Saturday, January 12, 2013
Micro Adventure Series
I discovered the Micro Adventure series while prowling a local used book store for old Choose Your Own Adventure books. They caught my eye because they had the same sort of size and shape, the word "Adventure" was written on the binding, and they were numbered -- all hallmarks of a series that was trying to horn in on the incredibly popular (at the time) CYOA series.
Sure enough, the Micro Adventure books turned out to be interactive fiction for young adults, written in the second person. The reader steps into the role of Orion, the crack computer ace for an organization called the Adventure Connection Team (ACT), and finds himself involved in the usual sort of espionage plots, making the world safe from the forces of BRUTE -- the Bureau of Random Unlawful Terror and Evil. (At least they're honest, eh?) The tone is fairly light, and some allowances for silliness must be made due to the target audience. It's a fun, comic booky sort of monolithic Good vs. Evil story with some James Bond trappings.
Unlike most interactive books of the age, the story was completely linear, with no branches. Even the character of Orion is written with his own distinctive voice and personality, so it's not so much that you're driving his story as reading from his script. The way you interact with the story is by using your BASIC-enabled computer to run the programs that are listed at various points in the story. Sometimes these programs are simply nifty special effects -- Orion receives a coded message at the beginning of each book, and you're given a program that decodes it. Other times, you'll be challenged to actually "hack" the programs to fix bugs, change the way they behave, or otherwise glean important information. And once in a while, they'll actually throw a simple game or two in that you can play.
Like I said, the stories are linear, so the computer programs are somewhat optional. It's not like you can't read on if you lose a game or something, and most of the information you get by running the programs can be gleaned from context clues in the story. Still, this was a really cool idea for the time. It's basically one of those "Programming for Kids" books that were made back when computers booted up into BASIC, except it gives kids a chance to playact being the computer expert who hacks into the system in a spy movie.
These books sucked me right in when I was a kid. The linear nature of the books allowed for much longer and more involved stories than the CYOA series and its imitators could allow for, which gave you more time to enjoy the characters and settings. It's fair to say that the Adventure Connection Team was as much a part of my childhood mythology as Voltron and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
I didn't really think about it at the time, but what strikes me now about them is that it's sort of a superhero story without super powers. ACT is made up of largely ordinary people who just happen to be experts in their fields, whether it's astronomy, disguise, or biotech. They all have day jobs. It's just that every now and then, they get a coded message in an envelope, and then they're abruptly whisked away to try and save the world. Orion is just this high school student who's good at computers. When you're a kid, it's really exciting to think that knowing how to program in BASIC is a sufficient qualification to be yanked out of school and go on globetrotting adventures.
Of course, the problem is that I never really got the true experience -- although we had a computer at home, it hooked up to The Family TV, so monopolizing it just so I could sit down and play along with a little book I was reading was a tricky proposition. Moreover, books are portable devices, and at the time, computers weren't -- there was simply no way I was going to leave my favorite books at home just because I couldn't get near a computer. But now that Petit Computer allows us to write BASIC programs wherever we want, I'm starting to take a nostalgic interest in the series again.
For the longest time, I only owned the three books I found at the book store that one day. There were a couple more in the school library, but all I have left is a vague recollection about them. Of course, now there's an Internet, and sites like Amazon to connect people who are trying to unload obsolete used books with grateful nerds. I was kind of sad to discover that only ten books were ever made in the series and that I'd read most of the ones I didn't own when I found them in the school library -- no series ever caught on or became as prolific as CYOA did. Still, that just means it's easier for me to get the complete set.
I'm hoping to spend some time going through each book individually here on the blog, but we'll see how that goes. (I've yet to write part two of my Phoenix Wright review series.) It should be fun.