Friday, 20 September 2013

The Children of My Civilization Would Be Insulted

Seven years ago I was in full-time employment, the gamebook revival was going strong, and I had yet to realise how much I dislike about Jon Sutherland's approach to writing gamebooks. Consequently, when a search for 'gamebook' on eBay turned up a couple of the F.E.A.R. Adventures by 'Jak Shadow' (a pseudonym for Mr. Sutherland and Gary Chalk, for 'no sensible' reason), I placed a bid and wound up getting the books for less than the postage on the lot cost.

The premise is explained in the introduction that gets rehashed in every single book in the series. My character is a child who attended a holiday adventure camp that turned out to be a secret recruiting ground for F.E.A.R. (Fighting Evil, Always Ready), a covert organisation formed to protect the Earth from 'evil alien genius' and time traveller Triton. They're recruiting children because Triton defeated all the adult agents sent against him (it is a popular misapprehension that when writing for children there's no need for the plot to make sense), and as I excelled in multiple fields at the camp, I've been singled out as a suitable candidate for a F.E.A.R. agent. I promptly demonstrate my unsuitability for such a post by shouting about how I'm going to be a secret agent, but my apparent inability to grasp one of the fundamentals of keeping a secret (not yelling about it at the earliest opportunity) does not deter F.E.A.R. operative Colonel Strong from offering me a post.

If the available publication dates are correct, The F.E.A.R. Agency was the fourth book in the series to come out, but as it's all about the final test before I commence field operations, it makes sense to play that one first. I'm to enter virtual reality and face a simulated Triton in four different situations (all based on the settings of the other books in the series). If I'm able to defeat him every time, I'm considered ready for a proper mission. If I fail any of them... Well, I get to retake the test as many times as it takes to get it right, because this series tries not to discourage its readers by making defeat an option. So I very nearly opted not to blog about the F.E.A.R. Adventures because of category 5 on my list of gamebook types unsuitable for covering here. Still, if I treat the 'go back to section 1 and try again' sections as the failures that they are, the books qualify for coverage here. And there's a certain twisted appropriateness to my applying a rather spurious rationalisation to get them through the selection process.

Overcoming my nervousness at the fact that part of the VR set-up looks like a dentist's chair, I start the test, and am presented with a choice of locations: the Tower of London, a sailing ship, the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster (more commonly known as Big Ben, though officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower last year) and a spaceship. I'll start with the Tower of London.

I get shown the disguise Triton is using in this place and time: an overcoat, scarf, top hat, pince-nez glasses and fake sideburns, none of which hide the green skin that should make him more than slightly conspicuous. And while the hat could conceal his pointed ears, the illustration shows that the brim has slits in it to allow the tips of his ears to peek out.

A voice-over explains that Triton is about to escape from the Tower and make his getaway through Traitors' Gate, and I must prevent him from doing so. I decide not to go to his cell, but wait near the gate, and catch sight of a patrolling guard. The book offers the option of warning him of Triton's imminent escape, but approaching the authorities hardly ever works in gamebooks, and adults refuse to believe warnings from children in far too many kids' books, so speaking to the guard is liable to be futile at best. Not approaching the guard leads to my character becoming impatient and heading for Triton's cell instead. Clearly Mr. Sutherland is still not too keen on letting the readers make the decisions.

Going to the cell would be easier if I knew where it was, but finding it doesn't prove that difficult, as I spot one of Triton's henchmen heading there, and follow him. He bends the bars to let Triton out and, given that even my adult self wouldn't fare too well against the sort of thug who can bend metal bars with his bare hands, I choose not to attack him. Once Triton is out, the two of them head along the gravel path to the river. I follow them, but stay off the path, as it's not easy to be stealthy on gravel.

They get into a rowing boat, and I see that Traitors' Gate has been opened while I was authorially sidetracked. Jumping into the boat looks like a stupid idea, whereas trying to reclose the gate could possibly work, so I look for the controls, and find a big cog with a handle. Cranking the gate shut takes me less time than rowing to it takes Triton and his minion, and the tantrum Triton throws upon having his exit barred causes the musclebound minion to wind up in the water. Triton then starts flailing at me with an oar, and I duck, hoping that slapstick shenanigans will lead to the alien also going overboard. That's precisely what happens, and he loses both his hat and his recently regained liberty.

One mission down, three to go, and the way the section is worded implies that I have no choice about which one I try next. So off I go to the sailing ship-based test, in which Triton's 'disguise' consists of an earring, a spotted bandana and a hat with a feather in. He's planning on stealing the gold from a ship in order to finance further misdeeds.

I find myself on deck and, not seeing any crew about, go to see if someone's steering it. When I reach the deck (not that I ever left it, but authors who think children will tolerate any old nonsense tend not to be too concerned about sloppy writing, either) I see the Captain, who somehow senses me behind her, spins round, draws a sword and asks who I am and what I'm doing here. I can tell her the truth or claim to have been lost at sea and swum to her ship, and since I'm too dry for 'I just swum here' to be a remotely convincing claim, I'm stuck with the not much more plausible-sounding 'I've been sent here to help prevent a pirate from stealing your cargo'. She's convinced and, when a look-out sights Triton's ship, turns to me for advice. I have vague memories of recommending that she fight when I played the book back in '06, and it didn't go well, so this time I suggest fleeing and hoping that all that gold won't slow the ship down.

Well, that was not unsuccessful. But then the ship runs into a tropical storm, and again it's down to a 21st-century child with roughly zero experience of sailing to explain to a ship's Captain how to handle the situation. I advise making for dry land, so the crew steer the ship out of the eye of the storm and into calmer waters (someone doesn't know that the eye is the calmest part of a storm), where land is rapidly sighted, and we soon reach harbour. There are so many flaws in the plan of unloading the gold to hide it in the nearby village that even the author might realise it's a bad idea, so I opt for trying to encourage the locals to help us against the pirates.

Nope, the village is a nonsensically long way from the harbour, and before we get half way there, Triton's ship pulls up and grabs the cargo. Silly me, thinking we'd be more vulnerable if we were dragging heavy chests of treasure along the road when the pirates caught up to us. But a quick look at the section I didn't turn to reveals that if we'd taken the gold with us, we'd actually have reached the village before Triton's ship arrived. Well, my already low opinion of the author's writing has dropped another notch or two. By now I have only slightly more respect for him than he shows for his readers in this book.

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