Friday, 15 February 2013

It's Over There, Between the Land and the Sky!

The Starlight Adventures series was Puffin Books' attempt at getting more girls reading gamebooks. Like most, if not all of the publishers who sought to prolong the gamebook boom by targeting female readers, they decided that the bait required was romance. But they did at least make it a sub-plot (sometimes even a near-optional one), rather than making it the sole focus of the book.

One of my sisters owned a couple of the SA books back in the eighties, and I had a go at them because they were gamebooks. One was the exceedingly railroady Riddle of the Runaway, which I have no desire to ever read again. The other was the more challenging Island of Secrets, by Kim Jordan, which I never did manage to successfully complete. At some point after getting back into gamebooks, I came across a copy of Island in the local Cancer Research UK shop, and bought it, hoping to actually solve the mystery. Life's multitudinous distractions kept me from getting very far with it, but given that it's that time of the year, I'm dusting it off for the purposes of this blog.

As far as I'm aware, there's no consistent system to the SA books. IoS has a degree of randomisation, and uses Luck Points to keep track of how well the reader is doing. This does bring about one of the more peculiar aspects of the book: as I recall, the Luck penalty for getting into trouble with the Police is significantly higher than the loss of Luck for having your drowned corpse wash ashore. About the only other thing I remember at all clearly is the point where the flip of a coin or the roll of a die determines whether 'you' fail to solve the mystery or find a skull, freak out, and then fail to solve the mystery. Evidently not on the optimal path. Unless this is an interactive Bildungsroman with the moral that you're never going to find out all the answers in life, in which getting out with your life and reputation intact is the best you can hope for. Which is, frankly, not massively likely.

At the start of the book, my character just managed to snag a summer job as a villa girl on the Greek island of Simnos, in part as a means of avoiding (or at least delaying) having to take a job with the insurance company that employs her boyfriend Nigel. Obviously that relationship's going well...

Upon arrival at Simnos, I am greeted by Penny, who is to be my co-worker for the next few months. She drives me to the villa, and in my room I find an old pamphlet about the history of the island. There's no time to read it now, though, as I have guests to organise. The woman in room 6 is complaining about the en suite facilities, and appears to be trying to intimidate me into giving her and her husband a free upgrade. I politely but firmly tell her to take her complaints to head office, and then head out onto the balcony for a breath of fresh air and a chance of overhearing something important (okay, the book only mentions the 'fresh air' aspect, but I've read and watched enough Agatha Christies to know the value of inadvertent eavesdropping).

Well, I don't overhear anything, but I do catch sight of Penny getting friendly with a man who doesn't look like a local, but lacks the air of a tourist. Something to think about while I peel potatoes. After the meal, Penny is eager to gossip, mentioning our unsociable neighbour Garth, the visiting author Matt (who sounds like the man I saw her with earlier, and claims to be suffering from writer's cramp), and windsurfing trainer and lothario Panos. She then decides to head off to a local nightclub, and I go for a walk because I've got to stumble across a lead somehow, right?

Along the way I catch sight of the island of Simnaki, former site of a temple to Aphrodite. Hearing someone coming up the hill behind me, I look back and see Matt, who is lost in thought and has yet to notice me. The writing here is a little unclear: I'm offered the option of continuing up the hill or descending, but the choice which involves moving towards the 'author' turns out to be an attempt at avoiding him. Still, he blocks my way and invites me for a glass of ouzo at the mill where he lives, so I get a chance to investigate his activities anyway.

Sort of a chance. There's someone waiting outside the mill, and upon catching sight of him, Matt claims that it's a business associate with whom he needs to discuss things, and sends me home. My character not yet having twigged that this is a mystery rather than a Mills & Boon, I am annoyed at having been spurned rather than curious about what is afoot.

Back at the villa, I cannot sleep, so I read that pamphlet. It includes an account of the tale of a drunkard who disappeared after sheltering from a storm in the ruined temple on Simnaki. He reappeared a week later on the far side of the island, raving about having been taken to see Aphrodite on her golden throne. After that he kept going back to the ruins, eventually vanishing again, this time for good.

Next morning Penny is hungover, and asks me to get the shopping. Tiresomely, I can't go straight to the shops, but have to make a detour that will bring me into the vicinity of one of the men she told me about yesterday. Matt is so obviously shifty that it might be worth investigating someone else. I opt for the nosy neighbour routine.

Garth's villa shows no sign of any human presence, but a couple of dogs block my way. I decide to see if they're less hostile than they appear, but Luck is not with me, and they chase me away. So I head on into town, get the required supplies, and invest in a hat for protection from the sun. I can also buy one other item if I want, so I go for the pendant with a strange symbol. It turns out to be a sign related to Aphrodite, so I might have just inadvertently picked up the local equivalent of a Horga'hn.

Time passes, during which the text has me start to learn windsurfing (though Panos' jealous girlfriend averts the risk of a compulsory romance with him) and get to know a few archaeology students, only one of whom is apparently plot relevant enough to merit a name: Liam. Then, one night, Penny persuades me to go out clubbing with her. At a bar she introduces me to Liam (I only met him a section ago, Ms. Jordan!), who's splitting his time between a dig on Simnaki and a ruined fort. He offers to take me to the fort tomorrow, and then Penny announces that Garth has made arrangements for her and me to join him on a trip to a millionaire's yacht tomorrow. I choose to go to the fort, an argument breaks out, and the die determines that I wind up rescheduling the fort trip. But I get to choose between going to the yacht and staying in the villa to spite Penny. Unnecessarily annoying colleagues rarely ends well, besides which there may be some useful info on the yacht, so I agree to her plan. Liam is not overjoyed at this, and the evening ends poorly.

The following day I have the option of changing my plans. Not sure how easy it would be to contact Liam and say I will go with him after all in a pre-mobile phone setting, so I'll stick with what I'd decided on. Though the potential for casual negation of what all that fuss was about last night rather suggests that I might have learned something of use if I'd chosen or rolled differently.

Penny and I head for Garth's villa, and as on my previous visit, there's no sign of him, but the dogs come rushing towards us. If I'd befriended them last time, I'd know their names, but I didn't, so... That's interesting. The section listed three pairs of names for the dogs, plus 'no idea', so I assumed that two of the pairs were just there to try and trick cheats who aren't smart enough to bookmark the section while they check out as many pairs as it takes to get the right one. After all, the likelihood of guessing their names at random without even a clue about what was on their owner's mind when he named them is infinitesimally tiny. But the 'no idea' section says to either guess or give up, then lists the same possibilities as before, so implausibly lucky guessing is explicitly a valid option here.

I only got one name right, but that's enough to get me a second chance. One of the remaining pairs includes a name that's not from Greek mythology, so I'm ruling that out. And that's placated the dogs, so we can get to the villa. Which is deserted, but Garth turns up before I have time to do more than notice a bit of paper with names on it, linking Matt's to the yacht owner's, and with a question mark by Liam's. I wonder if Garth is some kind of investigator.

At the yacht we are introduces to Koutalas, our host, who leads Garth away to introduce him to someone. Penny spots Matt, and wants to join him. I leave her to it, and a chance collision with another partygoer spills drink on my dress, forcing me to go off in search of water to avert a stain. Surely now I can overhear something...

My wanderings lead me to Koutalas' bedroom, which has an en suite bathroom, and also contains many books, including a detective novel by one Rex Vittuli, which contains a dedication in vaguely familiar-looking handwriting. I'm in the bathroom, attending to my dress, when I hear someone come into the bedroom. I keep quiet, and whoever it is leaves again. Garth snooping around?

Voices come through the bathroom porthole. At last. One is sinister and possibly familiar, the other new and American. Sinister wants things sped up, and American protests in a manner suggesting that archaeological work is involved. Sinister asks if Rex is cooperating (author Rex? Matt's pen name?), and American says he's too desperate to refuse. A peek through the porthole reveals only that one of the men has a serpent tattoo. They move off, and I decide to get back to the party before my absence is noticed. Penny has been abandoned by Matt, and we wind up heading back to shore with Garth before long.

Back at the villa I turn my attention to the airmail letters from Nigel that never got a mention before now, at least on the path I've followed through the book. Not even a throw-away reference in the 'time passes' section - I went back to it to double-check that I hadn't been inattentive. The first letter indicates that my family are unhappy at my not having written to them. I can save the second for later and get some rest, but that's probably not a very clever thing to do. No, it wouldn't have been, because it announces that he's coming to visit me. Due to arrive a week after he wrote the letter, so probably quite soon. Yep, the day after tomorrow. I have an intuition that this will not end well.

I can discuss this with someone. None of the potential conversation partners look particularly useful in that regard, but calling on Matt might provide further opportunities to find evidence of what he's up to. That's a bit of a metaknowledgey motivation, but if I wanted to rôle-play a young woman without a clue as to what's going on... that'd be rather odd.

No, no investigative opportunities, just a blunt, 'nothing to do with me.' Nigel phones to check that everything's okay for his visit. I tell him to cancel: as the reader of this book, I have nothing invested in the relationship, and I've seen nothing to indicate that it's going anywhere good, so keeping him away doesn't look that bad a choice even in character. Nigel loses his temper and dumps me, and I get disapproving scowls from eavesdropping villa guests.

Another 'passage of time' section. The guest who complained about the room has left, as has Greg (whoever he was). 'It is probable that you are still having difficulty in deciding where your romantic preference lies.' Or maybe I just don't care that much about any of the potential partners who've been presented, hmm?

I attend a beach barbecue. Panos surfs there, prompting musings on the dangers of surfing at night. I decide to visit Simnaki the next day. Of the available companions for the trip, Liam looks like the best bet: Matt is liable to steer me away from anything connected with whatever he's up to, Penny's too self-centred for my liking, and Panos would probably divert the plot into an inadvisable dalliance. I could go on my own, but Liam has potentially relevant knowledge. I interrupt his attempts at using Greek mythology to chat up a French girl, and arrangements are made.

The next day, I join the archaeological team on the boat to Simnaki. Overheard chat indicates that Orlando, the team leader, is overly hands-off in his approach to the work, and that Koutalas is sponsoring the dig. And there are rumours of a lost treasure. Aren't there always?

The archaeological work is slow, meticulous, painstaking, and nothing like Raiders of the Lost Ark might have suggested. I am asked who I came with, and the list doesn't mention Panos, but does have Garth on it. An error, or would choosing to go it alone or with Panos have somehow have led to winding up with Garth?

Liam reveals that the temple is in ruins because of seismic activity. The island is an extinct volcano, not that the book's likely to have an 'it's not so extinct after all, and you die in an eruption' ending. Liam wants to show me a tomb. If he thinks this is a date, he has some funny ideas about how to impress a girl. I think I've gone back to that textual dead end I remember from the '80s, as I find myself being encouraged to pull out the stone which marks a concealed chamber designed for treasure storage. A flip of a coin establishes... that I can't shift it. In fact, none of the archaeologists have been able to open up the chamber yet. It's even possible that the chamber contains a legendary gold and ivory statue of Aphrodite. Okay, I can see how Liam might have considered 'give her a chance of finding the lost treasure' a way to make a good impression on a member of the opposite sex. Even if it did give most of the other archaeologists apoplexy...

I have the option of going for a wander. Might as well give it a go. I'll go west, because that appears to be heading towards the far side of the island, and the tale of that drunkard could indicate the existence of a secret passage from the temple that ends there. Before long my way is blocked by a barbed wire fence bearing a sign warning of dangerous ground. Could just be to deter the curious, so I'll ignore it.

The path beyond is suspiciously well-worn. I hear voices, and realise that I'm not likely to be welcome here. Quickly hiding, I watch as a man in a white suite (sic.) helps his companion through the wire. The suit matches the archaeologists' description of Orlando, and the man with him has the tattoo I saw on the yacht. This definitely merits further investigation.

I find a tomb like the one Liam showed me. Someone's dropped a wallet near the entrance. Credit cards indicate it to belong to Rex Vitulli, and an ID card bears Matt's photo. Called it! Though my character is surprised at this revelation. Still, she's resourceful enough to be carrying a flashlight, and has enough guts to enter the tomb, despite skeletal remains and rats. The tomb has a few features of potential interest, but I focus on the stone like the one Liam showed me. Bingo! The treasure's behind it. Not just the statue, but all sorts of other loot ancient artefacts. And the looseness of the stone suggests that I'm not the only person to have removed it recently.

I tell Liam of my discovery, and he voices the suspicions he's had about the dig all along. We make arrangements to try and catch the criminals in the act of removing the treasure. So either he's read too many Famous Five books at an impressionable age, or he's in on it and setting me up, but the book's giving me no choice here.

Back on Simnos, I wake in the middle of the night, and am asked what time I set my alarm to go off. There's been no mention of the alarm before, so I'll pick the earliest option. The boats on the beach have all had their oars removed or been otherwise immobilised, so the only way to get to Simnaki is by windsurfing. 'Foreshadowing: your key to quality literature.' Liam can't windsurf, which makes it more likely that he's not a villain, but means I'm on my own.

The roll of the die gets me across the sea unharmed, and I head for the tomb with the treasure. 'Matt' and some others are hard at work removing stuff from it. I slip, making enough noise to attract attention, and wind up with four criminals on my tail. I manage to hide from them, but they find my surfboard and trash it, so my only means of escape is by swimming.

About half way across I hear an outboard motor. Could be the criminals, so I move out of its way. The sea gets rough, and I don't make it back to Simnos. And drowning this way is just as bad as getting arrested, Luck-wise.

That's the furthest I've ever been through the book. It has its flaws and inconsistencies, and the increase in 'roll a die' moments towards the end is bothersome, but the way clues are fed to the reader along the way is handled rather well. Based on that attempt, it's more enjoyable than some gamebooks for which I am part of the target audience.

No comments:

Post a Comment