On this morning exactly forty years ago I would have joined my sisters in our parents’ bedroom at the top of the house at 1 Charles Street. There the three of us would sit at the end of the bed and open our stockings. Or rather, pull out and unwrap the presents that Father Christmas had left us overnight. These would be little things—games like Top Trumps, chocolate such as bags of chocolate coins, toys, books, comic book annuals (hardback specials based on our favourite weekly comic like the Beano or the Dandy), useful knickknacks such hairbrushes, and so on until you got to the orange in the toe of the stocking—all to be unwrapped and displayed to our parents at the top of the bed, semi-aware of course, that they knew what was in there having been wrapping them after we had gone to bed for the last few days. With three children of a similar age and a stocking to fill for each, it must have been a herculean task each year. That Christmas in 1978 would have been my last family Christmas, but it would also be my first adventure.
In my Christmas stocking year that year were two books that were unlike anything that my eleven-year-old self I seen before. They were Tracker Books, which asked the question, “Would YOU like to go on an adventure?” These were one of the first series of solo adventure books, first published by Transworld Publishers Ltd. in 1972 and then again in 1978. There were twelve in the series, of which I was given two that year. One was Mission to Planet L, the other was Codebreaker. The first in the series though was Mission to Planet L and it is the one that I remember. It would have been perfect for me for it was a Science Fiction adventure and I was and am a fan of Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars, as well as being a big fan of Science Fiction in general.
In Mission to Planet L you are the pilot of Patrol Ship XK7 sent by Earth Control to locate another patrol ship which has gone missing in Galactic Sector G8 somewhere in the vicinity of Planet L. After an encounter with pirates, you find yourself on Planet L and quickly enslaved and sent to the lasonite mines where you are expected to work for life. Fortunately, you are rescued by some of the workers who have formed a resistance movement against the priesthood who are in control. They will help you rescue the missing pilot and with your help, perhaps overthrow the priesthood. There are various possible outcomes, primarily being able to escape Planet L without being able to help the resistance or discover the secret of the priesthood’s control over the planet. So it is possible to only partially succeed, but having only partially succeeded is what will bring the reader back to see if he can get a better, more satisfying outcome.
At just forty entries, Mission to Planet L is a fairly limited ‘choose your adventure’ style solo adventure book. It is quite linear and it offers only a few outcomes, and it does not use anything in the way of a game system. The limited length and the lack of a game system means that it does not have the depth or the detail of the more well-known Fighting Fantasy series and the numerous solo adventure books for Tunnels & Trolls. So Tracker series titles are meant to be read, rather than played. Nevertheless, Mission to Planet L is works very well as an introduction to the concept because of the design of its format. For unlike other solo adventure books, the Tracker Books are presented in landscape rather than portrait format. Each entry is done as a two-page spread. On the left-hand side the text explains what the reader can see and what his next action might be or the next location he can go to. On the right-hand side though, is an illustration. Sometimes this shows what has happened to the reader, as the patrol agent, up until the point where he needs to make a decision and choose a path. Here is the Tracker series adds another innovation—arrows in the illustrations indicating where those decisions are in what the agent can see and numbering those arrows with the pages they lead to as mentioned in the text opposite. Now not all of the arrows are really necessary. For example, one illustration depicts the arrows pointing to a pair of levers on the patrol ship’s control panel. One will bring the ship to a stop, so that the agent can surrender to space pirates, the other will activate the emergency boost which will hopefully enable the agent’s escape. Neither lever really needs an arrow, it is more a case that the format calls for it and that the format needs to be consistent.
Now the illustrations are not great, but they are effective and there is Star Wars feel to them—which would have been perfect for the eleven-year-old me. The other element that the illustrations bring to replay factor of Mission to Planet L—just as in other solo adventure books with illustrations. As the reader flips back and forth of the book form entry to entry, he will spy new illustrations, ones he has not seen from his current or previous attempts to complete the adventure. Every time he sees a new illustration, his questions—and my questions as an eleven-year-old playing through Mission to Planet L—are, “How do I get to that scene?” and “What decisions do I have to take to get that scene?” In order to get there, the reader will have to start again and make some different choices.
In terms of format, Mission to Planet L—and the Tracker Books—look like more like flip books than adventure books because of the illustration on the right-hand page throughout. One oddity is the language, which although written in the first person, is written in the past tense, so it is feels as if the reader is making a report and so lacking the immediacy of being written in the second tense and directly addressing the reader as ‘you’.
By the standards of the solo adventure books that would follow a decade later—The Warlock of Firetop Mountain would appear ten years after this first entry in the Tracker Book series—Mission to Planet L is simplistic and easy to read. Yet there is something tentative here as if publisher and authors are doing something radical and new for the very first time, drawing up a blueprint upon which improvements and innovations can be made with subsequent entries in the series. For an adult this is a quick read, but for the intended audience of the young, but experienced reader, Mission to Planet L and the Tracker Books represented adventure and first steps into the concepts of interactive fiction.
For the eleven-year-old me, Mission to Planet L was an exciting and enthralling read as I tried to successfully complete the mission of its title. It and the companion volume would be my introduction to interactive fiction and my first roleplaying experience, although I would not have known it at the time. Within a couple of years my life and my family—and certainly my Christmases—would be very different and I would learn about Dungeons & Dragons and want to play. Not long after that I did, but it all started with Mission to Planet L and although they would not have known it, my parents got me started with gaming and roleplaying. I am happy and thankful that they did.