Last seen in the dark, forgotten past of the mid-nineties, Deathtrap Dungeon – the most popular of the Fighting Fantasy series of
choose-your-own-adventure (sorry, we meant branching narrative adventure) books – is returning to video gaming. This time, rather than a wonky 3D hack-and-slash title with Kelly Brook on hand to sell it, new studio Branching Narrative has opted for an FMV approach; a sort of Jackanory, but with more maleficent beasts.
Those hoping for a recreation of Knightmare may be left wanting, as Deathtrap Dungeon brings one Eddie Marsan in as its narrator and guide for the player. The award-winning actor has plenty of movie and TV credits to his name, and brings that extra bit of oomph to proceedings – a removal of cheese, if you will – that you might not otherwise see. “Eddie’s contribution has been astounding,” says Matt Spall, co-founder of Branching Narrative. “We thought long and hard about who should deliver the script, as well as the setting it would be delivered in, and ultimately settled on a ‘story room’ feel, a place that you’d feel safe and warm, but at the same time, could be taken somewhere into your imagination, very much the same way the games do.”
Marsan came up as a potential ‘host’ of the game, thanks to his packed CV and solid acting chops: “Once we knew Eddie was intrigued I sent him a copy of the original book, along with some dice, for him to get a feel for it,” Spall continues. “He ended up playing the game with some of his kids, acting as narrator and seeing the intrigue, thought processes, and differences of opinion from them – I think it had a positive effect on his decision to take part.”
But why return to Deathtrap Dungeon in the first place? It has a reputation, sure, but it’s not the most obvious choice for a license to use. “Its popularity as a book represents a kind of ‘perfect storm’ for us as a dev studio,” Spall explains. “We did some experiments late in 2018 around uses of interactive video for gameplay, and an opportunity that clearly jumped out to us was around the huge existing library of great interactive literature, not only in traditionally released paper form, but also online from people writing using tools like Twine.”
As well as the name value of the brand, there’s also the fact that something as (relatively) simple as Deathtrap Dungeon – especially when approached as a bunch of choices presented by a human face – can be highly accessible for players of all backgrounds. “Approachability is a huge factor for us, and it’s something that we’ve been working around,” Spall says. “We’re very aware that there’s a large fan base around role-playing games, and the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop gaming in general has certainly guided a number of our decisions. At EGX, where the game was shown to the public for the first time, we were astounded at the broad appeal the game has got, attracting a diverse group of players.” Its casual approach means it’s easy for people to get into, and Spall says he’s quietly hopeful the game will appeal to families or other mixed-ability groups.
It’s also nice to hear that series creator Ian Livingstone has taken a hands-on approach to the project, providing not just consultation but an actual redesign of decades-old mechanics. “Ian has been helping us build a revised, simplified battle mechanic for the game,” Spall says. “The player will now be able to choose between the multiple round battles from the original game, and a revised system that can still inflict lasting damage, but takes a lot less time out of the continuing adventure. Ian also came along to the video shoot, and we have some footage we’re considering dropping in as an Easter egg in the game… or not!”
There’s always going to be cynicism around an FMV title, of course, and it’s not wholly unwarranted. Spall says he and the team are aware of this, though, and have hopes Deathtrap Dungeon’s increased complexity over other FMV titles will work well for it. “The primary difference is in the additional layer of role-playing mechanics,” he says. “The mechanics in Ian’s original book apply additional jeopardy to the story flow, affecting the player’s propensity to take risks based on how high, or depleted, their skill, stamina, luck, and provisions are.”
While this might be the first game from Branching Narrative, Spall is matter-of-fact about where the studio is going next: “We’ve got two more projects currently in the pipeline,” he explains. “One built on another well-known gamebook, very much in the vein of Deathtrap Dungeon, and another that we’re working on with a comedy writer that’ll be a much more frenetic affair.” Now imagine if we finished this piece with a wonderful pun about the studio choosing its own adventure – wouldn’t that be great?
Serious question, though – can you look ahead through the pages and, in essence, cheat? Not that any of us did that with the choose-your-own-adventure books, of course… “Looking ahead in the game is something we considered,” Spall admits. “But in reality it only worked part of the time as there are so many potential paths through the game it ultimately wasn’t a big advantage. What we are allowing the player to do is to keep a virtual finger in the pages where they’ve been, building, in essence, what Ian Livingstone called ‘the five-fingered bookmark’. We’ve built a map that reveals itself to the player as they progress through the dungeon, then at any point, the player can choose to go to any part of the map they’ve already been to, and pick up with the stats an inventory they had last time they were there.”
Genre: Branching narrative adventure
Format: PC / Mac / mobile
Developer: Branching Narrative
Publisher: Branching Narrative