An article on the Guardian website on Thursday announced that Ian Livingstone would return to writing Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. A new title is arriving in the bookshops this year: Blood of the Zombies: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/aug/02/fighting-fantasy-blood-of-the-zombies.This created a wave of comments from thirtysomethings remembering their childhood. So what was the appeal?
First of all, there was very little fantasy fiction available in the 1980s. Just before the Dungeons and Dragons boom, fantasy TV and film series were few and far between. The quality was also variable. For every epic like Conan the Barbarian (1982), there was a swathe of lesser followers such as Krull (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1985). As Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “Now, when my kids get out of line, they’re sent to their room and forced to watch Red Sonja ten times. I never have too much trouble with them.”
So the gamebooks plugged into a hunger for fantasy fiction that had no other outlet. The books themselves were also fiendishly difficult, leading to plenty of playground competition over how to finish them. I never did complete The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (the first), but that didn’t stop me collecting the rest.
A huge part of their success was the fabulous artwork. Russ Nicholson’s interior images of trolls and orcs were extremely atmospheric, and Iain McCaig’s covers were very high quality, for example this one from Island of the Lizard King (1984):
Best of all was John Blanche, whose wild punky artwork was also a key part in the growth of Citadel Miniatures (he drew many of the original designs). Blanche’s penwork adorned the four-part Sorcery! series by Steve Jackson, featuring an epic journey across the imaginary continent of Khakhabad:
The first book in the Sorcery! series was originally packaged in a box with the gamebook and the spell book printed separately. You were told to learn the spells before setting off. It was a more innocent age after all, when people had fewer distractions in life. Obviously, no one learnt any of the spells and that was all part of the fun. There was a visceral pleasure in constantly cheating to reach the end of the story. After all, as any teacher would tell you, “you’re only cheating yourself.”
The 1980s was also before the era of cheap air travel. The gamebooks were very good at creating the impression of exploring a foreign or alien world. This wasn’t coincidence at all. Steve Jackson has admitted that he based The Shamutanti Hills on a hiking trip he took in Nepal, and even kept many of the place names: http://fightingfantasy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=159&Itemid=37&limitstart=4. He probably made the manticore up, though:
The Forest of Doom by contrast reads like Ian Livingstone went for a trip down to his local woods and typed it up as he went along, adding a monster into whatever shady nook or sunny glen tickled his fancy.
Success breeds success, and soon Jackson and Livingstone had a swarm of imitators. The Cretan Chronicles is one of the least well-remembered. In this case, the action reads like a backpacking trip round the Greek islands. Bizarrely, you play the brother of Theseus, who has already been disembowlled by the Minotaur, somewhat contrary to the official version of events.
The Cretan Chronicles never really caught on, despite being a three-book series of linked adventures (Bloodfeud of Altheus, At the Court of King Minos, and the enormous final volume Return of the Wanderer). This was partly because the rules were quite complicated. Much worse though was having to avoid shameful acts. As a twelve year old, this was rather hard to do, and you were constantly being punished for your misdemeanours:
“Have 2 shame points for killing a host, even one so evil”
“You awake next morning, your head throbbing … have 2 shame points, but you are in Favour with Dionysus, god of the vine”
“Shame on you! The farmer turns round and notices you pilfering his cheese … Have 1 shame point and you must walk the rest of the way to Crommyon.”
Looking through this forgotten series again, I was struck by its depth of research (the authors Butterfield, Honigmann and Parker were clearly well-read in Greek myth and culture). More worrying from a parent’s point of view, it was also unbelievably gory. The authors seemed to have a particular predilection for decapitation, with two pictures of severed heads cropping up in the illustrations of the Bloodfeud of Altheus alone.
The great thing about game books was that they encouraged a love of reading and a keen interest in fantasy fiction. Today around 10% of all fiction sold in the UK is in the fantasy and science fiction genre, and surely Messers Jackson and Livingstone have had a big part to play in that.