A warrior, Qorc (probably pronounced Quark), discovers a sentient sword, and together they slaughter entire worlds of scumbags while questing for other parts of the demonically possessed battle gear.
Actually, all hope of that faded a few sections in. The duo exit a huge block of Swiss cheese and not a deadly dungeon. Players control the enchanted sword and direct oenophile Qorc on a waggish quest to steal expensive wine. The world of colossal food makes enough sense to work, though it feels like a Tom and Jerry episode. Jerry has a pal, and they both raid a dining table. Players do get some warning of this mushroom plus weed trip as the sword sounds like a hipster from the start. Sabrage—not a combining of saber and rage.
The first choice looks intriguing. It lets the player mislead the sword carrier, suggesting players can choose an evil persona for the sword. However, no such feature occurs in the game; the sword just wants to troll Qorc once, like a hipster.
Why hasn't mold eaten everything? Magic. I don't mean that facetiously—the game told me so. It does not mention why the protagonist needs all three wine bottles, though. Nor does the text describe any clothing. But if you count a metal box with holes for limbs to emerge, a giant bun, and a giant ice cube as clothing, then the book does describe clothes. The hunger mechanic doesn't feel as threatening as it should in a giant world made of food. Why doesn't Qorc just eat the celery trees, I wonder? And yet, how could he avoid the munchies in such a place? I find this gamebook has a pro and con for everything.
I don't know if Armstrong knows this, but eating a huge meal causes parasympathetic nervous system activity. This hormonal response prepares the body to “rest and digest.” So blood leaves the muscles and limbs, heart rate decreases, and the body increases its digestive functions. Think of the opposite effect of adrenaline. In other words, getting “stuffed” would lessen, not enhance, performance in “fight or flight” situations.
The writing mistakes consist of what one might expect when the writer experiences euphoria and overconfidence from a bowl or two (of weed). In parts of dialogue from the introduction and section 6, a period should replace a comma or vice versa. I believe Armstrong uses simple hyphens for interrupted dialogue instead of proper dashes. Also in 6 we have, “but you promise to you take me with you,” and elsewhere, “a tribe of courgettes live in out the Quag” (48) and “behind him is a vast, motionless whirlpool spirals down into the ice ocean” (66). On 7, we needs capitalization, and specimen needs pluralization on 81. On 42, the player must assume “two meals” means two notches on the Hunger spectrum. And on 61: “in the silence you hear a something in a dark corner start to stir.” Does this count as an error? Christ, I don't know.
On a more subjective note, the prose contains too many you's. I prefer to bombard the reader with the same pronoun only in accusatory paragraphs. The effect should stand out if all the other paragraphs depopulate their pronouns. Clichés creep in, but shorter ones than in the previous entries on the list: ring of truth, in my day, on the same page. Also, note the apostrophe misuse and stringing of prepositions on 86 with, “It’s glassy eyes peer out from inside the ice.” Similarly, on 12: “Qorc steps out from under the Red Windsor arch.” I must admit, though, I don't know how to avoid out from under, and I've used the same string myself.
So the story needs another going over with the editing, though not a mowing over as some entries need. Although I can't get invested in Swiss cheese, the mostly problem-free writing and attention to providing a good playing experience makes Sabrage quite fun. Armstrong has an abundance of common sense when designing gamebooks. I think he knows not to annoy the player at any time no matter what, even if that means eviscerating any system that does.
This gamebook does a better job than Evans's, for example, at recycling sections. Sabrage prevents the player from awkwardly rereading some revisited sections. On 12 and 17 the text simply adds the quick healing or hunger exchanges for coins instead of forcing players to reread numerous sections. The story lacunae after finding each wine bottle—the player essentially teleports back to a crossroads—keep the journey moving conveniently. You know, some of the other techniques in this entry look oddly familiar...
Though surreal and avant-garde, the story and systems work well. The combat system, while expensive, also works. The sections needed for it contain little prose. This moves the action along and reduces rereading. It also means fewer battles and a slimmer book, though. I think Armstrong may have completed it with under five grams if he took small hits and held it in.
While my entry this year mentions cocaine, hash, marijuana, opiates, and various liquors, Armstrong's entry describes what happens when you take all of those at once. The whole setting feels like a mushroom trip or a trip on the holodeck, or both, so I don't see how swords fit in here. It would have helped to include more fantasy concepts or at least describe the clothing of the “people.” I think Armstrong needs to pull together some sort of theme or genre instead of offering all the amusement rides in Disneyland. The lackluster ending didn't explain what happens with the bottles or even what lies outside the food realm. The story needs a page at the back explaining what everything symbolizes.
It does all mean something about childhood and psychoanalysis, right?
With too few writing problems to discuss here, how the heck can I fill out this review like the others? Well, I believe humankind needs some toughness to survive. At the very least, we should challenge readers' comfort through conflict in storytelling, and not just conflict for the characters. Otherwise, the masses will fall over and die if oil prices get too high and the trucks stop delivering ice cream and insulin. Armstrong tells everyone to keep drinking the sugar water.
Perhaps I can better explain with an example from, oh I don't know, how about Star Trek: TNG? Some episodes tried to emasculate the show. Remember the episodes about crying, with lines like, “I realized I wasn't crying enough” and Crusher encouraging Picard to cry endlessly? And let's not forget Worf, forever awkward, wondering why he boarded a ship full of space Care Bears. Masculine traits like courage, mastery, daring, and exploration drove them into space. When you disallow that reality, it all becomes an artificial push.
A similar problem occurs in Armstrong's stories. He trades too much for charm. You get swords, but no blood. You get bodies, but nothing plausible enough to raise controversy or concern. Everything feels too innocuous and child-safe. Truth, grit, and masculinity get stripped away. Alice in her Wonderland has a really proper dress, and she dare not dirty it.
I get the same feeling at Armor Games or Kongregate Games where most cover art showcases a toddler gripping a sword or the like. One must wonder if that many developers truly want to make games for kids, or if they do it for mass appeal because children will try anything.
Armstrong delivers this lighthearted and overtly harmless storytelling exceedingly well. But I fear his characters will never punch a bully (or the reader) in the nose. Alternatively, I like to offend everyone equally, so no one feels picked on.
Then again, we write in strange times. Today we see what I call the four D's in a tilting society: degeneracy, debauchery, decadence, and decline—all similar, but subtly different. Many want a saccharine escape from the coming punishment, a blindfold, and maybe Armstrong plays into those needs wisely. Despite our different preferences, Armstrong still has some of the best writing this year.