It's a memory that spans generations. Once upon a time we did it with paper and pen; huddled under bedsheets, torch in hand. Nowadays the devices emit their own light — smartphones, tablets — but the stories and memories are the same. Exploring narrative, taking chances, risking life or death with the roll of a dice. Flick to page 41. Will you survive this encounter; will the Warlock's treasure remain unclaimed?
This is the Game book. And it's a timeless thing.
Almost 30 years ago Ian Livingstone, alongside Steve Jackson, created the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook. It was written to capture the hearts and minds of those intimidated by the density of Dungeons and Dragons. Now, alongside Aussie Developers Tin Man Games, he wants to recapture that spirit. He wants to help reinvent the gamebook for a new audience.
And the old audience.
"All the kids who grew up with my books in the 1980s — I keep bumping into them now as successful 40 year olds," says Ian Livingstone.
"So I thought, let's just do another one for old time's sake."
But that's not where our story begins. That's where it ends. This tale begins with an idea. A conversation.
The Trial Of Champions
"It was originally Neil's idea, it was really his brainchild."
Ben Britten is the co-founder of Tin Man Games and — much like Neil Rennison, the other Tin Man — he grew with dice and torch in hand.
"I've always been a fan of gamebooks," says Ben, "but Neil was the one who came to me with the idea. His story is that he's been a big fan of gamebooks since he was a kid. We wanted to find something we both loved, something there was a niche and market for.
"Then the iPhone came out and we were like, 'oh my god this is the perfect thing, we have to bring back gamebooks!'"
Approaching his late 30s, Ben Britten grew up with gamebooks. In a way he represents the successful adults Ian Livingstone keeps bumping into.
"I remember being really frustrated with them to begin with, because I sucked," laughs Ben. "Every third page it was like, oh... you tripped on the ravine and died! I was a big library nerd, so I would always go to the library and read the choose your own adventure books. That was my first interaction with gamebooks, and from there I moved straight on to dungeons and dragons from there."
When Ben discovered Fighting Fantasy, he was a little older, but something clicked.
"I discovered Fighting Fantasy and was like, oh my god this is like Dungeons and Dragons and Gamebooks! I didn't even know those existed until my late teens."
Now it's his goal to revive them.
"It's really important for Neil and I to recapture that excitement. Games and gamebooks are about exploring, and gamebooks in particular are about exploring narrative and trying to recapture that nostalgia. The advancements in the mobile space are really exciting and our goal is to figure out how to capture that nostalgia and reinvent it as something new and exciting."
The e-book market has grown rapidly with the introduction of tablets, and mobile gaming is a massive growth space. It makes perfect sense to not only bring back gamebooks, but to actually gamify them, to remove the barriers that pushed gamebooks into the periphery and appeal to a broader audience.
"We really thought the time was right to reinvent the genre in digital," says Ben. "And we really wanted to take it to the next level — to do things in the digital books that you can't really do in the old paperbacks. We wanted to figure out what was great about the books — keep that — then take the bad things and get rid of them.
"Then work out what we could add to keep that magic from the old books alive."
The Sorcery Spell Book
The feeling of flipped pages, of making progress backwards and forwards throughout the book — obviously that had to remain regardless of the technology being used, but according to Ben, the goal was to make gamebooks feel a little less cumbersome.
"One thing that we wanted to keep was the dice, and the whole turning the pages thing — that feeling of discovery," explains Ben. "You're reading a book but you're almost exploring the actual media itself.
"The games are set up like books, you're flipping as you read. You hit the button and the pages flip past! It just feels right. Obviously it's digital, but we still try to keep that feel as much as possible."
Technology aside, even Ian Livingstone adjusted his style to reflect not just advances in tech, but a different type of consumer. He wanted to make things more accessible without sacrificing the depth of his earlier Fighting Fantasy work.
"I've made the combat system, not simpler, but easier to use in terms of... well — there are less stats required," admits Ian.
"The way people are today, it's not that they want instant gratification, but they don't want to be encumbered by needless complications. So it's very accessible. It's very narrative driven with a compelling storyline, but with a game system that allows you to enjoy a different type of tension, through those dice rolls. It's trying to carve your way through that experience, and for the digital age I think it's important to get that balance right between difficulty and enjoyment."
The temptation is to assume that, with the extra technology, the core of gamebooks will be stripped back, that the process of 'playing' will become streamlined or dumbed down to appeal to a broader audience. According To Ben Britten that's not part of the plan. The idea is to allow the tech to do the dull number crunching — use that space to expand the stories themselves, and the internal mechanics within those stories.
"With print you're limited with how many sections you can add and how big the book can be, but you're also limited in the scope of complexity," explains Ben. "With a regular book you really have to keep track of everything yourself on a sheet — a lot of people like that, but it can be a barrier to some people.
"We want to take the stats, and let that happen in the background — because machines are good at that stuff. This enables us to have games that are a lot more complex in terms of the things you pick up and find, etc. It also lets us push things in terms of length.
"Sometimes I wonder if that's the right way to go, but we're still trying to figure that out!"
The Cave Of Time
Leena Van Deventer, you suspect, is far too young to have those same memories — more likely to have huddled under the sheets with a Game Boy and Tetris, not Fighting Fantasy and a battery operated torch — but she's living proof that the gamebook is a timeless thing, that its appeal spans across generations.
"Gamebooks have a real childhood connection with me," she says. "I was really into the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, and I vividly remember cheating whenever I died by going back to the previous page and taking the non-deadly path. I felt so badass! I would stay up late reading them, which added to the rebellion!"
Leena Van Deventer is 27 years old. She loves Gamebooks so much she now writes them for a living. She does the words; Tin Man Games handles the tech.
"The books were definitely already passed their prime when I discovered them," continues Leena. "But there was a boom in popularity in my primary school where there was a waiting list in the school library for them.
"Gamebooks were ahead of their time. And I think just now technology is starting to catch up with what they were trying to do."
That goes against traditional thinking — that Gamebooks are a relic. Why create gamebooks when high budget RPGs integrate story and mechanics in a way books could never dream of. But that thinking negates the direct appeal of gamebooks. According to Leena, the 'game' in gamebooks aren't held back by the 'book', they simply provide a different way of telling a story.
"I feel like gamebooks are relevant now because there's a want for more depth in storytelling than we generally see in games," says Leena. "People want to influence those character decisions and feel a part of it all.
"Gamebooks take an otherwise passive medium and make it active — you interact with it and influence it. The end result is completely because of you. I dig that, and I think that's why gamebooks are seeing a massive renaissance."
But Tin Man Games are pushing the medium — Leena calls them "gamebooks on steroids". They capture the nostalgia, and trade on that, but the interpretation is thoroughly modern. Tin Man Games is removing the shackles, transforming gamebooks into a thoroughly 'new' experience.
"Tablets and smartphones are the ultimate way to enjoy gamebooks," says Leena.
"I can have music with my gamebook now, with big crescendos for battles and eery atmospheric haunting music for wandering down lonely paths at night. I can hear the creaks of the hull when I'm on a pirate ship. It has added so much to gamebooks to put them in the digital age."
Return To Firetop Mountain
Ian Livingstone is a busy man. After the success of his Fighting Fantasy series he moved into game development, helping form Eidos. Today he's the studio's Life President. You might expect it was the lure of technology that brought him out of gamebook retirement — but that came second. Ian's primary goal was to serve that initial audience; he didn't want the 30th Anniversary of his first gamebook to go by without a fuss. It was only later that he realised the possibilities.
"As things unfolded, I realised there was an opportunity here. It's not just about books," he said.
"It was great being able to team up with Tin Man, because they're experts in the field. They're bringing stuff into the digital form that couldn't be done with books. So, all in all, I think we've created a great package."
For Ben Britten and Neil Rennison, it was a chance to work with the man who inspired them as children. The chance to revive a franchise that means so much to so many — all those people, all those shared memories.
"Fighting Fantasy is Fighting Fantasy, it's the gamebook brand. Us being associated with that is incredible," says Ben.
"We're obviously over the moon to work with people who are, effectively, our childhood heroes."
Ian Livingstone admits it's been a bit of an indulgence, but is fascinated by the concept of bringing the creation that defined his earlier career to a whole new generation.
"Who knows what's going to happen," he says. "I'm told by these 40 years fans that they're going to play these games with their kids together, and I'd love for a whole new generation to be turned on to gamebooks, that would be great!
"I'm just delighted that people enjoy my work."
Blood of the Zombies, the digital gamebook by Tin Man Games and Ian Livingstone will be available on iOS and Android on August 27th, on the 30th Anniversary of the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
You can find out more about Tin Man Games' existing gamebooks here.