YOU are John Strong, an elite “on call” agent working with the CIA, sent to find a U.S. spy satellite that crashed in Vietnam. The satellite’s memory banks contain information on Soviet Space technology, and the Russians and their Vietnamese friends will do everything they can to stop you…
To be successful in this adventure, you will have to make snap decisions under pressure, using your abilities of stealth, gun-firing, hand-to-hand combat, and bomb-throwing to reach your objectives. Prepare yourself for adventure and combat with VIET RAMPAGE.
Today’s entry into the annals of bad writing is a special one, ladies and gents. You see, Sniper!: Viet Rampage is more than just an awful narrative with horrible writing, no characterization, and the language skills of a nine-year-old. It’s all that, but you get to pick how it goes. Guys, this turned out to be a game book, similar in style to Choose Your Own Adventure, which this book is not because Choose Your Own Adventure is a registered trademark. This book has a lot in common with those books, though, being told almost entirely in the second person, as well as the obvious fact of choosing your own adventure.
Viet Rampage is based on a tabletop game called Sniper! with which I was previously unfamiliar. The game seems to have a distinct war theme, and this book is no exception. The opening of the book informs us that one need not be familiar with the tabletop game to read/play it.
Playing the book requires two six-sided dice (2d6), as well as a piece of paper and a writing implement. There is no character creation, you are simply John Strong, a Vietnam vet who has nightmares about the guys he left back there when the US pulled out. One guy in particular stands out, John’s buddy Wes, currently MIA and/or POW.
John’s skills are set in stone at the beginning of the book. Whenever you get into a fight or need to sneak around, you roll your 2d6 and add bonuses based on how good John is at something. Shooting, for instance, yields a +2 bonus. Some of the bonuses are dynamic, though. You add your health bonus to each roll, and that changes based on how many times the enemy has shot you (you roll the enemies’ dice, as well). Likewise, John’s stealth bonus goes down with each successive wound he takes. After a couple of shots, John is next to useless, but at the beginning of the game, everything is ridiculously unbalanced. Your character simply cannot fail unless he’s taken some hits. For instance, an early skill check requires a roll of at least eight, bonuses included. At that point in the game, your bonuses add up to eight. You simply cannot fail, even if you roll snake eyes.
I got into a fight with some Russians at one point. I just didn’t even bother to roll the dice.
The story, as it is, involves some old army guy sending John back to Vietnam because he’s essentially a hero for hire. An American spy satellite has been shot down by a Russian hunter satellite and it’s landed somewhere in the jungles of ‘Nam. Sending a veteran who has nightmares about his experiences there is obviously the best idea.
Your first choice is whether you want to parachute in or land a boat. The game makes parachuting in seem like the more dangerous option, so that’s the one I took at first. My roommate also played through the game a few times and took the boat option. We actually had interestingly different experiences playing the game.
Your choices usually involve either taking the safe way around or hurrying through and getting into fights with Vietnamese or Russian soldiers. You have several choices of guns, but all they do is add different bonuses to your rolls, so you should always just take the one that gives you +3.
In fact, a lot of this game seems to be based not on choice, but an illusion of choice. Skill checks and combat are pretty much always won swiftly and brutally. If you fail, you just go to the page that tells you you died. You have different skills like shooting and bomb-throwing and hand-to-hand combat, but all you ever really do is shoot guys until they die and hope you didn’t get shot while doing it. There’s no game here.
At some point you meet a beautiful Vietnamese girl named Lak To. She doesn’t do an awful lot, although she’s supposed to be an “indigenous agent” or something like that, a Vietnamese citizen working on behalf of the American government. All she seems to do is join you about halfway through and then when you get an ending that takes you back to America she comments on how excited she is to start her new life in the United States.
What we do get in the book are amazing bits of narration and dialog, stuff like
“You did good, Strong,” Lak To says.
“You too, Lak To. You too.”
“You Americans are very funny people.”
“Yeah. President Reagan is a barrel of laughs.”
She then calls you out on coming to Vietnam to rescue a machine but not the people we left behind after the war. Your choice, then, is to go free the prisoners in a nearby internment camp or to just go home. The results of those choices are, of course, pretty obvious.
My favorite bit of narration, though, was
“See that ribbon in places down there? That’s the old Route 19,” the pilot says.
You see it. You remember it. You remember the sacrifice of your innocence and your friends’ lives along that highway. You see it and remember it all too well.
That is some gritty Ernest Hemingway-esque stuff, right there.
At the start of the game you even have the choice to turn down the mission. You get one chance to change your mind, but if you don’t take it, the book just ends.
One of the major problems with the book is that you can make a choice and have no idea what it’s leading you into. Stuff just kind of happens. You can say “I choose to take the boat down the river and scout ahead” and the book just goes “Okay, you do that and some Vietnamese guys jump out and shoot you and you die THE END.”
On one playthrough I decided to take the safest route through the game, sneaking around and avoiding highly trafficked areas and so forth. I get to the satellite and find out that I failed because the Russians got there first.
Oh, and one death description has Russians coming out to take pictures of your dead body for publication in Pravda. That was a neat bit of detail I thought was kind of hilarious. John Strong is so well-known and awesome that his dead body will serve as the ultimate Soviet propaganda.
There’s really no character development in this book but that’s okay. What little we get is just hilarious. John Strong is your typical sort of gun-toting, adventure-seeking, grizzled commando who distrusts authority even as he fights for it. That’s an archetype I suppose we can all understand: the sort of “I hate society but I have to protect what little good is left in it” mentality. It’s really common in a lot of this kind of book. Look at The Penetrator, for instance. He does roughly the same thing. In fact, I’m going to retroactively say that this book is a Penetrator novel because it amuses me to do so and nobody cares enough to refute me, I’m sure.
All-in-all, this book was a hilarious experience from front to middle to front middle to near the end to the front again. It’s a pity we don’t see many more of this kind of game book. It’s a neat enough idea, although this one was handled really poorly. I’m sure they’d be hard to balance properly, and most publishers aren’t going to put “play testers” on the budget. Still, CYOA did really well and I think there’d be a market for game books with dice rolling involved, especially since interest in things like D&D is on the rise again.
Oh, the game book also had maps and occasionally told me to turn to them to get an idea of my surroundings. They did absolutely no good. There were also illustrations, which had a really weird style about them that I’ll try to describe.
The illustrations, most of the time, were really simple black and white line drawings in boxes. They’d be drawings of things like a grenade, or a knife, or a helicopter. Stuff like that. They didn’t seem to have much in the way of logic as to their whereabouts, either, they just sort of showed up at different parts of the book. What was weirdest about them, though, is the way they were presented. You might get something like a picture of a gun, a picture of a grenade, and then the same picture of a gun, just faded out a whole bunch. Or you might get three guns progressively fading out. What’s the point of that?
The final part of the book is an essay by somebody named Harris Greene, who may or may not be a real CIA operative, on the nature of spy satellites and how they’re going to help us win the Cold War. They’re the latest and greatest thing in the wide world of espionage, but they’ll never replace spies, obviously, because while we can take a picture of Gorbachev, we’ll never figure out what he’s saying unless we have a man on the ground.
Oh Harris Greene, if you’re real, I hope you lived to the modern day and that you remember writing your little essay.
There are several other books in the Sniper! series, apparently, but the ad doesn’t tell me who wrote them or if they’re all by the same guy or what. I’d be delighted to know what would happen if somebody with talent wrote one of these books.