MINI REVIEW: James Armistead Lafayette

You are James Armistead, a compassionate and daring young man of colour enslaved on a Virginian tobacco plantation when a timely fire provides an opportunity to obtain your freedom; how you achieve this dream is for you to decide. James Armistead Lafayette is one of the two initial releases in Chooseco’s SPIES sub-series of their Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, where you can walk in the shoes of people from the past. Set in 1781 during the American Revolutionary War, James Armistead Lafayette is an interactive historical adventure with a storyline containing fictional elements.

Reviewing a CYOA gamebook as an adult (I’m 50+) will potentially lead to criticism that its target audience would easily overlook. However, as the Fighting Fantasy series has confirmed over generations of readers, a younger audience does appreciate a mature approach (both written and visual) so my comments here are based on expectations I feel are fair and realistic. Additionally, interactive fiction with a historical theme is surely aimed at a level above basic adventures – otherwise this opportunity to ‘imagine the past’ loses much of the importance of its teachings and relevance.

STORYLINE: General Lafayette (French aristocrat and military officer Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette) is a friend and supporter of General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, revolting against the rule of Great Britain. In need of a spy to head to the Chesapeake Bay to gather useful information regarding the plans of the British army general Lord Charles Cornwallis, Lafayette decides to place the fate of the revolution in your hands.

Kyandreia Jones’ writing is of a high standard, suitable for readers of all ages, and provides both vivid descriptions and plentiful atmosphere to immerse you in a consequential real-life adventure. You may encounter some unexpected characters and situations during your journey: a hungry runaway slave; a prophetic child who speaks in poetry, attempting to guide you toward liberty; three female slave-catchers capable of mercy; a hidden, and deadly, Pamunkey archer; remarkable squirrels; and a dancing General.

GAMEPLAY: There’s a lot to like about the overall concept and much of the content, yet the narrative does not unfold in a wholly satisfying way. All of the ingredients required for a thrilling and memorable adventure are present, but focusing on a lengthier main objective, rather than incorporating multiple inconsequential branches, would likely have provided a better mechanism to tell this story.

Unfortunately, the CYOA format ultimately does a great disservice by restricting the adventure’s scope. Huge chunks of important and interesting storylines are summarised in just a paragraph or two, reducing the impact of many choices by removing both interaction and engagement. Such options are simply not given enough time to develop before their conclusion, effectively making choice a redundant feature, and exposing the frequently used selling point of multiple endings as somewhat meaningless.

James Armistead Lafayette is only a slim book (144 pages; 105 playable sections) with too many of its sections providing only a disappointingly brief amount of text. Additionally, several branches lead directly to abrupt endings that do not provide any real conclusion. These sudden endings are therefore quite unsatisfactory, regardless of the written outcome.

PRESENTATION: This SPIES sub-series is thankfully presented in a style that is vastly superior to that seen in most books from Chooseco’s main product line. Although it retains the traditional cover format and interior layout, the book benefits substantially from the inclusion of numerous professional illustrations by Gabhor Utomo. His excellent watercolour art is very appealing, featuring many interesting compositions that contain good detail, contrast and storytelling. Utomo’s illustrations also display his experienced eye for conveying drama and emotion, and showcase fine technical skills, especially regarding human appearance and animal behaviour or movement.

The page layout is basic but effective, and the text is very easy to read. The majority of the illustrations are presented full page, with several double-page spreads adding even further interest, similar to a picture book. I dislike the amount of empty space seen on pages with only short sections, however, the overall presentation is of a decent standard.

REPLAY VALUE: There may be plenty of choice on offer, but too many of these options only lead to short plotlines containing limited player involvement. You’ll certainly find yourself backtracking to unused paths or beginning again when playing James Armistead Lafayette, as there are a number of sound choices that quickly end your adventure. This style of play holds little interest for me as I never feel in control of or directly connected to the unfolding story – something that I believe is vitally important in interactive fiction.

Rereading the book to discover paths not previously taken does reward due to the quality of both the writing and the illustrations. However, the anticipated historical depth is mostly missing or largely insubstantial within the narrative, meaning that the role-playing element of actually being in James’ shoes during this important time in American history sadly remains undeveloped.

Review by Michael Reilly

3 thoughts on “MINI REVIEW: James Armistead Lafayette”

  1. To me this was better than Mata Hari, the other book in the first two of the SPIES line. Though the bit with the squirrels was wacked-out, it still gave a better account for itself as a wartime and spy story, unlike Mata Hari which just spiraled off into weirdness at almost every turn.

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