Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks Are Still Going Strong
Ian Livingstone is the cofounder of Games Workshop, the legendary UK game company behind Warhammer 40,000. In his new book Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop, Livingstone recounts the company’s humble beginnings.
“It’s really in many ways a personal memoir rather than a business book,” Livingstone says in Episode 547 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s all about the trials and tribulations of that early journey, and how we might have failed several times.”
One of Livingstone’s biggest successes was the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which combine branching storylines with dice-based combat. The series, which began in 1982 with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (cowritten with Steve Jackson), is known for its fiendish difficulty. “The fun for me in writing them is luring people to their death, promising great riches only for them to fall on poisonous spikes in deep pits,” Livingstone says. “So I try to put as many red herring choices in as possible.”
In the ’80s, the series was often attacked for its dark imagery, but today the books are recognized as an important precursor to the grimdark movement. “Hidetaka Miyazaki, the designer of Dark Souls, credits Fighting Fantasy with inspiring him as a kid to want to become a game designer,” Livingstone says. “And there are other examples of people who’ve become really successful in TV production or writing or art who all credit Fighting Fantasy, because it had such an impact on people’s imagination at a younger age.”
After years of sporadic releases, Fighting Fantasy is seeing a major resurgence. Several new books and apps have been released in recent years, and upcoming projects include an art book, a board game, and a cooperative card game. “There’s still a huge amount of interest in the brand,” Livingstone says. “It’s just great that they’re still relevant and loved 40 years on.”
Listen to the complete interview with Ian Livingstone in Episode 547 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below:
Ian Livingstone on travel:
We were going to meet Gary Gygax at Gen Con in 1976, to finally meet him and also sign up any fledgling companies that happened to be at Gen Con. But we thought, having never been to the States before, we might as well make a holiday rather than a business trip out of the journey … We had some amazing times, going to the Grand Canyon, breaking down in the Mojave Desert, going to Vegas and seeing gambling in a way we’d never seen it before, and ultimately, as I said, our road trip ended in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Ian Livingstone on the Bloodbeast:
The Bloodbeast is this monster that sits in a pool of acidic gunge, and it has a long barbed poisonous tail and a very long tongue, and will ensnare you and sting you and drag you into its pool, where you effectively rot away in the acid of the pool so it can consume you in liquid form. But it does have a weak spot in that out of all the numerous eyes it has on its face, one of them, if found with a knife, will effectively kill it instantly, so you just have to find which is the correct eye to pierce. People love the Bloodbeast for many reasons, and it’s one of my favorite monsters.
Ian Livingstone on writing Fighting Fantasy gamebooks:
I have 400 numbers ready to allocate as I design on the fly, so I have a basic story arc in mind and some protagonists and monsters in mind, and then set off with number 1, and then it splits out to “If you want to go one way, go to 22. If you want to go the other way, go to 104.” And cross those off the master list, and keep a record of the branching on a flowchart, and make notations of all the encounter points and what you might find where, and make sure there are no cul-de-sacs and that the economy is balanced, and it’s not too difficult. Also going back and [forth] along the multiple paths, so if you need a key to open a locked door, you have to go back and put the key in a room where you might find it.
Ian Livingstone on education:
People often criticize video games and all sorts of interactive entertainment as being trivial at best and probably harmful, without understanding the power of play. Giving that agency of control is really compelling. You’re required to problem-solve in a video game or gamebook. You learn intuitively, increase your critical thinking. It increases literacy. I would say they’re a contextual hub for learning, and that often is not recognized in mainstream media, the good that comes from playing games and reading books like Fighting Fantasy.