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Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hero twins of the One World

Mayan history – the part of it we still have that wasn’t burnt by Christian missionaries – is not like modern history. Since Herodotus, the First World has had the tradition of objectively establishing facts from multiple sources, reporting events in a dispassionate register that opens a window upon the past. But reading the history of the Maya is like reading one of those Ancient Egyptian historical accounts in which untrustworthy foreign diplomats become snakes and a severed tongue can still tell a tale. It’s as much a magic realist novel as an account of what really (Calvino or Borges would insist on inverted commas there) happened.

Take the story of the hero twins from the Popol Vuh. Is this a holy book, a work of fiction, an allegory, or a chronicle? All of the above. The Mayan scholar-priesthood drew no distinction. They’d had no Plato to say that poetry tells lies. They used drugs and blood-letting to reach a point where hallucinations revealed the deeper truth beneath the veneer of ordinary events.

The hero twins’ father has annoyed the lords of the underworld by making too much noise while playing in his ball court. They invite him to play a match against them, misleading him into taking the black road into Xibalba, the Place of Fear. That’s where it all goes south, or rather west, as the twins’ father is subjected to various ordeals and finally sacrificed and his head hung in a calabash tree.

At this point in the story, the twins’ father is dead but (bit of a snag) they haven’t been born yet. A maiden goes to pick calabash gourds. She might in fact be the moon, but that’s a detail. The father's skull spits into her hand, or maybe she eats it thinking it’s a fruit, and she's sent away to live in the upper world when her mother notices she’s pregnant.

The twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, grow up to be star ballgame players like their dad, annoy the lords of the underworld in just the same way, and get invited to Xibalba. But these hero twins, they’re clever. They send a mosquito to bite the underworld gods, who call out each others’ names, allowing the twins to greet them correctly. They foil the ordeals, using red macaw feathers to make it seem that their cigars have stayed lit all night. When one of the twins is decapitated (even the Popol Vuh must have an “all is lost” moment), the other temporarily reanimates his body with a squash for a head and, forced to play a match using the brother’s head, substitutes it and brings him back to life. The twins then trick one of the lords of the underworld into allowing himself to be killed. They subjugate the Place of Fear, at which point we discover it isn’t just the mythical land of the dead, it’s also a hostile nation whose power over the Mayan city-states has now been broken.

So that’s the flavour I wanted to capture when I started writing Necklace of Skulls. I’d just got back from honeymoon in Central America, and having gone to the top of every Mayan pyramid I could find, and into the tunnels inside them too, I felt exactly ready to do it. What I wanted to avoid was that kind of wasted cultural appropriation you get in so many roleplaying games, where a minor deity like Xiuhcoatl would get a Monster Manual write-up as “a” xuih dragon, with 8 dice hit points and a fiery breath attack, located in a Pre-Columbian themed corner of the game world like one of the zones in Disneyland. You know what I mean. When I roleplay, I want to go the fount of ideas, not have it brought to me in a plastic bottle.

In Necklace of Skulls you play a Maya called Evening Star whose twin has gone missing in the far western desert. As in all the Critical IF books, you get to customize your character by picking your skills, and you can choose to be either sex, as it is never stated whether you’re Morning Star’s twin brother or twin sister. Sneaky, huh? (There’s actually a precedent for that in the Popol Vuh, Xbalque’s name translating as either “Little Sun Jaguar” or “Lady Sun Jaguar”.)

While you’re trying to find out what happened to your brother, the big event happening in the background is the collapse of the Great City, which is sending out ripples of chaos and fear even as far as your own Yucatan home. History buffs may think that this ties the book to 540 AD and the fall of Teotihuacan, but I couldn’t possibly comment. My version of the One World of the Maya is not an archaeologist’s version, in any case. This is a setting the ancient Maya themselves would hopefully recognize, in which heads grow on trees, a sinkhole can be a shortcut into the land of death, and playing a game in the ball court is a ritual as potent as any spell.

That’s why I’m so delighted with the app version of Necklace of Skulls, published today by Cubus Games to (belatedly) mark the Mexican Day of the Dead. This is much more than just a gamebook ported over to mobile devices. The Cubus team, headed up by Jaume Carballo, have taken the original book as a foundation and built a fabulous, beautiful interactive story game on top of that. Combat, for example, uses a mini-game of brinkmanship and tactics instead of digital dice. You select one of several Mayan icons to create a persona for your hero-twin. And the text itself has been rewritten and sharpened to make it more immediate, better suited to reading on a phone or tablet rather than a printed page.

And the art… Everything I said above about wanting to evoke a setting that has the feel of both reality and dream, history and myth – you only have to look at any one of the images to see how brilliantly Xavier Mula has achieved that. I want to see gamebooks pull up their old gnarly roots, shed the ‘90s scales, and become something fresh and exciting. This app shows that Cubus are right at the forefront of that revolutionary movement, and I’m proud to have the book that was born out of my honeymoon emerging in a new glittering incarnation, its old bones suddenly sprouting new foliage and bright flowers – just like, in fact, one of the Mayan hero-twins.

You can get the Necklace of Skulls app on iTunes USA or iTunes UK. Or anywhere else in the world come to that. And for Android users, the Google Play link is here. Or there are the print books, of course:

[Photo of Xiuhcoatl by Tony Roberts; Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.]


  1. Thanks for your kind words!
    It's been a pleasure to work with such a classic gamebook!

    Btw, the Android link:

    Great adventures start with a choice!

    1. Likewise I have found it a great pleasure. And I know that a lot of folks out there will be very grateful to you for getting the iOS and Android versions out on the same day!

  2. Really lovely art, really lovely story. I never played it in the original version, but the current combat mechanic appears to make it possible to get all the way to the final battle in an unwinnable condition. Which might be intentional! But frustrating. Some of that, I expect, is down to the classic game book roots of the thing.

    It does however, also be somewhat buggy. To whom should I direct bug reports? Some are with content, others with the app itself.

    1. Certainly, it's not an easy challenge... ;)

      You can report bugs or make suggestions at support[at]
      Looking forward to hearing from you!

    2. Btw, have you tried to get all the way to the final battle with other characters? They have different skills that can you help to achieve that (or you can get 10 cacao after the second chapter, that can you help to get more useful objects in the markets). Whatever the case, we can share some tips in our blog if you want. ;)

    3. Cubus - I managed to make it to the end. I didn't understand being able to rewind to other chapters, so I thought I was stuck restarting from scratch or beating the sorceror with a single hit point.

      I really enjoyed it, however. I'm going to send you a list of bugs that I encountered on my first run. I really appreciate the response. I'll try not to derail Dave's blog anymore :)

    4. Feel free, Erik :) I'm sure other NoS players will find this useful too.

    5. Great feedback from Erik!
      As Dave says, feel free, since it's always worth it!

    6. The big thing that was nice about the game once I figured it out, was the ability to rewind to any section. That lets you go back and reconfigure your choices for the final battle without replaying the entire damn game from scratch. And that the combat mechanic is really nice, but there ARE unwinnable scenarios. I didn't play necklace of skulls when it came out, but say, Fighting Fantasy, all battles are potentially winnable even if riding into battle with one hitpoint is statistically unlikely. The "die, rewind, replay" makes you throw into the same battle over and over again wanting for the equivalent of double sixes that are never coming. Just rewind and extra section, and see if you can't come out of it better than the first time, or take some new paths.

      I don't know if it was the original structure of NoS or something carefully built into the app version, but if you're used to something like Firetop mountain, being able to dial back to a midpoint in the game and proceed is a little unthinkable and very welcome.

  3. This might be the best pitch to go buy a gamebook app that I've ever read. Now I want to *live* that world.

    1. Gosh - thanks, Ashton. I hope the app measures up to the hype!

  4. I would add that the gamebook app is the best there is. I´ve never played a gamebook app to the end before this one. Says a lot IMHO.