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When YOU Were The Hero – An Adventure In Gamebooks

Gamebooks aren’t something you see much of these days but back in the 80s and 90s they were doing a roaring trade all over the world as readers embraced the possibility of interactivity in their entertainment.

The Twisted Tale of Tiki Island (cover)They generally work like this: The reader becomes the protagonist in a second person narrative, the outcome of which depends on the decisions they make in a branching plot with several possible endings. The book is presented in a non-linear fashion which has you flipping backwards and forwards between pages depending on your path through the story. The adventure can come to a swift end if you make the wrong decision (unless you keep your finger on the last page you visited).

The sinister warning “Reader beware…You choose the scare” that draws the eye to the Give Yourself Goosebumps series highlights the most appealing aspect of these books. “YOU are the hero”, we are told by the covers of the Fighting Fantasy series. With those words the reader can take on dragons, weave magic spells, pick locks, claim treasure and die in a multitude of unpleasant ways depending on their own decisions, skill, luck and stamina. Of course you can also do this in Skyrim, and with better graphics, so where does this leave gamebooks?

The gamebook concept is actually older than you might expect. Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose favoured themes of unreality and magical realism have had a profound effect on twentieth century literature, presented the first idea of interactive fiction in his story The Garden of Forking Paths as long ago as 1941. Since then, masses of gamebook series have risen to popularity, provoking interactivity in the reading experience that has naturally bled into other types of media.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (cover)The world of fantasy gamebooks is dominated by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series. The Games Workshop founders began their series in 1982 with the bestselling The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (originally less excitingly entitled The Magic Quest), a debut that led to the creation of a successful board game, action figures, computer games and a gamebook series consisting of numerous volumes, including the four-part adventure Sorcery!, where the reader’s commitment is sorely tested as you are expected to memorise an entire spell book before you begin.

The commitment involved may in fact be part of the reason these books are less popular than they used to be. Left behind by the wonders of modern technology it is perhaps unrealistic to expect gamebooks to uphold their appeal when computer games are so much less effort. If there’s one desire the digital age plays up to it’s an easier life and let’s face it, die rolling, map drawing and provision checking are not practical activities for the morning commute.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain remains my favourite of these books. After a few pages of introduction detailing the nature of the reader’s quest – where you must steadfastly journey through the perilous realm of Zagor the warlock in order to defeat him and claim his treasure – and dice rolling to discover your base stats in stamina, skill and luck, you are on your way, with decisions starting to appear at the first junction. The writing isn’t the greatest prose you’ll ever discover and it is incredibly tempting to cheat at many intervals, but there is something about this type of book that is undeniably gripping.

Beware the Purple Peanut Butter (cover)The Give Yourself Goosebumps collection was incredibly popular when I was at school, probably because it appeals to children’s fascination with the grotesque and their desire for interactivity and make-believe. The success of R.L. Stine’s popular children’s horror series Goosebumps spun off into gamebooks in 1995, with an amazing fifty titles published by the time the new millennium hit. The adventures within these stories are as varied as the Goosebumps series, ranging from tales of the reader turning into a vampire bat or spending time at a haunted theme park, to becoming the subject of various scientific experiments going awry, or food-related mishaps such as can be found in Beware the Purple Peanut Butter.

Before even the original Goosebumps came on the scene, second person fiction was taking children’s libraries by storm. Choose Your Own Adventure stories appeared in the 1980s with The Cave of Time, inspired by Edward Packard’s 1976 series Adventures of You. The Choose Your Own Adventure books have less traditional fantasy elements than later resurgences of the gamebook concept and instead focus on the kinds of make-believe children would come up with in their imaginative play, such as searching for hidden treasure, exploring treacherous environments in space, jungles or below the sea, riding a superbike or even being a shark.

The Cave of Time (cover)These collections follow the same structure as the more complex “adult” gamebooks but are perhaps more appealing in that they have multiple possible endings (the Choose Your Own Adventure series promises 40) that don’t necessarily result in certain death. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are notorious for providing one clear path through the story, whereas the children’s tales offer multiple endings ranging from immediate doom to more positive outlooks such as the protagonist becoming the “richest kid in the world”. As well as having straightforward decisions to make there is still an element of chance to these books, if more simplified than in the Fighting Fantasy series. The reader may have to complete challenges in real life (I was defeated by some rather tricky map reading), toss coins or roll dice to determine the next step in their journey.

The success of this type of book with young people seems inevitable, and can be proved by the twenty-plus gamebook series that blossomed from children’s publishers during the 80s and 90s. There is a theory that children engage well with “scary” stories (which here relates to the idea of their own peril rather than a fear of ghosts etc.) because it gives them the opportunity to confront and control their fears in a safe environment. The fantastical nature of these stories’ plots combined with the fun interactive element that allows them to immerse themselves in the adventure are likely good for a child’s emotional development and imagination and could well have contributed to a thriving fantasy fan base over the years.

Titan (cover)Children are, however, frighteningly insightful and increasingly street-wise and so, as is to be expected, their literature is developing in the same direction as adult fantasy, with darker heroes and less black and white morality tales. This presents a further problem with this type of book. In today’s reading circles the type of hero “YOU” get to be doesn’t hold up with the type of hero readers want any more (and are nearly always male according to the illustrations). There is no place for the likes of Locke Lamora or Logen Ninefingers in these straightforward adventures and no way for the reader to project their own personality onto the character, which is the next step in interactive storytelling and gaming.

Unfortunately, the fact that many of these series are now out of print suggests that the development of digital gaming – some of which would have been inspired by this kind of book – and more interesting anti-heroes may have done permanent harm to this “archaic” form of adventuring.

I suppose it comes down to a matter of personal taste, but after re-reading a few recently I would have to say that gamebooks hold up pretty well, especially now they have started appearing in the ever-convenient app format. Whether you enjoy discovering each new adventure or nostalgically re-living the old ones, there is a lot of fun to be had between their pages and there is clearly a market for them somewhere because they are still being written.


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