Monday 9 July 2018

#12: The Gates Of Death


Charlie Higson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Attendees of Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 in September 2017 were given the surprise news of the first FF book to be written by a genuine celebrity in the form of Charlie Higson. Accompanying this was the news that he was a long-term FF fan, a comment which immediately seemed to make no sense when he said he was too old for the books the first time around, followed by him then listing a handful of titles that he owned, one of which, Creature Of Chaos, does not exist. Alarm bells started ringing in my head at this point and they then rang even louder when we were told that Jonathan Green would be helping Higson out with the mechanics. None of this especially suggested that CH had much of a knowledge of FF or rather, certainly not enough to try to write a FF book (unassisted, at least). But, the dangling carrot of another new book in the series was more than enough to get fandom excited by this announcement and there is no question of Higson’s credentials as a successful writer of books aimed at FF’s actual target audience so his pedigree in literary terms made this project look very hopeful. Much speculation then followed on the subject of how the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Presents” tag would work with someone far more famous (in real terms) than them. This, mixed with Scholastic’s almost certainly wanting to make the most of the Higson name, meant that there was little surprise when the standard naming convention applied to third party FF authors’ books was finally relinquished and CH was given cover author credit. Had the series finally sold out? Well, in real terms, probably yes as no-one else ever got cover credit, but in practical terms Scholastic really had little choice but to do this so it’s understandable even if it breaks with FF tradition in the name of celebrity. Such is life.

Another striking observation worth pointing out about the marketing of this book is the colour. Scholastic’s versions of FF have gold spines - the first six were like this and the subsequent five new reissues to accompany Higson’s book also had gold spines albeit slightly different in appearance to the initial six – but the Higson book is silver. This is bad news for anyone whose OCD precludes oddities on bookshelves, but good news for anyone trying to find the new book quickly in bookstores and, again, demonstrates how determined Scholastic are to push the Higson credit. Thankfully, unlike the first six reissues, the silver cover print does not disintegrate on contact with human skin so credit to Scholastic for heeding at least one of the numerous criticisms levelled against their reissues.

Which brings us again to the biggest controversy and criticism of Scholastic’s series and one which we will get over with first: Vlado Krizan’s internal art. When this first saw the light of day in The Port Of Peril and the reissues of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and City Of Thieves it was justifiably panned by FF fans. His uninspiring greyscale pallet made the images seem dull and lifeless, whilst his semi-digital inorganic forms were emaciated and cartoonish. Any sense of awe or terror was gone entirely and the whole ensemble of art was amateurish and uninspired. Replacing familiar and popular art by Russ Nicholson and Iain McCaig with this insipid rubbish was a travesty, and this problem carried over into The Port Of Peril as it featured familiar species, locales, and key NPCs that had all been drawn better in previous iterations and that the fan’s eye had become familiar with. Curiously, the subsequent reissues of The Forest Of Doom and The Citadel Of Chaos did not fare as badly art-wise because in these two cases Krizan seemed to have just traced Russ Nicholson and Malcolm Barter’s original art and added a bit of boring greyscale and jagged digitalisation to it resulting in what was essentially just a bad photocopy of the originals rather than a crime against good taste. House Of Hell’s Krizanisation (new verb, copyright me) was somewhere between the two, but was still fundamentally poor in comparison to the original art. So, the subject of the art in The Gates Of Death is curious: on the one hand, it’s back to Krizan original material a la The Port Of Peril but, other than in Port Blacksand, most of the actual subject matter is new Higson creations and this book relies less on familiar tropes than PoP generally did, notwithstanding its over-reliance on demons. This should allow VK to let his imagination run wild and really give him the opportunity to demonstrate what he can do with a (ahem) blank canvas. To be fair to him, his portfolio of sci-fi and battleship art online is actually very good, albeit that battleships are normally shades of grey (which suits him down to the ground) and his sci-fi stuff is colour which does not suffer as much as black and white does when large blocks of colour are used. So Krizan is not as talentless as people make out, there’s just something not quite right with his FF art. We all love the original artwork so he was never going to win there but this new book goes into unknown territory with no yardstick to compare the images to. It’s a depressing observation to have to make now then that Krizan’s art in TGoD is just as bad as that in the first three Scholastic books and has the same lack of inspiration, awe, and evidence of ability in fantasy artistry that made the art in the earlier Scholastic books such anathema for the eyes. Supposedly, Krizan was given a ridiculously tight deadline to turn the art around for the series in general but surely he could have done better than this…. Surely?

With that out of the way, let’s move swiftly onto the content of the (literally) shiny new offering from FF and its injection of new blood with its first new author since 1993. The plot is fairly straightforward: the Demon Queen Ulrakaah is the latest in the sequence of psychos who wants to wipe out Titan, this time with a demon plague. YOU are a novice monk engaged to stop this happening with the use of the hard-to-get-your-head-around-the-idea-of substance known as Smoke Oil (??) which turns demons back into normal people. Throughout the book you encounter people who transform from people into demons which fits the concept of how Smoke Oil works, but overall this idea doesn’t seem to make sense unless we accept the book’s repeated premise of people being transformed into demons being by possession presumably. YOU have to trek across Allansia, initially via familiar places from FF lore (Port Blacksand, Silverton, Salamonis, Plane Of Bones) to eventually reach new places invented for this book (the Invisible City which contains the Temple of Throth and the Gates Of Death themselves). This is an interesting approach as the overall feel of the book progresses from great familiarity to completely unknown territory which does give it a sense of unfolding mystery and foreboding. Port Blacksand can be negotiated by two mutually distinct routes and can bring you into contact with either Nicodemus again or very nearly has you meet the enigmatic and elusive Lord Azzur (who you don’t actually come face to face with as such which was a partial disappointment balanced out with the intriguing revelation that he sees, hears and speaks through conduits). From there you have a choice of routes to Salamonis (one via Silverton, the other via a more treacherous open environment) before heading off into uncharted new territory as you try to find the Invisible City and breach the titular Gates Of Death to get to Ulrakaah herself. Silverton is nothing more than a one-note opportunity to heal lost Stamina and we learn nothing new about Silverton itself by going there. Indeed, it is sold very short in the same way that Port Blacksand was in Port Of Peril which is a shame. Salamonis is a whole other prospect though and, as it’s nearer to the source of the demon plague, it is in a rather more advanced state of infestation. Essentially, the Salamonis section is a labyrinth of interconnecting (and mostly anonymous) roads that lead eventually to its gates at compass points. The literal killer here is trying to negotiate the city, find a NPC who can sell you useful equipment/advice, and avoid repeatedly dying by falling foul of demons, in particular by ending up in their purple demon dimension. Certain locations are deadly (the sewers in particular) and some of the city gates are red herrings that, again, will scupper you. The looping interconnecting roads within the city are a game-mapper’s nightmare and the feeling of disorientation as you try to get out safely is very much to the fore, making this section both effective and oddly hopeless in the sense of your chances of survival.

At this juncture, we need to discuss a mechanic that dominates this book – the looping nature of its design. Not only does the Salamonis map loop all over the place, but so does much of the book. If you die, more often than not you can use one of several methods of reincarnation to then get hurled back to a previous point in the book (or occasionally a future one, which is quite confusing). Initially, this seems unusually forgiving for FF (which it is) and removes the demoralising experience of endlessly restarting the book only to fail again in a similar place to a previous attempt (especially as the Salamonis section is deceptively hard), but it becomes just as frustrating after a while as being sent back to relive previous stages is no less tedious than having to just start again from the beginning. Indeed the sheer amount of reincarnating, looping back, returning to a fail point, looping back again, and eventually going around in endless circles does quickly become annoying and quite boring and repetitive. It does take a certain amount of determination and willpower on the player’s behalf to get beyond the Salamonis section and I suspect many players will grow so frustrated with this part that they will eventually just give up. There are only so many times you can re-read previous parts of the book before you get fed up with it and, whilst reincarnating creates the illusion of fairness, aimlessly wandering about in Salamonis’ deathtrap becomes inane after a while.

However, if you do manage to escape Salamonis, the rest of the adventure is far more interesting and, once you’ve found (revealed) the Invisible City, you get to explore the ethereal and genuinely mystical-feeling Temple Of Throth which gives you useful equipment and info before you try to access Ulrakaah’s lair. This is the most original and well-designed act of the book and rewards your persistence in the earlier sections with a genuinely enjoyable and intriguing episode. Indeed, everything previous to the Invisible City is fairly lacklustre. The final showdown with Ulrakaah is easily one of the most climactic end boss encounters in any FF book and goes some to make the rest of the adventure worthwhile. My favourite element is the way you have to die to pass into the demon plain and inhabit another character’s body there. To do this you fight the Obsidian Giants and, should you have some weakwater, you are almost certain to lose the fight which, perversely, means you win the fight as you need to die to progress. This is a refreshing idea which provides a neat twist on the usual “hero that has to win all of the time theme” that is central to most fantasy adventuring. The book repeatedly bangs on about you needing to be “pure of heart” to pass through the Gates Of Death and, presumably by dying, you demonstrate this. Ulrakaah is physically massive and genuinely intimidating and unleashes the (at first sight) absolute toughest and most unwinnable FF fight ever upon you: a Demon Horde of Skill 400 Stamina 800. Obviously there is no way that you can even attempt this fight in real terms, but, by using various magical seeds that you have picked up in the Temple Of Throth (or should have!), you can exponentially reduce both the Skill and the Stamina of the horde down to a much more manageable level. Ulrakaah herself is not especially strong for an end baddie (Sk 10 St 10) and it’s impossible not to have the key weapon you need to kill her (a khopesh) as there are two in the book and the second one is wedged in the gates themselves so you cannot help but acquire it. Interestingly, there is a non-win ending that you can find here too where you become Ulrakaah’s successor and continue her work. This section is number 400 which is very meta. The real win section is 470 which also shows us how comparatively long this book is in paragraph terms, although the optimum path is not actually very long so much of these sections must be used up in the Salamonis labyrinth and the multiple interconnecting paths within the Temple Of Throth.

The Demon Horde fight (and the Salamonis deathloop) raises an interesting point about this book: the difficulty level. At face value, given how labyrinthine Salamonis is, how seemingly impossible the end showdown is, and the number of items and information that you need to win through at the end, this book should be very hard. However, with the constant reincarnating, the multiple paths through (pre-Salamonis, that is), and the sheer amount of helpful items (seeds and potions in particular) that you can collect, in reality this book is very easy once you’ve cracked its looping design and realised that coming back to life can be advantageous as it gets you the chance to visit other areas and get more than enough stuff to win through with. There are loads of opportunities to find potions (and there are many different potions, mostly linked to reincarnation or negotiating demons easily), Luck tests are rare, there are umpteen Stamina bonuses, there are three types of handy magic boots, instant deaths are very rare, it is possible to revisit certain sections in the Temple area endlessly to get huge numbers of items you need for the end fight, and you can collect so many different weapons with various different properties and damage indicators that you should hardly be able to move for the weight of them. None of the (infrequent) fights (most of which are with curiously weak-ish demons) are difficult and several are avoidable one way or another, especially if you start experimenting with potions and/or smoke oil. It is possible to move quickly through the opening section by accepting an offer of help from Lady Webspinn (a goth name if ever there was one) and you can also travel on horseback at one stage which makes things move faster. The sheer amount of help you can get in the Temple Of Throth knowledge base section becomes overwhelming and definitely convinces you that, by this point, you have a good chance of winning. This balances neatly with the tedium and apparent hopelessness of endless death loops in Salamonis and makes the book feel more balanced difficulty-wise for anyone who is totally demoralised by the Salamonis section. Once you have explored the book as a whole it is obvious that this is generally a very easy book to finish, it’s the exploring it all part that could take you some time and experimentation. There is no central maguffin to find as such, it just tests your tolerance levels due to the underlying looping structure, which is both a blessing (less dying all the time) and a curse (repetitively going around in excruciating circles). There is no true path to speak of due to all the loops, but there is an optimum path that gets you to the Invisible City very quickly. You can negotiate Salamonis in about ten sections once you’ve worked out how to and, if you listen to all the advice you are given throughout the book by helpful NPCs, you will find that (like The Port Of Peril before it) all the potentially tricky parts are signposted to make them simple to get through. The Invisible City is non-linear although some areas will need to be visited before others and you can visit and revisit each part an infinite number of times so you will not struggle here. There is a huge amount of info to gather in the Temple but none of it actually affects your chances of success. It simply adds lots of plot extemporisation and contextualises what is happening by bombarding you with background detail to make the plot nice and logical.

As well as the looping design, the other feature of this book that quickly comes to the fore and won’t leave you in a hurry is the tone of Higson’s writing. This book reads less like a gamebook and more like a modern style children’s story book, what with its use of words like “bum”, “burp”, “wee” and “fart” (none of which suit the tone of serious adventuring), repeated use of corny jokes (Fish Face is a NPC who has the face of a fish, Holy Man is full of holes, there is an essential item called “bier goggles” which allow you to see the Invisible City whilst riding on a bier), potions are named things like “Nostalgia” (sends you back to a previous point) and “Pretty as a Picture” (beautifies a foe)… the list goes on. Not only is this reducing the player’s ability to take this book seriously, it is also far too explicitly obvious in terms of how to use/negotiate these moments. (I have a feeling the Nostalgia Potion might be a dig at aging fandom too, but I could be wrong.) There is a much bigger problem here though and that is that none of this fits into FF lore. Potions in FF have a distinct naming convention, as do NPCs, etc and awkward comedy and overly-obvious signposting does not sit well in my opinion. I found the humour puerile and at odds with FF, and the revised approach to certain aspects of lore sets this book aside from the rest. The initial sections where you visit familiar places do indeed create familiarity (which is welcome) but the overall idiom is not in keeping with FF and is out of context. As for the bum-faced monster, this alone is the single worst moment in any FF ever and also seems to serve no purpose at all other than to add yet another pathetic attempt at humour. I have to acknowledge there are many neat nods to continuity such as meeting a Clawbeast in Trolltooth Pass, finding a demonised King Salamon in Salamonis, the Nicodemus/Lord Azzur cameos, etc, and there is a nice nod to cartographer Steve Luxton, but I have a suspicion these could be Jon Green edits given how oblivious to the whole scene Higson seemed to be at FFF2. On the subject of JG’s “help” it is hard to guess exactly what the extent of this was but the mechanics combat-wise seem very FF (as do all the adjustors/new rules listed in the back for combat with different weapons, which do add some realism to fights) and the name Lady Webspinn in particular has a very Green-ish feel to it as does the description of the bier goggles which is clearly a pair of steampunk goggles, but I’m just conjecturing of course. And, incidentally, is the Fish of a Thousand Voices a reference to the Babelfish in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? If it is, fair enough, it just occurred to me that this was a possible popular culture link worth mentioning. Who wrote/designed what and where inspiration comes from is ultimately near here nor there really, there is a much bigger underlying problem with how this book is written and that is that, stylistically and prosaically, Higson is completely out of his depth with serious fantasy (I’m sure he thinks having Logaan set your pants on fire for lying is hilarious but, in the context of serious fantasy, it is not!) For sure, there are some design elements that work very well in this book and someone (Jon Green or whoever, with more gamebook-writing skill than Higson, did any post-manuscript edits) has done some of the necessary work to make it function but much of the awful Higson pre-teen burp and fart prose remains and overshadows the decent aspects of the content. Also, I cannot resist, as a lifelong Prince fan, from commenting on the paraphrasing of the lyrics to Purple Rain in section 200: doubtless Higson thinks this is hilarious but it is at best cute and at worst desperate, and, again, is jarring random new lore that is at odds with everything else we know about the FF world. On the plus side, it does explain why the dimension portals in Salamonis are purple!

Much of the negative focus on Scholastic’s FF range has been directed at Vlado Krizan’s internal art, but Robert Ball’s new covers also inspired a mixed reaction from fans. The second sextet of Scholastic FFs does not have full page cover art. Instead these books have a cropped image within a circle. The small image of Ulrakaah’s face on the cover of The Gates Of Death is suitably evil-looking and I personally find it effective but, having seen the full-sized version, I would have much preferred the latter image on the cover as it is far more threatening and shows her as the truly awe-inspiring baddie that she is. Instead, Charlie Higson’s name seems to be the star of the cover, rather than the Demon Queen herself. I guess it’s all about marketing the celebrity name rather than the content of the book and there is nothing we can do about this. Whilst on the subject of Scholastic and their handling of the series, as with the earlier books, this book is printed on poor quality paper with the fake smudges and scorch marks that made the first six books look so shoddy.

We must be grateful that, decades down the line, the series is still open to adding new authors to its ranks. In the modern day cult of celebrity, a well-known name is a necessary evil to shift units and Higson does at least have the target audience pedigree. Sadly, as a gamebook writer he appears to have no idea what he is doing and has taken a concept with huge potential and turned it into an only half-decent novel written for a 21st Century pre-teen. There is a wealth of strong material in here (and the optimum path will reveal it to far better effect than bumbling around endlessly trying to navigate the loops and dead ends) but it is muddied and overshadowed by the bad jokes, flippant oh-so-hip writing style and the excessive number of system loops. The end is by far the best part and shows the true potential of the book (although I think you can finish it without any smoke oil if you don’t bother visiting the High Priestess in the Temple, which is a major error, and it assumes you know who Lady Webspinn is whether you have met her or not), assuming, that is, that you can be bothered to endure the looping parts long enough to ever reach it. It does not suffer from the rushed travelogue and no-real-choices-as-such linearity of The Port Of Peril and the plot is far more involving and original than PoP. I found myself getting bored in the Salamonis maze but was glad that I got through it and persevered to the last act. The opening part is nice in its familiarity but it does not really amount to much and just seems to ultimately be a bridge to create some cohesion with PoP. My biggest gripe is Higson’s awful writing (especially his backside fixation) and some of his lore does not mesh with “accepted” FF lore.  I enjoyed The Gates Of Death more than, and it is definitely better than, PoP but its problems generally outweigh its moments of quality. A playthrough of the optimum path (without all the asides and loops) reveals the quality of its central premise and concepts (and also how easy it is to win), but most playthroughs will almost certainly involve getting tangled-up in its irritating webs. If it had been written by a more capable and accomplished gamebook author - and had far more editing afterwards to make it fit better with cannon (the naming conventions of potions in particular) and to remove a few glaring errors - this could have been really good but, as it stands, it’s just okay and I doubt many people will revisit it once they have completed it, especially as you will have even found most of its alternate paths in one endlessly looping and increasingly frustrating night-after-night playthrough. Overall, this was a missed opportunity where your focus is unavoidably drawn from its good points (plot, concept, intrigue, excellent final act) to what Higson really wants you to experience (the resurrection mechanics, his terrible idea of hilarity) and what he unintentionally causes you to experience (his lack of ability at writing a serious gamebook). The good parts are very good, the bad parts (which, due to them heavily outweighing the good, are what you will remember) are terrible.