I don’t do as much reading as I’d like to. That statement might not seem overly surprising coming from the owner of a video games blog, but it’s something that I’ve tried my best to rectify over the years. As a kid I was not big on reading at all. The simple act of scanning pages from left to right was evidently too difficult for a child whose mind could so easily wander. Many times would I forget entire paragraphs of content just because of the need to concentrate and stay focused on what I was even looking at. It’s no wonder then that gamebooks appealed to me in the way that they did.
These early forms of interactive fiction were the perfect concoction for a kid like me; part book and part adventure game, with plenty of bite-sized paragraphs and gruesome pictures to pore over. From branching path novels to solitaire role-playing games, there are many different styles out there, but it was the Fighting Fantasy series that really enamoured me at that young age.
Fighting Fantasy as a concept was first realized in 1982 by Games Workshop founders Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. The pair had already seen the huge impact that Dungeons and Dragons was having on the UK’s burgeoning fantasy gaming market (in a publication deal they helped orchestrate no less) and so they started work on a much lighter but no less compelling fantasy gamebook of their own. Due to its success, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain would end up being the first and last gamebook co-authored by the pair as the concept would quickly expand to accommodate an entire series of books that would last right up until the series’ eventual decline in the mid-Nineties.
Gamebooks are interesting because of their second-person prose where each paragraph sets the scene for what YOU are doing in a particular encounter. The paragraphs are seldom read in order as depending on the scene you may be presented with several different options to choose from. For example: do you attack the giant (turn to 264), offer the giant a bribe (turn to 39), or flee in terror with your hands in air (turn to 111)?
As the genericized Choose Your Own Adventure moniker suggests; the great thing about gamebooks in this sense is the feeling that YOU are in control of the story and it’s that feeling of interactivity that makes them so enticing. For a series that made heavy use of medieval fantasy settings, Fighting Fantasy’s chief inspirations are usually pretty clear to anyone familiar with the genre. These books would became part of a fabric of media intent on recreating the feel of tabletop role-playing games like D&D without the presence of other people to help referee the rules.
All Fighting Fantasy novels use a simple dice-based system for resolving combat encounters as well as simple rules for things like inventories, character statistics, and saving throws to see how lucky or skillful your hero is in any given situation. It’s in this way that Fighting Fantasy moved the genre towards a more gamified structure and even if everyone, and I do mean everyone, tended to cheat (by simply turning to the paragraphs with the best outcomes), it was impossible to avoid the mystique that surrounded these books.
I can remember owning a large collection when I was a kid. From early mainstays like Island of the Lizard King and City of Thieves to the more outlandish later entries such as Robot Commando and Knights of Doom, I cheated my way through as many as I could whilst appreciating the many thematic illustrations and amusing instant-death paragraphs.
Indeed, the books’ graphic depictions of violence were probably the biggest draw for my somewhat obssessed adolescent mind, although the idea of using dice to finish the book “properly” didn’t appeal at all seeing as that process would involve learning, which is never high on a kid’s agenda if I’m honest. Like many my age I would eventually grow tired of the later books’ codewords and anti-cheating methods before selling my collection off entirely.
Quite recently though I decided to revisit those same gamebooks to see if the magic that so entranced me as a child was still there. I know that the whole concept of nostalgia routinely comes in for a bashing on this blog, but as I’ve stressed before; I’m not immune to it. I’ll freely admit that my venture back into gamebooks was running on pure nostalgia fuel and it’s no doubt a feeling that has prompted many others to do the exact same. The one thing that really surprised me though is that these books are still amazingly good reads on the whole.
I started my journey in the most logical place with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. My memories of book #1 in the Fighting Fantasy multiverse were always a little tapered by recollections of bland and linear dungeon corridors, but after a legit playthrough that saw success on the very first attempt (a monumental feat considering the high difficulty and luck factor of these books), I was hooked all over again.
From there I unveiled the brilliant magic system of Citadel of Chaos, the beginner friendly quality to The Forest of Doom, and the richly illustrated streets of Port Blacksand in City of Theives. Of course then came the Dark Souls of gamebooks that is Deathtrap Dungeon. As the most successful entry in Puffin’s long running series, book #6 is easily the most famous and represents Ian Livingstone’s masterpiece as gamebook writer.
Deathtrap Dungeon delivers exactly what the title implies; a masochistic dungeon crawl full of critters, traps, and treachery. There are no contrived backstories here, no nonsensical character motivations or obscure rules to keep track of. It’s just you, your sword, and the prize money of 10,000 gold pieces should you escape alive. This book is a thrillride of brutal cameos and whilst the ‘one true path’ is incredibly tight, every inevitable instant-death reference only whets your appetite for another go armed with the knowledge you’ve scraped together from your many defeats.
Deathtrap Dungeon cemented Fighting Fantasy’s reputation for difficulty and even though the minimum stats promise is a bald-faced lie in this book (and many books thereafter), the theme and sense of satisfaction in finally beating this one really is second to none.
Your imagination is a central tool in creating this sort of experience and it’s the best gamebook authors who write gender-neutral prose so that anyone can envision themselves in the leading role. The best gamebooks all possess these qualities; a richness of prose, flavourful artwork, and other quirks that help make each book feel unique and memorable.
Not every gamebook is a beacon of success though. Some are poorly written and lack originality or replay value. Ian Livingstone went too far in making difficult gamebooks following Deathtrap Dungeon and there are instances where Fighting Fantasy started to flounder with printing errors and general author apathy setting in during the franchise’s twilight years.
Upon researching Fighting Fantasy again though I was quite shocked to discover how many competing gamebooks were in circulation at the time. There are many more works out there than just those created by Livingstone & co. including the illustrious Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever, a series of Real Life Gamebooks focusing on famous wars throughout history, and a short series called Blood Sword that seems closer to a full tabletop RPG than that of a mere children’s yarn. Even the likes of Eternal Champions and The Crystal Maze got gamebook adaptations; further supporting the claim that these things were a genuine craze back in their heyday.
And with the presence of mobile devices and e-readers in so many homes today it seems that gamebooks may finally be about to get the renaissance they’ve been due. Tin Man Games is a notable developer of gamebook apps with their original offerings titled An Assassin of Orlandes and Curse of the Assassin capturing a level of detail that even the most classic gamebooks might struggle to match.
Curse of the Assassin is especially notable for its intricate storyline full of many branching paths and character interactions that change based on the decisions you make. The benefits of abandoning the printed page is noticeable here with automated combat and bookmarks proving to be ideal tools with which to counter the occasionally repetitive and luck dependent nature of the format. Combining this with sharp graphics, atmospheric music, and achievements to promote replays, is the icing on the cake.
Sifting through reams of text on a computer screen isn’t easy on the eyes though and there are fresh problems introduced when making the switch to a digital user interface. In Tin Man’s case you can occasionally see references to commands like “tap” and “swipe” even when not playing on a touch-enabled device and I have no idea why they decide to keep putting the crucial ‘restart book’ option into the extras menu instead of, well, anywhere else.
And then there’s the general argument against dice that gamebook author Dave Morris sums up so very well:
“I hate seeing dice roll around in a videogame or an app. That’s just the legacy of another medium creeping in. And the dice were only ever a way to represent statistical chances and skill-use anyway. Physically rolling them is one thing. Watching virtual dice clatter around puts me in mind of what Byron had to say about Keats’s poetry. (Best draw a veil over that; it’s not for repetition in polite company.)”
I’m not naive enough to suggest that holding a physical book in your hand is somehow infinitely superior just ‘cuz. After all, printed gamebooks can have bugs and mistakes too and they risk becoming completely unreadable if a stray page happens to go missing for instance. But then there is something to be said for riffling through those same musty pages and taking in the setting of some far-off place whilst keeping your thumb in-between the pages.
Y’know, just in case.