We at Game Rant love that the definition of gaming is constantly evolving. Seeing games expand into strange new places and reinvent other media like film and books is exciting to me. We also was loved those Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books as a kid and still have some today, so when the purely text-based The Hero of Kendrickstone showed up on Steam, we had to give it a try. No graphics? No music or sound? Awesome.
The Hero of Kendrickstone is described as “an epic 240,000-word interactive fantasy novel," and, while it is more than a short story, we hesitate to call it “epic” or a “novel." A single playthrough takes about 2-3 hours, but, of course, one time through the story will only show you a fraction of the parallel content that you didn’t get to experience. This gives the reader a high incentive to play, or rather, read through the storyline multiple times so that they can experience the story as everything from a sword-wielding brute in service of a knight, to a wizard with powerful magicks, or a thief apprentice, to a powerful underworld mobster.
Our first impression of author Paul Wang’s writing was not immediately great. Some of the sentence structure and introduction felt a little forced and heavy-handed. Yet, as each chapter progressed, we found ourself losing all cynicism about the quality of the writing and becoming thoroughly engrossed in the story. This is no work of Tolkien or Hobb, but what Wang lacks in subtlety, he more than makes up for in pure readability and an obvious joy for the fantasy genre which is evident in every scene. Also of note is the presence of strong female characters in empowered roles and the ability to choose a gender identification other than male or female- progressive touches that we appreciated and which kept the story from being too stereotypical.
Beyond transcending some gender stereotypes, there is not much nuance in the characters that surround the hero of the story- they are all about as one-dimensional as it gets- but in a CYOA environment, this actually helps the reader-player better understand situations and make decisions. What the tale ends up feeling like is an interactive walkthrough of a great D&D campaign, and we would wager my last silvers that pen-and-paper RPG’s are a huge inspiration for Wang. Just like a good DM wouldn’t inhibit the fun and playability of a D&D campaign to try and make an obscure point, Wang puts all of his skills into crafting a streamlined and fun fantasy story that flows easily for the reader.
We only have minor gripes about The Hero of Kendrickstone. While we understand that designing the game to be pure text is part of the whole idea, it's hard not to think about how awesome the old CYOA illustrations were, and how a subtle use of graphics could be pretty sweet. It also felt like certain moments in the game/book (such as at the conclusion of a particularly epic victory) could have been enhanced by a rare splash of music or sound. This might be considered a slippery slope for Choice of Games considering their focus, but hey, if it is going to be played on a computer, why not use what is available?
As a last thought, it also would be cool to be able to undo choices and see what happens on parallel choice-lines, just like one could easily do with the old CYOA books by flipping pages. As it stands, the only way to see the outcomes of other choices is to replay the game from the beginning. Of course, undoing choices could lead to people choosing not to play through the story as intended, so we understand why it is not available by default.
So are The Hero of Kendrickstone and other CYOA titles from Choice of Games videogames? Not really. It is essentially an interactive book that happens to have a fairly unhelpful stat screen and a list of achievements you can unlock. But that is nothing against it. Younger generations are not going to rental stores and libraries as they grow up; they are using the internet to find, stream, and download the material they want. To see up and coming authors utilizing e-books and now Steam to produce new work and share their stories with the world is awesome.