Heart of Ice review


Plot summary: A few hundred years into our future, the world is becoming a glacial wasteland. One day the mad supercomputer responsible for this mess sends out a message about a cosmic artefact of great power hidden in a dead city. A number of daring and resourceful characters take up the challenge; one of them is YOU! But who’ll be the one to get their hands on the power, and what is to come of it?

This is not the first VR book, obviously, but the first one I’ve read, and so this will be in large part an analysis and review of the game system and general series design. The rules take up four pages, of which roughly two list sample characters and one contains skill descriptions; leaving out all flavour text and using a small font, it would be possible to fit the strictly necessary information on a single page. Loosely speaking this system could be seen as a logical progression from the stat regime of the basic FF system, by way of Lone Wolf’s stat-supported skill set, to an almost purely skill-based character definition with the addition of a sole, non-random numeric value, the Life counter.

Character creation essentially boils down to picking four skills out of a list of twelve, encompassing things like combat (Close Combat, Shooting), utility (Cybernetics, Piloting), resource (Cunning, Survival) and mental forces (ESP, Paradoxing). Three skills carry an extra “cost” in that an item is necessary for their use, effectively eating up an inventory slot (although in the case of Shooting, it is quite possible that even those who lack the skill will feel safer carrying a gun around).

This system is not only simple and elegant, but it also makes an absolute joy out of character creation; you can pick your own archetypes out of 495 possible – and viable – character builds. This is in fact the only gamebook so far where I’ve felt I could actually design and play – even role-play – my very own character. In FF books with spell or skill sets, you’d typically try to pick the useful options over the less useful or (sometimes) the useless, and your selection would rarely if ever serve to define your character. In Lone Wolf, an attempt was made (I assume) to balance the skills, but you were still playing the same guy doing essentially the same things, and as you completed books and picked up bonus skills, initial differences in skill selection would diminish. Here, not only are all skills nominally equally useful, but as they are the primary tools with which you unlock paths and options, skill selection will have an impact on the nature and flavour of your problem-solving at almost every stage. If you don’t want to spend too much time thinking up your character, there’s no reason to agonize overmuch. The book can be completed no matter which set of skills you choose, since it’s in fact possible to reach all endings but one without using any skill whatsoever.

A comparison with the standard skill set for the fantasy-oriented titles in the rest of the series shows three noteworthy differences: firstly that there are two combat skills instead of three, one being swapped out for the modern utility skill Cybernetics; secondly that the flavour of one of the two “magic” skills is investigative rather than defensive; and thirdly that both psionic skills use the same focus item, encouraging you to choose none or both.

As an additional note, the predefined characters come with slight variations in starting money and, in one case, Life points. I would assume this was done for flavour rather than as an indication that some skills and/or skill combinations are worth less than others, but as I would recommend that you forgo these packages anyway, it doesn’t matter a lot (and if you think it’s warranted, you can always modify your creations accordingly). My own characters included a Sam Fisher-esque special ops veteran (Cunning, Roguery, Shooting, Survival), a supernatural techie (Agility, Cybernetics, ESP, Paradoxing), and a crafty pilot (Lore, Piloting, Roguery, Streetwise).

Using a skill is very simple: either you have it or you don’t. Sometimes you are told to make differing modifications to your Life counter depending on skills possessed (typically Close Combat or Survival), but mostly they define which general courses of action are open to you. I say “general” because for the most part, you don’t actually know what will happen, only that it’s likely to help with your current situation – in fact, skills can even be used “passively” in ways that are impossible to predict but which nevertheless turn out to your advantage. The trick here is to show the character doing clever and interesting things, because this is fundamentally rewarding even if it results from simple decisions on the reader’s part. Heart of Ice does not fail in this department. The solutions and resolutions to problems and situations are sometimes effected with an amount of handwaving (how come no one bothers to check, guard or use the elevator in 7? How come Gilgamesh conveniently stops following you around in 445? Why is it that “any computer that can understand speech can also be reprogrammed in the same way”?), but they are generally given a lot more thought than usual in gamebooks and are diverse and gratifying in any case.

Commendably, you can almost always choose a likely option and assume that your character isn’t going to act dumb and attempt something that has a low chance of success. This lack of “gotcha” mentality is refreshing. There is one particular exception, turning from 149 to 193, which demonstrates how the player may select a dangerous course of action, hoping that the character can more properly assess the risk involved, and end up wishing that 193 had read “Unless you have X, you back off” instead of “Unless you have X, you die”. Of course, it could be argued that the difficulty of the action couldn’t have been known until it was attempted, and that it would be impractical to ask the player for confirmation.

The rules mention that when options for multiple skills are given you can choose any one of them. However, you still have to pay attention to the wording, as it’s sometimes obvious that some references, whether skill-related or not, are meant to take precedence. As a rule of thumb, the terms “use” and “want” indicate optional links, while “have” often – but far from always – signals a priority redirection. I found common sense was sufficient to sort it all out.

Finally, although they aren’t technically covered by the rules, codewords form an important part of the series design. They help you keep track of apprehensions and animosities, allies and alliances, afflictions and abilities. A few times you are told to record special circumstances “normally”, though, for no apparent reason. Consistency would have been nice, at least for us perfectionists. On the whole the idea is practical and economical, though on occasion it may strain suspension of disbelief as you have to imagine what your companion(s) are doing or not doing while you engage in dangerous activities. Also the system precludes the use of hidden redirections, but those never gained much popularity anyway.

As one might guess by now, I have become quite fond of this system based on my experiences with this book alone. It certainly proves that you can achieve some complexity without using numeric attributes and elements of chance; your choice of skills and how well they turn out to complement each other is a random element of sorts. The Life counter gives the book a means to dish out punishment other than death. An obvious advantage with the luckless system is that less bookkeeping and no dice means it can be read pretty much in any situation where you might read a normal book, like on a train, where (in the absence of champagne-drinkers to beset) people could be expected to stare at dice-rollers, prod them with umbrellas or otherwise behave menacingly. Keeping track of your inventory in your head once it starts to load up with junk might not be the easiest thing, but with some practice I think it could be done.

The fact that the system is completely independent of setting and level of technology almost begs for it to be applied to the most outlandish scenarios – or maybe just ones that haven’t seen a lot of attention in gamebooks generally. It certainly deserves to see further use in books that focus on concept and story, if Messrs Morris and Smith would give their blessing.

Moving on to the premise, it is a real cracker, aspects of which I certainly intend to rip off. I like post-apocalyptica, and this is actually one of the more palatable scenarios I’ve come across. In a not so distant future, a supercomputer charged with maintaining the Earth’s climate has been infected with rabid, disruptive viruses, and consequently joined the glorious ranks of demented/evil artificial intelligences that you keep reading about in the paper. Soon, the whole world is heading into a devastating ice age and towards what looks like the terminus of human history. In fact, there is a palpable “dying Earth” feel pervading the book, with evident homages to Vance and the genre in general. The metaphysical element reflected in the skill set melds seamlessly into the setting as a blanket explanation for unnatural creatures and circumstances – hey, it works. This exotic streak also ties heavily into the story’s MacGuffin, which, though it may seem a little strange and awkward to begin with, is later given a context where it makes perfect sense, and disbelief is suspended alligator-like among the rafters.

The success of this setting can be attributed to superb use of exposition, tone, and detail. You can come across historical records, encounter mutants of the frozen wilds, explore forgotten facilities and learn additional information about the world around you. Technology whose deeper secrets are lost to the centuries meshes wonderfully with a kind of freakish neo-Renaissance civilization of explorers, opportunists, merchants and nobles. At all times does this world feel as if it exists outside of your immediate experiences, outside of the page, instead of as a set of disparate ad hoc ideas. It’s a little bit like Return to Firetop Mountain that way.

The style and narration are virtually faultless. I’ve spoken on the lack of evocation in gamebook prose in the past (which is not necessarily the same as dryness or briefness), but I’d have to turn over all the stones to find something to complain about in this one: it is inspired but not florid, ambitious but not conceited. Dialogues and descriptions frequently contain interesting observations, curious particulars or amusing exchanges. The characterization of your competitors surpasses that of many a novel. Suffice to say that I’ve found few gamebook moments as gratifying as telling Boche off on the quay in Venis, or as portentous as stargazing with Janus Gaunt, or as disturbing as coming eye to eye with Baron Siriasis for the final time. This is no gang of Mungos! Your antagonists are smart and resourceful and your only consolation is that hopefully so are you.

Once you’ve read the introduction and stepped out into the chill of Italy, bound for the Sahara, you have the classic choice of going east or west. One of the paths is potentially very long and the other is potentially very short, measured in references, and this can be seen as an imbalance. It’s well known that in gamebooks, managing to get somewhere with as little fuss as possible often means you’re sorely underprepared for what awaits you there. It is true here for some paths though not for all. Also, depending on your choice of paths certain skills may take on great importance while others becomes worthless. Of course, as mentioned previously this is no different from any other book.

There are a couple of moments which act as not entirely obvious bottlenecks; still there isn’t much of a puzzle factor. This is due to the general rules design as well as specific adventure design. To begin with the latter, you will find that many if not most items and codewords can be found in multiple locations. There are even two unique items that have different origins but share the same designation and functionality. This makes it easier for the book to provide meaningful uses for your acquisitions, so there are two sides to it, but it also means that which items or codewords you pick up will seldom significantly shape the path ahead of you.

The other reason can be explained mathematically, so let’s do that. Say you end up in a situation where the book provides three skill options to deal with an obstacle. Try to guess the probability that at least one of these three is on your character sheet! It might seem that the odds of finding a match in two limited selections would be against you, but the chance is actually 41/55 or 75%, assuming all skills are equally likely to be picked for anything. Add to this that you can sometimes substitute items or codewords that can be had regardless of skills, that readers are likely to try to pick skills so as to avoid utility overlap, and that death is not necessarily the only remaining alternative, and you have your explanation for the book’s relative lenience. Anyway, the task of planning out differing “true paths” for various skills or skill sets is simply so complex as to be impossible, and what’s been done here – focus on a broad major path with a couple of key points, add a few side tracks and hope that everything balances out in between – is certainly one valid design.

Also I suppose some will enjoy the fact that even your first character is not the berated doomed adventurer just dropped off outside the Trial of Champions for his first foray into Deathtrap Dungeon, but rather a true pulp hero with a very real chance of success – as long as you move in roughly the right direction and don’t entirely screw up, or else you happen to stumble onto one of the wild card options. Actually what I would recommend is that you create one character and play some two to four games (depending on whether you suffer any early failures) moving down the same path, and then, whether you achieve success or not, switch to another character and also another general approach.

The end sequence, although clearly superior to most other books in the way that it doesn’t boil down to “oh, and here’s a Skill 12 baddy”, I didn’t find all that cleverly tactical as it has been described as. First of all, you cannot suggest an alliance if you don’t have a certain piece of information, even though the value of such an alliance would not be any smaller. Secondly, the consequences of the choices in this section are relatively unpredictable, spanning from instant death over grave bodily injury to painless, almost undeserved victory. The range and nature of the endings are intriguing, though, as there isn’t really a “best” one (but there is certainly a worst one!).

A few words on the illustrations by Russ Nicholson, of which there are not too many (about 10 each of full-page and half-page pieces). They’re good. Perhaps it is only the funky hats of the people of Venis that put me in mind of Moebius. They add to the flavour, no doubt, but ultimately I don’t think the book even needed them; there are so many moments that work splendidly without illustrations that this is as good a time as any to question the practice.

Before summing up, the obligatory array of specific comments:

* Adding to the inconsistency of codewords, they aren’t always used to avoid spoilers – I’m thinking of things such as the end of section 276 which pretty much tells you what to expect next. I would assume that Morris weighed pros and cons in each particular case, though it annoyed me that it’s possible to both research and explore Giza even if you have absolutely no in-character reason to do so. Asking about specific people in Kahira should also have been appended with the condition of “if you know about them”. Moreover, the book is inconsistent when it comes to deleting codewords that have no further purpose.

* There seems to have been a great leap in technology from our time: several instances of “magical” technology had evidently appeared by the end of the 21st century, with conditions on Earth already critical. Yet apparently none of this could be brought to bear against Gaia, or used to establish more space colonies.

* In section 232 we learn that the information represented by the Nemesis codeword was already known since long. Why would for instance the US government forget about this? Or if they remembered but assumed Gaia’s new declaration about the Heart’s properties meant the old one was incorrect, why would a mere repetition of it carry any weight in 214?

* How do you keep a straight course for Du-En while traversing the Sahara? How do you even know where it is? How come it’s nearly equally as hard to get there no matter where on the African continent you start from? How come if you ditch Boche in Venis and fly non-stop to Du-En, he’s still there to thumb his nose at you when you arrive?

* At the beginning of the adventure you’re equipped with “thick furs”. Later on you can acquire “cold-weather clothes” – it is perhaps meta-logic more than anything else that suggests these provide a whole other level of protection.

* The main character’s gender is commendably unspecified except for one thing: the ability to pose as Hal Shandor using either a simple disguise or “a few deft changes” to his holographic image (never mind that a real hologram couldn’t be changed in the way described).

* There’s an intercontinental subway going through one of the world’s most geologically active regions. Yay?

* Minor notes: 450 is missing a “scream like a little girl” option. 325 says “scimitars” but the illustration contains straight double-edged swords. The people in the illustration for 200 should be facing in roughly the same direction. 297 is unfair because you may be forced out of the base entirely even if you clearly have unfinished business. The transition from 19 to 41 is somewhat bizarre in terms of (lack of) character reaction. What prevents Boche from simply following in your footsteps in 155? Why can’t you pick up any equipment (other than the knife) in 185 when you obviously need it? Why can 382 only be reached by way of 339, and was this intentional? Why can’t you set out for Giza from Sudan, or take the one-man flyer there from 382, when you may actually have a specific reason for doing so? In the options for 371, “run from” should be “run into”; overall there’s an abundance of typos compared to the well-edited FF series, although this is the only one that could cause confusion. The crossbow is never used, even though a related dialogue snippet hints that this was planned at some stage.

I can’t say with absolute certainty that this is the best gamebook I’ve read, but if not it’s certainly one of the very best, with the best character design, the best one-shot world design and the best writing. Almost every point of criticism has to be aimed at something which is clearly the exception and not the norm. Rather than a hackneyed outing that you struggle through and put behind you, Heart of Ice is an experience to remember and reflect on. It shows every sign of having been written by someone who loves the gamebook medium, and with great narrative skill and vision to back that energy up there’s no question that this is worth your money.

– Per Jorner