RIDDLE OF THE RUNAWAY
Reviewed by Mark Lain
After a generally desperate start to the series, the second offering in the “Fighting Fantasy for girls” Starlight cycle seems far more promising from the outset. The premise of your being a junior at a private detective agency is far more intriguing than just trying to be good at horse-riding (as with #1 Star Rider) and this gives is a distinct element of mystery and discovery to encourage you to open and play this book.
Reading through the rules makes this seem far closer to what we would expect from a gamebook. On a fundamental level, there actually ARE some rules in this book, and these cover three key areas where fate can intervene in your success, as opposed to just guessing the right route to victory. The rules themselves involve three Elements: Decision (aka just picking what to do), Chance (flipping a coin to decide your success or failure), and Fate (the most elaborate rule that works in two distinct ways, a Group based on your real Zodiac sign, and a Lucky Number where you have to crunch the digits in your date of birth and keep crunching them until you finish with a single digit which is your Lucky Number itself.) Decision is a misnomer as this is hardly a rule given that without any decisions to make this would be a novel, not a gamebook, so we can hardly count that as revolutionary game design. Chance is far closer to traditional role-play systems, reducing a 1 in 6 scenario (when rolling a die) to a 50/50 situation, but it does at least add an element of unpredictability and does not leave you in total control of what can happen to you, which is a good thing and adds suspense and risk. The Fate idea is by far the most unusual and original as the individual “properties” of the actual player him- or, as was intended by Puffin, her-self can have a direct impact on how events pan out. There is no advantage or disadvantage to being born at any particular time, but it does add variety to the direction the book takes you in and really makes YOU feel like your character is an extension of yourself as opposed to a separate entity that you are enacting. Already this book is clearly designed to be much more of a role-playing experience than Star Rider was, so things are looking hopeful.
The mission itself (and you do actually have a given task this time, rather than simple ambition) is to track down the vanished heir to a fortune and prevent any interested parties’ shenanigans from stopping the inheritance going where it should. Whilst this seems perfectly plausible, the plot suffers from several gaping holes that can seriously reduce its credibility as more of the story unfolds. It quickly becomes apparent that the “irresistible” (to get some starry-eyed girl appeal in) true heir has run off to America and joined a band. Ignoring the obvious stereotype that boys in bands have to, by definition, be irresistible to girls, etc, you have to assume that there is somehow no popular culture communication system between the USA and the UK in 1985, otherwise the key intrigue is no surprise at all, given that we are told that Charlie and the Chipmunks (the horrendously-named band he has joined) are (in Texas, at least) “more popular than The Stones”... or is Texas very guarded about its music scene, maybe? As the band are touring the entire US we can assume that their appeal is not limited to Texas alone, so this really does not make much sense. Likewise, if the band is as successful as is suggested, what difference would the inheritance actually make to the person you are sent to find? Does this band have the least lucrative record deal ever and the members are making hardly any money in spite of their huge success? Totally illogical, even by gamebook premise standards!
Gaping plot holes aside, the adventure itself works in three ways. For the most part, YOU are tearing around America, travelling from one famous city to another ad nauseum, getting closer (but not quite close enough) to your prey at each stopping point. Whilst this is happening, you are also required to try to keep his gold-digging arch nemesis brother at bay, and attempt to make an ally out of anyone who can get you into the “runaway”’s inner circle, the eventual choice being either his initially shady but actually very helpful sister or his scheming band-mate lover (the Charlie of the group’s name) who just wants to get her hands on his cash. The three plot aspects do make your task varied and a little tricky as there are a lot of decisions to make along the way. The trip around America quickly gets repetitive and tedious and you do find yourself wishing it would end soon. So there are clear pros and cons to affect your enjoyment/interest, although the danger and intrigue just about outweigh the irritating travelogue and the overall experience is an interesting one to play out on the whole. Also, as with all the Starlight books, your character is of the undefined, but clearly young adult, kind, to create a sort of positive strong female role-model for the young girl that is its intended audience.
Other than the three-tier rule system, this gamebook also introduces the “turn to x, then turn to y” idea which, whilst a little restrictive in terms of choice at times, does add a nice element of cause and effect, where one decision inevitably affects a subsequent situation. This is a good inclusion which avoids total linearity, although the actual journey itself is still very linear. There are several routes to the optimum ending, but these are arrived at along the same paths, leaving little re-playability, other than to find out what would happen if you made certain different choices.
Whilst the first book in this series required a concerted effort to lose, but you could fail all the same, Riddle Of The Runaway has no outright fail paragraphs. Instead, at least one ending gives you the chance to decide whether you are happy to settle for it (the romance outcome that these books always include) or re-trace your steps to find something more akin to “winning”. In other cases, you are told you have failed, but are then given a reprieve to back-track to a previous stage and/or start all over entirely, should you not be willing to accept defeat. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it would be a shame to have to re-tread ground already covered (especially all the travelling from one city to another), but on the other hand the bottom line is that you CANNOT lose unless you just give up. Whilst the premise and plot layers may present a challenge, you are ultimately left feeling a bit let-down when you realise that winning is no great achievement, but there is still enough interest here to make this a diverting, if generally very average, playing experience.
In terms of construction, this book betters many of the other Starlight offerings in that the number of sections that do nothing other than lead you to other sections without any choice(s) is comparatively low for this series. Yes, there are still many of these, but the number of choices or outcomes decided by the Chance or Fate mechanics makes this feel far more interactive and far less like a middle-of-the-road children’s novel. In a similar vein, the number of sections is amongst the lowest of any standard Puffin gamebook, at only 300. The general paragraph count in Starlight is 350, so this book does seem comparatively thin in a physical sense, but the adventure itself does take some time to play through and certainly lasts longer than the usual 30 minutes or so of play that this series normally offers you, so the paragraphs are clearly being made the most of, rather than just padding out the story as is the case in some other Starlight efforts.
Heather Fisher’s writing style is generally very snappy and, through this, there is a distinct feeling of urgency to the story. Whilst she falls into the trap of some stereotyping (the Texan in particular, is cringe-worthy, and the scheming harpy girlfriend is very annoying), the prose does not grate on the reader and avoids being condescending in the way that books 1 and 4 in this series are.
The internal illustrations are by sometime FF artist Bob Harvey, who is one of my least favourite FF artists. His sketchy approach (whilst being a feature of art in Starlight books) gives an empty feel and there is something ugly and surly about his human images, in particular. Whilst the drawings may create a sense of danger, overall it seems like you are in a very unsavoury world, which is awkward given that the setting for this and all Starlight books is the real world. James Bareham’s cover is a typically awful Starlight affair, with the usual collage of faces, this time surrounded by New York’s Twin Towers, a will, and a band on stage. Its almost sepia-toned brown and green colouring makes it seem very dour, but at least the intriguing blurb on the back cover is enough to make you want to play in spite of the crappy cover art.
With this book, the series definitely showed improvement and there is promise in the swing from saccharine ambition stories to genuinely mysterious and risky “missions.” This is far from great, but it is interesting enough to keep you guessing and, other than being too easy given its forgiving nature, you are motivated to finish this passable effort, unlike the dreadful Star Rider.