Tuesday 20 August 2013

#1: Star Rider


Carole Carreck

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The first release in the short-lived Starlight series of adventures aimed at a female market epitomises why these gamebooks never took off. From the outset, this book is patronising, turgid, and distinctly trapped in a mid-80s world of wealth, materialism and shallowness. The opening section reminds YOU umpteen times that you have no money and that you have struggled to get the cash together to buy the object of your dreams (a horse) so that you can pursue your equestrian ambitions.

To be fair, if the introductory section doesn’t totally put you off bothering to play the book, the initial act (finding a stable, training yourself and your horse ready for the Badminton trials) is fairly interesting and you do get a feeling of your character quickly developing as a rider. Sadly, once competitiveness and the lure of mysterious and quiet rich men kicks in, the story becomes boring, repetitive, and, all of a sudden ends, as if Carreck either ran out of ideas or realised this was a no-hoper and just decided to conclude it before it became unbearable!

In actual fact, plot-wise (ignoring the jarring switch in tone and abrupt ending), this gamebook could have been a real winner for anyone interested in horses and there is a sense of quite savvy marketing in the selection of subject matter, plus the fact that it all flows logically, even if your meteoric rise from an upstart newbie to a member of the Olympic team very quickly may be a little far-fetched, especially as you seem to have very little control over your horse during the trials section and seem to rely on luck to get by. I know nothing about equestrian culture, but Carreck quite evidently knows a fair bit about it and you are nicely submerged in a world of horses, jealousy, and competition which is probably quite realistic. The language used does include some specialist terms and situations, but you don’t necessarily feel lost when reading this book as it merges into the text neatly and it does not present everything as if it was jargon in the way that some of the more annoyingly “knowing” series entries would - Starlight #4 Danger On The Air is a nightmare for knowingly using speech marks around any vocabulary even vaguely industry-specific, for example.

The jump-cutting structure of the storyline is a good thing in that it avoids boring episodes of training, but there is a missed opportunity here to allow your character to gain experience and develop skills specific to the theme. There are no stats of any kind to illustrate your character’s strengths and weaknesses, and some kind of Experience marker would have added considerably to your involvement with your character, especially as it would give you an indication and expectation of how easy or hard (or even likely) your success would be. As it stands, you just seem to jump from being no-one to becoming someone in a totally unrealistic manner. To compound this issue, the crucial later stages of the story when you are in trials rely purely on you choosing the right paragraph in a series of 50/50 situations. No actual character ability comes into the equation, neither even does the element of chance that dice rolling would give – your success is based purely on picking the right section. In a world as specific as a sporting event, skill and development influence any chance of success, so there is no realism here at all, which is a shame given the otherwise generally logical progression of the plot.

Further to the lack of any kind of character prowess coming into play, this book is ridiculously easy to beat. There are numerous endings to add a small amount of variety, but even the desired outcome of getting to the Olympics appears on at least four different paragraphs and, assuming you don’t either make an insane choice such as getting drunk the night before a major trial, half-killing your horse, or wrongly deciding who to ally yourself to early on, or get unlucky in the 50/50 situations, once you reach a certain point you cannot fail to win. Pardon the pun, but the usual gamebook end challenge that can cause you to fall at the final hurdle is all but absent, making this is a largely unrewarding affair and there is certainly no feeling of achievement when you beat it.

The lack of any kind of stats to give you an image of your character and make YOU feel more real is part of a major failing of this book in that there are no rules at all – no dice, no element of chance of any kind... you just get straight on with it. By contrast to your character’s one-dimensional nature, the NPCs are actually quite fleshed-out making you feel even more alien. The characterisations are all stereotypes to the point of being hackneyed (the mysterious quiet rich bloke, the nasty she-devil love rival, the Mr Nice Guy secondary male, the scheming no-good person, the slightly manic and over-the-top best friend, etc etc) but at least you can picture them and understand their roles easily, whereas YOU just seem to be gliding through the proceedings trying to become a success, which makes the ease of winning all the more incomprehensible.

One saving grace of this book over the majority of the Starlight books that would follow it is that you are not rail-roaded into getting romantically involved with at least one of the male NPCs. You can control your destiny in this respect, even if the romance aspect is played down in this book by comparison with the other five. There is also a noticeable maturity in the character you play. In traditional role-play books (at least, in those where age is not explicitly specified) it is almost always assumed that you are of an indefinite but obviously adult and experienced (in terms of adventuring) age. In Star Rider you can get served in pubs so are assumed to be over 18, there is an outcome where you decide to get married, plus one of your initial decisions is where to live so you must have left home. All this clearly sets your character up as being a young adult. As a counterpoint, the relative simplicity (in difficulty terms) of this book and its overall feeling of being fairly facile, suggests a target audience of pre-pubescents or, if not, then early teenagers with absolutely no sense of irony!

The internal art here is by Peter Wilkes who illustrated three of the six books in this series. His work is sketchy and lacks depth in terms of background (although his shading is nicely done), not that you’d really notice as the bulk of the drawings are of horses doing various things, inter-mingled with the occasional picture of someone staring doe-eyed at you. In a book where the subject is horses, you could anticipate some horsey imagery, but the illustrations here do labour the point a bit. The cover by Steve Jones (presumably not the one out of the Sex Pistols?) is frankly appalling and really does not give you any incentive to open the book with its combination of a collage of heads, some fields, a flashy car, a horse, and some drugs, all in bizarre soft pastel colours. Starlight books are known for having poor covers, but this one is easily the worst of the lot.

Other than a (largely) logical plot and a non-intrusive approach to a specialised subject matter, this book is, for the most part, a condescending and uninspiring experience. In the highly unlikely event that you don’t beat it on the first playthrough, there is little here to encourage repeat plays other than if you are totally obsessed with horses (which may be what Puffin’s marketing people were hoping for, incidentally!) As a story for non-demanding children it could work, but as a game it has little to recommend, especially as many of the sections just tell you to turn to another section, rather than offering you many actual choices so you do often feel that you have little control over anything other than the major decisions, plus whether to fall in love or not, ultimately giving the feeling that you are reading a below-par children's book rather than playing a gamebook.

All in all, this is not an auspicious debut for the series.

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