Between keeping up with my usual webcomics, Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and several writing projects (one of them my own current work for Choice of Games), I haven’t had as much time to play games (or review them) as I’d like. But back in my December 20 post, I promised an upcoming review of Choice of the Deathless by Max Gladstone. Max is a writer friend of mine and I’m not shy about proclaiming my love for his Craft Sequence — of which Choice of the Deathless is a corollary. Since Max is currently a John W. Campbell nominee, and his Three Parts Dead just made Reddit’s list of under-read fantasy, I thought now would be a great time to spend some time on Choice of the Deathless — and mention his novels as well.
The world of the Craft Sequence is one in which human wizards — usually necromancers, most of whom wear pin striped suits and run corporations called Concerns — rose up against the gods in a huge war and won, leaving most of the gods dead. Lest you think this means the conceit of the world is all about the virtues of Progress over Faith, I assure you I don’t read the stories at all that way. Progress has its own failings, Faith has its strengths, and the stories told in Max’s books and game strike me as being about characters who try to find a way to reconcile the two to make the world a better place. Also: necromancers who are, effectively, lawyers, and fantasy novels that are also legal thrillers. Sometimes about ecoterrorism, corporate espionage, or just trying to find a good cup of coffee. What’s not to love?
Choice of the Deathless gives the player a chance to take part in that world of exciting corporate magic, beginning at the low rung of a Concern’s ladder with hopes of climbing all the way up to Partner. But while student loans, crappy apartments, and a lack of sleep all add flavor to the game, things really start to get interesting when the PC starts dealing with literal demons. In one case, the PC needs to keep demons from finding a contractual loophole that would allow them to gain an unlimited foothold in the human world. In another, an oppressed demon wants out of an abusive contract, without getting sent back to the demon lands. In a third, the PC must decide whether to advise a minor goddess to seek out her own lawyer or take her to court for everything she has. And the larger story arc gives PCs the chance to eventually become a skeletal, undead, master of magic — if they play their cards right.
I’ve played the games a number of times at this point, in part because I saw it in playtest, and I’ve enjoyed it every time. Several times through, I failed at certain tasks, which did not impact game play — only impacted my own desire to keep trying until I found the right choices to accomplish those tasks successfully. In fact, my biggest struggle with replaying the game was making myself go out and explore the content I hadn’t seen the first time through. I loved the description of my crappy apartment so much that it wasn’t until the third time through that I splurged on a bigger place, closer to work (which helped me get more sleep, which, in turn, made me more effective at accomplishing important things like Craftwork/magic). I had such fun getting together with coworkers that I missed out several times through on the fantastic description of Iskari food, which might be sort of like sushi with Cthulhu undertones, only to be accessed by going to dinner with a rival. I still haven’t been able to take advantage of the goddess’s naivete because, darn it, she’s awfully sympathetic and I have trouble playing mean PCs. And while I haven’t become a skeleton myself yet — which sounds like an awesome ending — I’ve been more focused on completing the in-game romances successfully.
But one of the highlights of Choice of the Deathless is the experience of playing a game that ties in with a larger world. I’d read the novels first (including a draft of Max’s forthcoming Full Fathom Five, which is my favorite in the series yet), so I already felt at home in the world, and I was excited to be a Craftswoman myself. But I’ve also read the books again after playing Choice of the Deathless, and there are elements that cross over beautifully, allowing the game to inform how I read the books. This is how a good cross-format experience should work — not unlike my experience with Marvel’s cinematic, TV, and (oddly) Facebook game formats. Each element enhances the others and my overall experience is more fun because I’m participating so fully.
So, go pick up Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Choice of the Deathless now so you can be ready to grab Full Fathom Five when it releases July 15th. You’ll get sucked into the world — and you’ll be ever so glad you did.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels Choice of Kung Fu and Showdown at Willow Creek are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels (one recently funded by Kickstarter), several short stories, and is a contributor to role playing games. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.