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Many gamebooks contain a brief warning at the beginning, something to the effect that the book in hand is different from a linear novel, and if read the normal way, it won't make much sense. Since the story is interactive, the warnings say, readers need to pay attention to the instructions at the bottom of each page, following them closely to determine where they should turn next. A warning like that is standard in gamebooks, but Mars: You Decide How to Survive! doesn't give this typical warning. Instead, its cautionary prologue, positioned to be less noticeable than in most gamebooks, is a legal disclaimer: "WARNING: When a life is at risk or a dangerous situation is at hand, safe alternatives may not exist. The Publisher, Authors, and Consultant disclaim any liability from any injury that may result from the use, proper or improper, of the information contained in this book. All the technical information in this book comes from experts, but we do not guarantee that the information contained herein is complete, safe, or wholly accurate to every scenario, nor should it be considered a substitute for your good judgment or common sense." I'm sure this warning appears at the start of every entry in the Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure series, but it's curious to see it in this particular book. As of this writing, it isn't likely that a person who reads Mars: You Decide How to Survive! will find themselves on Martian soil anytime soon, so the authors are probably safe from lawsuits because their gaming advice backfired on someone who decided to implement it in real life. Unusual warning aside, Mars: You Decide How to Survive! is an innovative gamebook idea, one carefully tempered so as to feel authentic to the situation it represents. To help the authors, a special consultant on Mars exploration and colonization was employed so the writing is closer to science fact than science fiction, and I think it shows. This is the closest most kids of the twenty-first century will come to visiting the red planet, so the experience should be as immersive and realistic as possible.
You have been selected out of thousands of applicants for the Young Astronaut program, which will send you and a small crew on a two-and-a-half year mission to Mars to ready it for human colonization and see what new discoveries can be made about the mysterious planet's past and present. Only a young person of intelligence, curiosity, and responsibility would be chosen to play such a monumental role in human history, but you make all your own decisions in this book, so it's up to you to live up to your reputation. It isn't long into your voyage before you're already faced with dicy scenarios, some of which could get you and your crew killed if you don't think through them with due sobriety and care. Shuttling through space is serious business, especially when six months of travel is required to reach your final destination, and you and your crewmates put your lives in one another's hands every day.
If you reach Mars with life and limb intact, you'll be greeted with an assortment of possible jobs to perform, most of which aren't as alluring as getting out there on the planet's rusty surface and roving around for clues to its inscrutable history. Astronauts are needed for much more mundane tasks, as well, such as tending the growth of a community garden in the greenhouse, and caring for the little pack of goats being raised as an experimental food source. The intention is for your crew to stay on Mars for a year and a half, so it's not crucial that you run right out the door and get down to the business of exploring, but your stay in the less exotic jobs necessary to your mission could last weeks or even months, while friends are speeding across the Martian surface every day, having the time of their lives. You have to be willing to postpone the excitement you've waited so long for, because it isn't easy to reach the one truly good end in Mars: You Decide How to Survive!; Commander Wen expects big things from you and every other member of the expedition, and won't tolerate much slacking off or silliness. A minor wrong move might not end your respectable involvement in the mission, but it will squash your chances of reaching the best ending, so decide your next move warily at every juncture. Don't be afraid to dismiss the ideas of other astronauts if they aren't helpful to the greater mission or could land you in hot water with the powers that be, but don't be overly cautious with how you handle matters, either. An unwillingness to take big chances is just about certain to lead you to an ending that isn't wholly desirable, and could even get you killed, surprisingly enough. You have to use that all-star brain of yours to innovate, create, and know when to speak up to your superiors and assert that your ideas are just as meritorious as theirs. You'll have to come through in the clutch on multiple occasions to earn the reward of the one totally successful ending available out of the twenty-four in this book, but if you do, it will mean you've proven yourself indispensable to Commander Wen and your peers, paving the way for future young people as responsible as you to join the Young Astronaut program and explore space alongside the adults. That's a significant accomplishment, and you have reason to be proud.
Mars: You Decide How to Survive! reuses text much less frequently than most gamebooks I've read. The only section I can recall being used a few times is when you're relegated to status as a brick-maker in the construction dome; if you get there, it's only a matter of pages until you reach an ending that is less than satisfying, though you still have the power to make it merely blah, instead of a disaster. It isn't easy to reach the ending glowingly termed "The ultimate success"; several decisions you will have to make along the way feel counterintuitive to the education you received in the Mars Expedition File at the back of the book. Speaking of the file, it's a good resource to have on your voyage, so take the time to look through it before entering the main narrative. You can also look back to the file at any point during your adventure, in case you forgot something important. Most of what you'll need to make informed technical decisions is in there. Your crewmates are generally friendly and forgiving people, though Commander Wen has a tendency to be more heavy-handed with you than with his senior crew; at several points in the story it's possible for you to lose his favor for the duration of the mission over fairly small indiscretions, while major blunders by older astronauts don't appear to be held against them at all (Yes, Cooper Jackson, I'm thinking of you and your reckless driving). I suppose I wish there were ways to reclaim a completely successful mission even after making a few small decisions that count against you; this is your opportunity of a lifetime, and it seems unnecessarily unfair that even the tiniest misstep dooms you to a mission that can never be totally fulfilling. I also would have preferred the writing to focus a bit more on the incredibly evocative surroundings that come with taking a voyage to Mars. This is outer space, awesome and majestic and vastly beyond human comprehension, and the feelings of awe that a young astronaut making his or her first foray into the vacuum of our solar system surely would feel could have been touched on much more deeply in this book. There's nothing wrong with the way it is written, focused on the gaming and decision-making aspects ahead of descriptive sensation, but I would have liked a more equal balance.
In the end, Mars: You Decide How to Survive! is a notable permutation to the corporate whole of gamebooks, and definitely has its positives. The switch-offs between traditional text and graphic-novel style sections is interesting, and I'd like to see how that system continues to develop in this series. Probably the best thing about the book's writing is how effectively it engenders within the reader feelings of injustice when you are passed over for a desirable assignment in favor of someone who hasn't shown themselves nearly as competent or resourceful as you, or when you lose the respect of a crewmember just because you didn't approach a difficult situation exactly as he or she would have wanted. Hey, you're still young, and choices are going to be ambiguous for everyone in such a new situation as traveling through the solar system. Your fellow astronauts aren't perfect, and they shouldn't expect perfection from you, either. Those feelings of unfairness come alive in this story, and are probably what I will remember most about it. I liked Mars: You Decide How to Survive!, and see it as a good addition to the field of interactive storytelling.
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