerings in the series due to the signposting and your size advantage. Structurally this book is an exceptional achievement and it is no surprise that SJ would not write another FF gamebook after this one – where would you go with the design ideas from here? I have to assume that he decided to quit whilst he was ahead and move into expanding the FF franchise at this point as it would have been hard for him to follow this with anything other than an inferior book (or maybe the best gamebook of all time that never happened?)

SJ often interjects elements of black humour into his books and there are some apparent here, especially in the actual creature encounters that you are faced with and how some of them interact with you. The more inventive encounters don’t actually involve combat and are, as we have said, generally fairly easy bar a Sk 14 St 14 Master Of Hellfire that can appear at the very end, but you might as well let it kill you because you have gone the wrong way if you meet it! Amongst the highlights for me are the Chattermatter (a talking trap in the employ of Zharradan Marr), the Jabberwing (an amusingly abusive crow relative), and the Shadow Stalker (an evil version of the problem Peter Pan had with his shadow.) There is a moment early on where you can meet another of Marr’s hideous creations, the Devourer, which is quite tough but still within your capabilities to beat if you have decent enough stats, and is pretty disturbing in the image of it. Incidentally, contrary to what I first thought, the creature on the cover of the Wizard edition is the Devourer and not you, and is even more hideous in colour.

So, combats are fairly easy, but the design and mechanics make this book extremely difficult. I don’t have a problem with this though as I can accept the challenge of extreme difficulty as long as the plot is well-paced rather than plodding and the adventure is original and imaginative, which this certainly is. However, this book is not without its problems, even if most of these are ingrained in the concept itself. Firstly, you are NOT a Creature Of Havoc. The title is misleading. If anything you are to be pitied and you certainly feel drawn into your character partially through empathy with its plight. Yes, you have a few issues controlling your baser instincts, but that just adds gameplay. Secondly, it eventually transpires that this is not really a “you play the monster this time around” book at all, but you have to reach the very end to find out what/who you really are and the plot reveals just how well-designed it is when the end links directly to the beginning (and certain parts of the intro.) The biggest niggle for me, though, is that although this is arguably the best FF book ever, all things considered, it is not especially representative of the series as a whole (ie no adventurer with sword, backpack, and a Potion going on a riches or assassination mission.) Yes, structurally, design-wise, and plot-wise, this is an awe-inspiring achievement that exudes quality, but it is also very off-the-wall due to its subject-matter and approach which puts it into the small “exceptions to the norm” category of FF books.

I think it is important that we define the meaning of “the best FF book ever”, as this book is not my favourite (that accolade would go to any of Deathtrap Dungeon, City Of Thieves, or Spellbreaker, depending on my mood at any given time.) For me, there is a distinction to be made between the words “best” and “favourite”. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is generally regarded as “officially” the best film ever made, an assertion that I would agree with due to its technical brilliance, the revolutionary impact it had on film-making and cinematic story-telling techniques, and its compelling-ness from start to finish. But, I have only seen it twice and I am not driven to casually watch it as entertainment. Creature Of Havoc is technically brilliant, pretty revolutionary in terms of how to design a gamebook, tells an excellent story, and is very compelling to both play and read. However, my favourite film is either Blade Runner or Star Wars. I have seen both hundreds of times, pretty much know them off by heart, but will happily watch them over and over just to fill an empty few hours. They are not high art though, unlike Citizen Kane. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. I am impressed by CoH and am in awe of it, but I can only play it so many times. Once the secrets are unlocked, it loses something of the feeling of achievement. DD, CoT and Spellbreaker are all books I can, and have, played umpteen times and never lost the sheer enjoyment of the experience. The difference is important – CoH is the greatest FF of all time in my opinion, but it is not the most enjoyable or ultimately re-visitable.

I briefly mentioned the confusion caused by the Devourer image on the cover of the Wizard edition (which is a very impressive and scary image) and a similar thing happened to me with the original Puffin version. For a long time I thought the green creature in the big chair on the cover was YOU, but it is not, it is Zharradan Marr, a fact which only becomes apparent when you finally meet him. ZM himself is the third of the really key baddies in FF (after Zagor and Balthus Dire) and this book rounds off their three intro stories, which would then lead into seeing all three brought into play in the final culmination of the Trolltooth Pass story arc that appeared in The Trolltooth Wars novel. The Puffin edition is one of the rare FF covers that shows us the final denouement rather than a random obscure cameo moment and really sets the tone of terror and bizarre-ness that pervades this book. Changing the cover for the Wizard version takes something away from this effect, but at least the Wizard cover is also effective for once. Internal art is by the usually very prehistorically-oriented Alan Langford, who has adapted well to the more conventional Medieval fantasy settings and peoples of this book. There is no real stand out art here, but it is all well-rendered and suits the text. Incidentally, you can see yourself in silhouette/shadow in three of the pictures, but they give little of your identity away. The text itself is very thoroughly written with unusually long paragraphs to add depth and interest to the game and its plot. There is a sense of disorientation throughout, and the repeated emphasis on your bulk and your ongoing evolution makes the story very rich and full, as well as very logical and well-paced.

This book is a remarkable achievement in terms of how to create and present a gamebook, but it also reads just as well as a novel, perhaps a little too well. There is little doubt that this is the best FF book of all time but, as I suggested before, it works differently to the others and does not match the idiom of the series in general. It is also one of the toughest of the series, but for different reasons to the usual ones. Get it, be impressed by it, spend ages trying to beat it, but can you really go back to it once you’ve cracked it? Definitely a one of a kind gamebook.

6 comments:

  1. an excellent, belated and most welcome review, thanks

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  2. I really agree with your thoughtful review. I appreciate CoH much more now than I did as a kid, where the dice-rolling choices at the start, ad-infinitum attempts to leave the dungeon (and, to my then-mind, thereby start the story) and general lack of rampaging disappointed me!

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  3. Fantastic review again! Really enjoying these. Any chance of a Master of Chaos review in the pipeline?

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    1. There is indeed. In fact, it was nearly the next one but I had a last minute change of what I wanted to re-play this weekend just gone so instead it's a little further down the pipeline now!

      Glad you're enjoying the site incidentally :-)

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  4. Nice read. Definitely one of my favourite books as well. I never could figure out why the answer to the poem is the jug of water door though!?

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  5. Water dissolves ice and douses fire, Rebecca.

    Creature of Havoc is so much better than the Trolltooth Wars. The latter was plagued by dry writing, unlikable characters and deus ex machinae.

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