Who REALLY Killed Adventure Games?

Line up the suspects:

An Experience:

Adventure games were quite popular at the beginning of the video gaming revolution and the reason to me is clear: Adventure games offered a kind of gaming experience other genres couldn’t come near: the Experience of Exploration. Graphical Adventure games let you walk, run, and fly through strange and big worlds in a way no other genre could. I define the “Experience of Exploration” as the feeling one gets when they feel they can “get lost” in a world. Great books and movies do something similar, but video games offer a level of interaction that make this experience all the more rewarding.

Other genres of games couldn’t replicate anything like this experience. You had Mario-style platformers, but they focused more on arcade-style mechanics than the experience of exploring a new world. Metroid was about exploration, but it was a fairly lonely experience, and the landscapes, while cool, were rarely anything more than platforming or fighting backdrops. Fun, for sure! But the exploration aspect was not quite what the Adventure game genre could offer. Final Fantasy and other RPG’s did a better job at achieving the experience, but interactivity with the world was far more limited and stats grinding the and focus on random combat did hinder the experience for many people.

Adventure games were the only place to go to get that Experience of Exploration, at your own pace, on your own terms (or the best a type-parser or mouse could get you). But something changed, and it’s still changing. And I think it’s the real assassin of the Adventure game genre.

The Real Killer – Hardware:

As the years went by, games were getting bigger, better, and more advanced. Adventure games did evolve with the hardware, but their main gimmick, the thing that kept most people coming, was that Experience of Exploration. And while Adventure games could get bigger, better, and more advanced just like everything else – their gameplay loop never fundamentally changed. Nor could it change without becoming something fundamentally different.

“So what?” You might say. Adventure games were getting “better” with the upgrades of hardware. They could have better music, bigger worlds, more detailed backgrounds and sprites. “How’s that a bad thing for Adventure games?”

The problem wasn’t that Adventure games were getting “better,” it’s that the other genres were getting better at the same time, and the hardware upgrades allowed them to also start planting their flags in Adventure games’ sacred spot – the Experience of Exploration.

While it is true that platformers didn’t mechanically change that much (bigger jumps, longer jumps, 3D jumps! etc.) the change in hardware allowed them to expand into territory that once only Adventure games roamed – the Experience of Exploration. A platformer like Mario 64 could now be both a joy to explore while also having a gameplay loop that was more “fun” than your typical Adventure game. An Action/Adventure games like Zelda: the Ocarina of Time now offered a great world to explore and interact with, but also featured, again, mechanics that are typically more “fun” than standard Adventure game inventory puzzles. Horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill also boasted creepily fun adventuring through zombie/demon infested locales with a added benefit of “fun” combat/resource management.

As Al Lowe said in his article on the death of Adventure games:

“To a certain extent, adventure games’ key elements have been absorbed by the other game genres. Action games, shooters, and RPG’s have all adopted many of the characteristics of adventures.”

And all of this happened at the beginning of the 3D consoles’ history. The Playstation debuted in the United States in 1995. Three years later Adventure game Grim Fandango could win Gamespot’s “Game of the Year” and have universal critical acclaim, but still underperform financially. Now that 3D consoles are into their 5th generation, the opportunity to make non-Adventure games that capitalize on the Experience of Exploration has only widened.

Adventure Games in the Modern World:

Where does that leave Adventure games? They used to have the market cornered on a really lucrative experience – that of really getting lost in a world. While Adventure games haven’t been evicted from this design space, they now share it with any genre that wants it, thanks to the greater flexibility hardware progress has made possible.

Adventure game fans are a comparatively tiny, niche community now. Passionate for sure, but the heyday of Adventure Games as a truly mainstream contender is gone, and I think it’s because what it did best was an artifact of hardware limitations. Now almost any genre of game can offer the Experience of Exploration AND a gameplay loop that appeals more broadly to the general population.

Note: I’m not saying that the gameplay loop of Adventure games is “bad” or “not fun,” only that its appeal is more limited in the general population. Many people love the Adventure game gameplay loop!

Is there anything left that makes Adventure games unique? Yes!

  • a “go-at-your-own pace” gameplay speed (usually). Most adventure games let you explore and interact with things without pressuring you to get things done before you are good and ready. There are usually little to no arcade-style dexterity challenges. Some people enjoy that leisure.
  • Inventory and environmental puzzle-solving. This is the main gameplay loop for almost all adventure games. In my experience, these types of puzzles are what separate the proverbial sheep from the goats (the people who like Adventure games and those who do not.)
  • Narrative storytelling as a focus. This is one feather Adventure games still have in their hat that many other genres don’t. Open world games tend to be more about creating your own stories within a wider narrative, and platformers like Mario still don’t need deep storytelling. Even the Zelda games with all their deep lore spanning 35 years of games, still don’t make narrative story-telling front and center (except perhaps Skyward Sword). Adventure games still live and thrive on their storytelling.

Adventure Games – Dead or Alive?

Some people would say that Adventure games are indeed alive and well. I think those people are correct! I chalk that mainly up to the internet’s ability to connect people to their tribes. Adventure game enthusiasts are all around us on the internet and they are an amazingly positive community. But it’s a small community, and Adventure games don’t in my opinion (as a stupid blowhard on the internet) have much power to regain their status as big sellers in the videogames market.

Did you guess “hardware” was my killer at the outset (or did you think I was blaming Grim Fandango because of the picture)? Am I wrong? Tell me what you think!

Sierra Deaths were Great (and How to Make Them Greater)

It’s a bold statement given the great frustration that dying can cause in the old Sierra games, but let me lay out why they were great and how to make them even better.

The Good:

My thesis on Adventure Games is that the Experience of Exploration is the highest goal the developer should aim for instilling in the player. A large part of that is an interesting world, but not just interesting – Interactive. If something “sticks out” in the art, the player better be able to interact with it, and hopefully in clever and interesting ways.

What’s that got to do with dying?

Deaths add interactivity, even if “negative.” If the world is too static, it’s boring. If there’s a man-eating plant, it’d be a shame if it didn’t eat you when you get too close. Even though a hazard like this isn’t “positive” in the sense that it helps you progress, it adds another element of immersion, and one that adds a little apprehension and tension.

Bonus points awarded if you can use a death-hazard for positive uses too. Space Quest 3 does just this with these little alien pods that suck you up and eat you if you wander to close. But, if you’re clever, you can lure your enemy into the same trap, adding even another layer to the interactivity resulting in the elusive feeling you’re looking to instill in the player: delight. That feeling when your Experience of Exploration meets with your cleverness.

Hints: Death sequences also yield a great opportunity to distribute a hint. If a death is the result of some “less-than-perfect” line of play from the player, it could mean that the player could use a bit of assistance. Hence the death text is often humorous (to soothe the player’s negative feelings toward dying) and insightful. Sometimes the hint is veiled and sometimes it is more direct, depending on the situation.

Speaking of bad feelings.

The Bad side of Sierra Deaths

Loss of Progress – This is usually the worst part of dying in Sierra games and has led to the mantra, “save early, save often,” which seems a bit of cop-out on the side of the designers. The ability to save anytime is really a fantastic feature that I’ve always enjoyed, but it puts a lot of responsibility on the player, and when many players were young when they played these games, the idea of saving the game each room wasn’t second nature. I wonder how many people quit these games after losing progress…

The Fix: For Betrayed Alliance 2 I’ve implemented a simple solution to this problem. Each screen autosaves the game. If you die and haven’t saved lately, you can just start the room over fresh all while allowing the player to make use of the “save anytime” feature.

Unfair or unforeseeable Death: Frustration can also come from lazy or incompetent (or just plain sadistic) design. King’s Quest 4 had a dark cave. No problem! You have a torch – but the problem is the torch doesn’t illuminate much, least of all a surprise chasm that claims your life through no fault of your own. Deaths of this nature must be avoided if you wish to keep the trust of your player.

The Fix: Be careful how you design deaths – make them fair and avoidable.

Random Chance of Death: Unlike real life, death should be predictable, not based on random number generators. Walking in front of a knife being thrown in Quest for Glory 1? That death’s on me! Running into a randomly generated shark in the water in King’s Quest 4, that’s just frustrating.

The Fix: Avoid randomness is death events. If randomness is necessary, make sure the player has some way to manipulate the variables. Perhaps King’s Quest 4 could’ve featured an item that warded off sharks?

It Just Feels Bad to Die: Dying sucks not only because you may have lost progress, but because it means you failed. Where’s the fun in that? This feeling is often subverted with a fun animation, funny dialog, and hopefully a well-placed hint for the player to understand where the mistake came into play. All of these things were present in the classic Sierra games, but a friend of mine developed an idea which I think transforms death’s “feeling bad” experience to something positive.

The Fix: His idea was to tally the amount of deaths and their unique causes in a list.

WHAT!? A list of failures for the player to be disappointed by? That’s your fix?

Yes! But what it really does is turn deaths into a collectible! If you tell the player how many unique deaths there are, don’t you think they’ll shoot to find them all? I’m even thinking of adding some “hidden” deaths for the more intrepid players!

Conclusion

Dying is mechanic that early Sierra games were known for. Some franchises used them with greater success than others. The designer’s goal is to maximize the feeling of playing in a living (albeit dangerous) world, while at the same time minimizing the frustration that can come from the mechanic. If the dangers can be used for immersion and creative puzzle-solving, that’s even better.

Sierra’s death design could have benefitted from a “nicer” approach to game-saving. An non-intrusive autosave is my solution. I’m also eager to see if the “death as collectible” idea is as popular with others as it is with me.

Let me know.

Betrayed Alliance 2021 Devlog – January

I know what you’re thinking: How’s the 2022 date holding up for this game’s completion?

My internal answer: Dude! Is January in 2021! How’m I supposed to know?

My public answer: Things are going great! We’re right on schedule! And thank you for asking by the way 🙂

Last update was 3 months ago when the project turned 1 years old, and the word “project” is still far more applicable than “game.” That being said, I am happy with how things are moving. I know the way I’m going about the game is a bit unorthodox in that I’m spending a lot of the time on the artwork and animations now, instead of rigging up the game with simple graphics and getting the puzzle structure set up.

Speaking of Puzzles, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on the subject. Maybe I’m the odd man out when it comes to adventure game puzzles, but I find that they oftentimes get me feeling frustrated and disenchanted with the game. It seems that I prefer the exploration and running into quirky creatures and characters more than solving puzzles.

I have to imagine these musings are shaping my conception of Betrayed Alliance 2. I’m not saying I’m axing puzzles or anything of the sort, but I think that’s maybe why I’m spending most of my work-time on the artwork side of things – I’m currently more enamored with the idea of creating these places to explore.

Ok. So what’s been accomplished these last few months?

  • 10 more backgrounds finished – bringing the in-game total to 45, which is approaching Betrayed Alliance Book 1’s total of 56. I’m imagining I’ll have somewhere around 80 or so this time around, making a bigger and more beautiful game.
  • All the major character Sprites have been completed (although due to a data corruption, I did lose 1 character that I will have to re-animate)
  • I’ve rigged up a couple of rooms with some light “puzzle” elements. Since the forest is going to be so big (and there’s no fast travel map this time around), I’m coming up with some ways the player can use to connect areas for easier traversal.
  • I’ve put together a feature that will count the various deaths of the player, which will make “death scenes” akin to a collectible – Hopefully that will soften the blow of dying!
  • Speaking of dying, I’m happy to say BA:2 will have an autosave feature which will save the game each screen (using only one save slot) to negate one of the bigger headaches of some Sierra experiences.

I think that’s about it.

January is great because it’s always a new beginning. Some people wonder how I can stay motivated for over a year on the same project. Part of the secret is probably some mental tweak I have that makes me obsess over things. The other is that I don’t set goals (and when I do, they usually fail), but rather I set in place systems. Here is my January systems chart, which will probably also be good all the way into March.

  • Monday – Write/Design BA2 STORY
  • Tuesday – Write/Design BA2 PUZZLES
  • Wednesday – Work on Artwork for BA2 – BACKGROUNDS
  • Thursday – Work on Artwork for BA2 – ANIMATIONS
  • Friday – Draw artwork (Physical)
  • Saturday – Work on YT/Website
  • Sunday – Rest

Each day I look at the systems list and I do some work on that particular aspect of the game. Whether it’s 10 minutes or 2 hours, whether I want to or not, I do something, and do that for long enough and things get done! I’m waiting for the day when the project “feels” more like a “game” than a project.

Betrayed Alliance – Year One Devlog

Short update – Artwork is getting done faster than in the past and of better quality than Book 1.

This year’s accomplishments:

  • Screens of art that are “basically done” are at about 35
  • Major Plot points are in place, but not the details
  • Betrayed Alliance Book 1 – patched and polished

Longer update, well here we go:

Sept 3 2019 I publicly announced continued work on Betrayed Alliance. I don’t anticipate it will take as much time as book 1 to complete. I announced Book 1 way back on April 7 2007 and it was released Dec 24, 2013…a six-and-a-half-year development! Of course, that wasn’t consistent, intentional work. Months and sometimes years went by with no work to show for the time – work was very intermittent. It was when my first son was born, I got the sense that free time was something I would be kissing goodbye, so I wanted to finish what I started. I looked at the project and determined that it was near 1/3 complete, so I set out a 6-month timetable and set to work. And I got it done, albeit a bit buggy! With that I washed my hands of the project with no intention to come back.

I have to say Betrayed Alliance Book 2 (the next 1/3 of the game) is developing in a steadier and more fluid way than Book 1. Part of it is probably maturity and a more developed idea of what I’m doing. When I first started on Book 1, it was very loose. The story-line wasn’t deeply thought through. Stolen princess. Knight to the rescue was all the story I needed.

Betrayed Alliance Book 1 had about 56 backgrounds, in 6 years. Book 2 already has about 35, so the workflow is going better.

mirror falls art comp

So what was the catalyst that made me restart? There were a couple of highly motivating factors. First, every so often I would get some feedback from people playing Book 1 and that would light a fire under me to finish the story. Second, I saw another SCI-like game gaining some attention and it looked gorgeous! I mean, I thought my artwork was pretty good, but this game just rocketed past in terms of quality. I’m talking about the Crimson Diamond by Julia Minamata. It looked like there was a lot of energy and excitement about an SCI game, and that made me think that people may actually want more of this kind of game (as long as the quality is there). By the way, you should check out her free demo on Steam:

There’s nothing to motivate like a little inspiration (and a dash of envy!), so I’ve redoubled my efforts to make my artwork better, and I think it’s paying off. The time I spend drawing the rooms is definitely more than I used to, but I think it shows quite a bit. That being said, Julia’s Crimson Diamond is still in a class of its own in my opinion.

But I think it was both of those factors that made me want to get back to work: feedback from Book 1 and inspiration from Julia.

So, I’d like book 2 to be complete by 2022, and I think with the production schedule I’m keeping that it is possible, even if a bit ambitious. As a solo-dev, there’s a lot of different work to do, and I’m planning on making some big changes, which will require me to learn new ways of doing things that would’ve been simple and easy in the past, but the trade-off will be important.

Mud Slide to Flower

In addition to production, this past year I’ve been trying to get “out there” a bit more on social media. What’s the point of making a game if no one knows you’ve made it? Some of it was easy because I already followed a lot of the people in the adventure gaming world, but despite my general dislike of social media, I’ve endeavored to expand my social media footprint. And it’s been really great, to be honest! I’ve started following people and watching their streams, and I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it. And that’s really great, because I found it to be more about making friends and having fun than what I was dreading it might become, marketing – which I just am not fond of. I was also worried that spending time on Twitter would slow down my productivity as well, but I think it actually increased it because it’s fun to share artwork or animations and get feedback, which just makes me want to get more done.

An aspect of this has also been Youtube. I endeavored to put out at least one video a week as well. Part of this was me wanting to record my own game for play-testing purposes, which actually worked really well for me (although I’m sure it’s not that great a watch for others), and the other part was that I wanted to play through the other fan games that had never gotten any exposure and probably nobody knew even existed. There really weren’t that many however, and many of them aren’t even full games, but I wanted to play through these games as well as the classics to get some inspiration for what I was working on as well. The problem now is that I’ve played the small library of fan-made SCI games, and my YouTube consistency has begun to wane.

Untitled

The last big effort that I accomplished in this last year was updating and polishing Book 1. If I was going to make Book 2, people were naturally going to want to play Book 1 first, and I knew that the experience needed to be the best possible. So I did my best to fix all the bugs I could find, and polish the game and user experience. I ended up with a 10-page document of fixes/additions. Here’s a truncated list:

  • I drew a new Title Screen (Thank God!)
  • I added a difficulty setting
  • Updated the Menubar to show more info
  • Drew new animations for death scenes and death icons
  • Fixed a couple insidious save bugs
  • Added addition side-character for more backstory
  • Added more dialog possibilities / hints
  • Added a couple sidequests
  • Added a few artwork touch-ups
  • A way to cheat at Sailboat Extreme (a highly requested feature!)
  • Many bugs squashed and misspelling quashed

So that’s about it! It’s been a year full of work and lots of motivation. There was a month or so when the state of the world (pandemic) challenged my efforts (“why are you working on something like this at all? What does it matter?”) But I got over that with the mindset that quitting wouldn’t suddenly bring any additional meaning to my work, and would probably end up in personal dissatisfaction. I know motivation for projects wax and wane, but I’ve learned the systems necessary to keep at it. Sometimes motivation is earned by hard work, not by happenstance.

statue

Story in Games – The Witness [The Blank Slate Character]

blank slate

Video Games are unique…in a bad way!

Blank Slate Characters
Video games are the only storytelling art form that consistently makes use of the “blank slate” character. they rarely speak or show any personal character motivation or emotion. In theory the player is supposed to superimpose himself onto the character to increase the immersion. From a storytelling perspective, I think this is incredibly wrongheaded.

Chrono Cross, for example, while being a great game, spent a huge amount of time making each of its 40 or so minor characters have distinctive speech patterns, but gives us a main character who doesn’t have any lines at all. Leaving the main character in this state does nothing to enhance the game’s story or emotional impact. It fact, it’s the game’s weakest point.

The Witness’s Blank Slate Character
The main (and really only) character in The Witness is a blank slate character, but it may be the one game where actually enhances the story. It’s an unconventional point of view, but The Witness is an unconventional game and its storytelling is likewise.

So why does the blank slate work for The Witness:

  • You start the game in a state of absolute ignorance. There is no opening cut-scene that explains the world/struggle/war. You are dropped into a dark tunnel with no explanation and you must piece together what’s going on from there. The character’s blank slate mirrors this experience.
  • The game’s story isn’t about the game world. The “story” in The Witness is literally about your experience, not the characters!
  • There is no character motivation in the game, only your own desire to solve more puzzles and explore more areas.

So what’s it all about then, this game? It’s about life. It’s about how you see the world. It’s about patterns.

There are scattered around audio logs to listen to. But they don’t really fill you in on what’s going on, although in a very expanded sense they tell you everything.

I won’t go into any more detail because this is not a game to have spoiled in any way. It is a game only to be experienced, and truly witnessed from a purposefully blank slate.

Graphic Novel Reivew – Brody’s Ghost

Brody's Ghost Collected EditionBrody’s Ghost Collected Edition by Mark Crilley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought Brody’s Ghost after finding out about it on Mark Crilley’s youTube channel.

Mark Crilley’s youTube channel has literally hundreds of videos helping people increase their art knowledge and skills. I bought Brody’s Ghost to get a better idea of how to layout a graphic novel. But I wouldn’t have done that if the story didn’t seem interesting.

In fact the story was extremely well told. I finished the collected edition in under 24 hours. It had fun, sometimes funny, thoughtful characters that I really enjoyed reading about. I found myself wanting to read on even when I had more pressing things to be focused on – the sign of a good story.

The storytelling in terms of scene structure and overall story arc was also fairly great. The art style really lent itself to a fast-paced story.

I only had two small issues:
1. Brody’s character arc wasn’t super strong and

[Spoiler]
2. Talia’s power to possess Brody to get him out of 2 really bad situations was introduced very late in the story and because it wasn’t referenced or foreshadowed earlier made it feel extremely “convenient.” To be fair, how it “worked” in the climax was a great idea though. I just wished it had been foreshadowed or mentioned earlier in the story so it didn’t come out of nowhere and give off that “how convenient” feeling.
[/Spoiler]

Final thoughts: Highly recommended. Very interesting story and well told. Building tension was good and it led to a super exciting climax that I had to try hard to restrain myself from turning the pages too fast so that I could appreciate the artwork better.

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Kubo and the Two Strings – Movie Review

Unique. Gorgeous. Ambitious. Flawed.
Kubo and the Moon
I don’t see movies in the theatre often. My life is exceptionally busy. But Kubo was one of the handful of movies that I made it a point to get out and see (and support). Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes was quite high and I’d heard a lot of good about the film, so I was super stoked to see it.

Given the hype did I leave the theatre with as much enthusiasm? Yes…and No…but mainly Yes.

coraline-mainparanorman

Full disclose. I loved Coraline and liked Paranorman, two films from the same studio (Laika). They made Boxtrolls as well, but I was never interested in that one. I had high hopes for Kubo. It’s probably too early to rate them, but I think I’d rate Coraline over Kubo…with Paranorman coming in 3rd and Boxtrolls not in the running because I haven’t seen it.

Kubo and Moon King

What worked:

  1. There is much in Kubo to love. In a year of sequels, prequels, reboots, and superhero movies, I just love it when something comes out that is completely off track. Kubo has a creative story that takes its cues not from what is current, but from what is eternal.
  2. It’s themes are deep. When characters in a “kids movie” ask each other their views about what happens to a person when they die, we’ve reached the level of storytelling where the writers treat their audience with respect. I love it.
    Kubo and fam
  3. Character development was superb, with one small falter. From the get-go you are on Kubo’s side and really empathize with him. The connection was easy to feel.
  4. The world they created was immersive and a blast to be in.
  5. The technical artistry in this movie is staggering. The movie is so gorgeous. It was amazing to see in the end credits the work they had done on one of the creatures in the movie. Very cool inclusion at the end that is a nice sneak peak into how it was made.
  6. The comedy relief was executed very well and actually reminded me of how well humor had been pulled off in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It wasn’t just there to be there, it was casual, funny, and peppered in just when the story needed it.

So, I’ve been praising the movie a lot. So what is the flaw?

The villains and the theme.

Kubo aunt

The antagonist’s motivation is not well communicated and when he shows up for the final battle, he wasn’t interesting and I couldn’t connect with him at all.

I think that damaged the theme as well. In the final confrontation Kubo basically screams the moral of the story at him, but it didn’t resonate. The drama up to that point felt so real and earned, but when it came to a head with the antagonist, it didn’t connect.

My final thoughts are that I love this movie, but wish it didn’t hiccup in the end. The first two acts of the story were so great and immersive. I loved the characters and themes building, but like Kubo himself failing to give a great ending, the story seemed to rush its final battle in a fairly generic way.

One last thought about the ending – when it reveals how the story was named…perfection!

If you’re interested, check out the trailer:

Free Book Review – Abducted: Escape from Kraile

Abducted - Escape From Kraile (Abducted Series #1)Abducted – Escape From Kraile by J.R. Cleveland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

J. R. Cleveland’s Abducted Series features a teenage boy (Luke) taken on an adventure spanning the unknown alien infested galaxy. I immediately downloaded this free book when I read the first line of the product description about Luke discovering aliens trying to milk a cow in his barn. I knew I would be in for a quirky, fun and funny adventure. Did it deliver?

What I liked about the book:
1. The world-building was excellent. I loved the way the aliens talked as well as the gestures used to give the story an alien quality. The locations were also varied and interesting.
2. I liked that the Luke was in almost constant danger. It helped the plot move even when there were plot issues.
3. The main character’s voice was unique and good.
4. The editing and prose were without fault. There were no typos or weird syntax issues tripping up the reading experience.

What I think would’ve made it better.
1. The pacing was off. The end of Act 1 came very early in the story, which lead to the fact that…
2. Even though Luke was on a mission to save his parents at the beginning of Act 2, I felt zero empathy for his situation because it was never established that his parents being gone had brought distress to his life. Act 1 could have been bolstered to give us more background and help us care more.
3. [SPOILER] Luke as a main character didn’t seem to have a character arc. While he is the protagonist of the story, he does very little and even himself says at the end of the book that Leonidas and Simon are the real superheros. And they were…they did basically everything.
4. While Luke was in danger, there was one instance that, as far as I can tell, had no impact on the plot whatsoever. He gets lost and captured only to get rescued and then the plot resumes. Maybe it’s a plant for the next book in the series, but even if that’s true, it needed a better integration with the plot of this story.

Final Analysis:
I actually liked this book more than I have a right to. The writing was fluid and fun, as were many of the concepts. I think I read it more for the fun and interesting world-building rather than the plot. And unfortunately, the plot and character arc take a back seat. I still recommend it to people who enjoy the genre or are just interested in spending some time in an alien world.

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Up In Smoke – Book Review

Up In Smoke (Hart of the Smokies Book 1)Up In Smoke by Chanacee Ruth-Killgore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth-Killgore’s cozy whodunit takes aim in small-town America where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, until the death of the community-beloved owner of the camp-grounds is discovered to have been a murder.

Abigail Hart returns to bury her Uncle only to find that things are not as they seem. She’s aided by many friends, but not everyone has her best interests at heart.

What worked:
The small-town atmosphere was inhalably realized. The town had its quirky personalities, history, and a great deal of funny stories shared between the characters.

Abigail (Abby) as a protagonist was relatable and easy to get behind.

The prose was smooth and had a great balance between description and narrative. Never once did I get tripped up reading the book.

Important in any whodunit is the list of suspects. Early on in the book, I thought I had pegged the correct killer. I was both pleased and displeased to have gotten it wrong in the end.

What I would’ve liked more:
The pacing felt staggered to me at times. That said, at about the halfway mark, things moved at an energetic and enjoyable pace.

Abby as a protagonist was easy to relate to, but ended up being a little generic. I would’ve liked to see her conflicting with more of the characters in the story to draw out her defined edges a little more.

The list of suspects in whodunits usually stand out clearly since it is usually shown that many different people all had motive (and opportunity) for the crime. This book didn’t follow that genre cliché (whether intentionally or not on the author’s part, I’m not sure) and it left me guessing not only whodunit, but whydunit. Perhaps that was intentional, but it left me feeling a little too much in the dark. Perhaps re-reading the book will prove this point moot, but I can only go with what I’ve done so far.

Final Analysis:
A fun, cozy murder mystery. Well-written with a few pacing hiccups. A whodunit that does set up some good red-herrings (which actually got me), and an unconventional twist on the genre formula (I’ll let you decide how you like that).

4/5 Stars – Recommended for fans of the Genre and non-Genre readers to whom the setting/style appeals.

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Free Indie Book Review – The Forgotten Wizard

The Forgotten Wizard: Series 1 - The Wizard HuntThe Forgotten Wizard: Series 1 – The Wizard Hunt by C.J Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I downloaded C J Thompson’s The Forgotten Wizard because it was free, the cover was cool, and the it sounded like it had a cool concept (a world where wizards used to exist but have gone extinct, except for rumors of one being found).

The Good:
The plot moves. Some self-published authors don’t have a plot with legs. This one, while not having many twists (and there’s a reason for that I’ll get into in the “What Didn’t Work for Me” section) did keep the action moving forward.

Aside from a few lacking details, the world was well enough described that I could imagine it in my mind just fine. The world was interesting enough and contained one detail that was really imaginative that I really enjoyed.

The prose and author voice were not distracting. And there were almost no annoying typos to trip me up.

What Didn’t Work for Me:
This is a very short book. That in itself is not a problem, but this story did not reach it’s full length. If I had read this without knowing it would end in the 12th chapter, I would have assumed that I had read about 1/4 of the story. The story ends with what would be in other books the end of Act 1. This leads to the next criticism.

The plot contained virtually no plot twists. This makes sense if you view this story as Act 1 of a larger whole, since usually Act 1 ends with a rather story-changing plot twist that leads the characters down a new road.

Character development was rather shallow as well. This could also be ascribed to its length, but I would also mention a few additional points:
1. The main character’s motivations and emotions are not shown to us so much as told to us. Instead of seeing him struggle in the plot with the illness of his father, we’re just told that he can’t go on without his father.
2. The relationship with his friend, Tristan, undergoes a radical change from the first scene to the second. In the first, they are nothing but buddies with seemingly no conflict, then in the next we see surfacing multiple quarrels under the surface. I think these should have been better hinted at in their first scene.
3. The main character’s voice wasn’t particularly unique or interesting.

The world-building felt somewhat generic. All of the fantasy elements seemed too derivative to be truly inspiring.

Final analysis:
The Forgotten Wizard as the start of a series failed to grab my attention on a deep-enough level to pull me in for the rest of the series. Kudos to the author for giving this story away for free, however. It’s short enough that anyone interested should not hesitate to download it and give a shot themselves.

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