Story by Martin
Hello fellow gamebook collectors! Martin from Games vs Play here. I’ve been writing about my gamebook collection for a while now, but I thought it was about time I posted some actual shelfies of the books. When I finally got around to cleaning up my bookshelves and taking the pics, it got me thinking – what are the most prized possessions in my collection? What are my “grail” books that I haven’t found yet? And just how many (or how few) of my gamebooks have I actually read?
So I decided to turn this post into a kind of “guided tour” of my collection, a snapshot of where it is in late 2017 and where I want it to be as I continue to hunt down gamebooks and add them to the shelves. Here’s my epic shelfie – let me know what you think!
Number of books in my collection: 518
Five hundred and eighteen books turns out to be a surprisingly large amount of wood pulp. My collection is nowhere near as well laid out as you see in some of the shelfies posted on gamebook fan pages like the Fighting Fantasy (and other gamebooks) Facebook page. I’ve had to split the books across several bookcases, with the result that I can’t quite a get a shelfie showing the whole collection. My Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! take pride of place in the largest bookcase (shown in the featured pic for this story), while the rest of my British-style gamebooks – including Lone Wolf, Way of the Tiger, Falcon and Grailquest among others – occupy three long shelves on another bookcase (shown left). My Choose Your Own Adventures and other American-style gamebooks like Endless Quest, Time Machine, Twistpaplot have their own bookcase (shown right) – which, as you can see from this pic, is in fact a smaller bookshelf resting upside down upon a larger bookshelf.
The vast majority of books in my collection are true gamebooks – i.e. branching path narratives where “You”, the reader, get to make choices every few pages that influence the plot and the ultimate conclusion of the book. But look, I have stretched this definition a teeny tiny bit so I can include books that are just on the edge of being a full gamebook. I’m thinking of books like Ian Livingstone‘s Dicing with Dragons (1982) which is a kind of reference guide to roleplaying games and contains a short, self-contained gamebook, Joe Dever’s The Magnamund Companion (1986), essentially a travel guide to the world of Lone Wolf which also includes a very short gamebook, and Paul Mason and Steve Williams’ The Riddling Reaver (1986), actually a campaign for the Fighting Fantasy RPG. Then there’s Galactic War (1975), the third entry in Usborne’s Battlegame Books series. I acknowledge this might be viewed as a controversial inclusion by some gamebook collectors. Galactic War has no branching path narratives and doesn’t break the “fourth wall” to address the reader as “You.” But I included it in my collection all the same because, like all the Battlegame Books, it includes 4 original boardgames complete with rules and cut-out playing pieces. As a kid I never actually played any of the games in Galactic War but I used to love looking at the game boards – the illustrations are great ’70s style science fiction with heaps of robots and aliens. So this is a book that has games in it, which makes it a “game-book” of sorts. Well, it’s close enough for me.
This includes gamebooks that didn’t belong to any particular series, like the Fighting Fantasy parody The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain (2008) or The Search for the Golden Acorn (1995), an educational gamebook released by the British National Trust.
When I started my gamebook collection: Sunday 28 February 2010
Back in 2010 I already had a small collection of gamebooks that dated from the ’80s and ’90s when I was first obsessed by Choose Your Own Adventure books and Fighting Fantasy (there were a few Be An Interplanetary Spy and Time Machine books in my original collection too). But I date the start of my current gamebook collection from Sunday 28 February 2010, which I can pinpoint with utmost confidence because it was the day of the Sydney Road Street Party in inner city Melbourne, where I lived at the time. The Sydney Road Street Party is a 3km (2 mile) long festival featuring live bands, food trucks, pop-up beer gardens and secondhand bookstalls. I was looking through one of these bookstalls when I caught sight of a book that looked very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure but whose cover had a metallic blue background rather than the familiar white. This turned out to be The Fiber People (1992; shown right), the somewhat bizarrely named 5th book in the Space Hawks series, a CYOA spin-off series written by Edward Packard in the early ’90s. At that stage I had very little awareness of the gamebook series existed outside of the big lines of the 1980s. Right there and then I decided I would begin scouring the secondhand bookstores of Melbourne to see if there were other gamebooks I’d never heard of before … and so my collection was born.
Percentage of collection read: 34% (176 out of 518 books)
Obviously, I’ve still got a loooong way to go … I simply don’t have the time to read them all! But now that my children are old enough to appreciate the unique appeals of choosing your own adventure or fighting a fantasy (that sounds weird, but you know what I mean) I’ve started reading my books with them. Which is a great way to work through the collection, and also heaps of fun.
6 Favourite gamebooks
Why 6 favourite books? Because it was too hard to pick just 5! Here they are, in no particular order:
House of Hell (1984; Steve Jackson, Fighting Fantasy #10): When I got this gamebook in 1986 it had *everything* a kid with a hyperactive imagination like me could want. The setting was gloriously spooky, the villains were actually sinister – the Earl of Drumer actually gave me nightmares! – and the artwork, especially that front cover by Ian Miller, was amazing. With adult eyes I now also appreciate House of Hell for its intricate internal architecture. As Demian says on his gamebook web page, the book is “not a story — it’s pure puzzle,” and one that I’ve never succeeded in solving. Perhaps that’s why it still looms so large in my imagination.
Hyperspace (1983; Edward Packard, Choose Your Own Adventure #21): Hyperspace blew my little suburban mind when I first read it in grade 5. This was probably the first truly postmodern book I ever read. I mean, it had all the hallmarks of a postmodern novel: a book within a book (in one plot line you’re reading a CYOA book inside a CYOA book), intertextuality (Dr Nera Vivaldi, a character from several other CYOAs, has a cameo) and most tellingly of all, Edward Packard himself appears in the story and talks to you. Weird stuff, but IMHO this book was a hint of what gamebooks can do that other books cannot.
Island of the Lizard King (1984; Ian Livingstone, Fighting Fantasy #7): Perhaps this wasn’t the best of the core Fighting Fantasy books set in Titan, but it was my favourite fantasy gamebook as a kid and I remain very fond of it. The internal illustrations by Alan Langford are just so clear and full of detail, while the story itself was a classic fantasy quest with not one but two boss monsters to defeat and exotic locations to explore. Just the best fun for my pre-Dungeons & Dragons self.
Light on Quests Mountain (1983; Mary L. Kirchoff and James M. Ward, Endless Quest #12): The Endless Quest books were initially released by TSR as an attempt to calm fears about D&D and Satanism (see my interview with Endless Quest creator Rose Estes for more on this). However, the series also had the secondary function of introducing younger readers to TSR’s line of roleplaying games, and thus Light on Quests Mountain was a tie-in in with the Gamma World setting, a rather kooky post-apocalyptic RPG featuring radioactive mutants and forbidden technology of the “Ancients.” Somehow this book manages to rise above its marketing objectives. In it you play a human tribesman tasked with leading your two mutant friends – a monkey mutant and a lizard mutant (see what I mean about mutants?) – on a rite of passage to Quests Mountain. It was written as a coming of age story and actually succeeds as one – you really do feel responsible for your two friends, and uncovering the secrets of Quests Mountain has a pleasantly ’80s sci-fi nostalgia to it.
Appointment with F.E.A.R. (1985; Steve Jackson, Fighting Fantasy #17): I like Appointment with F.E.A.R. because it was just so different. It was the only FF entry to venture into the superhero genre, and although other series attempted this territory (e.g. Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Gamebooks) I reckon this gamebook was the best of them. Though some fans find its meandering plot frustrating and lacking in direction, I think the sandbox structure gives a good idea of what being a superhero would really be like – you probably would spend most of your time roaming the city, chasing up seemingly unconnected crimes while trying to uncover the evil plot of your supervillain arch-nemesis. It’s a great gamebook for just dipping into, and the illustrations by Declan Considine capture the feel of comics really well. The acronym “F.E.A.R.” stands for “Federation of Euro-American Rebels,” by the way.
Sword of the Samurai (1984; Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, Time Machine #3): Not to be confused with the Fighting Fantasy book of the same title. All books in the Time Machine series were set in real historical periods, with the notable exception of the The Rings of Saturn, the only entry to be set in the future. Most Time Machine books carefully researched and some were even well-written, but Sword of the Samurai stands out from the rest. In it you’re tasked with going back in time to the 17th century to recover from the sword of Miyamoto Musashi, the most famous samurai of all. As you pop in and out of key moments of Musashi’s life you learn a lot about feudal Japan and the samurai code of honour, but more importantly you forge a lifelong connection with the samurai master himself. The final pages of the book at the end of Musashi’s life are surprisingly emotional. When I read the book with my older son recently he was almost moved to tears by the book’s conclusion, but bravely vowed that from now on he would live with honour and respect just as Musashi had. But I had to say a firm no to getting him a real samurai sword.
These are gamebooks that I dearly, dearly want, but haven’t been able to find yet. I have fairly strict rules for my collection (see my story on that here), so I just can’t buy these books online. One day I’ll find them …
Maelstrom (1984; Alexander Scott): A standalone RPG set in 16th century Europe with some magic, Maelstrom also had a self-contained solo adventure. I’d really love to run a Maelstrom campaign with my RPG group one day.
Forbidden Gateway (1985; Ian Bailey and Clive Bailey): There were two books in this short-lived sci-fi horror series, and I have neither!
Howl of the Werewolf (2007; Jonathan Green, Fighting Fantasy Reissues #29/#11): I love gamebooks that put you in the shoes of unusual characters. In this later addition to the FF canon you’re bitten by a werewolf and have to find the monstrous shapechanger before you become one yourself. Instead of the usual 400 numbered paragraphs for FF books, this one has 515. And you’re a werewolf. I NEED THIS GAMEBOOK IN MY LIFE!!!
Mystery of the Ancients (1985; Morris Simon, Endless Quest #28): This is on my grail list mainly because I liked the Gamma World setting of Light on Quests Mountain and wanted to go back there again. Maybe I’ll never actually play the Gamma World RPG, but this is the next best thing.
Ocean of Lard (2005; Kevin L. Donihe and Carlton Mellick III, Choose Your Own Mind-F@ck Fest #17): I’ve only shown the back cover here because the front depicts, ahem, “adult themes” [Pssst! You can see the front cover here! You’re over 18, right? – Ed.] This book has to be real, right? I mean, it’s listed on Demian’s Gamebook Page, and I doubt Demian would include something that wasn’t real. The back cover asks, “Can you survive in the sea of animal fat, b$tch?” Ocean of Lard is on my grail list because I really need to know the answer to that question.
So there you have it – a snapshot of my gamebook collection, my very own epic shelfie. Now that you’ve seen mine, we’d love to see yours! [That came out a bit wrong, but we know what he means – Ed.]. Tell us about your own gamebook collection. How did it start? How many books do you have? What are your missing grail books? You can either contact us via our website or post an epic shelfie to Games vs Play’s Facebook page. Keep collecting everyone, and remember – if you’re game, we’ll play.
Image sources: Cover art for Maelstrom, Terrors Out of Time, Howl of the Werewolf and Mystery of the Ancients taken from Demian’s Gamebook Web Page; all other images copyright Martin Plowman. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like Games vs Play on Facebook.