Tuesday, April 29, 2014

F is for Fighting Fantasy

A series on games I wish I’d played more of.

Pretty much anyone my age who was into fantasy and science fiction back in the 70s and 80s will remember the Fighting Fantasy books.

Superficially, these seem to be pretty light entertainment and a novelty that emerged briefly and then essentially disappeared, but few people know that the idea of a branching path story was first pioneered by Jorge Luis Borges[1] in the 40s in a pair of stories that featured fictional books with branching paths in them.  In one, A survey of the works of Herbert Quain, the main character is the author of a book split into three parts, and has two branch points, and is thus able to tell a total of nine different stories.  The other story, The Garden of Forking Paths, [2] contains an element that is much more like the adventure game books we know and love: this story deals in part with a sinologist who has interpreted an ancient Chinese work written by a man tasked to design a maze and to write a book, but in the end produced only a riddle – a book that is a maze, with the reader needing to determine the order in which the sections need to be read in order to navigate the contents.

The “self-directed order of reading” concept manifested as a real type of book in the 50s when it was used by Skinner and others to develop learning materials – in these kinds of books, students selected a question’s answer, and were directed to another page based on that answer.  In some senses, these are the precursors of the online training programmes that a lot of institutions use internally – you read a text (say, the company labour dispute policy) and then have to answer multiple choice questions on the content.  With each answer, you are either moved on to the next question (if you’re right) or redirected to a more comprehensive explanation of the concept you got wrong and offered another question to see if it stuck yet. [3] This aside though, there were a series of “branching path” self-study books published during the 50s and 60s that were used to present a variety of subjects, and in fact these books were acknowledged by the creators of branching path fiction and adventures as a strong influence. [4]

Following on from these directed learning books, branching path fiction really came into its own in the 70s, when “choose your own adventure” and similar types of adventure fiction books started to gain in popularity – right up to the first Fighting Fantasy book published in 1982 by Penguin: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

I had read choose your own adventure books of various kinds in the past, but although they were interesting they never really seemed to have much re-readability.  The Jackson and Livingstone conception took the idea to the next level though, and in the early 80s I was a big fan of their Fighting Fantasy series of fantasy solitaire adventure gamebooks.  I think I actually started with Island of the Lizard King, and I seem to remember my second purchase being Deathtrap Dungeon [5], but in the end I had a shelf with about 10 of the books on it, and even started branching out into series like Lone Wolf – I never really played many of the Lone Wolf books, but the art in that series was gorgeous and it had the rather interesting twist that the books constituted a coherent narrative. [6]

This was an interesting time for games, and one that I kind of wish would come back.  Computer and console games are a sort of extension of the idea [7] but if we’re honest it’s not the same thing – computerized RPGs are quite a different experience from either tabletop playing or the gamebooks of yore.  With the advent of tablets and smartphones, there’s the potential for a comeback, [8] but as far as computer gaming goes, the closest analog to the old gamebooks is probably text adventures like Zork. [9]

By this point, you’ve probably gotten the impression that actually I’ve already played gamebooks quite a lot, so may be wondering why this is in a list of games I wish I’d played more of. 

The answer is actually quite simple: I cheated.

Like many other youngsters playing these books, I looked ahead to see what the consequences of different choices were and thus navigated the books relatively easily. I wish I had played the books more honestly, or that I had payed more attention to how they were organized.  By cheating, I cheated myself of even more fun (and they were plenty fun even cheating!) but I could at least have learned something about game design while I was at it.

Oh, make no mistake, there were TV programmes and books and magazine articles on how these books were designed and made [10] so I learned a lot about their structure – but I was a callow youth, and I wasted the opportunity when it was right in front of me, so I sometimes wish I had played more of them – or at least played them more effectively.

But then, I can play them now if I want to.


1. The influence of Jorge Luis Borges on modern fiction is incredible, and he was a celebrated master of the short form – indeed, anyone who aspires to write fantasy short stories needs to know his work, and his influence can be seen in the works of other masters like Umberto Eco. http://www.egs.edu/library/jorge-luis-borges/biography/

2. Both of these stories are available in the collection The Garden of Forking Paths which is unfortunately a bit expensive, but the story The Garden of Forking Paths is often available online as scanned copies, as it’s a popular text in Borges courses.  The story is also included in the collection Labyrinths, which is more reasonably priced and has the added bonus of an introduction by William Gibson.

3. I’m not convinced this approach actually works, but it certainly is popular.

4. Although I doubt the value of this sort of approach to things like corporate training, I do wonder if the approach could be better leveraged for online education programmes – surely the idea could be adapted rather easily to create apps that are essentially primers to certain basic subjects?

5. Which, incidentally, really was a deathtrap.  I played it over and over, but only ever managed to defeat the book without cheating once.

6. Actually, I think that was what prevented me from buying more than a couple of them – you needed to play the books in order for them to really make sense, so it made it hard to just pick up a book at a Motorway rest stop or at an airport. The books were playable as stand-alones, but not very satisfying because it was obvious you were expected to know things that had happened in previous books. FF books on the other hand were mostly stand-alones, though that didn’t stop me and my friends trying things like making a character and trying to use the same one all through the series.

7. Indeed, there were adaptations for a few of the early FF books into games for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, though I only ever played the Spectrum version of Warlock of Firetop Mountain and found it a bit unsatisfying.

8. Actually, if only the Kindle e-ink platform allowed for clearly defined pages, the fact that it supports HTML would make it dead easy to run choose your own adventure type books – and I’m sure that the platform could be made to do things like roll dice and keep track of your character for you. Thinking about this sort of thing is always enough to make me bemoan the fact I stopped keeping up with programming when I stopped using a Unix terminal at university – if I had the time to do it, I’d teach myself and write kindle or tablet based gamebooks with great enthusiasm!

9. Which, by the way, you can play online here. You didn’t need to sleep tonight anyway.

10. If you’re wondering about the web pages, I can only respond: “What! You egg!” and suggest that you go entertain yourself while your elders compare arthritic pains and twinges from long-forgotten wounds.

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