“Into the Dungeon” and “Into the Tower” by Hari Conner

This is a guest post by our friend Alexander McConnell. You should check out his blog at A Garden of Paper Flowers!

I grew up in a childhood where gamebooks rained from the sky. Stretching back nearly as far as my memory can travel, I have been picking paths, determining destinies, and choosing my own adventures. I can’t even tell you how many months of my life became dedicated to gamebooks after the very first time I read the words “YOU ARE LONE WOLF”. Before my greedy little child-claws wrapped around the cover of a D&D player’s handbook, Lone Wolf, Graystar the Wizard, and the Fighting Fantasy books were what temporarily quelled the already unquenchable need within me to play with magic.

I’ve traveled through the Cave of Time and returned to it. I have confronted the Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I have thrown down dark lords, learned great magic, and seen my alter egos through to comfortable retirement and mentorship. All this is to say, I know a thing or two about gamebooks. So, when I tell you that, for their respective audiences, Into the Dungeon and Into the Tower by Hari Conner rank as some of the very best I’ve played…well, that’s some high praise indeed.

The slimmer of the two adventures is the author’s first creation, Into the Dungeon. This is a delightful fairytale romp for players of all ages. I would not hesitate to recommend it to adventurers of any age. The scariest thing I encountered in its dungeon depths was a goopy ooze monster that had disguised itself as a crying child. This is not to say the book is childish or simplistic though, far from it! There are adventures aplenty to be found within. Dragons that can be tricked by telling them stories. Evil cursed princes, magic swords, daring escapes, traps, magic…true love is not found within, but put a pin in that. We may have some things to say about true love when Into the Tower comes up.

The game is played by choosing from a list of characters found at the front of the book or by rolling your own, similar to making a character from Dungeons & Dragons. I strongly recommend readers choose one of Conner’s premade heroes. I found that I became emotionally invested in my character when the author gave them a face and even a little bit of a backstory. Also, the pre-mades come with special endings that really bring a sense of satisfaction once you learn to navigate the dungeon. If you are curious, my chosen alter-ego was Lok the Scrapper. I liked the idea of being just a down-on-his-luck little guy, braving a cursed dungeon because it couldn’t be that much worse than the life they’d been living.

Each hero consists of four main attributes, a pool of health points and whatever mundane and magical odds and ends you can fit into your pack and pockets. Each of the heroes presented to you favors a certain attribute. My buddy Lok is the Dexterity hero, but there’s one for each. Though it is much less pronounced here in Into the Dungeon, the kind of attributes your hero favors subtly changes the kind of story they produce. Strength heroes produce stories of bravery and slaying evil monsters. Dexterity produces tales of quick thinking and nimble escapes. Intelligence produces tales of cleverness and mystery. And Charisma tells tales that are funny and charming, just as you might suspect. Inventory isn’t restricted and in Into the Dungeon, there is one thing that matters more than anything else: Gold!

Your total gold functions much like your score in an old Interactive Fiction game like Zork or The Amazing Cave. The higher your gold tally at the end, should you be so lucky as to see sunlight again, determines how rosy your character’s ending will turn out to be. Beware: your first successful run will almost certainly not satisfy you. You’ll need to explore again and again, trying for that high gold count, so your fictional alter ego can do what no young person today can do: buy a house.

Beyond just achieving a good ending, the author has also imported over an idea from more recent generations of videogames: these gamebooks have achievements! A list of reasonably rare to nearly impossible feats to achieve within the pages of the book is hidden on a back page past the ending page. This means for completionists, you have a hard and fast guide to one hundred percenting both these books.

Not all of the character’s special endings are locked behind simple gold either. Upon reaching the ending page the first time, you will be intrigued to see that many of the heroes gain special endings for recovering rare treasures from the depths of the dungeon. That was not Lok’s objective and since that was so, I never found them. So, I leave it to you, dear reader, to find those magic rings and swords and stranger things besides. It’s all waiting for you down there in the dungeon if your player character has either courage or wits enough to seek them.

Good luck.

For as fun as I found Into the Dungeon‘s wholesome old-school fairytale dungeoneering, it could not have prepared me for how much more excellent Into the Tower would prove to be. This is a far more mature gamebook. I mean that both in the sense that parts of it scared the living daylights out of me, earning it’s ages 14+ recommendation (for those in the know, I will say I encountered a beautiful woman at a ball in my first playthrough who brought me a most sinister gift.) But also in the sense that it is just so much more intricately developed and brilliantly realized.

Again, you can play as four designed heroes or roll your own. I know I stressed this before, but you must play the heroes Conner wrote. You will be missing out on so much if you don’t. The heroes this time do not have a face or a name, we know them only as The Sailor, The Libertine, The Acolyte, and The Thief. The most you ever see of them is the back of their heads, but what they have instead is deep heart and soul. On the selection pages, a greater degree of guidance on what kind of stories each of these heroes will tell is listed. You are also told how much of the greater story of Into the Tower each hero will reveal and how easy it will be for you to survive once you step into their boots.

The Sailor’s tale is about story and mystery. The Libertine brings drama and perhaps true love (see, I told you it’d come back around!) The Acolyte is about lore for the fantasy world itself. The Thief is listed as a quick start and as such, as of the writing of this review, The Thief is the only hero who I have not braved the Tower with. I wanted to provide all of you the broadest picture of this Gamebook as I could. Quick start felt like the wrong move.

Each hero again represents one of the four main attributes. You still have inventory, but Conner has now added Statuses to the character sheet. These exist to modify the narrative in an ongoing fashion that remind me of a lookup command in programming. You can turn to a certain page if your character has the All-Seeing Status for example and, the writer knowing you’ve encountered certain incredible things in the tower, can flavor the following passages very easily with the choices you made as a hero through this world up to that point. A simple and elegant solution. Lone Wolf books had this too, but it was much more clumsily handled. “Turn to page X if you have ever encountered Y in any story.” The Status system has the advantage of needing fewer words to explain each choice and spoils less of what those choices entail should you have not acquired such a status yet.

A word to the wise: even statuses that seem like they could only portend sinister things for your character can open up surprising avenues of adventure. I would invite a reader to play the gamebook in order to find out what happens. Try not to be too hasty about turning back to a previous choice just because things travel to strange, dark places. Some of the brightest joys in this book can be found just on the other side of those dark places.

This time, each hero is much more than a thumbnail sketch of a person and a collection of stats. Each hero gets a full multi-page backstory for why they would choose to go to the mad magical tower of the Spellbinder Princess. Their reasons are varied, but all are deeply personal and provide you with emotional stakes for braving the mind bending, soul rending perils of the highest levels in this tower, well above and beyond simple gold.

I will admit, The Sailor was my favorite. There’s a sort of wholesome melancholy to their quest to recover their mother’s magical violin and discover the mystery of what became of their vanished father that really spoke to me. But I strongly recommend people play this through not once, but many times. With all the heroes. The way the different narratives overlap is so unique and special, the world this game takes place in really begins to open up in surprising ways the more of these overlapping paths you venture down.

An example (spoilers ahead):

As The Sailor, I braved a river entrance to the castle that the tower of the Spellbinder Princess rests upon. Within the bowels of that castle, I discovered a prisoner who identified themselves only as Venny. They agreed to help me find a way deeper into the keep so I might begin to climb the tower only if I agreed to take on their quest to rid the world of a particular red box. My Sailor was a stalwart and kind fantasy hero, so of course I agreed. I went through that whole run, eventually scaling the tower, passing through magical realms hidden within, and coming face to face with the Spellbinder Princess. I discovered what became of my father, saved the world, even got my hands on that red box. I never saw Venny again, but I did as they asked and dumped the red box into the sea.

It was not until I played through again, this time as the Libertine, that I learned that this minor NPC was, in fact, The Libertine’s true beloved and a huge factor on why the Libertine was braving The Tower at all!

I can promise this is but one simple example. Each hero shades the world, the Spellbinder Princess, the Tower, and the Key. Each of their endings are worth experiencing and deeply satisfying.

In a very real sense, this book feels like four whole and completely satisfying fantasy novels sewn cleverly into one. The adventure is worth taking, each time you take it. Not only will you become wiser to the perils that await you in the Tower, but you will also enrich your understanding and appreciation for the events that led you here, as well as beings and creatures that people it. While many gamebook lines hint at roleplaying in the sense you find in Dungeons & Dragons and other such tabletop greats, that usually only comes in the form of flavoring a single character to your liking. It doesn’t matter how many times you play through a Lone Wolf book, you are only ever going to be Lone Wolf in that book. Into the Tower is the only gamebook I’ve ever played that successfully provides the reader a choice of who they want to be in a way that truly matters at a fundamental level.

If you seek adventure, if you’ve every yearned to step into the pages of a Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett tale, Into the Tower is probably as close to that as you can currently come. It reminded me once again of why I fell in love with playing with magic all those years ago.