Friday, 21 December 2012

Offer Me Solutions, Offer Me Alternatives

Unlike some people, I don't believe that the world is going to end today. Still, in view of the apocalyptic predictions inspired by the Mayan calendar, I've decided to bring forward a gamebook with a suitably end-of-the-world scenario, and the obvious candidate is Virtual Reality Adventure book 5, Heart of Ice, by Dave Morris. Thinking about it, the previous book in the series could also be thematically appropriate, as that one actually has a Mayan setting, but I'll stick with my original choice, as it also fits in with the wintry theme that Monday's entry kicked off.

Memory is a funny thing: I don't remember where I acquired my copy of the book, but I do recall an earlier time when I could have got one but didn't. I was checking out a sale of withdrawn library stock, and there was a copy there. This was a couple of years before I got back into gamebooks, and prior to that I'd only had a go at what I now know to be one of the weakest of the VRA books, so I just left the book where it was, and wound up buying CDs of The Art of Noise and James instead.

When I did go back to collecting gamebooks, I heard good things about VRA, and somehow or other managed to acquire the set (even the sub-par one I'd read before). As I recall, my first attempt at this one ended in failure when my lacking the ability to hack into an automated defence system led to my being lasered into many tiny pieces.

One thing which I believe to be unique to this series is that, while it has a system with stats and inventory management, there is no randomisation. If you can find a viable path through the book, you're sure to succeed. (Mind you, from what I've heard about this book, 'succeed' is very much a matter of interpretation - though 'fail' is liable to be a lot less ambiguous). Seven pre-generated characters are provided, and the rules also allow for creating your own character by choosing four of the twelve available Skills. I think I'll go for a pre-gen as, unless Mr. Morris has been cruel, there should be a workable route through the book for every 'officially approved' combination of Skills. But there's no guarantee that absolutely every conceivable set of four will do the job. In the hope of learning from past failures, I'll pick the Scientist, who has Cybernetics, Lore, Piloting and Survival.

It is 2300, over two centuries after the disaster. During the 21st century, a series of weather control satellites were placed in orbit, under the control of a computer network known as Gaia. A few years later, a computer virus caused Gaia to start messing with the climate in harmful ways, and by now the world is in the grip of a new ice age, humanity faced with extinction.

I am in the Etruscan Inn, converted from a crashed air cruiser, and one of the few places still with electricity. Which is a mixed blessing, as there's no way of turning off the video screen (even smashing it will just temporarily replace the broadcast with the noise of the automated repair devices), and there's little point in trying to watch it, as Gaia controls the broadcast, and randomly changes channel at a moment's notice. I have insomnia, though, and wind up watching anyway, so I get to see a not-so-random selection of old news reports. Gaia may be insane, but she's having a lucid period, and taking what steps she can to try and remedy the situation. She's identified a McGuffin that could give somebody ultimate power, so all I have to do is travel to Du-En, the abandoned city where it is, and I could gain the ability to fix the world...

In the morning I ask the innkeeper's advice on the best route to the Sahara, and am about to pay my bill when he tells me that my friend has already paid. This 'friend' introduces himself as Kyle Boche, says that we're both travelling in the same direction, and evidently wants to accompany me. I decide to let him: as they say, keep your friends close...

Boche explains that he overheard me asking about the Saharan Ice Wastes. That's probably not all he's overheard. He favours going east to Venis and catching the ferry to Kahira, while the innkeeper recommended the longer but probably warmer western route through the Lyonesse jungle. Time could be valuable, so I'll go with Boche's plan.

We trek through mountains for some time, using up our rations sooner than anticipated. While traversing a pass, I catch sight of someone else, who fails to respond to our greetings. This turns out to be because the stranger is dead, and frozen in place, as are several others. Boche starts searching the dead for food, while I cannot help but notice the rapturous expressions on the faces of the corpses. I don't think I want to see whatever it was that they were gazing at when they died.

We set off again, and by nightfall we have yet to reach any kind of shelter, but my Survival Skills help minimise the consequences. Eventually we reach Venis, but the ferry isn't due for a couple of days. Boche says he has friends he must visit, and wanders off, leaving me to choose where I'm going to spend the next couple of nights. I pick the medium-priced Hotel Paradise.

While I have time to spare, I decide to see if I can get any more sense out of Gaia. Finding a street-corner scribe with a couple of functional antique laptops, too primitive to be vulnerable to Gaia's virus, I go online. Gaia tells me to seek Gilgamesh under the Pyramid of Giza.

A local guide, or gondo, offers to take me to a deserted vault full of ancient technology, for a price. Could be a trap, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. He only takes me as far as the entrance, claiming that the place is haunted. I go in, and what I hear sounds more robotic than supernatural. Which doesn't mean it can't harm me, but I'm not about to flee at the first hint of possible danger. And the source of the noise turns out to be another of those repair devices.

Further in, I find a sky-car, potentially functional, if that little machine has been regularly servicing it. A voice summons me, and I investigate. Gaia makes contact again, informing me that I'm not the only person seeking the McGuffin, and repeating the instructions I got on the laptop.

The sky-car is still functional, and contains well-preserved food and medical supplies. My Piloting Skill enables me to operate it (though I do slightly scratch the paintwork), and I decide to travel onwards alone. Rather than head straight for Giza, I go to Kahira first. A man with an illuminated fez offers information in return for money, and I think I get my money's worth: he tells me of the iron-skinned warrior Gilgamesh, left in Giza to keep watch for any threat arising in the city I seek, and warns me not to sleep in Claustral Park unless I want to get eaten during the night.

Now I can seek further information elsewhere, if I wish. The book doesn't explicitly forbid taking the research options about which I have not heard, but it wouldn't really be appropriate, and I already know a little about Gilgamesh, so I shall focus on the Sphinx. A local fortune-teller knows that a nuclear reactor is sited beneath it, and tells me the same password I've had twice from Gaia.

The advice I paid for earlier enables me to rest for the night in safety, and the following morning I look around the bazaar, buying some polarised goggles, rope and a flashlight. Then I set off to Giza. There's a steel door set into the Pyramid, with an alphanumeric keypad in a recess next to it. I input the password, and the door opens.

Taking an elevator to the Research Level, I find stores of cold-weather clothing, and a handheld (and virus-free) version of Gaia. As 'Little Gaia' only has 512GB of memory, she doesn't contain as much data as the full-scale version, but she is at least consistently sane. The lab also contains a partially disassembled gun, which I am able to repair.

Descending to the bottom level, I get past some kind of security system and find Gilgamesh, an armed and armoured robot. I tell him that Gaia sent me to take him to Du-En, and he joins me as I return to surface level. The rest of the journey is pretty uneventful, though I do encounter Kyle Boche again on the outskirts of Du-En. He effectively admits that he's seeking ultimate power.

Smoke from a campfire indicates that we're not the only ones to have made it this far. Indeed, it turns out to be more than one campfire, all fuelled with antique furniture and the like. Introductions follow: Janus Gaunt and his reanimated cadaver servants, the psionic Baron Siriasis, the cautious Thadra Bey, US Intelligence agent Chaim Golgoth, and clone sisters Gargan XIII and XIV. Golgoth indicates a pavilion and tells me the man in it is Vajra Singh, whom I can expect to meet before long.

He's right. When a dispute over firewood threatens to turn into a shoot-out, Singh intervenes, getting everyone's attention by destroying a building with his hand-cannon (which, I observe, takes a few seconds to recharge after firing) and laying down some ground rules. A state of truce to exist in the main square, no underlings to be taken on expeditions, and may the most deserving get the power.

I use medical supplies from the sky-car to restore myself to full health. In the morning, we prepare to explore Du-En. Some of the other McGuffin-seekers have formed temporary alliances, and Singh organises a lot-drawing system to space out everyone's departure from the square. Boche decides to take the day off, wanting to conserve his strength for the free-for-all that is sure to ensue once someone finds the McGuffin. Golgoth invites me to join his party, without consulting his partners, the Gargan sisters. They're grudgingly willing to let me tag along, but label Gilgamesh a servant and insist that I leave him behind as per the rules.

We head into the catacombs, and find a strobe-lit auditorium containing metre-tall warrior puppets, with real weapons. They're programmed to act out a battle scene, and still work. Pity we don't discover this until we're on stage, in the midst of the puppets, which have no way of identifying and avoiding hitting anyone who's not supposed to be in the show. I sustain a few cuts before managing to extricate myself from the melee.

Golgoth mentions a theory that the McGuffin is the seed of another universe, and a tangent about twins leads to the revelation that he killed Gargans I-XII. XIII and XIV respond to this news by beating him up, but in the course of the brawl, he scratches both of them with a poisoned needle, bringing his Gargan-kill total to 14.

It's getting late, so we return to the square. Everyone else survived, and the Baron and Singh announce that they have discovered the precincts of the temple where the McGuffin is stored. After a couple of none-too-cheery conversations, I again restore myself to full health.

By morning, most of the others have already set off. The Baron, Boche and I remain, and form an alliance that is to remain in force until the other parties have been dealt with. I find a crevice that could provide a short cut to the temple catacombs. We climb down (well, the Baron levitates), and encounter a strange vapour that saps our energy. A grotesque figure takes shape within the mist. Luckily, with no Gargans to object, I brought Gilgamesh along today, and he manages to destroy the entity, albeit at the cost of his own existence.

A bridge leads over a chasm. While crossing it, I notice some grilles set into the chasm wall. Investigating, I find a tomb. Its treasures include a jacket that provides some protection from gunshots, which I add to my inventory.

A choice of direction presents itself. I go for the door on my left, finding a room full of debris. If it contains anything of use, I can't find it. Next I try a passage. We reach a rubble-strewn gallery, the Baron senses something stalking us, and the lights go out. I use the flashlight, dazzling the giant centipede-like creature that is approaching, and buying us enough time to get through a door and seal it.

The room beyond contains a man in military garb, frozen in time by the stasis bomb next to him. He's probably been like that for a couple of centuries. Even if I knew how to disrupt the stasis field, I'm not sure it would be wise to do so.

Further on, we reach a hall with many tunnels leading from it. The Baron tells me to scout ahead. Accepting the orders of a powerful psionic may make me susceptible to mind control, so I object. He decides that the alliance is over, but before he can kill me with his mind, an explosion destroys his body. Well, most of his body. The brain levitates out of the debris, trailing a stump of spinal column, and a telepathic message bids me approach and become a new host for the Baron's consciousness. I fire at the brain, but it is generating a psychic force shield. Let's see if I can persuade my legs to take me away at great speed. Onward into the unknown, I think: retreat is liable to either trap me in a dead end or enable the Baron to possess that giant centipede-thing.

The unknown turns out to contain a droid, which recognises me as an intruder and opens fire. This gives the pursuing brain time to catch up with me, and moments later I'm not myself any more.

Well, that was one of the more enjoyable gamebooks I've blogged about to date. Worth another try some time.

My rate of posting is liable to slow down over the next fortnight, as I'm spending Christmas and the new year with family, and will have limited access to computers, the internet, and my gamebook collection. I hope to get through a few more adventures before 2012 is over, but can make no promises.

1 comment:

  1. I can see why at least one poll lists this book as the best gamebook of all time. It's the only one that has ever given me the feeling of being in a RPG. In fact, the RPG that I play most often now is based on the Virtual Reality rules; the only RPG ruleset I know that can be written on the back of a postcard.

    It's a shame you died where you did. One of my favourite encounters is using physics to outwit the Baron.

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