Frogmen by Nicholas Stillman
Warning! Review may contain spoilers!
Nicholas Stillman is a Windhammer regular, and never fails to be a highlight each year. One of my favourite ever entries was Gunlaw from a couple of years back, and last year he entered with the intense survival horror Why don’t they leave the house? Both entries were incredibly bizarre, and most gamebook players were unsure what to do with them. Aside from a drug-fueled diving experience, Frogmen slightly tones down the zaniness and becomes a little more accessible. It’s still bonkers though.
Frogmen tells the story of an illegal diving crew, a small team who risk everything to descend into the depths to haul up the riches below. The story opens pulling a girl called Amanda out of the sea, while a submarine manancingly patrols the waters, out for kills. You have a pay stat (how much loot you bring up) and an air stat (how much faffing you did to get there). You also have an array of skills and items to help in your explorations. The gamebook is broken into four different chapters and an epilogue. While this is quite linear, you are given a major choice at the end of each chapter which affects how the chapter opens up.
“So what happened to your boat?” you ask, handing her two teacups.
“It blew up,” she says into her drink.
Nicholas Stillman is a very accomplished author, and the text is packed full of lovely little gems. Chickens are not startled; chickens spread gossip. The characters are well developed and the story is solid. It is clever in that you get a full experience out of the book. There’s no bad dice rolls or choices to make early that will end the experience prematurely. Out of everything I’ve read so far, this is the first gamebook that could stand alone as a (non-interactive) short story. That’s not to say it’s easy reading. The book will often riff into bizarre imaginations of hyper-creativeness. Sometimes the reader is part of this journey, although more than once I was a little lost. Despite a few misses, when the writing hits it is delightful.
My biggest disappointment is perhaps this gamebook plays a little too safe. I am used to be being massively affected by Stillman’s writing, and this entry was relatively non-controversial. This might suit some other players. Frogmen should do well, but might not be quite strong enough to take top prize.