Saturday, 19 October 2013

A Localized Trauma in Reality

I would not describe myself as a comics fan. Anyone who could see few hundred comics stacked under my gamebook bookshelves might be sceptical about this, but I mean it. I am something of a fan of several writers whose output includes a lot of comics, so I have a decent collection of comics by those writers, but I own them because of who wrote them rather than the medium in which they were published. I have never bought a comic just because it happened to be a comic, whereas there are gamebooks that I bought just because they were gamebooks.

One consequence of this is that a lot of the big name superheroes are distinctly underrepresented in my comic collection, and while my trivia-retentive memory contains a significant amount of information on some pretty obscure characters, I know little about many more mainstream ones.

There have been a number of gamebooks featuring established superheroes. An online discussion some years back indicated that a couple of them were pretty good, so I made a mental note of the titles, and at some point I came across a copy of one of them somewhere. The book in question is Allen Varney's Through Six Dimensions, featuring Doctor Strange. About whom I know next to nothing. Indeed, but for the fact that he was included in a series that also includes adventures for the likes of Spiderman, Captain America and one of the Fantastic Four, I'd have no idea that he was considered a significant character in superhero circles. Having acquired the book at a time when I was getting a lot of new-to-me gamebooks, I never got around to attempting it, so this will be the first time I give it a go.

The book includes a one-page background to the character: ex-surgeon turned sorcerer, with a Cato-esque (though probably less violent) manservant named Wong, a cloak of levitation and an amulet that probably has some connection with my abilities, though the book doesn't specify what it does. Stats are predetermined, and derived from TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG (though a comparison with the stats for Captain Britain in the MSH RPG ad on the back of Proteus 4 suggest that the system has been modified for the book). One problem I have noted with TSR-related gamebooks is the tendency to put stats on a removable card which can double as a bookmark, and then get separated from the book and lost or thrown out. Not that those aspects are intended (except for the bookmark one), but it seems to have happened a lot. Of the gamebooks I own that came with such a feature, Dimensions is the only one to still have the card - slightly torn and written on in pencil, but present none the less. Most of the stats are fixed, but there are two variable ones: Health (which is self-explanatory) and Karma (which can be used to improve my odds when making a roll, or converted into Health).

That's enough waffle. Time to get started on the adventure. I'm in my study, and only when Wong brings in my breakfast do I realise that I've been up all night. Once I've eaten, Wong is temporarily possessed by beings from another dimension, who have a warning for me. The warring inhabitants of a further two dimensions have come to an agreement that they won't fight in each other's home territories any more, so the conflict has been spilling over into - and devastating - neighbouring dimensions. It should come as no great surprise that Earth's dimension is about to become another front in the battle.

The entities leave Wong, who heads off to do the dishes, and returns shortly afterwards with the radio, which is broadcasting a news bulletin on the monsters that have started appearing in New York - the first incursion of the extra-dimensional hostiles into our reality. The manifestations are based in three locations, so I must choose where to go first: the Stock Exchange, a fancy-sounding Department Store, or the 'Hell's Kitchen' region of the waterfront. The latter sounds like the sort of place where the poor and desperate live, so I choose that - the residents of such areas have a hard enough life as it is.

I arrive to find a disc-shaped boat crewed by stick figures, shooting blue lightning at an aerodynamically impossible aircraft, which retaliates in kind. After levitating the human spectators out of harm's way, I create shields to protect the buildings. Taking sides in the fight looks like a bad idea, and trying to fight them both could be beyond my capabilities, so for now I'll focus on damage limitation. Eventually the aircraft wrecks the boat, and I get penalised for allowing some of the combatants to come to harm. An attempt at rescuing the survivors comes to nothing because they dissolve in the water. I knew the Hudson was polluted, but... For at least trying, I get no further deduction of Karma, but the section that tells me this leads to the same one that just ignoring the doomed sailors would have, so there's a little ethical inconsistency here.

A quick check to make sure there's nothing else to be done here leads to a rather pointless cameo appearance by Daredevil, after which I must choose another emergency to which to respond. The legalised villains of the Stock Exchange can wait for a bit longer while I resolve the crisis at the Department Store. It is, as I'd surmised, a shop for wealthy people, but today the display cases of jewellery have been vandalised, the bottles of perfume smashed and the designer clothes strewn across the floor. Slender, green-skinned humanoids in red clothes prowl around the aisles - I'd better deal with this lot before the Fashion Police intervene and need rescuing.

The aliens appear to be searching for something. I decide to look around: if I can find whatever they're after, I can decide whether I should be protecting it from them or giving it to them so they'll go away. On the second floor I find a similar, but pale-skinned, being hiding behind a cash register. A friendly approach may give me some insight into what's afoot. I manage to convince him that I'm not an enemy, and discover that he's opposing Kallesh Ghann, the tyrant whose recent increase in power is to blame for much of the current trouble. He has important information for his people's leader, Bel Auric, and thinks that if he doesn't deliver it, that could cost them the war. That knowledge might aid me in protecting this dimension, so I risk questioning him further rather than just sending him on his way.

It turns out that Ghann's more powerful on account of having acquired an artifact known as Sighald's Battery. The soldier stole a device that could neutralise the Battery, which is now hidden somewhere in the shop - the device he used to conceal it means that even he doesn't know where it is, so he can't be forced to reveal its whereabouts. I send him to deliver his message, while I try to find the neutralising device before the searchers can get hold of it.

A manager in an ill-fitting toupee starts pestering me for an explanation of what's happening to the store. His attitude implies that talking to him would be a waste of time, so I focus on the search. No joy, and the other aliens seem to have gone as well. I suppose I'd better head over to Wall Street, then.

Alien tanks and infantrymen are doing battle within the Stock Exchange. The insignia on the infantry's uniforms doesn't match that of the searchers in the shop, so it's probable that they're Auric's troops. Anything I can do to delay Ghann's victory will give me more time to take away the advantage the Battery gives him, besides which, the infantry appear unable to damage the tanks, so I think it might be worth helping out against the tanks.

I get a choice of spells to use. Owing to my lack of familiarity with Doctor Strange, I only know as much about each spell as its name tells me. The infantry's fireballs aren't harming the tanks, so Flames of the Faltine probably won't do any good. Bolts of Bedevilment may be equally ineffective. Crimson Bands of Cytorrak may immobilise the tanks, but I can't see how they'd prevent the tanks from firing. As I can sense the portals through which the combatants came here, I'm going to try Winds of Watoomb, and hope to blow the tanks back whence they came (in a non-explosive manner). It works. In fact, it sends both sides back to their respective homes. I repair the damage done by the fighting, because the public must be protected from knowledge of extra-dimensional phenomena, and a lack of debris and destruction will make it easier for the Men in Black (or Marvelverse equivalent) to explain away what happened here as a hallucination brought on by too much insider trading, or something.

From questions asked in the book, I know it to be possible to revisit locations I've already sorted out. I don't yet know whether or not it's worthwhile, but I'm prepared to face the consequences if it means another shot at finding what was hidden in the store. The place is still in a mess (so how come that didn't merit a cover-up?), and the neutraliser is still too well-hidden, or has already been found by Ghann's troops, or got swept up and thrown out in the early stages of the clean-up that's in progress. So that was a waste of time.

Unless I want to revisit Hell's Kitchen or the Stock Exchange, it's time to visit the home dimension of one or other of the sides in this fight. I'll try Auric's realm first, as I might be able to get advice, items or support to help me in the inevitable confrontation with Ghann. It's dark there, since Ghann stole their sun some time ago. Heading for one of the regions that still support life, I arrive at a market. The supervisor recognises that I'm not local, accuses me of being a spy, and threatens to call the authorities. It soon becomes apparent that he's hoping for a bribe, and an attempt at mesmerizing him into forgetting that he saw me just attracts more unwelcome attention, so I have to absent myself in a hurry.

Next I head to an odd igloo-like structure, which turns out to be an abandoned gladiatorial arena. The section describing it also reminds me which dimension I'm in and rehashes background information I've already been told. Much the same happens at the third and final noteworthy location there, which is a frozen waterfront. I think these places are supposed to have some correspondence with the incursion sites on Earth - waterfront and waterfront, Department Store and marketplace... it seems to me that an American football stadium would be a better match for the arena than the Stock Exchange, but there could be a political comment in there.

Voices and laughter drift across from what appears to be a bar, so I pop in there. Before going in I disguise myself as a local, but I still don't manage to stay out of trouble: a drunkard seeks my opinion on an unspecified issue, and takes offence at my response. I sorcerously pacify him, but another patron notices, and twigs that I'm a wizard. He doesn't raise the alarm, though: just tries to sell me a huggy-monkey that could be my familiar. Lacking local currency, I can't do that, but the monkey might come in handy, so I'll see if there's any legitimate way of rising some funds here. It proves surprisingly easy - I make a bet that I can do a double backflip onto the bar, and plenty of sailors take me up on the bet. Enough that even after I've paid for a round for everyone to defuse the hostile atmosphere following my success, I still have more than enough money for the monkey. No idea whether or not it'll do me any good, but it could be a game-changer.

Chat with the bartender provides me with no useful information, and as I'm not allowed to return to the marketplace (would the disguise not prevent me from being recognised as the 'spy' who caused the ruckus earlier?), I have no choice but to leave the dimension. Passing through the remains of the home dimension of the beings who contacted me at the start of the adventure, I spot predators that resemble sharks with legs, and hurriedly conceal myself. They appear to have dined well recently, though one of them is bleeding and limping. I risk taking a closer look, and see signs that a firearm inflicted the wound. Curious, I decide to see where the creatures are going.

Eventually they lead me to a box canyon, where I find the aftermath of a battle between some of Ghann's soldiers and a group of the legged sharks. One of the soldiers fled, wounded, so I try to track him down. He's in a cave, and one of the predators has just found him, but I drive it off and splint his broken leg. He reveals that his patrol was commanded by Ghann's son, who did not survive the attack. Sensing that he's not being entirely truthful, I use my amulet to compel him to tell the truth, and it transpires that he is Ghann's son, Sixtus.

I transport Sixtus and myself to his home dimension (passing through another devastated one along the way), and he directs me to his father's palace, where I meet Ghann. He's surrounded by a green aura, and the sound of screams sounds faintly in the air around him. He reluctantly admits that by restoring his son to him, I've put him in my debt, so he won't kill me, which he would be able to do thanks to the Battery. At this point I recall that the Battery is said to drain beings' life energy in order to empower its user, and conclude that the screaming is a byproduct of its use.

To discharge the debt, Ghann offers to grant me one favour, provided it's not too excessive. There's no chance of his calling off the war, and even if I can get him to leave the Earth alone, that's just shunting the problem off to other dimensions. Would he be fool enough to realise that releasing his slaves is liable to mean losing a lot of his power supply? It's worth a shot.

No, that doesn't work. He moves to attack me. But at least I've dodged the Karma penalty that would have come from directly attacking him. An item-check follows, and the only thing on the list that I have is the huggy-monkey. Does it do anything in this situation? Not unless you count 'being blown into tiny chunks' as doing something.

We fight, and my expertise compensates for the power disparity. A feint enables me to identify a silver band on his arm as his connection with the battery, and eventually I get an opening to rip it away from him. However, this does give him an opportunity to grab me by the throat and start throttling me, so I spend half my remaining Karma to improve my odds of breaking free. As it turns out, I rolled well enough that the expenditure wasn't necessary, but better to have spent the points and not needed them than vice versa. Not only do I break free, I somehow render him unconscious, at which point the guards who have been spectating decide that they want to change sides.

And that's the end of the adventure. Well, an end. Ghann is banished to the gaps between the dimensions, I put an end to the war, claim the Battery in order to destroy it, and once I've ascertained that Sixtus isn't anywhere near as bad as his father, put him in charge. But I get the impression that there are other ways of winning, that don't involve Sixtus. It might be worth having another go at the book at some time to find out.

Based on that one go at the book, I have no strong feelings about it. Not bad, but nothing special. Still, the possibility of there being multiple viable paths through it means that I might not yet be in a position to properly appreciate it - before now I've played a few gamebooks with hidden depths that can only be uncovered by playing more than once and following different routes, and it's just possible that this is another one. Or maybe I just have different tastes from the gamebook fan whose enthusiastic observations on Dimensions convinced me to give it a try. Still, even if the book isn't any better than my first impression suggests, it's still nowhere near the worst gamebook I've read. Not even the worst I've played this month.

Another try at it might also explain the title, now I come to think about it. My home dimension, the two warring dimensions, and the two ruined ones make five, so what's the sixth one?

Not, I suspect, the reader's own.


  1. Wow, I never expected that Marvel Super Heroes gamebook I wrote in 9.5 days in 1987 would still garner attention decades later. Immortality at last.

    Do you really only play through each book once? I wrote mine (both the Doctor Strange book and three others) on the assumption the reader would play through multiple times. Thus the reference in the title to six dimensions -- you aren't likely to visit them all in one play-through. (Spoiler: The sixth dimension is time. Doctor Strange makes a jaunt back to the Big Bang.)

    Sorry the book didn't make more of an impression, but really, it's not unfair to ask for multiple play-throughs, right?

    1. Do you really only play through each book once?
      For this blog, only once per post. If I don't win, or if there are valid reasons for playing again, I'm likely to have another go at some point, but with so many gamebooks in my collection, it could be a while until I get round to a replay.

      Sorry the book didn't make more of an impression, but really, it's not unfair to ask for multiple play-throughs, right?
      With some gamebooks, there's such a narrow 'correct' path that once you've played and won, there's no real point in playing again. Others have enough viable paths through them that multiple attempts are worth it. And some can't be properly appreciated until they've been played several times. Evidently yours fits into one of the two latter categories, so I'll give it a boost up the replay list. In fact, as I have my 200th playthrough coming up in a few weeks, I'll reserve that slot for a second attempt at Through Six Dimensions.

      As regards the book's not having made much of an impression on me, that may well be in part because of my lack of familiarity with the character of Doctor Strange - and, indeed, great swathes of the Marvelverse. At some point within the past fortnight I discovered for the first time that Hell's Kitchen is apparently Daredevil's turf, so I now see that there was a reason for his cameo in the book. Doubtless there are other details that I'd have appreciated more if I knew the setting and characters better.

      As you're not a regular follower of this blog, you'd have no way of realising that your book actually got a pretty positive response. I mean, I endeavour to keep an open mind, and to give credit where it's due, but the sad fact is that a gamebook can outrank a depressingly large number of the others I've played just by not being borderline unplayable or making me want to hurl it from me in disgust.

      Thanks for commenting. It's helpful to know that the book was designed with replayability in mind.

  2. The sixth dimension takes some work to find, but it is definitely there.