The Joy of Gamebooks

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: 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: 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.


36 responses to “The Joy of Gamebooks

  1. I read many of the Fighting Fantasy books (including the RPG books released later on), but I much preferred the Lone Wolf series. Keeping your character between books made the series feel much epic in scope. Sure, you did have to read the books in order, but that was part of the fun.

    • Hi Andrew
      I remember Lone Wolf but I never got into them in quite the same way. What I did love about them was the artwork by Gary Chalk. He is a legend and I might well do a blog about him later!
      Thanks for reading!

      • They’re very closely connected actually. FF author Ian Livingstone was also the original editor of White Dwarf magazine, which in the 1980s was the only place to get cheap role-playing adventures in the UK. Before it became focused on Games Workshop products alone, it was full of information about D&D and other role-playing games like Call of Cthulu, and Traveller. I’m sure many many of the gamebook fans went on to get those red and blue D&D boxed sets for Christmas. First, wax the numbers on your funny-shaped dice…

  2. I never liked the Choose Your Own Adventure books… they felt too silly and didn’t have the dramatic power of the Fighting Fantasy Books. I think the Sorcery series was particularly awesome in the way it carried over items and choices over four books. That felt really epic!

    Some of the sci-fi ones like Space Assassin and Highway (the Mad Max-ish one) were particularly good too.

    Man when I was a kid, I’d go to a book store and just zoom in on those green spines!

    • In the beginning, we didn’t even have the green spines to spot! The cover above of Island of the Lizard King is the first edition, which was the last one before they repackaged all the jackets to look the same.

  3. ‘Island of the Lizard King’! I’d forgotten about these books until I saw your post. I could never finish these books. I once spent a long time trying to read every segment to find out what happened in the end, but it was a fruitless exercise.

    • Island of the Lizard King always has a place in my heart because it was the only one that I finished on the first attempt! Starship Traveller was utterly impossible though, and I still don’t think I’d be able to finish it today (er, without cheating of course…)

  4. I remember them – out when D&D was played on a table, not a screen. Still have the Mirror Mountain book somewhere. Bought my sons a reprint of Jacksons recently – old tech is sometimes best.

    • One of the funny things about the series is that they’re written by two Steve Jacksons. The series was co-created by Steve Jackson (UK). Then the eighth book, Scorpion Swamp was written by a different Steve Jackson (the US one). In fact, the US Steve Jackson is a prestigious games designer in his own right, having created Car Wars and many other RPGs.

  5. My older brothers loved those books, I was always too scared by the crazy looking pictures on the cover. Saw the new artwork, although it looks good I wasn’t that freaked…getting older sucks!

  6. oh, brilliant! you are making me feel my age though… and I’m not a thirty something, haven’t been for the last 3 years or so. I have to confess I never got into the actual gamebooks, maybe slightly too old for them when they came out, but I loved all the artwork and all the books I read did have very similar covers. I loved those covers…

  7. Great post! I had the Shamutanti Hills and read it many times in an effort to get to the end (failed every time). I wonder what ever happened to my copy….

    • I always thought that the second book was the hardest (Kharé Cityport of Traps). You have to learn four lines of a poem to get out of the place, and one of them is almost impossible to find!

  8. A really interesting account of a world definitely after my time. Very informative and your enthusiasm really comes through. If only I’d been younger in the 1980’s…

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