Blood of Zombies arrived in the post for me this week, and it’s made me nostalgic for a time when I was a good deal younger and an even greater deal more innocent. It’s also made me reflect just what an amazing impact Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson have had on my life. Back in the days of yore, when my age had yet to be measured in double digits, I was a lazy, non-committal yoof with the attention-span of a strobe-lit goldfish. I hardly read any books – comic books notwithstanding – as my appraisal of most of the literature dotted around my house echoed Alice’s sentiments from Lewis Carroll’s classic (which obviously, I’d never read by this stage):
“What is the use of a book without pictures?”
I read my comics, played my Atari, rode my bike and avoided most oblong rectangular objects known as books (outside homework, at any rate).
One day, though, I noticed my sister reading a book in the garden. This in itself, wasn’t unusual; my sister was – and still is – a chronic bookworm, and she always had – and when she has the time, still does have – her nose buried in some book (usually with her homemade ear mufflers clamped to her head). The book she was reading this particualar day, however, was a little different from the usual Famous Five’s and Secret Seven’s she pored over. The books she was reading had a leering creature on the cover, and I noticed that every so often my sister would flick the pages back and forth and roll a couple of dice.
I was naturally intrigued by this and so I asked my sister what she was reading. She responded by telling me to drop dead, because my sister and I didn’t get on at the time. I probably shot back something equally vile, made a mental note and then bided my time. I knew my sister would eventually return the book to the bookcase in her room. I also knew my sister finished later at school than I did, and it was only a matter of time before the book was in my hands and she’d be none the wiser.
If you’ve never read a Fighting Fantasy book, they’re essentially an interactive storytelling device in which you star in an adventure. The books is presented in passages, which to a small degree, offer the reader choices in how they progress through the story. The basic narrative arch is pretty inflexible, but the reader’s choices have an impact on what creatures they meet, what characters they run into and whether or not their innards get ripped out, figuratively speaking. Fighting Fantasy is a stripped and streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons and a high-end format of the Choose Your Own Adventure series (which were all pretty much dreck).
Reading Forest Of Doom was like finding the Rosetta Stone, as far a I was concerned. Just to be clear: I wasn’t an illiterate tonk before I started reading Fighting Fantasy books, but I had very little interest in books up until that point. I wish I could tell you I found Tolstoy at the age of seven and never looked back, but that’s cobblers. I wasn’t a huge reader up until that point because I found it hard to become invested in the stories in books that I was reading for school. I didn’t care about the people who populated the plots of school books – they certainly weren’t as interesting to me as Batman – and being told I ‘should’ or ‘had to’ read these stories made reading itself feel like a chore.
Forest Of Doom – and other Fighting Fantasy books I later got my hands on – broke through this barrier easily, by slotting yours truly into the narrative. Here was a book where I was completely invested in the protagonist – because, hey, it was me – and because it felt like I was playing a game, reading became fun rather than arduous. The fact that my sister would have killed me if she’d found me rifling through her bookcase added a certain illicit charm to it, too.
I didn’t know it at the time, but reading Forest Of Doom proved to be a defining point in my life. Before that, books were dull, dusty articles that were forced upon me by boring adults. By the time I finished Forest Of Doom, they’d become cherished worlds I could escape to. In short, it transformed my view of books and literature in general, and it would later inform my aesthetic tastes as well as my career in journalism. I’m sure that without Fighting Fantasy, I would have found my way on my own, but Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson spurred the process on quite significantly, and for this, I will be forever grateful.
Now if they could stop messing about and get on with making Titan: The Fighting Fantasy MMO, that’d be lovely.