There was a time, in the deep dark depths of the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the choose your own adventure book was king. With video games in their infancy, it was within the pages of Fighting Fantasy that I first encountered a deep RPG experience. The interactive stories created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston were a constant backdrop to the lazy summers of my youth and provided me with the opportunity to save a fantasy world from the comfort of my tree house (if you can call three planks of wood nailed onto the branches of an apple tree a tree house).
Now, some thirty years later, I’ve spent the summer whiling away many hours playing Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood – a text, strategy, choose your own adventure video game hybrid. It’s basically a modern version of Fighting Fantasy and it’s brilliant.
First things first, there is absolutely nothing ‘true’ about these tales. This is not an accurate historical reconstruction of Britain in the late 12th century, instead this is a straight up fantasy world filled with fairies, dragons and unicorns. It’s all the better for it. We know next to nothing about the ‘real’ Robin Hood, the earliest tales and references we have of him are from the 15th century in the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, but what we do have are hundreds of years worth of stories about this thief who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Impressively, every single one of these is included within Nocked!
As you read through the thrilling opening escape from the Sheriff’s men, you are given the choice to create the Robin you want to be in a level of detail and variety that few contemporary video games can match. Nocked! skilfully weaves into the narrative the opportunity for you to choose the gender, sexuality, appearance and backstory of your character – no clunky character creation screen here! This interactive gamebook then remembers everything you’ve decided in order to provide you with meaningful choices throughout your adventure. On one occasion I was shocked that a decision I had made so long ago could come back to haunt me with such potent ramifications. Video games can teach you that there’s no choice which can’t be undone, but Nocked! tells quite a different story.
It’s also a story that will require a whole lot of reading. No surprises there, this is a text adventure, but one that is far lengthier than anything I’ve encountered before. If Nocked! were ever a physical book, it would be one that is thousands and thousands of pages long. It’s a good thing that the prose is so well written. The text must be both enjoyable and entertaining to read, as well as clearly and efficiently providing the player with the information they need to make informed choices. It’s astonishing that developer, writer and publisher Andrew Schneider and his small team have made such a difficult balancing act look so easy.
The writing here is top notch with great character moments, laugh out loud humour, and thrilling set-pieces that amount to a book I would relish reading even without being able to steer the story myself. On every page of the engaging story you are given several choices, each one branching out to even more choices, as you navigate the giant interlinking web that defines your character’s journey. Unlike the Fighting Fantasy books of my youth, no choices leads to an unexpected and unwarranted instant death. There’s no need to keep your finger on a certain page just in case you made the wrong decision here – besides, even if there was, there’s a lovely checkpoint save system to avoid frustration.
There’s also a hefty strategic component to Nocked!, in which the narrative drive of the adventure slows to allow you to do some resource management. Throughout the adventure you gather gold, renown, men and power. These can be used to unlock or achieve success in certain options within the text, if you want to do some awesome archery and disarm the Sheriff’s men then it’ll take some renown to do so. They can also be used to plan your next course of action from the hub-like headquarters.
Here you can send your forces out to complete different missions, build new facilities, train your warriors and build upon your relationships with the many different characters you meet. There’s everything here you would expect of a more conventional strategy RPG game, just delivered in text. You’ll find different factions to win over, weaponry and items to equip, and special missions to undertake. All the while the seasons roll by until your inevitable final confrontation with Prince John.
At certain points you’ll become a commander taking charge of epic battles, utilising all of the resources you’ve gathered to achieve victory. The story takes on multiple narrative paths at this point, swooping between different characters as you try to make the best tactical choices with your ever dwindling forces. At times these battles can be overwhelming. This is a criticism that can be levelled at the sheer size and detail of this game too, there’s just so much to do, so many decisions to make and pertinent information to remember. Perhaps more tutorial elements and explanation of the plentiful stats could have been included to mitigate this issue but – like the best page turner – Nocked! keeps you going until the very end by just being so splendidly readable.