Sunday, October 11, 2015

REVIEW: DAY OF THE FISH-ZOMBIES

INTRODUCTION
I've always been a fan of interactive fiction in terms of how it relates to video games. There are some that allow you to make a choice right at the end that deliver different outcomes such as Star Wars The Force Unleashed. There are some that have different endings depending on your actions during the game as with Bioshock. Then there are those that allow players to shape the story to their liking through a series of smaller decision points that help make the overall experience feel more personal - just about any Bioware game ever is a good example of this. One thing that I've yet to really get into however is interactive fiction within the context of literature. I've heard of and even played text adventures in the past and I am familiar with the concept of a choose-your-own-adventure book, but would definitely not call myself an expert in that genre.

When offered a free advanced review copy (ARC) of DAY OF THE FISH-ZOMBIES by the author, Tom Shutt, I gratefully accepted the chance to give interactive literature an honest chance.

HOW I RATED IT

 4/5 There were definitely a couple of things that tripped me up when reading/interacting with this piece. Some of it can certainly be chalked up to quirks of the genre/medium, but I really enjoyed my experience overall and I think this is a piece that has proven to me that interactive literature is something that can really be quite special and fun.

STORY
The story is sort of hard to talk about in just about every aspect, since I as the reader was the one that defined it. The basic premise is that you are at a movie that you probably shouldn't be watching. You are with your two best buddies and as the movie plays there are weird noises coming from outside the mall theater. As fate would have it, you find yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse with weirdly fish-like zombies. All of this is introduced very quickly and throws readers immediately into the process of making life or death decisions. When I say "life or death" I don't use the term lightly. The first six or so paths that I took all led to an untimely end for me as the main character. This is a story where a great many of the threads end in the main character's death which sort of sets up a situation where the story is really meant to be read through over and over (albeit with different choices made) in order to get the full picture. The key aspect to this is that things that might have seemed like small details in one path may be attached to much larger plot points when a different set of decisions are made. One major example of this is that there was one session where the main character sees that he has a missed call from his mom. This little detail meant a lot more to me at the time that I read this because I'd already gone down a pathway where the call is actually answered and the mother plays a big role in a number of diverging paths afterwards.

What are perhaps the most interesting aspects of this work is how many paths there are to take and how different each path is from one another. There is a lot of variation to be had depending on your choices and a lot of different characters to be met along the way. Because of all these options and the consequences that they involve, the characters are not as fleshed out as I am used to when reading a book. This isn't really due to any weakness on the part of the way they are portrayed or how the dialogue is handled, it's just a consequence of this being a rather fast work of fiction. You simply won't get as much time with them as you would with characters in a linear novel and by consequence of this, you won't know them as well as you might like to. Ultimately there's nothing that the author could have really done better since the entire premise of this experience is reading short portions of text and making decisions based of your current situation. The only real solution might be to lengthen the amount of text surrounding these characters, but that's not really conducive to going through the story over and over whilst making different choices.

This is a story that branches in the most extreme of senses. One decision begets a multitude of different paths to take which then offer further diversion in turn. It was through taking a bunch of these different paths that I started to get a better sense of the larger picture of the events. The one thing that I did not get a good answer to however was how the zombies came to be, what they really were, or even what becomes of the world now that they are here. A large reason for this is that the story is really only centered on the main character's survival of this event. The possibilities become quite enormous, but upon reaching one survival outcome, readers will be informed that there are eleven letters which can be collected and used to unlock hidden bonus content on the author's main website. This means there are eleven total ways to survive, - I personally only experienced seven of them, but was able to guess at the secret code. I checked out the bonus content that is unlocked with the secret password and was pleased that I'd guessed the code correctly. The content that is available is also pretty neat and it seems like the sort of thing that will receive regular updates, so it'll probably be worth going in to see it more than once. And even without this fun scavenger hunt of sorts, I'd still encourage people to read through to discover different endings (or at least a bunch of them).

There is a wide range of ways in which readers might guide the main character to survival and a vast array of ways to see him die. One down side is that with so many options, there are of course some endings (both for death and survival) that are just  inherently cooler than others. It also makes seeing every possible outcome a rather big task to take on, but it is a perfectly enjoyable experience even without seeing each and every ending. It's hard to say too much more than that without spoiling these rewarding moments, but suffice it to say that there are a couple of deaths and survivals that are truly epic to experience.

CHOICES/INTERACTIVITY
One thing that immediately threw me off about this book was the way it makes use of choices. The author described this to me as a choose-your-own-adventure. While I have absolutely no actual familiarity with what that means, I have always been under the impression that it is a story where you as a reader can go down different paths which ultimately lead to a number of endings. Imagine my surprise then when I read through this story six separate times and died at each turn. At the risk of sounding ignorant (or just being wrong) I would argue that this is not a choose-your-own-adventure book at all, but rather a text adventure. There's just a lot more variety than I would associate with a choose-your-own-adventure and it is actually a challenge to come to a real ending (real meaning one in which the main character survives and the reader earns a new survival badge/letter). When I started, I actually got a bit frustrated with the book because I wasn't expecting to die so much. Upon walking away from it, I came upon the realization that this was far more like a text adventure, a game. Once I started thinking about the book as a game, I suddenly gained a new perspective on what I needed to do. I also became far more okay with failing to keep the main character alive and I eventually arrived upon my first survival ending. After that I was hooked and I had a much better understanding of mechanics which I did not initially comprehend.

To be clear, the process of making decisions is quite simple. I was not so inept that I did not understand that clicking one link resulted in a different outcome than choosing another. What tripped me up was that decisions do not always result in outcomes you'd expect and there is no real pattern to success. Selfish decisions in some situations might lead to the main character's survival while selfish choices in another might actually hurl him straight into the arms of death. The same is true for choices that involve generosity of some sort. There's also one set of paths where survival hinges upon the collection of an item. Without it, some situations that would have been survivable will actually end in death. This level of unpredictability made things feel like a bit of a guessing game in some ways, which is ultimately fine since some of the deaths are as interesting as the survivals. It should just be noted that all the random dying did annoy me until I finally won once. Another somewhat odd feature is that one of the most important decisions in the game is actually the first choice that you make since each option sends the reader down two very different paths which then branch out accordingly. In order to see all of the different possibilities, there are sections of the story that will be seen over and over again. This isn't so bad since the pathways are so different and the text is short enough where you can skip over it on future passes and just click the decisions you want. All in  all, I actually did enjoy the system. It's just something that I personally found to be an acquired taste which required a shift in how I thought of the work as well as overcoming something of a learning curve.

FORMATTING/PRESENTATION
Aside from some VERY minor typographical errors the editing here is wonderfully done. The worst I came across were things like "THe" versus "The" or "you" versus "your." Other than that, a lot of the visual presentation has really already been covered in prior sections. To summarize: the text in between decisions is always relatively short which allows readers to get right into the meat of this work which is the decision making mechanic.

There aren't any pictures or otherwise remarkable graphical elements to this piece aside from the way that the survivals are handled. Each one gets a "survival badge" which consists of a cute, ironic, or funny tag name and has a description below it that relates to how it was you secured the main character's survival. It's nothing super elaborate, but it was certainly a nice touch that made reaching a survival ending feel that much more like an accomplishment.

One thing that did feel a little off in terms of how the story is presented is that in some ways, it feels like a YA story-line, but in others, I'd consider it to be more of an adult work. The narrative features younger characters and is written in a way that feels decidedly more juvenile, but there are also aspects of it, namely the gore, that make it feel a bit less like something I'd consider to be YA. There's nothing super over the top here, but it's definitely something that's more of a high school and up type of thing.

CONCLUSION
Overall, I enjoyed this book a great deal. It didn't necessarily blow me away or change my life, but it did introduce me to a new type of fiction and provide me with several hours of good fun. My initial confusion with some of the genre-specific elements were honestly to be expected given that this is my first time exploring this type of literature. While restating that I'm no expert in this area, I felt that this was a technically strong piece that made the most of it's interactive nature and provided a lot of different incentives for readers to keep going back in and exploring different possibilities. It was even more enjoyable for me since I read this in the month of October, though this would be a fun read even outside of the spookiest month of the year. This is definitely an easy one for me to recommend whether or not you're someone who is a regular consumer of interactive fiction. Veterans will probably have a much easier time diving into the work and newcomers can certainly catch onto some of the nuances like I did. If you're in need of a good pre-Halloween read, or are just up for a zombie story where you get to make the bad decisions, then DAY OF THE FISH-ZOMBIES definitely has you covered.

DAY OF THE FISH-ZOMBIES can be picked up as an eBook on Amazon.

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