September 24, 2020

(+++) GAME BOOKS: FROM YAY TO NEIGH

Escape from a Video Game 1: The Secret of Phantom Island. By Dustin Brady. Illustrations by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Escape Book: Mystery Island. By St├ęphane Anquetil. Illustrations by Marcel Pixel. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Soul Riders 2: The Legend Awakens. By Helena Dahlgren. Translated from Swedish by Tara Chace. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     There is no question that video games lose something when translated to book form: they lose the video and all the motion and interactivity associated with it. But there is also no question that the temptation to expand games into the world of books appears well-nigh irresistible – the problem being to figure out how to retain the essence of the gaming world while offering readers at least a somewhat similar experience and, if possible, giving them things to do that are different from video-game interactivity but just as enjoyable. One way to do this is to turn games into pick-your-path books, such as the first volume in Jesse Brady’s Escape from a Video Game series, The Secret of Phantom Island. There is nothing particularly innovative about the format here: you read a page of text, come to a multiple-choice option at the bottom, pick one of the possibilities, and turn to that option’s indicated page. Then you may advance in the story, go down a blind alley, or die – video-game die, that is, meaning you lose a life and get sent back to somewhere earlier. In fact, the book offers three “difficulty levels,” with “easy” giving infinite lives, “medium” giving 10, and “hard” offering five. There are, of course, none of the special effects associated with succeeding or failing in an actual video game, but The Secret of Phantom Island tries to make up for them (or some of them) by a complicated-but-silly, convoluted plot: the whole book starts with “back story” that then turns out to be the story in which the reader is participating. It is a pretty typical good-vs.-evil-on-a-mysterious-island tale, with narrative that includes the occasional hand-written letter or other video-game-style found object to move the quest along. The writing is not exactly profound: “You grab the vine and shimmy until you reach a greenhouse. What’s the purpose of an underground greenhouse, anyway? There’s no sun down here. That’s a super question that you’d probably investigate were you not busy trying to keep down your lunch. This greenhouse stinks…” After a couple of paragraphs of this, you get to choose whether to escape by going through a hole or by climbing one of three vines: green, blue or yellow. Each option, of course, leads to a different page and a different tangle (so to speak) in the story. And to up the complexity level a bit, the book includes a sort-of “Easter egg” in the form of a series of “secret letters” that show up at every point of achievement. The idea is to beat the game, then go back, find each ending, record all the secret letters, and use them with a back-of-the-book code that “unlocks” an entirely new story, which can be found online. This is actually a pretty good print-medium adaptation of standard video-game features, although it does not really provide readers with an experience comparable to the one they would get as gamers. Still, video-game lovers who for some reason find themselves unable to play electronically and who have access to The Secret of Phantom Island will get enough enjoyment from this first episode in Escape from a Video Game so that they may even look forward to the next one.

     And what is it, exactly, about islands in video games and in the books derived from or resembling them? Presumably “island” equals “isolation” and therefore allows authors and game developers to present a self-contained world within which adventures take place – with no hope of outside assistance or worry about outside interference. St├ęphane Anquetil’s Mystery Island is shorter and less intricate than The Secret of Phantom Island, and the story is more straightforward even though it uses the same choose-your-path approach. The idea is that the reader (presumably a younger reader than for The Secret of Phantom Island) is stranded on a volcanic island and must figure out how to get away before the volcano erupts. There are specific “Rules of the Game” that, in fact, are called just that. There is a map showing locations on the island, each designated by a multiple of 10 (that is, 10, 20, 30, 40 and so on); when you get to one place, you can choose which of several others to try to reach next. There are objects to be found in various locations, as is common in video games; the reader must keep an inventory of found objects, since there is no way to have that done automatically and electronically in a book. Objects can be used individually – or combined with other objects, according to rules set forth in a table. And the idea is to focus on getting from place to place until eventually reaching a location from which you can escape the island. Oh, and to give the whole adventure a suitably piratical angle, the book includes a talking parrot named Harry, who gives the reader advice – which, however, is not always clear or particularly useful. This sort of “spirit guide” is another video-game feature adapted to book form in Mystery Island. And how well does the adaptation work? Well, that depends on how much readers like being reminded, when turning a page, to follow only the paths they have chosen. Again and again, words appear in red: “Warning! Do not keep reading unless you’ve solved a puzzle to unlock access to this area. If you haven’t, go back to where you were before.” If you do solve the various puzzles and use the various found objects correctly and are therefore able to escape, you will have “learned the power of compassion, kindness, and intelligence,” as an Epilogue explains. And that, of course, is something to celebrate – even if you end up with the same pirates with whom you started out at the book’s beginning.

     The connection between video gaming and reading is somewhat different in the Soul Riders series by Helena Dahlgren. The books in this sequence – The Legend Awakens is the second, although the legend really awoke in the first book, Jorvik Calling – tell straightforward adventure stories of four friends named Lisa, Alex, Linda and Anne, who bond not only with each other but also with four horses on the island of Jorvik. The island is magical in ways that the friends are just learning to understand as they, inevitably, discover that they have special powers and are, equally inevitably, joined mystically in some way for the purpose of protecting the world against a great evil. As usual in magical-quest books for all ages (including ones for adults), the bad guys already know how everything works, have spent decades or even centuries preparing their nefarious schemes, and have the ability to manipulate matters affecting their evil designs with great aplomb. But somehow they cannot quite outmaneuver, much less dispose of, four young girls who have no real idea of what is going on or what they themselves are doing, and who – inevitably – ended the first book by making the clearly erroneous decision to go off in four different directions instead of pursuing matters of the good and righteous by sticking together, even though they had already learned that their budding powers were magnified by use in a team context. Well, of course things go badly in this second book for the girls and their horses, or perhaps that should be “for the horses and their girls,” since the characters have equal importance here and just about equal intelligence. The whole story revolves around some kind of attempt to “free” something called Garnok, an immensely powerful evil thing that is not quite potent enough to do anything for himself (itself?) and has to rely on a malevolent man named John Sands and his horrific Sweetness and Light Corporation. No, just kidding! Of course the bad guys operate through a group called Dark Core, and are careful to display that evil-sounding name all over the place – just to be sure that any nearby good guys know where the baddies are. And, also of course, the baddies have to announce themselves and taunt the Soul Riders: “My name is Katja, but for you I will be death.” Add to all this a translation that sometimes comes across as unintentionally funny: “With eternal life he would be able to build an empire of money and power such as had never before been seen before.” And there you have The Legend Awakens. As for what all this has to do with video gaming: the Soul Riders books are derived from an online adventure game called Star Stable, which gives girls (both the game and the books are girl-focused) the chance to have horsey adventures with real-world (or at least online) friends. The Star Stable and Soul Riders worlds are clearly echoes of one another, although it is not necessary to participate in both in order to find either of them satisfactorily self-contained. Teenage girls who love horses and imagine all the adventures they could have with other riders of the same age – and who do not look too closely at the numerous plot holes and sillinesses of the Soul Riders series – will find The Legend Awakens a pleasant temporary escape from reality and a satisfying continuation of a sequence that is satisfactorily engaging, if scarcely very original.

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