Video games took me back to the golden age of Fighting Fantasy RPGs

Come, and re-enter the Deathtrap Dungeon. It’s more than just a pit stop in nostalgia. It’s a game from the past that can teach us much about the future

I liked to play games long before I had any sort of technology to play them on. There was the classic Waddington’s board game Lost Valley Of The Dinosaurs (and if anyone reading this has a copy stashed away in their attic, I would happily have a conversation with you about replacing your dust with my hard cash). There was MB’s Ghost Castle, a simple isometric romp around a haunted 3D mansion and yet a pretty rewarding one if your imagination skewed toward the macabre. And there was the enemy of mums’ and their Hoovers everywhere, the brilliant medieval combat projectile flicker (think Subbuteo during the plague) Crossbows & Catapults.

Mostly, however, I liked to play games with a couple of dice, a pencil – always a pencil – and one of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy RPG books.

I loved those books so much as a child I’ve struggled to cease my fandom even though my fledgling days are now far behind me. If I see that iconic green spine in a charity shop, a book fare or wherever, I’ll buy it without checking whether I’ve already got the title in the series. I’ve got hundreds of them. Sometimes I like to get them all off the shelf and just roll around on the sleeves, a bit like Dave LaChapelle’s famous photo of Tupac lying in the bath of jewels. Actually, I’ve never done that – yet. Hey, these lockdown days are long…

Dungeons and Dragons
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The Fighting Fantasy series launched in 1982. Published by Puffin and created by old school friends and future Games Workshop owners Livingstone and Jackson, the pair’s series combined the narrative freedoms of the burgeoning ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ titles with the dungeon-crawling fun of the rapidly growing Dungeon & Dragons craze. So impressed by D&D were the two Brits that they had previously struck an exclusive deal with the series’ American creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to distribute the game exclusively in Europe.

Fighting Fantasy would then become a phenomenon all of its own: 20 million books were sold and adaptations have since occurred in 32 languages.

Livingston – always the more media literate of the two names on the covers – explained the franchise’s success to writer Damien Walter in 2012. “Fighting Fantasy gamebooks empower the reader, who felt the anxiety or joy of being fantasy heroes themselves. They lived or died by their decisions. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again…”

I’m not totally sure that was the exact appeal. For me, it was an escape into another world – one filled with monsters. No child loved monsters as much as me, a fan of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion wonder from the moment I saw it. Entranced by news updates from Loch Ness, where, during the ’80s, regular sonar tracing of the loch was reported on with both credibility and hope, I would read the series’ creature compendium Out Of The Pit from cover to cover, losing myself to the bewitching artwork of Martin McKenna, Duncan Smith and Gary Ward, the latter of whom drew my favourite Fighting Fantasy cover, 1984’s Cavern Of The Snow Witch.

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Silent Hill 2. Credit: Konami

Truth is, I would play Fighting Fantasy less once I’d discovered video games. My life wasn’t worse off for that – hell, no. I’m here all day for the video games, but I’ve sometimes wondered whether my imagination was. I was unquestionably thrilled by Resident Evil 2’s Licker; terrified by Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head; in awe of Gears Of War 2’s Riftworm; repulsed by Metroid’s Kraid. But I have asked myself if the reality of what I was seeing on screen was scarier, or more exciting, than what my mind could create when stimulated by Fighting Fantasy’s subtle descriptions of approaching foe.

You don’t have to look hard to find a voice within storytelling media – horror, video games, or um… Ernest Hemingway – to tell you that what is omitted is often more important than what’s put in.

Formulated during his time as a young journalist, writing about immediate events with very little space for context or interpretation, Nobel Prize-winning author Hemingway often referred to this as The Iceberg Theory: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

This weekend, I have been mostly playing Branching Narratives’ interactive video realisation of Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon, the sixth Fighting Fantasy book, from 1984.

The video stars Eddie Marsen, the British actor who isn’t Stephan Graham – you never know his name just by looking at him, but he’s been brilliant in everything he’s in. Eddie is sat in the foyer of what looks like a disused plant centre, reading the book to camera, then offering narrative options depending on the decisions the player has made in the game to that point. It’s a very simple playing experience, like sharing the original book with a friend – a friend with great gravitas and elocution – and it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve had playing video games in ages.

I’m not saying all games should be like this. But more certainly should. As my quest unfolded, Eddie lasciviously described the caverns I was walking into, how they would unfold and reveal their often terrible secrets. He described the sounds I couldn’t hear myself, he reminded me of the consequences of being so low on health and yet so far into the dungeon. And – and this is how most of my games ended – he described the monstrous forms that stood before me, asking pertinently what I would do…

For a moment there I was 30-odd years younger and the magic of imagination had well and truly returned. It made me think: for all the world-building that developers do, and all the incredible places that they take us to, games shouldn’t ever underestimate the vast power held inside ourselves – inside our own cognitive coding.

Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure is available to buy now on Steam, iOS or Android.

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