Wednesday, 11 January 2017

You Are The Hero - A History Of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

It is now well over two years since this book came out and, as the dust seems to have finally settled, enough time has now passed to be able to take a more rational view of something that was initially being greeted in a rather nostalgically doe-eyed manner. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that offered the usual choice of very simple (pdf of book) through to rather more elaborate (lunch with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone at a London restaurant) rewards, the book was launched at the first Fighting Fantasy Fest on 7th September 2014 in London, an event which the more cynical might try to suggest was fundamentally a book launch, but that grew into rather more than that (but that’s another story.)

Divided into 30 chapters, this large format coffee table tome follows the history of Fighting Fantasy in roughly chronological order although, by necessity, some themed chapters break up the timeline to avoid awkward jumps between sub-series (AFF, novels, etc) that would have resulted in a less logical and structured design.

Starting at the beginning of the FF story, the opening two chapters cover the very early days of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s working and playing relationship, documenting their importing of Dungeons & Dragons from the US, the establishment of Games Workshop, and the process behind the creation of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. These chapters are really fascinating and are probably the sections of greatest interest to the more-than-casual FF fan as this is where a lot of the juicy background detail that many would not be aware of is to be found and this is made all the more factually credible by the sheer amount of narrative material drawn from interviews with the four key players of the era: Jackson and Livingstone themselves, plus Penguin’s protagonists Geraldine Cooke and Philippa Dickinson. There are many early photographs (SJ and IL both very young and looking very ‘70s whilst clutching the first D&D rule set, the queue awaiting the opening of the first Games Workshop, etc) and much documentary material such as early hand-drawn maps, treatments, etc to satisfy the most demanding of FF fans in their search for obscure historical detail. I think this is the section of the book that I enjoyed the most as, other than the small amount of information given in Wizard’s 25th Anniversary edition of WOFM, this was all stuff that I did not previously know and is a real treasure trove.

The sudden runaway success of FF was a surprise to pretty much everybody at the time and the third chapter explores this whilst focussing on the second and third books (The Citadel Of Chaos, The Forest Of Doom) which naturally means there is a lot of information offered about these two books too. This is to be expected though as we, again, are treated to proposals, treatments, maps, etc and a wealth of first person anecdotes from SJ and IL to flesh out the story in welcome depth. FoD’s superb Iain McCaig cover segues neatly into a chapter ostensibly about FF art profiling some of the artists involved in the development of the series: Russ Nicholson, Iain McCaig, John Blanche and Martin McKenna. RN is an obvious choice as he was the first FF artist and encapsulates for me what the initial visual concept of FF is really about. IM is probably the most legendary so he needed to be included. JB’s art is so stylistically unique that it is well worth covering, plus he inked all of the Sorcery! books so, again, featuring him makes sense. McKenna, though, is a less obvious choice. Personally I think McKenna’s Hammer-influenced art is outstanding but he only really came to prominence in the later Puffin and more recent new Wizard books. Whilst he is certainly the best of the later artists I have a suspicion that he is included because of his close work with Jonathan Green (more on this subject later) as I would not regard him as one of the biggies of FF art. Intertwined with the IM profile is the opportunity to chronicle the three back-to-back books that he did the cover art (and internals in the first two cases) for - City Of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon, Island Of The Lizard King – and each book gets about one page devoted to it which is rather less coverage than the initial three books get, but we are into the “business as usual” stage of the series now and pages on end on each book would just get ungainly after a while, so this makes sense.

Having given John Blanche his own sub-chapter (see above), the book’s fifth chapter proper is devoted to the story behind and around the Sorcery! side series of four books and, as with WOFM, there is not much you won’t know about their history after reading this chapter. The Sorcery! books are held in very high esteem by FF fans and are an epic in their own right and FF’s only attempt at a proper ongoing saga so the story of FF would hardly have been complete without a chapter given over to them.

From this point onwards the coverage of each individual gamebook becomes rather unbalanced, with some getting two page write-ups (Creature Of Havoc, Beneath Nightmare Castle) whilst others, especially those from 30 upwards, sometimes get as little as two short paragraphs (Master Of Chaos is a case in point). It seems to me that JG has tried to play up to the perceived general consensus opinion of each particular book as if the reader might not care to hear too much about the “lesser” books and would prefer expansive information on the series’ generally accepted high points. There is a difference between critical and documentary writing and I for one would be just as interested to hear the full story behind a book I hate playing as I would a book I think is a masterpiece. We get some idea, for example, from Luke Sharp about why Chasms Of Malice is so insanely difficult but we don’t get an insight into the end-to-end creative processes involved in putting this book together (LS’ books are very distinct in their mechanics) in the same way as we do for certain other higher-profile books. I know I’ve already acknowledged that there is a limit to how vast YATH could realistically be, but a bit more balance in describing each book would have been preferred. Chapters 11 and 14 give brief overviews of books 20 thru 39 and 40 thru 49 respectively, whilst Chapters 6 and 7 take the approach of Chapter 4 and weave the next few books in the series into other parts of the story.

Books 8 thru 11 are grouped in with the FF RPG book, The Riddling Reaver, Out Of The Pit and Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World which sits a bit awkwardly as these latter books were not contemporary with the formers. Still, we get a page or so on each which tells us just about enough, although House Of Hell takes centre stage and gets far more coverage, but its unique status within the series justifies a bit more information being necessary. The next medieval entries in the series (14, 16 and 19) get lumped in with a chapter on maps which may seem odd, but does work reasonably well as the real point of the chapter is the world-building that was very much in place by this point in the series. You don’t need maps if there’s no unifying concepts or location, but you do need maps if you want to be able to properly visualise and contextualise where these adventures are taking place and the relationship between these places.

From here on in, the scope of the book begins to broaden in keeping with the ever-expanding franchising of FF. The short-lived Warlock magazine gets its own chapter including a brand-new exclusive Derek The Troll cartoon (that is actually very amusing, incidentally), as do the side projects of Tasks Of Tantalon, Casket Of Souls and the sole two-player FF Clash Of The Princes. Likewise, the two series of FF novels, Marc Gascoigne’s (and more recently, Graham Bottley’s) Advanced Fighting Fantasy series, the two boardgames, and the abysmal kiddies’ FF series The Adventures Of Goldhawk, all also get a chapter each which, again, leaves no stone unturned in documenting the series’ output in its first (Puffin) era.

Many fans consider the handful of Sci-Fi offerings in the series to be anything from comparatively weak through to almost non-existent (although I personally really like Rebel Planet and Robot Commando) so it comes as no surprise that these books are dealt with in their own separate chapter as they literally “stand alone” by being non-Titan books. I am glad to say that, unlike the short-shrift YATH gives to some of the books, the Sci-Fi books are covered in detail with equal input from their authors and artists. Whilst we may not be very interested in playing many of the Sci-Fi books, a full page on each is justified as it does give us a very different angle on the creation and development of this part of the series, even if reading about the Sci-Fi books is, for the most part, more interesting than playing them!

To slightly break up the chronological presentation of the story, Chapter 13 sort of jumps forward in time (taking into account that Chapter 14 covers books 40 thru 49) and tells the story of what SJ and IL largely got up to post-FF. SJ’s telephone bill-guzzling RPG FIST and his elaborate BattleCards series are detailed and IL’s various video game and benevolent activities are documented which shows there is more to them (and to the story) than just churning out product for Puffin. It also proves that they did not just sit on their backsides and count the money once the series was in decline but that, instead, they maintained their interests and continued to get involved in fresh and worthwhile projects of diverse types. After all, and the first chapter bears witness to this, YATH is as much the story of SJ and IL as it is of a franchised gamebook universe.

FF’s decline in the mid-90s is a depressing, if unavoidable subject, and it is one which is treated in a factual and pragmatic fashion be it through the brief elation of Chapter 16’s 10th Anniversary comeback, through the declining years of Chapter 17’s coverage of books 51 thru 58 (the only one of which that gets any real depth of analysis being JG’s debut book #53 Spellbreaker – go figure!), and the final inevitable fall of Puffin’s axe at Green’s book 59 which gets half of Chapter 19 to itself… well, I guess it is historically important in the sense that we need to know how it came to be the last one. The second half of this chapter is devoted to the endlessly-told story of the 60th book that never was, another JG effort, Bloodbones, but, again, the historical relevance justifies its being recounted, even if Chapter 19 is essentially just JG talking about himself.

This leads neatly into a full chapter on the subject of the books that never were and, pleasingly, in most cases JG has gathered a lot of previously unheard first-hand information and back story from those authors who would have written these lost books had they ever seen the light of day. This is another essential chapter for hardcore fans as it makes for quite tantalising and intriguing reading and is good fodder to inspire amateur FF writers to attempt to interpret some of these enigmatic subjects that we will probably never see officially. For me, the idea of a third mandrake book is hugely appealing, whilst The Keeper Of The Seven Keys is surely one of FF’s sorest losses as this would have been a big step forward conceptually for gamebooks.

The remainder of the book covers FF’s rebirth in the 2000s, starting with the story behind Wizard and Myrador’s resurrections of the series which leads to a full chapter covering the genuinely new books released in Wizard’s first and second iterations: Eye Of The Dragon, Bloodbones, Howl Of The Werewolf, Stormslayer, Night Of The Necromancer. It doesn’t take a genius to release that most of this chapter centres around JG himself again but Martin McKenna and Tony Hough get a lot of attention in this chapter too, which makes Chapters 22 and 23 feel just about balanced.

Chapter 24 is a bit strained for me. The title suggests it’s about the series’ 25th Anniversary but, as there is not much to say on that subject other than the commercial failure of the hardback Special Edition of WOFM, most of this chapter is given over to a rambling analysis of the evolution of the FF logo. OK, it’s a sort of salient point but it’s a pretty minute detail in reality and I found my interest waning now for the first time. Similarly, the next chapter which covers fandom also seems a bit forced to me. On the one hand, the rebirth of FF (and gamebooks generally) that we saw in the early 2000s would never have happened were it not for avid fan support but an entire chapter on fan activity seems unnecessary although it does allow for lots of fan sound-bites to satisfy a couple of the Kickstarter’s reward level promises so it was unavoidable really. There is a particular part of this section though that really irks me and that is the two frankly wasted pages given over to utterly crass and wildly unfunny comedy cover titles which wreaks of desperation at filling up space, can be found online easily, and is frankly of no relevance to the subject matter as a whole as they are simply something someone created for a laugh. Also, I’m not going to dwell on this point, but there is no mention of a certain Malthus Dire blog in the list of prominent blogs – clearly I need to do more!

Chapter 26 is an interesting one more for gamebook collectors rather than those who are just casually following the story as it tries to go some to drawing together the vast amount of foreign FF releases over the years. As this is a huge topic it would take an entire book just to do this justice so JG sensibly makes general reference to countries where FF was sold, giving teasers of foreign title translations and a representative nice gallery of cover art from around the world including the infamous bonkers Manga “camel toe” cover for the Japanese version of Deathtrap Dungeon which has to be seen to be believed. This chapter serves as a good entry-level point for anyone wanting to attempt to negotiate their way through collecting international editions of FF which is a real minefield. If I have a criticism of any part of this chapter it would be that the foreign title translations use the awkward and overly-literal versions as given on Titannica and do not take into account “proper” nuances of translation which would make the titles seem less jarring.

The history in terms of product would not be complete without a section devoted to computer game adaptations and the next chapter covers this in good detail. As FF computer versions first appeared in 1984 with the tenuously-linked WOFM ZX Spectrum game and are still in production now with Tin Man’s Android apps, this part of the story covers most of the timeline of FF so placing it logically was quite a challenge and where it is near the end was probably the only real option for the author. Various cover shots, adverts and promotional photo shoots are included making this a very thorough and, especially in the case of the story of the PlayStation/PC version of Deathtrap Dungeon, quite enlightening chapter. There is nothing particularly new or unknown in this section, but having it all in one place with even the relatively obscure Big Blue Bubble and Laughing Jackal releases getting a mention is handy.

One of the biggest things on my FF wish list (and probably many other fans’) is a FF film and Chapter 28 talks about abortive attempts at making these, with particular focus on the House Of Hell movie that got as far as pre-production a few years ago and the still not yet realised Turn To 400 documentary film (some interviews for this were being shot at FFF incidentally.) We get tantalising information about a possible Deathtrap Dungeon movie too as well as a brief nod to ITV’s classic Knightmare series which effectively shows the sheer scale of impact of gamebooks in the 1980s and early 1990s. Whilst some may say that this chapter is rather conjectural as none of this has got very far it is fun reading about what might have happened (and maybe still will at some point) and it is still a valid part of the story showing how FF has always tried to follow technological fashions and progress, even in its less commercial eras. The success of the Knightmare Live stage show shows that you should never give up on these things for as long as there are fans looking for new product.

FF’s newest official 100% new gamebook release to date is 2012’s Blood Of The Zombies and the story essentially comes to a close with Chapter 29 which discusses the development story of this book in great depth (which is neat book-ending with the thorough story we get of WOFM’s creation at the start of the book) and leaves no stone unturned. Obviously, information is easier to get as this is a recent release and fandom was rabid already unlike the pre-WOFM era meaning we all remember it vividly and there is a wealth of photographic and anecdotal material available from umpteen sources to give us all we could ever possibly need to know about BotZ. Rather awkwardly though, this chapter is rounded-off with a section on the book you are actually reading, YATH. Can a history of FF include itself in the story? Does this maybe seem a little bit post-modern in approach? I’m undecided but I think it would have been more appropriate to exclude mentioning YATH as it would have been better to maintain a distance of sorts. However, given that the material included mostly covers a high-price backer tier for the Kickstarter that funded YATH, JG was no doubt obligated to include this but do we really care about a fan meal with SJ and IL? OK, include backers’ quotations by all means, they have paid for the privilege after all and fan’s comments add colour to the whole story of FF, but I don’t really care about a fan meal and I doubt many others than those who were there will either. This chapter should have stuck to the facts about BotZ and avoided the subject of how part of the funding for the book you are reading was gathered.

Finally, the closing chapter (number 30 of 30) briefly pontificates on FF’s legacy which is a good way to summarise the story and draw the book to a clean conclusion to prevent the more casual reader from wondering what came next had the book ended with chapter 29’s ongoing subject matter.

I have always been impressed by JG’s dense prose style that he uses in his gamebooks, but biography requires a lighter more journalistic way of writing and the conversational approach used throughout YATH is perfect for the subject and idiom. Quotations are seamlessly incorporated into the text and enhance the story in a way that only primary sources really ever can and there is good balance between narrative and comment. Occasionally, JG allows his own views (under the banner of the accepted fan opinion) to show through and I would have preferred to see a totally neutral angle on the books as we all have our opinions and even the generally accepted best and worse books have their admirers. Some writers/artists are quoted much more often (and in more detail) than others, although this is naturally limited by how much anyone said/remembered and the reality that some are dead or seemingly uncontactable or just unavailable for comment so JG could only realistically work with what he could gather. Fan comments are used sparingly (as are occasional fan photos) and the main text body is broken up with side panels full of fascinating factoids for the reader to digest as well as an abundance of colour images.

One of the real bonuses in this book is the way that so many cover images are blown up to full page size and this really emphasises their content and shows just how impressive and detailed much of the colour FF cover art really is. Every book’s cover is shown in one form or another and there are plenty of black and white internal art samples on show too to allow as many artists as possible to get some exposure. In addition, we are treated to previously unseen concept and WIP art as well as a few brand new commissions including Martin McKenna’s stunning new cover with its assemblage of all the main antagonists from the FF world and a new monochrome side-on view of Zagor by Russ Nicholson. Art-wise JG has really gone to town in collecting a huge array of drawn and photographic material and the visual side of this book is first rate, especially as it’s also beautifully printed on good quality paper which makes the colours really vivid and there are no blurred or second-rate images anywhere, even the reproductions of early photos are as good as they could be.

If I have one over-riding niggle with this book (and it is just a niggle and is not a comment on any aspect of the quality by any means) it is that JG tries to make it about himself in places, for example name-checking his own titles within commentaries on approaches taken in other authors’ books, where cross-referencing otherwise does not seem to happen. A bigger point in case is in those places where he interviews himself which are at best quaint when he refers to himself in the third person and at worst seem smug. It may have been more objective to avoid these comparisons and exclude the interview-myself-in-a-mirror quotations completely, especially as JG’s contribution to the original Puffin cycle (and I am not making any reference in this statement to the actual inherent pros and cons of his books) came very late on as the series was on its last legs and are not part of its heyday, as such. Yes, all but two of the new renaissance Wizard books are by him, but a totally objective view giving straight facts might have seemed less narcissistic. JG has written some superb FF books, I do not deny this, but, as I say, he is very new blood in the timeline and I can name many other FF authors (and artists) whose contributions to the “classic” era when FF was at its height of success, warrant much more attention (notwithstanding the obvious unlikelihood of getting hold of Keith Martin who is not far behind SJ and IL in terms of the volume and scale of his contribution to the core series.)

YATH is an undeniably impressive achievement, no matter how you look at it. It is very well written, looks stunning, and includes a vast wealth of facts and imagery that will offer something new to even the most knowledgeable of FF super-fans. I have read it umpteen times and I never tire of it. It is not unrealistic to expect to be able to read it in one sitting and it flows so well and is so compelling that it really is very hard to put it down once you’ve started reading it. Each read-through shows up something new to discover that you missed previously and it can work just as well as a picture book for flicking through and simply admiring the genius of FF’s portfolio of artists. Naturally, there are chapters that will interest a given reader more or less than others, but an exhaustive history of this nature that tries to appeal to both the casual reader and the expert at the same time will never be 100% perfect without making it focus on one reader demographic. Anal levels of detail throughout would quickly alienate a general reader whilst a too facile high-level approach would be of no use at all to what I suspect is most of its likely readership, the mid-level to hardcore gamebook fan.

This is essential reading for anyone who loves FF and other than balancing out the coverage of each book more evenly and removing the references to itself I struggle to see how YATH could really have been any better.