Friday, 17 January 2014

A War Spanning Light-Years and Many Parallel Space-Time Continua

A few months back, I played Allen Varney's Through Six Dimensions for this blog, and the author himself commented on the post, pointing out that the book had been written to be played multiple times (using the 'more than one way to win' approach, rather than the less fun 'gradually figure out the extremely narrow True Path, and then get lucky enough to survive it' model beloved of certain gamebook authors). In response, I decided to give the book another go once this blog reached the 200th playthrough. Which is now.

So, to recap the premise, in this book I play the Marvel Comics superhero Doctor Strange, who has to try and resolve an inter-dimensional conflict that is starting to spill over into Earth's dimension. Mere minutes after being warned of this by doomed magi from dimensions already devastated by being used as battlefields, I learn that there are already reports of 'monsters' manifesting in New York City, and must do what I can to protect the locals from being caught in the crossfire.

As before, I'll start by heading for the waterfront in the neighbourhood known as 'Hell's Kitchen', where a many-winged aircraft is attacking a saucer-shaped boat. After levitating the spectators away, creating shields to protect the buildings, and creating thick mists to conceal the battle from those who aren't ready to face the reality of multi-dimensional war, I intervene in the fight. The first time I played this book, I got penalised for allowing the disc to get destroyed and its crew killed, so I suppose I should aid it in its attack on the aircraft.

After I decide to do so, the text lets me know that the disc's crew are obviously struggling to defend themselves against the aircraft. That's the sort of detail it would have been useful to have in the previous section, before I had to pick a side. All right, so it could potentially have been inferred from the line about shots 'missing their airborne target', but in context it seems to be saying 'these guys don't care about collateral damage' more than 'they're in trouble and will probably die unless you intervene'. I can imagine some readers getting quite put out if they decided to take action against the combatants who were endangering civilians, and consequently got hit with a Karma penalty for ganging up on the underdog.

Anyway, I down the aircraft without harming its crew, then turn my attention to the disc's crew, who stamp their feet in applause. They're all elderly, and while pleased that the war has got them out of retirement, they want the fighting to end, and regret that it's spilled over to Earth. I send them home, and check that there's nothing more for me to do here.

This leads to a short meeting with Daredevil, and at this point I (the blogger, not the character) owe Mr. Varney an apology. In my previous playthrough of TSD I described this encounter as 'a rather pointless cameo', but since then I've learned that Hell's Kitchen is Daredevil's territory, so it would have been inappropriate for him not to turn up when there was an alien threat in the area. Now that that's been removed, he'll help deal with the aftermath of the fighting, leaving me free to proceed to another of the incursions.

Next I go to Wall Street, which prompts critical reflections on the whole Stock Exchange culture. But the killings that have been made there today are of the literal kind: corpses of the same species that operated the disc I rescued litter the main chamber of the Stock Exchange, and something like a tank is firing on more of their kind, while they ineffectually retaliate with little fireballs. I could just do the same as on my previous go at the book, summoning a mighty wind to send both sides back through the portals that brought them here. But there are three other ways to try and help deal with the tank, and while I'm sure that some of them will be totally useless, it'd be interesting to see if I can get a different positive outcome here, so I'm going to find out what the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak can do.

Pretty much what I guessed last time: the tank is immobilised, but not disarmed. So it fires at me, which comes as more of a surprise than it should, really. I spend a couple of Karma points to improve my chances of dodging the bolt of energy (not enough to make success a foregone conclusion, as an element of risk is no bad thing in a gamebook), and just score high enough. As I levitate out of the way, possibly getting my moustache singed in the process, the beings whom the tank had been attacking open fire again, distracting its occupants. With the tank no longer able to move, I can attempt to turn insubstantial and go into it, so that's what I do. No, my unfamiliarity with Doctor Strange's repertoire of tricks has caused me to misinterpret the text: in fact, I've detached my consciousness from my body and sent that into the tank. Leaving my physical form very vulnerable, but before the tank's pilots can take advantage of that, I use my amulet to transfix them.

Reading their minds, I learn that they are hardened killers, that the current manifestations are just a prelude to the planned full-scale invasion of Earth, and that an elite infantry squad is hunting a spy who found out something important. This squad possesses some form of special protection that would shield them from the sort of magic I'm using to immobilise the tank crew, so I should probably try and avoid direct interaction with the elites.

After rendering the pilots unconscious, I return to my body and approach the other combatants, who are very fearful of me. Unlike the disc crew, these soldiers are in their low teens. On the other hand, they share their elders' determination to fight the enemy, and some of them also have qualms about bringing the fight into neutral dimensions, though they do find that preferable to having further devastation wrought in their home dimension. I also get a little information that would have helped with choosing the right side in Hell's Kitchen, had I not gone there first. I doubt that there's any message intended here, but it is regrettable that the book makes it mildly advantageous to deal with the troubles of the rich and powerful before doing anything to help the more needy.

I send everything that came through a portal back whence it came, fix all the damage caused by the fighting here, and erase investors' memories of the whole incident before turning invisible and leaving. Pity I didn't do such a thorough job of putting things right in the less affluent part of town.

There's still one extra-dimensional incursion needing my attention, so I move on to Farmingdale's Department Store. In my more materialist days I was a regular customer there, but now I've lost interest in the sort of overpriced tat that they sell. Much of which has been smashed or thrown aside by the skinny green men who stalk the aisles. My intuition tells me that they're searching for something, and even if I hadn't played the book before, it would be pretty obvious that this is the elite squad the tank crew were thinking about.

In view of their special protection, I leave them alone and seek their quarry, soon detecting his aura on the second floor. The expenditure of a little Karma helps me to keep him from freaking out when I approach him, and after tending his wounds, I use the amulet to get him to tell me why the other aliens are so determined to find and kill him. He tells me what he learned about the ancient artifact that has enabled Kallesh Ghann, the leader of the enemy forces, to change the balance of power in their ongoing conflict, and the device that neutralises it, which he stole, and has hidden in the store, concealing it so effectively that not even he knows where it is now.

I decide to accompany him back to his home dimension, and he directs me to the marketplace, where the locals huddle around the 'glowspheres' that are the only source of heat and light here since Ghann stole their sun. He then has me take him to the palace of Bel Auric, his leader (and the only person who can make and maintain the glowspheres). The soldier reports in, and before long he's taken away for further medical attention while I get an audience with Bel Auric.

Auric is old and weary, and probably not as glamorous or as impractically dressed as the illustration shows her to be. She explains that she's had little time to do anything but glowsphere creation and upkeep of late, and thinks it unlikely that she'll ever find out what has increased Ghann's power to the extent that he can threaten her realm. The book's internal continuity gets a bit sloppy here: even though the spy told me what Ghann's power source is, I don't pass on this information, but offer to try and find out by using my amulet. Assuming that it's possible to reach this meeting without encountering the spy, it makes sense that the text wouldn't automatically have me passing on information I might not have learned, but it would make even more sense to have an 'If you have learned about Sighald's Battery' check here so that readers who do have that knowledge can act on it.

As I start my search for the source of Ghann's power, his troops commence their assault on Auric's palace. Which is odd, as the only reason the fighting had shifted to other dimensions was because both sides had agreed to stop fighting in their home dimensions. And while I wouldn't put it past Ghann to arbitrarily break that agreement without warning, Auric's reaction to this attack implies that it's an inevitability rather than a betrayal.

Disregarding the nearby conflict, I follow the lines of force being revealed by the amulet, and discover that this is a Schroedinger's Gamebook. The first time I played this book, the Battery enabled Ghann to draw upon the life energy of slaves. This time round, the source of his power is Auric herself. This creates an interesting moral quandary: as long as Auric remains able to protect her subjects, she strengthens their attackers. Her death could well bring about Ghann's defeat - though it would certainly doom her people to death in the cold and the dark.

The text makes out that I'm partly to blame for the invasion because I came here rather than guarding the multi-dimensional path that Ghann's troops used to get here. I'm not accepting that. As I pointed out a couple of paragraphs ago, it was an agreement that kept Ghann from attacking here, not lack of access. Having major plot points vary between different routes through the book is one thing - it's an approach on which I am far from keen, but an accepted gamebook technique all the same. Changing fundamental premises is a different matter. There are ways it could be made to work - presenting it as a twist, a revelation that the Six Sorcerers who contacted me at the start of the adventure were wrong about why the battle had spread to other dimensions, something along those lines - but this is just an inconsistency.

Anyway, back to the plot. I'm not going to take the 'easy' way out. There has to be a better solution than indirect genocide. Besides which, there's no guarantee that killing Auric (and by extension her people) will stop Ghann - the loss of his main power source is sure to inconvenience him, but beyond that, the outcome is uncertain.

My power doesn't give the invaders any aid, so I'm able to at least temporarily repel the hostile troops at the door. Auric appears to be preparing for something needlessly self-sacrificial, and I can't try to talk her out of it because I have to deal with another wave of Ghann's troops. By the time I've set up shields and counterspells to keep the attackers out, Auric has turned the available glowspheres into a pyre with which to immolate herself. I try to intervene, but this just leaves the way open for the next wave of attackers to overwhelm the pair of us.

Well, playing the book again has certainly changed my opinion of it. But not for the better. Between its self-contradictory aspects and its failure to adequately justify Auric's suicide, Through Six Dimensions has dropped from 'not bad' to 'significantly flawed' in my estimation. Oh, well. Maybe my 300th playthrough will be less of a disappointment than this and the hundredth one have been.


  1. It's been most of 30 years since I wrote "Through Six Dimensions," so I can't recall whether I had some rationale for the Bel Auric plot inconsistency you observe. But this one-play-only approach sets you up for that kind of frustration. If I did happen to explain it elsewhere in the book, you'll never see it. Then again, I wrote the whole book in ten days, so it's entirely possible I screwed up. In which case, sorry.

    As for the benefits of saving the rich first --ouch. I not only wrote it in ten days, I wrote it at age 26 or so, when I was still politically inchoate. Wish I'd had you as a first reader then. How old were you in 1986?

    1. It is becoming clear that this blog's approach to playing gamebooks is ill-suited to Through Six Dimensions. Still, with over 300 gamebooks in my collection (and that's not including the ones I recognised as being unsuitable for the blog), there have to be limits to how much coverage I give each title.

      I was 14 for most of 1986, so I was none too politically astute back then either. These days I try to consider the implied messages (deliberate and unintended) of the media I consume because I'm aware that these things have an influence. Not in the simplistic way that's generally suggested by people campaigning against games/films/TV/books/comics/toys/whatever, but they can affect views and attitudes. For instance, 24 didn't make me start torturing people, but it did incline me towards misanthropy, so I quit watching it when I realised the effect it was having. Taking the time to think about what's being said (inadvertently or otherwise) about life, people, ethics and so on in what I'm reading, viewing or playing helps with filtering out the more unhelpful 'messages'. And, I hope, makes me that bit more careful about what I say in my own writing.

  2. SPOILER (I know the blog post already spoils a lot, but I´m going to spoil even more here).

    Given the apparent contradiction in the story, and the lack of an explanation in the text that ties all the knots together, I will give my own interpretation. Sighald´s Battery allowed Kallesh Ghann to muster the energy of many beings at once. This included both his slaves and the sorcerer Bel Auric. What is implied in the text is that at first he used the energy from the slaves in order to gain an upper hand in the interdimensional conflict. He could not, however, achieve domination over the dimension of Landark unless he also gained control over Bel Auric's energy.

    In fact, it is possible for Bel Auric to die in the story and thus manage to momentarily stop Kallesh´s invasion. If this happens, you have the option of fighting Kallesh in his own dimension. This suggests he would retain a considerable amount of power even after Bel Auric's death.