Game Review: Choice of the Deathless

Type of game: Text / interactive fiction
Written by: Max Gladstone
Published by: Choice of Games
Year: 2013
Played on: Steam

Choice of the Deathless Cover Art

Cover art by Ron Chan: http://www.ronchan.net/wordpress/

Thanks to Choice Of Games I’ve already been able to cross off “marry a robot” from my 2015 to do list. My love affair with that game – the first of its kind I’d played – inspired me to begin exploring the Choice Of back catalogue, which brought me to Max Gladstone’s Choice of the Deathless. And now I’ve been able to  draw a line through ”become an become an undead skeletal lawyer at a demonic law firm” too.

skeleton

To be honest, I hadn’t actually realised that item was on the list, but hey, you’ve gotta try these things once, right?

Wrong! The beauty of these Choose Your Own Adventure games is that it doesn’t need to be only once; you can try everything, replaying the game as much as you like to explore different options and pursue different paths. This definitely appealed in Deathless as the game’s primary strength is undoubtedly its world-building. The story made me want to explore and discover more of the interesting setting Gladstone has created, a world that takes the “law is an evil business” cliché and runs with it all the way to its necromantic conclusion.

What’s it all about?

In the world of Deathless, magic – or Craft as it is known here – has become corporate: the gods have been largely deposed and the Firms have risen to fill void. Balance is uneasily maintained as much by pedantry, charm and legalese as it is by spell-casting – although that can be useful too. You play a graduate, fresh out of demonic law school and entering the elite firm of Varkath Nebuchadnezzar Stone. The cases you can take on include trying to close a contractual loophole that demons could use to break free and take over or attempting to aid a demon who has naively trapped himself in an exploitative employment contract. The cases are the major focus of the game and the story is structured firmly around them. Your main choices are how to proceed in each legal encounter: do you use magic, do you bully, do you charm? Do you go it alone or team up with a colleague?

Image courtesy of http://www.freeimages.com/browse.phtml?f=view&id=456502

”The Client” will you be sympathetic?

The other major variables include whether or not you start relationships with colleagues and/or rivals and how extravagantly you choose to live. One interesting feature of this game is that you start the story saddled with student debt and the game tracks how quickly you work towards paying it off.

The Good

As I noted above, the thing I enjoyed most about Deathless was its setting. Playing as a craftswoman, I felt like I had entered a fully realised dark fantasy world that extended far beyond the experiences offered in the game. So I wasn’t at all surprised when a little online exploration revealed that this is in fact precisely the case. It turns out Gladstone has written three Craft Sequence novels set in the same world. If the mix of legal intrigue and dark fantasy in Deathless is anything to go by, these could be well worth investigating!

I also appreciated Gladstone’s writing style, particularly the way he playfully allows the sort of linguistic pedantry that necessarily prevails in the courtroom to bleed into other encounters, even bedroom encounters:

Screencap from the game

Screencap from the game

The Bad 

Although the focus on the legal battles calls for some rewardingly strategic thinking, overall I felt that the storytelling element was slightly more engaging than the choice aspects. The game seems to present a fair few ‘fake choices’ (decisions that where all options actually still lead to the same place) and while some of these are understandable, and can still help define the individuality of the player character, there were a few examples here that left me feeling somewhat deflated. Perhaps as a result of this, it was always the setting – rather than the specifics of my character’s decision-making – that I found myself mulling over once I’d logged out of Steam (I should probably check out those Craft novels shouldn’t I?).

This game is less branching than Choice of Robots, with more repetition in the central events. While this works for the cases – it’s satisfying to revisit and replay the legal clashes with only subtly different approaches – it is less convincing when it comes to the social and romantic interactions. Indeed, although the romance scenes are engagingly written, I was disappointed to discover that their content is not really altered by my choice of partner. As a result, I didn’t feel as emotionally connected with this game as I did with Choice of Robots, although given the subject matter explored in Deathless that may be (1) a deliberate narrative  effect (2) a very good thing.

Verdict

Its more linear narrative structure means Choice of the Deathless has less replay value than the insanely addictive Choice of Robots but its still well worth the purchase price, offering many hours of game play and – more than this – a chance to visit a really great fantasy setting.

Now if only this weren't fantasy!

Now if only this weren’t fantasy!

There’s been some discussion among the Steam community about whether this kind of interactive fiction really belongs on Steam. I’m still fairly new to the ‘Choice Of’ party but as a long time PC Gamer who enjoys a wide variety of games I can say, resoundingly, that I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to enjoy these kinds of interactive fiction experiences as part of my diverse Steam Library.  If you feel the same do join me in letting Valve know as it’d be great to see more titles like this available on the platform. Speaking of which, anyone else up for a bit of  Mecha Ace next?

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