A lowly soldier must survive a war commenced between Britain and South Africa.
Although Johnston has good grammar skills, he needs to explore the higher levels of style, refinement, and story structure. He starts by describing the protagonist as “just another average soldier” and “not a spectacular soldier by any means,” for “you are simply a Private.” Johnston might want to look into the concept of a hook.
Like Lloyd, Johnston defines stats twice or more, fattening the rules section. And like Daskalov's work, Johnston's introduces a list of terms which rarely, if ever, get mentioned later. Some readers see the use of the Fighting Fantasy system as a flaw. After all, the contest provides opportunity for writers to devise their own novel systems. We also get the famous Fighting Fantasy lie that players who roll low still have a decent chance at success. I did enjoy the new ranged-to-melee switch rules, though.
The few grammar issues that occur early also reign throughout. Some sentences need plenty of hyphenation added before the nouns, as in “This state of the art weapon is the mainstay of the British forces, a breech loading, single shot rifle” and “Every able bodied man, and every not-so abled bodied man . . .” Johnston also invented strange rules for dialogue, sometimes ending its preceding paragraph with a comma or dash.
Thankfully, other writing problems don't appear widespread. We get the occasional oxymoron like “certainly seems,” some misplaced symbols, and a missing letter as seen in “let see who . . .” I only found one bothersome sentence:
“you realize that your post as Lieutenant Bromhead’s aide lends itself to much more benefits then you would admit.”
Much should become many, and then should become than. Early on, the story restates the protagonist's rank, the color of his uniform, and other details. Opponents in the combat rules needs an apostrophe in line 6, all of which looks redundant because lines 4 and 5 give identical instructions.
Redundancy becomes the story's biggest problem. I've taken a cursory sample of lines that repeat themselves.
“a flesh wound that is still severe enough to cause damage.”
“You slowly seem [sic] the colour from Chard’s face leave, and even in the heat you see his face is a pale sickly gray”
“Loopholes are stabbed into the walls of the Hospital to operate as makeshift gun holes- the idea being you can shoot out but the enemy can’t shoot back in.”
“hastily thrown together makeshift”
“they are only armed with melee weapons, and incapable of Ranged combat”
“previously wounded patients”
“irreversible death due to the toxic poisons.” (Two tautologies in one sentence.)
“grows more and more”
“dodging as best you can while attempting to make yourself as difficult a target as possible.”
“you are safe and have made it through unhurt and in one piece.” (Three in a row. And the very next line says you've “made it” again.)
I guess I'll make a Badowski list of wordiness too, based on my one playthrough:
“situations where you may be killed or injured” Warfare.
“be used as a thrown weapon.” Throw.
“are able to hear snippets of what is being said. You move as close as you can for a better spot to hear;” Eavesdrop.
“a good deal of ground between you and your enemy” Range.
“confusing mess of men running and shouting” Hubbub.
“positive mental state that it causes” Euphoria.
Also, Johnston constantly defines already-defined terms, some too well-known to require defining at all.
The use of clichés dulls the writing more. It always does, especially when stating the obvious with “They is [sic] certainly a force to be reckoned with” and “no point crying over spilt milk.” Here, I italicized the clichés Johnston jammed into one sentence: “You are no exception, and you dread to think of the consequences of not following his orders to the letter.”
Fortunately, Johnston can handle making longer sentences without throwing the pile at the readers' feet for reassembly. That said, he stitches too many sentences together with dashes, commas, and semicolons.
“Most likely Dabulamanzi is holding back his more experienced troops for later; yet these men aren’t mere cannon fodder- you know that if they get within striking distance they will be a tough opponent to deal with, so it would be best to keep as much range between you and them as possible.”
Of course, the last half of the above states the obvious. I advise Johnston to only use dashes when needed, replacing them with commas where reasonable. Don't make cheap flow with symbols. Use periods and the right words around them.
The writing, though mostly grammatically clean, lacks enough depth, flare, or invigorating wit like that found in Banks's. The prose employs sarcasm but loses its comedic effect through bland statements. It employs a conversational tone, but that really means wordy and commonplace. As Wright goes overboard stacking adjectives like lumber, Johnston merely adds exclamation marks to garner interest. As I mentioned in an earlier review, it feels like reading the newspaper and missing the boxing match. Surely a gamebook, a game and a story combined, should entertain with its phraseology.
Johnston might also want to consider the “show, don't tell” rule. He says this of military uniforms: “a typical uniform that displays your station and rank to others.” And he describes a rifle as “long in size” as if we didn't know this already. “The man gives another rough cough- it is clear he needs to conserve what little energy he has left.” Clear indeed—clear enough to omit mentioning its clarity. More telling immediately follows: “Well, that was somewhat insightful if not unsettling.” Consider this dialogue which, by itself, handles the situation perfectly:
“We will be snaking down the road lined up in our wagons. We’ll be sitting ducks out there, there’s no possible way we could defend from a determined attack with the kind of numbers of Zulus that you’re telling us Ardendorff. Why don’t we just roll out the bloody red carpet, and put targets on our soldiers for them instead?”
Johnston follows it up with a pointless recap:
“The retort [above] is angry and frustrated. Clearly there is a divide between if the company should retreat to the nearby town of Helpmekarr or stay and fight.”
The writing loads itself with instances of start to, somewhat, and other timid terms as if the writer feels unsure of anything that happens in his own story. Often, the protagonist decides to do something instead of just outright doing:
“Physically weakened, but mentally feeling somewhat better, you start to stand up, and decide where to go next before the Colour Sergeant starts to berate you.”
Often, the starting or deciding happens twice in one sentence.
“Deciding you have done enough patrolling for now, you decide to . . .”
A similar problem occurs with try to instead of doing, which can lead to awkwardness like “to try to hold on to.”
The gameplay has issues too such as left-or-right choices and a long chain of turn-to commands early on. Many consider either problem a form of gamebook suicide. I did poorly because the dice told me to. I rolled a 7 skill which means doom. For a contest, I can only advise this: give the voters nothing to complain about.
Take section 5. The first real choice of the game leads to scorn and name-calling because the dice demanded it. The player also suffers glass wounds nearly as bad as a bullet to the guts. Furthermore, the protagonist, already as lowly as he can get, establishes himself as a klutz and buffoon. Do players want this sort of experience?
While the story gained from research and a character arc, little develops except waves of challenge after a dull and reluctant start. The combination of adjoined sentences, restating, exposition, overexplaining, pleonasms, colorless prose, and a half-hearted didactic ending makes the experience feel like a dry screed. What a shame because Johnston has a strong grasp of grammar rules so desperately needed these days.