by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A Story About Stories
The days are behind me, but for nine years, I taught high school English. For a sizeable portion of my life - and even now, to an extent, now that I'm no longer in the profession - stories were an important part of my self-identity and daily experience. Stories can be our glimpse into other times and other lives that we'll never tangibly know, or they can be the windows through which we self-reflect on the familiar and the known. But what if those windows could actually be opened, and we could climb through? What if stories were something that we could reach out, touch, and even alter in a very real way? Such is the question asked by developer DO MY BEST's new narrative title, Bookwalker: Thief of Tales.
In Bookwalker, players step into the life of author Etienne Quist, though his profession lends itself to something much more dangerous and exciting than simply scribing pages at a desk. Etienne has been shackled and forbidden from writing for 30 years, a punishment that's also accompanied by hard manual labour. The mysterious setup doesn't give away too much too soon, and Etienne's potential path to escape his sentence is both bizarre and extraordinary.
An Unusual Quest
In the opening minutes of the game, Etienne receives a call from a strange fixer that says he can take care of the sentence in exchange for the completion of several heists. And it's here that Bookwalker gets truly bizarre. Etienne isn't tasked with robbing a bank or store. Instead, he's delivered a series of books that he must physically enter in order to steal the very powerful artifacts within.
From that point on Bookwalker bounces back and forth along with Etienne as he travels between his world and the worlds of the books in front of him. While inside each book, Etienne is a higher power. He's a literary god among another god's creations, and with the knowledge that comes from being an outside force, he's able to manipulate his surroundings and engage (or change) the stories as he sees fit to reach the objects of his desire. It's a series of narratives within a narrative, and Bookwalker plays with that duality to raise ethical and gameplay questions.
Etienne's actions in each story have the potential to change it, but does it matter? Should one take pause inflicting undeserved pain and suffering on a charcter if they aren't real, even if that character seems to breathe and move and yearn? What is the role and right of a reader in contextualizing and ultimately redefining the meaning of a story in opposition to the author's intentions? These questions are obviously much more tangential in-game as Etienne finds the present stories to be habitable worlds, but there's a layer of thematic questions about stories, raiders, and writers that I found interesting.
Puzzles and Combat
Gameplay-wise, Bookwalker is split into two halves. The "real world" is played as a first-person experience with realistic visuals, but everything shifts into a more stylized and isometric world when inside of books. It’s a nice differentiator that stresses the separation of each gameplay segment, even if most of the game takes place in the latter. Stories are a mix of basic exploration and crafting to progress and ultimately act as elaborate escape rooms. Players need to find the right items to combine to create the other item that opens access to another area or person. Aid comes in the form of Roderick, a character from a book that’s been trapped in a metal cage so that he can be transported from book to book (and even into the real world). In addition to providing banter, he also provides guidance through his knowledge of what happens in different books. I found the puzzles to strike a nice balance of difficulty - engaging without ever completely stopping me in my tracks.
Beyond basic item crafting and puzzles, another interesting element is Etienne's ability to bring items from his real world into the stories. For example, early on, he needs a sledgehammer to break through a damaged concrete wall. Despite there not being one in the story, Etienne simply hops out, borrows one from his reluctant neighbor, and hops back in with the tool in hand.
The only part of the game that didn't completely do it for me is combat. There's not a ton of it, but there is turn-based combat in which Etienne uses ink as a sort of mana or stamina to fight foes with a limited set of moves. There’s a creative element in balancing attacks with draining more ink, but overall I was usually simply trying to get through it to get back to the exploration that I enjoyed more.
Overall, Bookwalker is an engaging game that takes an interesting premise and uses it to tell a story full of mystery and creativity. I enjoyed the meta-ness of me controlling a fictional character as he wrestles with how and if to control other characters that are fictional to him. World-building, puzzle-solving, and quality visuals and writing make Bookwalker a satisfyingly complete package well worth checking out.
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Creative premise, unique gameplay mechanics, engaging writing and story.