Put down that PlayStation: the ‘gamebook’ is back

Fighting Fantasy inculcated in me a lifelong love of reading and a lifelong hatred of orcs guarding chests of gold. I’m not alone

 

Before iPads, Playstations or virtual reality headsets, there were choose-your-own adventure “gamebooks”. Does Lone Wolf chime a bell? The Warlock of Firetop Mountain? Starship Traveller? If you are old, and nerdy, enough they may have formed part of the tapestry of your childhood.

For the benefit of those who cannot tell a Wyvern from a Womp Rat, I had better explain. Gamebooks were typically fantasy and science and fiction romps in which the reader controlled the narrative. A book was usually divided into hundreds of numbered paragraphs. You started at “one”, then flipped back and forth according to your decisions.

So to scurry up that corridor reeking of sweaty hobgoblin, you flicked to paragraph 50. To venture east, towards the growling dragon noise, you went to number 75. And so on until you had rescued the missing dwarves or were beheaded by trolls (growling monsters under bridges rather than growling 15-year-olds on 4chan).

With their swerving plots and fantastical settings, these books were insanely gripping – especially if you were a kid who could become invested in rescuing dwarves from non-4chan surfing trolls. I vividly remember devouring a gamebook as a 10-year-old, so torn over an apparently life-or-death decision I had to put the volume down and pace my grandmother’s kitchen. In the end I opted to attack the centaur rather than accompany the creature to its village. I met a sticky end, involving an angry horse-man and a pointy stick. It’s possible I’m scarred to this day.

As with any decades-old pop culture flotsam, choose your own adventure books have naturally had a comeback. Vintage “Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks have been adapted for tablets and smart-phones; publishers are also putting out new titles in both print and as apps. On a recent weekend I downloaded Temple of the Spider God and stayed up until 2am finishing it (actually, I stayed up until 2am for Game of Thrones, but Temple of the Spider God helped pass the time).

My reintroduction to the genre coincided with a new study from the United States that found 11-year-olds who enjoyed the choose-your-own adventure format demonstrated a 17 per cent higher level of reading comprehension than children of the same age who did not. One theory was that the non-linear nature of gamebooks required kids to pay closer attention.

To be clear, I know nothing about reading comprehension among 11-year-olds. But it makes sense that if a child is as gripped by a gamebook as I was when deciding whether or not to knife that centaur, their literacy skills would surely benefit. They will also grow up knowing lots about centaurs, potentially useful in table quizzes or when playing Dungeons and Dragons (a traditional career path for gamebook readers looking to go “full nerd”)

Here we should pause and acknowledge not all gamebooks were created equal. Technically, “choose your own adventure” referred to an American series written with the express aim of improving reading skills and and thus dreary beyond belief. The real gems were the rough and ready British equivalent, led by the aforementioned Fighting Fantasy series. If Choose Your Own Adventure was a boring Sesame Street segment about counting to 10, Fighting Fantasy was the opening the credits of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

The history of Fighting Fantasy is, as it happens fascinating in its own right and would make for an entertaining BBC4 drama. Creators Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone ended up accidentally writing the first book in the series, the aforementioned Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, after pitching to publishers Penguin a beginner’s guide to Dungeons and Dragons. How better to introduce young readers to the world of orcs, umber hulks and treasure chests than to weave their own subterranean adventure? Understandably, Penguin was sceptical – though its doubts dried up as Warlock zoomed up the bestseller lists (eventually shifting more than two million copies).

For Jackson and Livingston this was a distinctly mixed blessing. On one hand, they were vindicated in their belief that there was a market for fantasy adventures placing the reader at the heart of the excitement. On the other, Puffin needed a sequel and gave the duo a deadline of two months. Jackson duly locked himself away and, in five weeks cranked out Citadel of Chaos. It was darker and more punishing than Warlock. No surprise, given Jackson apparently went to hell and back writing it.

Soon other publishers were getting into the gamebook business. To stay ahead, Puffin required Jackson, Livingston and their stable of hired writers (which, confusingly, came to include a Texan games designer named… Steve Jackson) to put out a new book every month. By the time the series wound down in 1995 (not uncoincidentally, the year the Playstation console debuted), 59 had been published, not counting spin-offs and and volumes of source material. These ran the gamut of genres, from fantasy and science fiction to post-apocalyptic and horror. Not all were classics – but even the worst offered a few hours of thrilling distraction.

Fighting Fantasy inculcated in me a lifelong love of reading and a lifelong hatred of orcs guarding chests of gold. I’m not alone. A recent “crowd funding” campaign for a board game inspired by gamebooks has raised euro $1.2 million. In Seventh Continent the player negotiates a haunted island via a series of thrilling adventures. Dice are rolled, monsters are battled, a horrifically good time is had by all.

I’m in for €89. The completed game is due later this year. I can’t wait. To experience just a sliver of the tension I felt walking around my grandmother’s kitchen debating whether or not to befriend that centaur would be a prize for the ages.

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