[Mr Creosote]was the 18th gamebook of its line. The plot revolves around the agent of an underground movement which aims at liberating humanity from under the oppression of the Arcardians.
What is it about?
[LostInSpace] Humans had colonized a couple of planets in their solar system before they were swallowed by the Arcadian empire in a 12-year-war.
[Mr Creosote] An interesting facet of this fairly detailed background plot: the humans aren't completely innocent of their own fate. Strictly speaking, they were the original aggressors against the Arcadians by entering that race's home planet in their own striving for expansion. Only as a reaction to that, the Arcadians actually began constructing their own space ships.
[LostInSpace] Arcadians come in three different varieties. They all have one thing in common: 2 fingers on each hand. That may be why they were the first to build a organic-binary supercomputer and connected each of their brains with it through a receiver.
[Mr Creosote] Meaning: those mean oppressors of mankind are basically an interplanetary ant colony. That is why the human rebels are concentrating their sabotage plans at the mother computer, the central heart of the empire. If this computer can be destroyed, freedom should be close. Just that this computer is quite well secured, of course.
[LostInSpace] To keep with this motif: the ant queen resides on the home planet called Arcadion and it is this planet where our mission will lead us to.
[Mr Creosote] Though only after visiting three other planets. Rumor says that each local rebellion leader should have some partial piece of the access code into the main building where the computer is located. Collecting these and putting them together the right way takes up most of the adventure.
[LostInSpace] Which we begin on our space ship transporting wheat to Tropos. Then we'll take the important resource Ziridium to Radix, then luxury goods to Halmuris and finally we'll escort two important Arcadian authorities to Arcadion.
[Mr Creosote] So the cover story as a merchant seems quite safe. Arriving on each planet, the local rebels have to be located, visited and convinced to help. While avoiding human traitors and Arcadian authorities.
Is this the future?
[LostInSpace] What appeals to me is the somewhat naive idea of aliens and the projection of human and animal behaviour patterns on them. Time jumps, beaming, wormholes, crop circles and basically any mystic of scientific facet are far off. Instead, you have got a clear goal and know what you have with those "evil" Arcadians.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, this is indeed a classic science fiction motif. The protagonist's identity as a rebel even means instant sympathy with this character. And then we hop from planet to planet – these are exactly the kind of adventures we dreamed of in our childhood, aren't they?
[LostInSpace] We even have our own light sabre. What more could our heart desire?
[Mr Creosote] There is even a logical explanation why we run around with a light sabre instead of some futuristic ray gun. Basically, this science fiction isn't really science fiction
[LostInSpace] On top of that, there is the martial arts aspect. As a real underground fighter, we are obviously trained in unarmed combat and we will have to make use of these talents quite regularly.
[Mr Creosote] I don't even think this happened all that often, but maybe more about that later. Things got really interesting when a part of the expectations I had towards the scenario were actually refuted pretty quickly when I started moving about the first two worlds.
[LostInSpace] You mean you had the impression you never left earth in the first place? When visiting the university, the hotel, the club, the rebel hideout inside a camouflaged agriculture complex?
[Mr Creosote] This is a side of science-fiction-but-not-really-science-fiction which is not all that uncommon. Whether these are really different planet or not isn't that important to me. The three global locations did indeed feel quite different from one another.
[LostInSpace] To be quite honest: if this book were a science fiction novel, I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. Because what it tells is not really worth telling. Though then there is the part of the gameplay. As a human, you feel at ease in this science fiction world. This enables you to act within it and the basically bland creation gains some power, because it is tangeable. It isn't as abstract as a worm hole or a time jump. And things are not limited to brawling with the evil Arcadians. There are a number of other oddities which would surely be too realistic on earth. Though they are acceptable, because we are formally travelling the universe. An example: right outside the city, large plans and mountains, completely uninhabited. Where you only find strange creatures and ghosts.
[Mr Creosote] Alright, you're referring to Halmuris, the third planet. This is where the book loses quite some steam in my view. However, the first two, Tropos and Radix, I found really well written. Both have their own microcosms. The societies have developed quite differently, which can be noticed in architecture, lifestyle and even the personalities of the people you meet.
[LostInSpace] Let's put it like this: this is the image which stayed on my mind. The frontier between civilization and wilderness, between inhabited and uninhabited.
[Mr Creosote] It's a bit of a pity if this part is what stuck to your mind. What I remember is rather the labyrinthine alleys wet with rain leading to shady bars on Tropos as well as the skyscrapers with mysterious signs of destruction in between which I was able to admire riding the monorail to the beautiful university campus on Radix.
[LostInSpace] For sure, there was a lot to discover there, but death got much closer once you left the protecting bubble of civilization and looked the primeval planet right in the eye. Back to the roots the science fiction way.
[Mr Creosote] On Halmuris, planet no. 3, you definitely leave the science fiction genre in favour of rather generic adventure encounters and motifs. You meet wild animals, seek shelter from the night in a cave etc. Quite disappointing after the strong first half.
[Mr Creosote] Back to the question of whether I would want to read this as a novel. Honestly, I think this would be a bit too much to expect. This is a naive secret agent story for kids. Though considering this standard, I am positively surprised by the fleshing out of the world and particularly the rather sophisticated portrayal of some characters.
[LostInSpace] I thought Porky, the hotel owner, was a really nice cyberpunk character. Also I loved this Arcadian who wants to use you as a guinea pig for his mind control machine and is drawn like Frankeinstein in a Matrix movie.
[Mr Creosote] I pitied the Arcadian museum guard. At that point, it suddenly wasn't at all anymore like they are all bad oppressors. The man was friendly, helpful and courteous. And suddenly, you find yourself in a situation where you are forced to kill him nevertheless. Which the book allows for almost a little too readily, but at least it does comment on this aspect.
[LostInSpace] Harsh words. Nobody wants to be a killer. Finally, this is self defense in a moment where there is no other escape. Maybe too far fetched for kids. But 007 wouldn't blink in such a moment, would he?
[Mr Creosote] Self defense? The guard doesn't attack you. He shows you around the exhibits and one of them happens to be a granade which the protagonist just has to get his hands on. So you just club him. On the other hand, you meet humans who aren't friendly at all. Smugglers want to squeeze something out of you. Bandits who are in league with the Arcadians. Etc.
[LostInSpace] Even your own people, lead by the rebel Bellatrix, will kill you if you don't pass their authenticity tests. On the other hand, you meet a nice girl at the university who sympathizes so strongly with the protagonist that she sends him right to the professor who happens to be the leader of the planet's underground movement. Meaning the book retains some ambivalence and shows both good and evil.
Routine tasks for an agent?
[Mr Creosote] Compared to most gamebooks of this line, there is indeed some eye on storytelling, characters and worldbuilding. This is reflected in the gameplay as well. Of course, you also have to fight using the standard rules (and one little special rule for unarmed combat). Though even the expected spaceship battles (which had been part of the first SF gamebook,) are nowhere to be seen. The main tasks lie in other directions.
[LostInSpace] Like traversing a maze and not least of all hitting the right plot branches so that in the end, you're not missing a password, an essential item or the access code to the supercomputer.
[Mr Creosote] The plot is branching rather nicely, and it occurred to me that – at least on the first two planets – nevertheless almost none of the branches really leads into a dead end. Rather, you do reach the final target on more or less twisty ways, meaning things become easier or trickier. Halmuris is once again the exception, because there, sudden and unforeseeable death is indeed around each corner or you get to play on although you are already in an unwinnable state.
[LostInSpace] You could call this an increasing difficulty level. Just like in a real adventure game. Though even the fights alone as well as the test your luck passages are strictly speaking an obstacle for finishing the book quickly.
[Mr Creosote] True, you have to test your luck quick frequently. On the other hand, the fights are rather manageable for a change. I never encountered an enemy with a skill above 10 and even that was just a one-time exception and this fight could even be completely avoided with the right equipment.
Rather, the main danger in fights lies in situational rules. For example, you fight a bird in its nest. This animal is rather large, but not particularly strong. Though if it hits you just one single time, you fall off the cliff. Or another time, you fight a guard. Not a strong enemy at first glance. But take longer than four turns to beat him, reinforcements arrive. I found this rather varied and imaginative.
[LostInSpace] This is where you hit the nail on the head: the book is fun, because its world and game-related progress is varied and fair along its way. Things never turn boring. How things will progress is never predictable. It always leaves you wondering whether your decisions will make you progress or lead to a dead end. Luck plays an important role. So it's not a puzzle game, but rather one of luck for explorers.
[Mr Creosote] Not untrue, but don't underestimate the puzzle qualities. As mentioned, especially in the first half of the book, you can take different paths, all of which lead to similar ends. Though on those ways, you will have received different pieces of information. Information which can later become helpful or not. You are constantly challenged; sometimes explicitly (like for example by the first rebel leader) or implicitly when you receive encoded information. That is when you have to act based on your knowledge – or guess if this is not sufficient.
[LostInSpace] Let me think, how many possible combinations are there for a 9 digit binary number? That being the code to access the main computer. If you have to guess at that point, you will be occupied for quite some time. Though even the smartest player will not simply receive the code as is, but rather will have to combine a couple of hidden clues. To be honest, I never broke this code an finally had to manually search for the right section. Shame on me!
[Mr Creosote] 2^9, i.e. 512 options. Although any number outside the decimal range of 1-400 obviously wasn't a real option by definition I thought is was doable, but certainly not trivial. Meaning exactly how it should have been. Though I still have a minor editorial complaint: it is a rather bad choice that one not completely absurd, but finally wrong candidate number for this code nevertheless leads to a section which describes the protagonist entering the computer room. So players could erroneously believe this to be the right solution, but therefore miss the essential intermediate stop at the weapon arsenal. This should have been avoided in the editing phase.
[LostInSpace] What I also liked very much in the book were those excellent drawings, sometimes spanning a full page, which illustrated certain events from the text. Certainly not unimportant on the border between novel, comic and computer game.
[Mr Creosote] On top of that, there is a relatively high density of relevant decisions. There are few meaningless guessing games along the lines of "left or right". The projected consequences of the player's decisions are usually well foreseeable. Which also leaves the impression that something is happening constantly. That the player is indeed acting.
Likewise on the positive side: there are always logical explanations why the player cannot simply backtrack; a passage may be blocked or you have drawn too much attention and people are on your trail or there is simply no time left. A typical genre issue has therefore been (mostly) avoided organically.
It is truly a pity that after a strong beginning, things become that much weaker on Halmuris and also the final visit of Arcadion is almost anticlimactic. You can just walk up to this computer building unobstructed? After entering the access code, you never encounter any guards? The computer room itself has no further security means? And finally, the decision how to destroy it has exactly one right choice and seven instant deaths. This is something much better handled in many other books.
Based only on the first half of the book, it would have easily made it into my favourites of the line. Though even as it is, it is easily worth a recommendation.
[LostInSpace] The book is probably not particularly noteworthy. On the whole, the text is solid and maybe really just average. On the other hand,scores with its trash roots, in line with the genre of game books in general. Playing, rather than reading, generated the fun.