Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Return of the Gamebook

Author's Note: I discovered this article sitting in my sent box from 2012 -- it was intended for publication in magazine form, but never got off the ground. So here it is, unearthed from the Lupine Archives. I think some of it may have also appeared on the now-defunct Castle Co-Op, a site I wrote for between 2011-2012. Some of the details may have changed since original writing.

Gamebooks were a big deal in kid’s literature for much of the 80’s and 90’s. Straddling the same territory as pen and paper role playing games, text adventure programs and a good old fashioned novel, they enthralled millions of children around the world with the simple idea that they could affect the outcome of a story. And it must not be forgotten that parents were pleased because they’d finally got their kids away from the TV and reading a book.

For those unfamiliar with the term “gamebook” it’s still entirely possible that you’ve read them without realising what they were. You may have encountered books that use terms like “interactive fiction” or “pick-a-path.” For those of you who haven’t, the central concept of these books is fairly simple—when you have finished reading a section of text, you will usually be presented with a choice about your next action. After making your decision, you turn the numbered page or paragraph relevant to your choice. For example:

You are in the forest, searching for signs of wildlife amongst the trees. There is a cave nearby that looks as thought it may be worth exploring. Suddenly, you see a large bear passing through the trees, heading towards your direction. It does not seem to have spotted you yet, but you are wary of what might happen if it does.

 If you want to make a break toward the apparent safety of the cave, turn to page 80.

 If you would rather stand your ground and attempt to scare the bear away, turn to 23.

And so it continues, until you reach an ending to your story. The endings tended to include one or two “good” endings, a few mixed ones and many bad ones. Success was inevitably a result of trial, error and persistence, but it made for an addictive formula.

My own first encounter with gamebooks came though the Choose Your Own Adventure series, courtesy of my primary school library. This was the early 1990s—well before the craze had died down, but probably after the biggest heights of the genre’s success had been reached. While my experience of that particular series remains a fond childhood memory, reading those books sparked something in me that I have never quite forgotten.

Many years later after purchasing an iPhone, I was browsing the App Store and came across a number of gamebook series that had been recently re-released in digital form. After downloading a few and reading/playing them again, I started to whether these books might be making some sort of comeback. Though I was aware of fragments and minor snippets of the genre’s history, I started to wonder about more of the details and what had become of some of its prominent proponents. So I went browsing the World Wide Web to see what sort of information turned up.

I didn’t go too far before I stumbled across a familiar name: Edward Packard. Arguably the great-grandfather of the modern gamebook, Mr. Packard was one of the most prominent authors of the Choose Your Own Adventure series—his book, The Cave of Time, launched the original series. 

“The idea of a book in which you the reader are the protagonist and make choices leading to branching story lines and multiple endings came to me in the course of making up bedtime stories for my kids,” says Mr. Packard. “I thought of possible options, asked them what they would do, and followed up on the consequences of each choice, which in each case produced new problems, requiring new choices.”

The resultant book was named Sugarcane Island, which boasted thirty-nine endings. It began circulating amongst publishers in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1976 that it would see publication. R.A. Montgomery of Vermont Crossroads Press would pick up the title and launch it under the banner The Adventures of You. Mr. Montgomery would eventually make his way to Bantam Books, taking the concept with him and go on to become one of the more prominent authors in the genre himself. The Choose Your Own Adventure series proper began publication in 1979, eventually spanning almost 200 books--not counting the large numbers of spin-offs and tie-ins!

It wasn’t long before other publishers saw potential in the format. Imitators of the basic CYOA format abounded, transporting readers through all manner of adventures. Spy fiction, sword & sorcery, science fiction, western, martial arts—if you could imagine it, odds were you could find a title that would let your childhood fantasy be fulfilled.

Many of these imitative series traded in original titles, but it wasn’t long before a huge number of licensed properties also found their way to the bookshelves. Doctor Who, Dungeons & Dragons and Young Indiana Jones were amongst the many to receive a gamebook makeover. As might be expected, some franchises were better fits for the format than others--amongst the strangest of all was Famous Five and You, a series which saw you solving mysteries alongside Enid Blyton’s famous child sleuths.

Though most of these books limited themselves to simple linear choices, other authors saw the format as an opportunity to create more in-depth experiences similar to pen-and-paper role-playing and text adventure computer games. Dave Morris, who co-created cult 90’s series Fabled Lands with Jamie Thomson, feels that the format’s popularity was innately linked to the gaming technologies of the time.

“The big '80s gamebook craze was mainly a response to people wanting the interactivity of videogames, but at a time when videogames were crude by today's standards,” he explains. “Gamebooks filled that gap.”

One of the most prominent of this type of gamebook was the Fighting Fantasy series, created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Incorporating dice, special items and character statistics into the pre-existing Choose Your Own Adventure format gave gamers the ability to dive into a fantasy adventure without the inconvenience of lengthy load times. The first book in the series, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was a huge success--the series that followed would eventually be translated into 25 languages and sell over 16 million copies.

As with any trend, the mainstream popularity that gamebooks enjoyed did not last forever, though they enjoyed far more impressive lifespans than the fickle whims of children usually allow. Choose Your Own Adventure ceased publication in 1998. Fabled Lands suffered cancellation after only six books of a projected thirteen. Though collections lived on in the hands of dedicated owners and public libraries, the peak era of the gamebook came to an end during the 1990s.

Fortunately, gamebooks have not stayed absent from the bookshelves for long. Though the current range available cannot compete with the glut of titles available that was once available, several high-profile series have found their way back to the bookstore in the last few years--Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy and Fabled Lands amongst them. It is perhaps notable that titles based on licensed properties do not seem to have undergone a similar level of revival. From a nostalgic point of view it is very pleasing to see these titles on the bookshelf again, but with the ever-increasing costs of printing hard copies and the gradual rise of e-readers, all of those interviewed for this article seemed sceptical that the genre would ever return to its former levels of print popularity.

Electronic formats look to be the future if gamebooks are to maintain a presence in today’s marketplace. Fighting Fantasy has released five of its titles on the App Store to an enthusiastic reception. 2011 saw Fabled Lands make its electronic debut. Edward Packard has revised some of his popular Choose Your Own Adventure books under the U-Ventures brand. A new series from Melbourne-based Tin Man Games, Gamebook Adventures, has also met with considerable acclaim—it now boasts eight titles under its belt. 

For his own part, Dave Morris remains confident that gamebooks will retain a following:

“I don't think they'll be selling millions and millions of copies like in the '80s, but I do believe there is a solid market out there that want[s] this stuff and we are keen to write it for them.”


Thanks to Mr. Dave Morris and Mr. Edward Packard, Richard and Mikael from Megara Entertainment, Rose Estes and Neil Rennison of Tin Man Games.

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