Thursday, January 6, 2011

Heart of Ice (Part 3)

Figure 1. Map from Heart of Ice
by Leo Hartas (from Morris, 1994)

Last time out we looked at the rules for Heart of Ice and how they contributed to making it an enjoyable gamebook experience. This time around we’ll consider the gameplay aspect and how this has played a part in building Heart of Ice’s reputation as one of the best gamebooks ever.

2. Gameplay. Unlike say the Fabled Land series, which perhaps mark the zenith of non-linearity in gamebook fiction, Virtual Reality Adventure titles such as Heart of Ice were essentially linear stories, following a prescribed arc towards a given set of endings. To throw in a bit more terminology though, would we consider them ‘one true path’ or ‘multiple paths’ (Wright, 2011a)? Interestingly, it’s here that opinions differ.

Personally, I consider Heart of Ice a multi-path adventure because mechanically there at least four main ways (and a few other minor variations) to reach your goal: The Lost City of Du-En. Without giving away spoilers, even a glance at the map (given you start at the Etruscan Inn in Italy - see Figure 1), suggests a variety of different ways to approach the Saharan Ice Wastes. For others however, it’s not so clear-cut. For instance, Per Jorner (2007) says:

…you have the classic choice of going east or west. One of the paths is potentially very long and the other is potentially very short, measured in references, and this can be seen as an imbalance. It’s well known that in gamebooks, managing to get somewhere with as little fuss as possible often means you’re sorely underprepared for what awaits you there. It is true here for some paths though not for all. Also, depending on your choice of path, certain skills may take on great importance while others become worthless.

At first glance this would appear to support our multiple path hypothesis. However, he then goes on to state that:

Anyway, the task of planning out differing “true paths” for various skills or skill sets is simply so complex as to be impossible, and what’s been done here – focus on a broad major path with a couple of key points, add a few side tracks and hope that everything balances out in between – is certainly one valid design. (Jorner, 2007)

The design process he advocates here instead postulates a ‘broad major path’ which tends more towards the one true path approach. This is validated in an interview with the author Dave Morris, where he says:

Better to have one path and make it really gripping than to have a bunch of mediocre threads. So even if you look at a much later book like Heart of Ice – well, there you’ve got two main routes to get to Du-En, but once you’re in the city there’s a single main path. You can play it all kinds of ways with different alliances (thank heavens for codewords) so your choices make a difference, but the actual flowchart still follows a single main thread. (FalcoDellaRuna, 2008).       

The answer therefore is that while Heart of Ice has the appearance of a multi-path gamebook, it actually follows one true path. The difference however, between a strict adherence to a one true path strategy such as Creature of Havoc (Jackson, 1986), and Heart of Ice, is that in the latter, your choices (in the form of your Skills, equipment and codewords) do make a difference to what actually happens along that path. 

Figure 2. The codeword automaton Gilgamesh
by Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).

Ah yes, codewords (see Figure 2). We looked briefly in the previous post at how Skills and equipment affect the rules of how you play a Virtual Reality Adventure (Wright, 2011b), but it is the codewords that decide how the story ultimately unfolds for your character. Codewords were actually introduced as far back as The Demon’s Claw (Morris & Johnson,  1987), which was the third book in the Blood Sword saga, and probably reached their pinnacle in the Fabled Lands series, where they were ordered alphabetically for each book (all the ones in the first book started with ‘A’ for example). Concerning the origins and implementation of codewords, Dave Morris notes that they were:

…lifted from the flags used in computer text adventures at the time. It was very powerful for remembering whole chunks of prior actions. I got to the point where I had a subliminal bug-checker running in the back of my mind. I’d plot out twenty or thirty paragraphs, then I’d go to the gym and I’d be in the middle of a workout and I’d suddenly think, “Oh, there’s a broken link between 27 and 30” or “I need a new codeword in 45” or whatever. I bet Plato did a lot of his best thinking the same way. (FalcoDellaRuna, 2008)

The end result is like reading a ‘proper’ novel, with the difference that your previous actions (remembered as codewords) can have a profound effect on the plot, and provoke consequences that you may not have been anticipating.

This brings us around to the final element of gameplay, that of replay-ability. Is Heart of Ice a book we can continually pick up and play just to see what happens if we do this or that, or is it instead a challenge that we complete successfully, cross it off the list of things to do, and place it back on the shelf? Most fans opt for the former. Tubb (2010) for instance states: “I even read through the book multiple times after I beat it, so I could see some of the other interesting places and events that I missed because I went different ways or had different skills”. This level of replay value is interesting, given that it is perfectly possible to complete this book first time out, unlike many other gamebooks (see Figure 3). Indeed, Per Jorner (2007) says:

Figure 3. First time end-game?
 by Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).

Also I suppose some will enjoy the fact that even your first character is not the berated doomed adventurer just dropped off outside the Trial of Champions for his first foray into Deathtrap Dungeon, but rather a true pulp hero with a very real chance of success.

This is reinforced by Dave Morris when he opines:

Ideally a gamebook should be completed at the first attempt. Any time you kill a character, as the writer you’ve failed. I prefer to let players make mistakes that sidetrack them, and chip away at their hit points, rather than taking them straight to a death paragraph. It’s the same in a computer game – if I get killed and have to start again, it just annoys me. (FalcoDellaRuna, 2008).

Dave Morris also notes that he would ensure that it was possible to complete one of his books with any random combination of skills, but also says “A lot of people talk about the need for a gamebook to have replay value, but why? The real point is that it needs to be enjoyable.” (FalcoDellaRuna, 2008).

On that note, we’ll end here, and in our next post, consider the last aspects of Heart of Ice, namely, the setting, the writing, the characters, and the overall ambience.


FalcoDellaRuna. (2008). Dave Morris interview 2008. Accessed from

Jackson, S. (1986). Creature of Havoc. London: Puffin.

Jorner, P. (2007, May 31). Reviews part 18: The future’s so bright I

Morris, D. (1994). Heart of Ice. London: Mammoth.

Morris, D. & Johnson, O. (1987). The Demon’s Claw. London: Knight Books.

Tubb, A. (2010, September 28). Heart of Ice – A solo gamebook adventure in post-apocalyptic Europe and Africa. Review posted to

Wright, A. (2011a). The Adventure Game Part 2. Fighting Fantazine 5(January, 2011). Unpublished (but not for long!).

Wright, A. (2011b). Heart of Ice (Part 2). Message posted to


  1. "Ideally a gamebook should be completed at the first attempt. Any time you kill a character, as the writer you’ve failed."
    Dave must have forgotten he wrote Eye of the Dragon when he said that ;)

  2. Hi Kieran. I can't remember any instant deaths off-hand from EOTD, but I do remember that the best (if only) path is extremely convoluted, no?



  3. There's actually two paths though both are fairly convoluted. There's also the threat of instant death around just about every corner. Still an excellent gamebook however.

    Really enjoying the blog by the way. Keep it up!

  4. I really like Eye of the Dragon too, and it's something to review here. I especially like the art and the interesting mix of encounters within the ruined city. With some conversion, it also makes for an interesting Dragon Warriors adventure, as there's the odd connection in the text to the game world of Legend.

    Thanks for your kind words about the blog. Must get a new post done today!