Review: The Bookwalker: Thief of Tales
Developer: DO MY BEST
Available on: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC (Steam, Epic, GOG), Xbox Series X, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass
I'm going to be real: It's taken me a while to get through this review because I'm suffering through writer's block of my own. It feels like life and work are keeping me so busy, and that work takes up so much of my creative energy that I don't have any left to write what I want. It's getting to the point where I hardly have the creative energy to review at that. So here I am, a month late on a review for The Bookwalker: Thief of Tales, and I'm just going to own it for the sake of this game.
The Bookwalker puts players in the role of writer Etienne Quist, who is quite literally imprisoned by the shackles of his writer's block as a punishment. It's a strong metaphor for anyone with writer's block, as the struggle to put down words to pages can feel like being a prisoner of one's mind or like life is somehow punishing us with an inability to let those words inside of us flow. Etienne has been sentenced to 30 years of writer's block, and if you've ever wanted to write creatively, it can feel like a lifetime sentence of doom to even have 30 days of writer's block.
Beyond the overall theme and metaphor of the game, The Bookwalker does other interesting stuff involving its mechanics, gameplay, and even viewpoint. Playing in the world Etienne lives in, the viewpoint is from a first-person view, and the graphics are of a more realistic look overall, but when "bookwalking," the viewpoint changes to that of a third-person isometric RPG. If you're the type of person who visualizes stories in their head while reading books, these changes in perspective feel very much like reading a scene in a story. Whether from a first-person view or a more omniscient watcher kind of view. It adds to the layered metaphor of the overall plot of The Bookwalker and is a great example of how perspective and gameplay can play into the theme of a video game's overall story.
The gameplay and mechanics of The Bookwalker combine puzzle-solving, narrative decision-making and adventure, and even turn-based combat for a unique experience. Each of these mechanics fits into the overall plot. Nothing is superfluous or just there for the fun of it. Whether you're solving a puzzle within a book to reach what you're searching for or battling ink monsters, everything fits into the overall narrative of traveling between reality and book in search of a way out of Etienne's writer's block.
What makes the metaphor of the overall plot work here is that for Etienne to work off his writer's block, he's required to choose a publisher to write off his punishment for 30 years, or he can go hunting for objects in books that he's sending off for someone else to use in their stories, essentially helping people plagiarize. If you've ever written for pay rather than for what you want to write and for the love of it, writing for pay can feel like a drag on your creative abilities. Especially if you're stuck writing what someone else wants you to write. Which is probably why it took me so long to get around to writing up this review, not to mention having to confront that I've had writer's block for too long, and it's starting to feel like a nightmare. Playing The Bookwalker felt a bit too close to home but was well-needed because while Etienne views having to write for a publisher as a death sentence, his other option isn't good either, speaking to the core of attempting to make a life as a writer.
By the time I reached the ending, I came to several conclusions: You can have several great ideas for stories, but by the time you start to reach the ending, your journey has gotten muddled, and you've ended up with a story with a lackluster ending, as many of the stories Etienne travels into do. Sometimes a shorter story is better than a longer one with a convoluted plot. Even if you love your creation, you can't make your creation love you back. Ultimately, the final conclusion I had both about writing and about The Bookwalker is: Sometimes an unsatisfactory conclusion is the only possible ending you have available to you because of the story you've written.
Which begs the question: Does the end of a story need to be satisfactory? Or was it about the journey to get there all along? Whatever the answer, The Bookwalker leaves it up to interpretation, and really, isn't that what stories are about? How we, as readers, gamers, etc., experience and interpret them?
Overall, The Bookwalker is a unique take on narrative-driven gaming, poking at and interrogating a phenomenon creatives know all too well. In places, it gets bogged down by its metaphor, and in others, it succeeds in bringing the much-experienced phenomenon of writer's block to a visible and interactive medium. I would recommend this game to those looking for a new narrative that's intriguing, short, and within budget and for any writer who is spending too much time staring at a page and in need of a break.