Fighting Fantasy, the series of single-player roleplaying gamebooks (think Choose Your Own Adventure with stats and dice) that began in 1982, has entered the e-book era, beginning last week with the Kindle release of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and continuing with a new book in the 60-book series to be released each month by Worldweaver Ltd.
A quick look back: Fighting Fantasy was one of the first, and probably the most popular, roleplaying gamebook series to appear in the 1980s. The tagline above the enthusiastically pulpy art on each installment promised a thrilling fantasy adventure in which YOU were the HERO! For a young, book-loving proto-nerd such as I, who had not yet so much as heard of Dungeons & Dragons but certainly got a kick out of the idea of grabbing an (imaginary) sword and slicing up (imaginary) baddies, the concept was electric. By the time I was browsing for fantasy gamebooks, there were RPGs available for the computer—but even then I remember feeling that the pictures authors painted with words could far outdo what a programmer might manage with 16 colors of pixels on a 640×480 display.
Of course, the potential in gamebooks often outshone execution—and what’s more, it was kind of hard for an eight-year-old to resist dog-earing the page when deciding whether to investigate that forbidding cave… or to avoid fudging the die rolls when the manticore lurking inside
landed almost landed a deadly blow with its scorpion tail.
However, there will be no opportunity for such “lucky” escapes this time around. According to the press release:
The books have been adapted to make use of the Kindle’s computing abilities, handling the dice rolls, scoring and inventory. There is also an automatic mapping system that shows the reader’s current location and route they have taken through the dungeons.
So, no pen, paper, or dice necessary—just, perhaps, a little more foresight. Or a really good memory of which caves to avoid.
Nostalgia aside, Fighting Fantasy as a brand has had an impressive longevity, with an entirely modern website and a continually evolving stream of merchandise over the years: board games, roleplaying game systems, magazines, video games, and, most recently, iPhone and iPad apps for several of its gamebooks. Given gamebooks’s straddling of the line between, well, “game” and “book,” it will be interesting to see whether the series finds more success on the dedicated e-reader format of the Kindle, or on the multimedia platforms of the iPhone and iPad.
It might even be worth wondering: Amazon has further and further embraced the Kindle’s computational abilities beyond pure e-reading, and Warlock of Firetop Mountain is only the latest in a series of games and gamebooks including the original Choose Your Own Adventure titles, interactive fiction newcomers like Choice of the Dragon and Choice of Broadsides, and plenty of games that aren’t even text-based at all, from chess to Monopoly to poker. Will e-readers find success in pushing the boundaries of their originally intended format, just as Fighting Fantasy prospered by doing something new with the space between two covers? Or is this push into e-reader interactivity ultimately trading mostly on novelty and nostalgia, with any such experience immeasurably outmatched by that already available on any genuine portable gaming platform—the very same ever more sophisticated, ever more dominant video gaming experience which already made gamebooks nearly obsolete once, some fifteen or twenty years ago?
I suppose what I’m asking is: do readers even WANT to be the hero, anymore?
Joshua Starr might not be the hero, but he would probably make an acceptable wisecracking sidekick.