THE LIFE AND DEATH OF GAMEBOOKS

I am straying off topic with this post into the world of gamebooks. Gamebooks rose to prominence, in the UK at least, in the early 1980s with the Fighting Fantasy series. For a period they enjoyed considerable success, but by the late 1990s had largely vanished. I have for some time wondered why they enjoyed such a brief life.

The consensual view is that they were killed off by video games. The curious implication of this is that gamebooks came to prominence at exactly the same time as the very thing that would cause their end. That seems incredibly unfortunate timing. Gamebooks could in principle have been invented and popularised at almost any time since the beginning of printing. Why did they only become common just before they became obsolete?

The history of gamebooks stretches back many years before the Fighting Fantasy books. There were the Choose Your Own Adventure books (starting with The Cave of Time, 1979), solo Tunnels & Trolls adventures (Buffalo Castle, 1976), and the Tracker series (Mission To Planet L, 1972). In fact, the first gamebooks date back to the late 1960s, when State of Emergency (1969) and Lucky Les (1967) were published.

Peter Barrett, cover, 1967, from Lucky Les; cover, 1969, from State of Emergency

Lucky Les (1967) by EW Hildick and State of Emergency (1969) by Dennis Guerrier and Joan Richards

Roger Knights, cover, 1972, from Mission to Planet L; Liz Danforth, cover, 1976, from Buffalo Castle; Paul Granger, cover, 1979, from The Cave of Time

Mission To Planet L (1972) by John Allen and Kenneth James, Buffalo Castle (1976) by Rick Loomis and The Cave of Time (1979) by Edward Packard

But, aside from a few early literary experiments, such as Jorge Luis Borges’ El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1942), the earliest application of branching-path books was not in entertainment, but in education. In the late 1950s programmatic learning books emerged, which used branching paths as a training mechanism. The TutorText series pioneered the technique. The interesting thing about the first TutorText book was that its subject was computing (The Arithmetic of Computers, 1958).

The Arithmetic of Computers by Norman A Crowder (1958)

The choice of subject matter points to a reason why gamebooks had not been invented sooner. The programmatic thinking behind them was derived from computing. There may have been no technological obstacles to publishing gamebooks much earlier in history, but there were conceptual obstacles to their creation. The insights required to write a gamebook were the product of the 20th-century revolution in programmatic thought and the birth of computing. The irony is, then, that the very thing that gave birth to gamebooks appears also to have been the thing that killed them off.

But were video games really the cause of gamebooks’ demise? Despite being widely articulated, this view has to my knowledge never been substantiated. It has generally been treated as self-evident. In my opinion it is far from that. There are, in fact, several reasons to doubt that video games killed the gamebook star.

First, analogy with other media suggests some caution in accepting the consensual account. Linear video did not end linear fiction. Books and film have coexisted for over a century. It is not self-evident that gamebooks and video games could not have co-existed in the same way.

Second, if gamebooks were displaced by video games, it should be expected that their sales should show an inverse correlation, but the exact opposite is true. The explosion in the popularity of gamebooks in the 1980s almost exactly coincided with the 8-bit microcomputer boom. Gamebooks competed with video games throughout this period, but were able to grow rapidly nonetheless. Moreover, gamebooks’ decline in the 1990s coincided with a decline in video games sales. Video games have enjoyed almost uninterrupted growth for their entire history, but the 1990s were a rare exception. Their sales fell in 1994 and 1995 and did not recover to the 1993 peak until 2000. The pattern of gamebook and computer games sales, therefore, is not obviously consistent with the hypothesis that the end of the former was caused by the latter.

Third, there are, in contrast, several other explanations which do fit the pattern of gamebooks’ decline.

Most gamebook series in English came to an end in a very short period. Nineteen series ceased publication in 1987 and 1988. It is not difficult to understand the reasons for the sudden extinction. It was preceded in 1985 and 1986 by an equally remarkable increase in series launches. In those two years twenty-one new gamebook lines appeared. None of them survived past 1988. It is clear that 1985 and 1986 saw an overexuberant boom. A rush of me-too titles appeared, but failed to achieve success. Even the better titles launched in those years struggled to distinguish themselves from the morass. The inevitable bust followed in 1987 and 1988.

Such a retrenchment, however, did not necessarily entail the end of gamebooks. The video games market experienced a similar crash in 1983-1984, after a surge of releases in 1982. CCGs saw the same pattern in 1995-1996. In both cases the industries recovered and survived. The gamebook crash of 1987-1988 did not necessarily have to mean the end of gamebooks.

Launches of Gamebook Series in English

Number of UK gamebook series launches 1972-1999

Terminations of Gamebook Series in English

Number of UK gamebook series terminations 1972-1999

In the 1990s, however, a number of other factors impacted sales. In the early part of the decade western economies suffered a severe contraction. The UK in particular was in recession from 1991 to 1993. It was the country’s longest recession since the Great Depression. That this should have had an adverse effect on gamebook sales seems obvious. It also is a plausible explanation for the sales declines seen at the time in other entertainment forms, including video games.

Another relevant factor in the decline of gamebook sales was the advent of CCGs. Magic: the Gathering was launched in 1993, and over the next two years inspired a boom in copycat games. In 1995 no fewer than thirty-eight new CCGs were launched. Yet this glut of new launches came just as CCG sales began to decline. Wizards of the Coast was forced into a round of redundancies in 1995. By 1996 TSR’s misadventures with Spellfire and Dragon Dice had left it in acute financial distress. The arrival of a new type of paper-based fantasy game, and a surfeit of often discounted products, must have taken sales away from gamebooks.

Magic the Gathering Alpha Starter Deck 1993

Magic: the Gathering alpha starter deck (1993)

Finally, gamebook publishers failed to deliver attractive products. By 1992, when Puffin first planned to end the Fighting Fantasy range, the series’ headline authors had long been absent. Steve Jackson’s last contribution had been Creature of Havoc (book 24, 1986), and Ian Livingstone’s Armies of Death (book 36, 1988). It is telling that Livingstone’s return for the planned finale, Return to Firetop Mountain (book 50, 1992), was so successful a swansong that Puffin decided to extend the series for a further ten books. However, without Livingston and Jackson, only nine more were actually published.

Peter Andrew Jones, cover, 1982, from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain; Martin McKenna, cover, 1995, from Curse of the Mummy

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (1982) and Curse of the Mummy by Jonathan Green (1995), the first and last Fighting Fantasy gamebooks

There was also a lack of innovation in the leading series. Although Fighting Fantasy had tried a set of more advanced rules and a campaign structure in the Sorcery! series in 1983-1985, it did not repeat the experiment. The remaining books departed only modestly from the original formula. They adhered to largely the same mechanics, and persisted with unconnected stories. Gamers were not offered any meaningful progression.

In those rare cases where there was substantial innovation, such as in the Fabled Lands series, there apparently remained a market for gamebooks well into the 1990s.

I think they probably didn’t charge enough for the books…. When they actually gave us the sales figures, Jamie was saying “These are great sale figures!”, and they said, “Yes, but it isn’t making us enough money.”, and he said “Just charge an extra couple of quid.”. They said, “Oh, people wouldn’t buy them.”. They certainly would…. They had got something like 25,000 actual players, which was respectable sales figures.

– Dave Morris, The Grognard Files, episode 45

It seems that too often gamebooks were treated by publishers as throwaway titles. There was limited investment in continuity of setting and narrative, or in developing the genre with more sophisticated systems and gameplay. The books were treated as mass-market commodities, rather than high-value niche products.

Kevin Jenkins, cover, 1995, from The War-Torn Kingdom

The War-Torn Kingdom (1995) by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson, the first Fabled Lands gamebook

The overproliferation of titles, economic recession, competition from CCGs and a lack of innovation and quality better explain the decline of gamebooks than the impact of video games. In reality, computers’ relationship with gamebooks may well have been more that of midwife than murderer.

Timeline of Notable Branching-Path Book Series in English

Timeline of notable branching-path series published in the UK 1958-1999

FOOTNOTES

* The Fighting Fantasy series was originally projected to end with Return to Firetop Mountain (1992), but was then extended until Curse of the Mummy (1995).

** The Lone Wolf series continued in reduced volumes after Voyage of the Moonstone (1994) until it ended with The Hunger of Sejanoz (1998).

The history of gamebooks is discussed further in Games vs Play and Naomi Alderman’s BBC Radio show ‘SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK’. Demian’s Gamebook Web Page contains an excellent database of gamebooks.

Title art by Christos Achilleos. Internal art by Roger Knights, Liz Danforth, Paul Granger, Peter Barrett, Peter Andrew Jones, Martin McKenna and Kevin Jenkins. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

36 thoughts on “THE LIFE AND DEATH OF GAMEBOOKS

  1. I was an avid gamebook fan and loved Fighting Fantasy, Sorcery!, Fabled Lands and Lone Wolf.

    Both Fighting Fantasy and Fabled Lands have been revived over the past few years, with reprintings and new books. The field is certainly more modest now than in the 80s and 90s but it lives on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, when I talk about the “death” of gamebooks, I am referring to the period of the late 1990s, and not considering their later revivals, such as the Wizard and Scholastic reprints. I perhaps should have been clearer about that in the post.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. My personal favorite site for gamebook reviews is Demian’s Gamebook Web Page: https://gamebooks.org/ I was an avid gamebook reader and player, and I only discovered a bunch later that would have fascinated me at the time. Which indicates, the real killer was that the gamebooks were not reaching the audience that would have made them successful. I haunted at least 3 local book chains, and I never heard about Fabled Lands until I came across them at Demian’s site.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There were two Robin of Sherwood gamebooks in 1988, based on the HTV series and published by Puffin. I think they were co-written by a couple of Games Workshop stalwarts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fighting Fantasy actually had a system agnostic* rpg sourcebook: ‘Titan’, written by Marc Gascoigne in 1986. It’s a fun read that stays true to the lovably odd and cobbled together (and very British) nature of the setting but still provides more than enough info to run a campaign there.

    *Technically there is a list of goods and prices in the standard Fighting Fantasy gold piece format, but they are the only ‘rules’ printed in the book and you could easily run it a D&D or GURPS or WFRP or whatever game…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a great book. There were some elements of consistency in the setting, especially in Jackson and Livingstone’s Allansia books, but most of the time each of the other books went its own way and its setting was shoe-horned somewhere into Khul or the (other) Old World. So Titan was often an unconnected hodge-podge of places.

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  5. Interesting post. If Tunnels and Trolls is in your list, should the Fantasy Trip also be included? (Is the reference to Grailquest in your table the Fantasy Trip adventure of that name?) In my opinion, Grailquest was the best of the original Fantasy Trip adventures by a distance. There has been a recent revival, with four top class solo adventures written by David Pulver; there is also a “close cousin” series of adventures from Dark City Games which are in general very good. I think you are right to point out the shortcomings of some solo adventures, particularly with regard to linearity, bottlenecks, little chance for exploration, lack of well crafted mini paragraphs which inspire but don’t turn into mini novels. The aforementioned materials are exceptions. The Fantasy Trip (and Dark City Games) adventures can be restated for WFRP with a little work, the power range is similar. Some free Dragon Warriors solo adventures are appearing on DriveThru.
    There was a WFRP solo adventure in Night of Mystery by Carl Sargent, which I rather liked. (White Dwarf 106 I think?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Grailquest gamebooks I mentioned are a series by JH Brennan in 1984-1987. They are, as far as I know, unconnected with The Fantasy Trip.

      I wasn’t aware of the Fantasy Trip solo adventures; it’s not a game I know well. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. I can now find three of them: Grail Quest (MicroQuest 3, 1980); Treasure of the Silver Dragon (MicroQuest 4, 1980); and Treasure of Unicorn Gold (MicroQuest 6, 1981). Were there any others?

      However, the inclusion of the T&T solo adventures in the timeline was exceptional. I generally excluded solo RPG adventures, such as also BSOLO Ghost of Lion Castle (1984) for D&D and Alone Against the Wendigo (1985) for Call of Cthulhu. I made an exception for T&T just because they were early and an important part of the pre-Fighting-Fantasy history.

      Yes, I think ‘Night of Mystery’ was the only solo WFRP adventure, unless anyone knows better. I wrote about it here:

      FORGOTTEN BUT NOT GONE, PART FOUR

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      1. Two The Fantasy Trip (TFT) solos that lots of people have played are Death Test (1978) and Death Test 2 (1980). TFT is “GURPS lite”, based around three characteristics and talents, but lends itself well to combats between smallish numbers. The Death Tests are an excuse for a string of combat set pieces. (A recent Dark City Games offering, Uprising, does this with a much more compelling plot, but are you more interested in originals, which can be picked up via DriveThruRPG?)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think I should have been more lavish with praise regarding your original analysis: the problem with many of (what I will call) programmed solos, that is Fighting Fantasy style books where you choose actions, turn to paragraphs, then resolve according to a given system, is that they aren’t very good.
        There is an exacting list of requirements:
        (i) must have accurate links/code words (and authors surely need to prepare computer program style flow charts);
        (ii) player choices and rolls must make a difference to the outcome, and a variety of endings with various degrees of success is to be preferred;
        (iii) lean evocatively written paragraphs which conjure an exciting place to adventure, doing some of the work left to a referee in a regular game;
        (iv) fair amount of freedom and variety of action;
        (v) good adventure in its own right.
        You are right to describe “Night of Mystery” as something of a kitchen sink of WFRP tropes, but this seems to be a possible way to write programmed solos, letting the readers use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. “Sinister things are afoot in the graveyard” allows people to draw on their knowledge of horror films; add some detail and plot (with slight twists) and you are good to go. They can, of course, be used as one referee one player introductions to the setting.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I suggest adding in “Sagas of the Demonspawn” (1984-1985) ( https://gamebooks.org/Series/384/Show ), by prolific writer JH Brennan, who also authored Grailquest and Horror Classics. It’s another short series from the “boom and bust” period of English-market gamebooks.

    Also, in those same years when he was writing the Lone Wolf “Magnakai” series, the late Joe Dever also wrote the “Combat Heroes” ( 1986, https://gamebooks.org/Series/93/Show ) and “Freeway Warrior” (1986-1989, https://gamebooks.org/Item/1174/Show ) series. All of these series are available, free and totally legal, on https://www.projectaon.org/ .

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A slight correction to make in your article; Lone Wolf has continued to introduce new volumes since last year, with its penultimate adventure Dusk of Eternal Night,

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    1. Thanks. Yes, I know several of the series mentioned in the post are active again (though I don’t necessarily have all the details). My intention, though, was to study the original gamebook boom, so I limited the scope of the article up to 2000, omitting the later releases.

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  8. A very early “gamebook” – multiple-choice book, at any rate – was actually Swedish: Den mystiska påsen (“The mysterious bag”) by one Betty Orr-Nilsson, all the way back in 1970. It’s very obscure and even the Royal Library of Sweden hasn’t been able to preserve a copy (although they do have copies of the Danish and German translations).

    Speaking of nationalities, my impression is that in the English-speaking world gamebooks – at least “proper” gamebooks with a rules system, as from Fighting Fantasy on – are mainly a British phenomenon – am I right about that? All the series I can think of that were translated into Swedish in the 80s were British – Lone Wolf, the first few Fighting Fantasy books, Way of the Tiger, Forbidden Gateway, Falcon – rather than American.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Super Endless Quest/AD&D by TSR and Tolkien Quest/Middle-Earth Quest by Iron Crown Enterprise (and Berkley) were very much American.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Quite right, I’d forgotten about those for the moment. And there was a handful of Choose Your Own Adventure books translated into Swedish (I’ve seen four of them myself) in the 80s, as well as a couple of Be an Interplantery Spy books (one of whom, back in 1985 or thereabouts, was my own very first contact with gamebooks and, by extension, with RPGs).

        I’d still say the translated British gamebooks had a higher profile in Sweden back in the day than the American ones, though.

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        1. I guess that it was probably the same almost everywhere!

          UK has been the most prominent country for the gamebooks phenomenon in the first two decades following “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain”, with the French market being another prolific one. The US had some significative series, too, but it seems they have been more linked to the Choose Your Own Adventure format, in the end.

          As of now, I’d say that UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Sweden all have quite a thriving market (again).

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks. I am conscious that this article is narrowly focused on the UK and to some extent English-language markets, so it’s interesting to know more about the gamebook phenomenon outside the UK, though, as you note, many of them seem to have been translations of English series. There were definitely US series (Choose Your Own Adventure, Which Way, Twistaplot, for example), but it’s difficult for me to make comments on their impact: my personal experiences were in the UK, where the US series seemed not to be popular.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting article. You should know, though, that in Italy gamebooks are not only alive but thriving thanks to a new generation of prolific writers, which I’m proud to be part of! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Some other missing series:

    Have Your Own Extra -Terrestrial Adventure (1983) https://gamebooks.org/Series/195/Show ;
    The Magic Road (1984) https://gamebooks.org/Series/248/Show ;
    Solve It Yourself… The Mystery Squad (1984-1986) https://gamebooks.org/Series/393/Show ;
    Star Challenge (1984-1985) https://gamebooks.org/Series/404/Show ;
    The Transformers (1985-1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/336/Show ;
    The Legends of Skyfall (1985) https://gamebooks.org/Series/222/Show ;
    Magic Mystery (1985) https://gamebooks.org/Series/247/Show ;
    Proteus (1985-1988) https://gamebooks.org/Series/353/Show ;
    Intergalactic Quest (1986) https://gamebooks.org/Series/209/Show ;
    An Adventure for You to Share with Rupert (1986) https://gamebooks.org/Series/23/Show ;
    Double Game (1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/117/Show ;
    Robin of Sherwood (1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/3/Show ;
    Dragonquest (1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/119/Show ;
    The Peter Pan Adventure Game (1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/301/Show ;
    The Last Battledroid (1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/415/Show ;
    Earth Brain (1987) https://gamebooks.org/Series/132/Show ;
    Prince of Shadows (1988-1989) https://gamebooks.org/Series/318/Show ;
    Webs of Intrigue (1988) https://gamebooks.org/Series/487/Show ;
    Biggles Adventure Games (1989) https://gamebooks.org/Series/52/Show ;
    ELT Adventure Gamebooks (1989) https://gamebooks.org/Series/138/Show ;
    The Enchanted Tales (1989) https://gamebooks.org/Series/1254/Show ;
    The Football Adventure Game (1990) https://gamebooks.org/Series/172/Show ;
    Gladiators (1991-1993) https://gamebooks.org/Series/186/Show ;
    Who-Done-It Adventure Game (1991) https://gamebooks.org/Series/553/Show ;
    The Crystal Maze (1991) https://gamebooks.org/Series/98/Show ;
    Battle Quest (1992) https://gamebooks.org/Series/47/Show ;
    Clue (1992+) https://gamebooks.org/Series/1401/Show ;
    Sonic the Hedgehogs Adventure Gamebooks (1993-1996) https://gamebooks.org/Series/287/Show ;
    James Bond Jr. Adventure Gamebooks (1993) https://gamebooks.org/Series/1321/Show ;
    Virtual Reality (1993-1994) https://gamebooks.org/Series/463/Show ;
    Stephen Thraves Compact Adventure Gamebooks (1993-1994) https://gamebooks.org/Series/424/Show;
    The Adventure Squad (1994) https://gamebooks.org/Series/24/Show ;
    Eternal Champions (1994) https://gamebooks.org/Series/142/Show ;
    Reboot Adventure Games (1995) https://gamebooks.org/Series/378/Show ;
    Stephen Thraves Compact Adventure Gamebooks (1995) https://gamebooks.org/Series/423/Show ;
    Lemmings Adventure Gamebooks (1995) https://gamebooks.org/Series/223/Show ;
    Adventure Gamebooks (1997) https://gamebooks.org/Series/17/Show ;

    And some other, obviously!

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      1. Happy to help!

        Please notice that I’ve listed only series originally published in UK, not in USA (as is the case for “Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries” from Berkley-Iron Crown Enterprise, to cite one of the longest running ones).

        Also, please notice that I’ve erroneously listed twice the “Stephen Thraves Compact Adventure Gamebooks”, but the 1995 series was simply titled “Stephen Thraves Adventure Gamebooks”, as it wasn’t in compact format anymore!

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  11. Despair.inc, infamous for the black border demotivational posters with general misanthropic, nihilstic humour had a somewhat innovative gamebook a few years back.

    This was a satirical take on the John F. Kennedy murder investigation. It helpfully advises the following:
    “Remember – you cannot go back! Think carefully before you make a move! One mistake can be your last,or it might just be the next in a series leading to your last! And remember, just like in real life, no matter how you choose, you’re ultimately destined to lose!

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killed-John-Kennedy-Lose-Adventure%C2%AE/dp/1892503026

    There were 3 more books planned in the series:
    The Glass Ceiling
    Mission to Earth
    You are a Dumbass

    I’m assuming these were never made. Possibly we can conclude the format never really worked for satire, either.

    Like

    1. Thanks. It’s an interesting interview. Unless I’m mistaken, he doesn’t quite confirm he is writing another Sorcery! book. He says is working on another FF book, and separately that he “wouldn’t mind doing” a fifth Sorcery! book. So it’s reasonable supposition, but not certain.

      Like

      1. I’d love to see a fifth Sorcery! book. ‘Kharé – Cityport of Traps’ is still probably my favourite gamebook, just full of atmosphere and challenge without being ridiculously unfair. Plus you had some of John Blanche’s best work.

        Liked by 1 person

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