A New Page for Gamebooks: How Tablets Reinvigorated Fighting Fantasy

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If you’re a child of the 1980s you’re probably familiar with the notion of gamebooks. Spearheaded by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series, it became a burgeoning form comprising a number of different works from authors and publishers all over the world. These books were essentially wordy single-player RPGs for bookish kids and adults alike. It’s not hard to see why they were so popular. At a time when videogames were so basic, not to mention access to the new-fangled hardware being limited, Fighting Fantasy offered an interactive story “in which YOU become the hero!”—a claim that adorned every cover, and a very enticing one indeed.

The writing was geared toward the reader, placing them at the centre of richly detailed fantasy landscapes. The player was always the hero and, more often than not, their decisions alone would dictate not only their own fate, but the fate of everyone else in the universe. We’re sure that format sounds familiar even to the newer generation of RPG players out there.

But as you’d expect, the market for gamebooks began to collapse as videogame technology improved so rapidly. Words were the past, polygons were the future, and everyone got so caught up in the race for progress that they temporarily forgot all the fun they’d had with gamebooks. It’s curious, then, that the gamebook format should be enjoying such a renaissance in recent years, reappearing in our tech-obsessed world as apps for our iPads and Android tablets. Books that seemed destined to become little more than historical curios—my personal introduction to the Fighting Fantasy series was finding a stack of them in a charity shop, priced at 25 pence each—have traded their fusty, yellowed pages for the swanky modern screens of our iPads.

Neil Rennison is one of the people most responsible for this rebirth. Rennison’s mobile game studio, Tin Man Games, has worked on its own original gamebook productions as well as with the Fighting Fantasy license. Rennison, like many others, enjoyed gamebooks as a child. Now he’s bringing them to a whole new platform, so others can also have the privilege.

“I loved playing computer games on my ZX Spectrum 48k and especially loved adventure games, but back then the games were really quite limited,” Neil remembers. “Also, there was no form of portable gaming, so when I left the house there was no way of indulging in my passion.”

“Then one holiday to the south coast of England I found Deathtrap Dungeon, a so-called Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebook, on a bookshelf in a shop by the beach. The cover entranced me so I bought it—a few hours later my young world had changed forever.”

“I was finally able to indulge in two passions, gaming and reading, whilst also having the ability to read/play these gamebooks anywhere I wished,” Rennison enthuses. “And Deathtrap Dungeon will always be special to me for that reason. Even now, the layout of the adventure, the illustrations and even the smell of the paper transport me back to my youth.”

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Hearing Neil reflect on his early experiences with Fighting Fantasy, and the vividness of his memories, it’s easy to see that the series had a huge impact upon his formative years. It makes me wonder how many other children of his generation have similar memories of that revelatory moment, when Fighting Fantasy opened their minds to what was possible, that gaming and storytelling could coexist in spectacular fashion.

Indeed, this older generation of nostalgic fans was the group to which Neil was originally trying to appeal with his Gamebook Adventures series. However, it seems that his focus may have shifted slightly since then.

“Three or four years ago, I would have said that it was all about nostalgia and rekindling that love affair that many 30-40 years olds have had with gamebooks”, says Rennison. “But while that is still very important, and an important part of our how we present our work, it’s so uplifting to be showing a demo at an expo like Penny Arcade and see the penny drop in the mind of a twelve year old as I explain that they can read a book and play an RPG at the same time. Most have never even heard of a gamebook before, and I have been asked a lot whether I invented it!”

Steve Jackson, author of classic gamebooks such as Appointment with F.E.A.R. and co-author of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, seems to agree with Rennison’s analysis. He similarly reports a kind of two-tiered, cross-generational fanbase for Fighting Fantasy, and notes the importance of digital adaptations in reaching a younger audience.

“We seem to have two types of fans,” he says: “Those who spent their teenage years reading Fighting Fantasy, and youngsters who are discovering it for the first time. Often prompted by their parents! The recent Fighting Fantasy Fest convention demonstrated [the series] still has a following amongst dedicated 40-somethings. But it’s great to see today’s teenagers can enjoy the gamebook format too; even if they prefer to read/play on tablets.”

As for the personal experience of someone who grew up after the Fighting Fantasy boom, I could never imagine having the patience to complete a gamebook in paperback form. I always loved the idea, and I tried to play one as a child—Talisman of Death, I believe—but quickly lost patience with pencilling in stats and items, and rolling dice to determine the outcome of fights.

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But playing a gamebook on a tablet is an absolute joy. There being no need to faff around with pencils or dice is the main advantage, but little visual cues and subtle audio to build atmosphere also help to round off the package. The writing’s already there—and it’s surprisingly good, for anyone who’s thinking of dismissing it—but tablets provide an excellent framing for these fantastical tales.

As gamebooks and tablets seem to fit together so beautifully, I’d always assumed that it was the introduction of the iPad that inspired Rennison to get working on his Gamebook Adventures series. But, as it turns out, it was a pleasant surprise more than anything.

“The strange thing about Gamebook Adventures and tablets is that we were only developing for the iPhone at the time,” he reveals. “The iPad hadn’t even been announced and was only rumored! Obviously when tablets then started coming out we quickly realized they were the perfect platform for digital gamebooks.”

But how about the authors of the original works? Do these writers, who invested so much in pencil and paper, feel happy to see their works appear on tablets, too? Well, Steve Jackson seems to be enthusiastic about the future of gamebooks in digital form.

“There is so much more digital devices can do to enhance the playing experience,” says Jackson. “The use of colour, dynamic mapping, the combat system, inventory control and so on. Playing on an iPad is a completely different thing to playing through a book.”

Indeed, more recent gamebooks are beginning to move further and further away from their source material, at least in terms of presentation. Another studio, Inkle, who are said to have a “friendly rivalry” with Tin Man Games—Neil jokes that the pair are like “the Blur and Oasis of the digital gamebook scene”—took some fairly bold decisions when adapting Sorcery! for tablets. But despite this potentially controversial move, Jackson seems appreciative of their innovation.

“One of the gambles that Inkle took was to change some of the fundamentals of the original books,” Jackson tells us. “Particularly the combat system, the spells system and 3D mapping. But sales have shown that fans really like these innovations and hopefully this will encourage the appearance of new features in the future.”

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But Inkle aren’t alone in mixing things up, as Tin Man’s most recent adaptation presents a much larger step for the studio.

Appointment with F.E.A.R. is a different beast entirely and we re-designed the gamebook and the presentation from the bottom up,” says Rennison, showing a noticeable sense of pride in the adaptation. “It now reads more like a choice-based graphic novel than a gamebook, complete with new artwork, speech bubbles and getting rid of the dice, which was quite controversial.”

But perhaps radical change is key for developers to make the most of the mobile platform—and, quite possibly, to explore the limits of what a gamebook can be. Indeed, Jackson seems to favour the digital adaptations which run with the original source material and make it their own.

“I would have to say Appointment with F.E.A.R. is my favourite Tin Man adaptation so far,” says Jackson. “They have done so much work on developing the comic book style that it’s barely recognisable from the original. Really suits the adventure, I think.”

That process of adaptation and modernization is by no means over, at least not for Tin Man Games.

“Moving forward we are going to be trying out some new ways of delivering our gamebooks,” Rennison reveals. “Appointment with F.E.A.R. was a kind of a stepping stone on that journey.”

“I can’t reveal too much,” he continues, “but we’re going to be making a big thing of mapping and have recently hired a 3D artist who is conjuring some visual magic for us. We’ll still be very grounded in gamebook mechanics and interactive fiction, but it will be much more visual.”

In the 1980s, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone probably never thought that a studio would hire a 3D artist to adapt their works. It’s not just nostalgia or the quality of the original books that make the resurgence of gamebooks so powerful—it’s also how surprising it is. This is one of the most unexpected developments in gaming in the past few years, and also one of the most welcome. The likes of Appointment with F.E.A.R. and Sorcery! are among gaming’s sacred texts, laying down so much of the groundwork upon which games still operate today. And now, in the form of tablets, we have a fittingly modern way to enjoy them.

Matt Suckley has written for IGN, Games Radar and more. Follow him on Twitter @PleasantPig.

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