The decapitations of Trial of the Clone

Zach Wienersmith’s interactive novel is a challenging and interesting narrative, if a bit juvenile.

Wienersmith, the writer and artist behind the popular web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, will be releasing his new novel, Trial of the Clone next month, after the conclusion of the KickStarter campaign.

Trial of the Clone harkens back to an age before the popularization of computer based interactive narratives.

Essentially, it’s a role-playing game in book form, closer in lineage to the Lone Wolf series than to the Choose Your Own Adventure series of yore. There is a simple character sheet to track items, character traits (aspects), and stats, making it possible for the adventure to have some dynamic and random qualities. True to the primary theme of the work, luck will play a factor in your success.

The novel doesn’t take all of its mechanical inspiration from those classic books however, there is also a clear inspiration from modern role-playing video games, especially in the idea of the alternate paths, and varied endings.

Even in the complex plots of the old Lone Wolf novels, one would, by the end, have read at least half of the pages of the book, as there was really only one path to take, and the many turns were basically either successful continuation or death.

In contrast, Trial of the Clone has two axis the protagonist can travel along while choosing a path through the story. A basic class system allows the player to choose from among three professions which then affect the possible decisions and the character’s skill progression. There is also a morality axis, which leads the reader toward one of many different possible endings. 

While each act but the last one always begins and ends in the same place, which aspects and items are carried through, in addition to the chosen profession, will have a major impact on the story of the following act, with each read-through only hitting a small fraction of the possible scenes for that act. 

The ludic elements are mostly well-balanced, though I did notice that at certain points, the non-combat challenges were much easier to complete than trying to fight through, but perhaps this was intentional.

After dying a few times, one learns quickly that this is a world where often the most ridiculous actions are the key to victory, and betraying the plot, and even the fourth wall of the story becomes essential to a successful outcome, though I found myself turning to read the ‘bad’ choices frequently because often the best humor moment lay in those paths.

Reads one particularly pithy death scene: “You die. Because of the spikes. And the fire. Did you even read the options?”

If you read Wienersmith’s web-comic, then you already know what kind of humor to expect. The style is sometimes juvenile, sometimes hypersexual, and sometimes shockingly insightful. The violence of the work is cartoonish, with frequently lost limbs; trivialized laser-sword wounds; and constant, casual loss of life. There are only few illustrations (surprisingly, not drawn by Wienersmith himself), but what there is lends to the story well, while paying homage to classic interactive fiction books.

The 5 act story takes the reader through a universe which is at once a parody of sci-fi tropes – especially Star Wars – and a farcical look at our own society. While the central themes are destiny and redemption, the actions of the characters that fill the ridiculous world are a commentary on everything from the economy to the education system to modern warmongering. 

A few moments got too predictably silly for me (one can only read so many ‘geeks are sexually frustrated’ jokes in a row before rolling one’s eyes), but for the most part, the story stays engaging and tongue-in-cheek insightful, and while the protagonist can sometimes be frustrating – he’s an insufferable dolt – it all pays off in the end, with a climax that is rousing in both its literary and ludic elements.

Of course, by its very nature, you might not even get the same endings I ended up with on my two read-throughs, which is the beauty of this type of novel. Each person who reads it will have a slightly different experience, and bring something a bit different away from it, but if you’re a member of the geek community, or just like to think so, this is an essential title for your shelf. Hopefully, it’s only the beginning. It would make me very happy to see resurgence in the interactive fantasy role-playing novel, and if it starts with a franchise of books from Wienersmith, all the better.

The KickStarter for the project has already well exceeded its original goals, but there is still time to get in on it, so that you can have one of the first copies off the presses. The Kickstarter ends on July 25th, 2012, but you’ll still be able pick up the book from Breadpig after the initial KickStarter run.