One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to read. My appetite for the written word was voracious; I would try anything and be always looking for my next potential meal. I explored all kinds of genres; I specifically remember a day where I just refused to do any work in middle school because I was somehow wholly enraptured in a John Grisham novel, the only one of his I have ever read, to the point that the teacher threatened to send me home if I didn’t hand it over right then and there.
All this exploring lead me to start to understand what I liked, and it turned out that what I liked was weird stories, creepy stories. Like many a child of the 90’s I really cut my teeth on Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark and Goosebumps. Those books were all over the place when I was a kid, and they were great schlocky fun. But one day, I stumbled across a Goosebumps book that changed my life. It was normal for the bulk of the first chapter until it presented me with a choice; how did I want the story to proceed? For the basement, detour go to page 77, or if you would like to stay with the rest of your class and go further into the museum, turn to page 336. And with that, my fascination with choose your adventure books had begun.
It was only later, as an adult, that I learned that Goosebumps were not the only choose your adventure books to exist, there were all kinds of novels from the ones I had been familiar with that were made for kids to crazy, complicated stuff that was actually aimed at adults. And that is where Deathtrap Dungeon comes in.
Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure is the latest attempt to take Deathtrap Dungeon, perhaps the most popular and well known of the Fighting Fantasy series of choose your own adventure roleplaying game books and bring it into the modern era. Deathtrap Dungeon has been adapted to a video game for the PSx and Windows in 1998, it was turned into a handbook for pen and paper roleplaying in 2003, it was being adapted into a film like a “cross between Saw and Gladiator” as of 2011, and as part of a series of audio dramas since 2018.
This is a property that kind of gets around. I’m not sure if saying that it has a cult following is being overly generous. Still, definitely, as a fan of the spaces, it exists in, I had heard of it before, and the idea of getting to see one of my favorite childhood experiences turned into a video game really excited me. I am sad to say that now that I have spent some time with the “game,” it just isn’t much fun.
While I will be referring to the game simply as Deathtrap Dungeon from here on out, the subtitle The Interactive Video Adventure really does go a long way in explaining what the experience is like. It has less in common with video games as we know them and much more to do with the choose your own adventure upon which it is directly based. When you boot up the game, which I should note here is still in early access, you are immediately presented with a video of Eddie Marsan sitting in a cozy, overstuffed chair in a slightly cramped yet homey room, and then the guy starts narrating at you.
I was initially fascinated by this experience as there isn’t much else like it on the market it and it instantly took me back to my childhood days of trying to avoid a gruesome fate at the hands of R. L. Stine. It was really nice. And there is something to be said for the experience of having something read to you. It is a refreshing experience at first.
The only things that I could give as a comparison point are A Heist With Markiplier and Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch, only where those are action-packed and fully acted this is much more humble and consists primarily of Marsan narrating events to you with the subtle aide of art from the original book and sound effects or music occasionally drifting on by to help add to the soft sort of immersion the team at Branching Narrative Ltd are going for.
Eventually, you will reach a branching path, and the game will present you with two or more choices. Do you want to go north or keep heading west? Do you want to fight the Blood Beast, or would you like to turn around? That sort of thing. There is a bit more interactivity in Deathtrap Dungeon, you can pick up items, and you have a skill, health, and luck stat to keep track of but, essentially, the game boils down to listening to Marsan explain what is happening and then picking from a small set of predetermined options.
As I started to get over the novelty of playing this unique type of game, I began to cool on it quickly. And then I kept getting destroyed in the combat. I have done a little bit of research on this, and I believe that this system is more or less the same one that was employed in the original book. Maybe it worked better there where you were playing through a straightforward narrative with some added game mechanics, but coming to this as a game, I quickly found the combat emblematic of the issues I have with this experience as a whole.
The combat is super simple. The computer rolls two sets of dice for you, one for the enemy and one for you, and then it adds your skill points to the rolls, and whoever got higher gets to do damage, and if you tied, no one does. There are some extenuating circumstances, but that is basically how combat goes. There are ways to heal yourself, but it doesn’t end up mattering. Eventually, you will come to a point where you have to massively backtrack or maybe even restart the entire game due to the simple fact that you can never, ever increase your maximum skill points.
The enemies get stronger and stronger the deeper you go in. You, on the other hand, are always getting weaker. If you aren’t running out of healing items, you might find yourself picking the wrong option and dying instantly in one of the dungeons many traps. That can be annoying, of course, but just like quickly flipping back to the page from whence you came in the original book to avoid a cheap death, you can quickly boot up your adventure as it saves at almost every choice point. But, even if you are destroying everything in the dungeon, you will eventually encounter some enemy that you cannot beat because their skill points continue to go up, whereas yours stay the same or decrease.
You can’t just get better at the game because combat isn’t skill-based like in a game you directly control or even choice based like in something such as Dungeons and Dragons wherein you can strategize your way out of a sticky situation. There are only the dice plus your skill points. And yours will always go down, and theirs will always go up.
I started to feel like I was playing Dark Souls only I couldn’t ever get better at the game and so it just kept destroying me in an encounter after encounter after encounter. I soon lost all sense of fun or interest but felt it was my journalistic duty to try and keep going, to try and find my way through so that I could come back with a thorough picture for whoever might be reading this. Still, eventually, my best efforts were utterly befuddled.
The game kept soft, locking at an encounter with leprechauns, which forced me to go the only other way forwards I had left from any of my recent checkpoints, and I ended up having to fight the dreaded Blood Beast. I had actually read a book about this thing earlier in my adventure, which supposedly gave me some advantage over it, but what that was I couldn’t tell you. So, I tried to fight this horror, this monster that I would say I was under-leveled for if this was a game where I could level up, and relatively quickly, I found myself completely devoured.
I petered around in this section of the dungeon for a while but eventually grew tired of my multiple encounters with these two scenarios and decided that if I truly was ready to end this that I should at least try once again from the beginning, just to make sure I hadn’t missed some explanation on how to get more skill points or something super obvious like that. But no, I had heard the game right the first time: you are stuck with whatever point loadout you end up with at the beginning of the game.
I went back in hoping that mayhap there was some quicker way through, some sneaky way to avoid most combat scenarios, get all the jewels you needed to escape, and then I could be done with it. After going in the complete opposite direction from my initial run, I stumbled across a room I had seen in that initial playthrough, a giant open chamber with a huge statue of two birds and a buddha like figure with large jewels for eyes.
I had just run on through in my initial playthrough but decided to see what would happen if I climbed the thing and tried to grab out one of its eyes. This, of course, led to the birds coming to life and fighting me while I held onto the things earlobe for dear life. Despite my frustration with the combat, the music, and the picture that accompanied this made this fight feel like a pretty damn cool. I was actually kind of excited when I finally defeated the guardians and pocketed the giant jewel. But then I chose to try to take the other eye, which led to the room-filling with poison gas, which killed me and put me back to the checkpoint before the boss fight. It was at that point that I decided to call it quits.
Deathtrap Dungeon, for all its faults, is an interesting experience. The developers say that they are going to be adding things over the next couple of months (which is how long they expect it to stay in early access) and if they made changes to the base game, to the combat and the way the skill point system works then this game might be worth looking at again. I could see it potentially coming into its own if it were ever to get a mobile release where people tend to be ok with experiencing things in small chunks, which would give them more time to cool off away from the game. Still, both of those are just hypothetical situations. The developers have not said anything about any such plans, and as the game is now, I cannot recommend it. It’s a real shame. I appreciate what Deathtrap Dungeon was going for, but the reality of what it is doesn’t seem to translate to an experience that is all that fun.