You are standing in the eerie hollow of a cramped cavern, an icy wind whips at your back as your torch flickers, sputtering wildly and throwing shadows upon the ancient stone. From here the path forks in two directions. To the right, the passageway evolves into a winding arc, furrowing deeper into the living mountain, from the left you can hear a guttural muttering and the sound of heavy machinery breathing its sinister industrial magic.
You must choose your path. If you choose the left hand path, turn to 34. If you go right, go to 130.
When I was a boy my mother was a librarian, so every day after school while other more sun-kissed lads were riding their BMX bikes with crossbars tilted towards suburban destiny and seeking out foreign objects to poke with sticks, I was often to be found enveloped in a beanbag at the local book depository, scanning through dog-eared tomes of 70’s sci-fi artwork, the works of Hergé, and most memorably of all – duelling goblins, skirting trapdoors and demonically folding pages in perilous far flung worlds.
Surely you remember them from your own freckled, formative years? Maybe it was Choose your Own Adventure, Time Machine, Pick-a-Path, Lone Wolf, Proteus Magazine, or the wizened granddaddy of them all: Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy.
Before Moldvay and Mentzer flung open your portal to Dungeons and Dragons, before you first got lost in Talisman’s crags, there were gamebooks. Sitting enticingly like lime green sentinels in the ‘young adult’ section, their character sheets besmirched by a million pencils and erasers before you. They were the quintessential gateway drug. A taste of adventure condensed and convenient within a paperback spine. I devoured these things. I think they’re responsible for both my love of both reading and unconventional narrative, as they pre-dated any access I had to computers and were entrenched in my psyche before my first formative red box dawn.
Seemingly universal touchstones, nearly every kid from a certain generation can remember keeping their fingers splayed between the pages as they ‘chose the left fork’ or ‘tested their luck’, all the while decimating the character sheet page with scribble after scribble, erased and rewritten until the paper crumpled and tore, or (more likely) you threw up your hands and decided to cheat.
If only there was a way the dice rolls and stat mapping could be taken care of. If only there was some kind of unyielding page that couldn’t be desiccated.
Fast forward 30 odd years and I recently acquired a decent smartphone for the first time, and like all self-respecting man children, the first thing I did was check out the games. Sitting unassumingly amongst the Clashes of Clans and Jet Pack Joyrides was a portal to my youth. Curiosity milked my nostalgia gland with a firm insistence. I linked my Paypal and I tested my luck.
Turns out there’s a whole genre unto its own celebrating these things. Which makes a lot of sense, with the form-factor and capabilities of a touch screen smart phone making an ideal home for such an homage. Wistful recollections are a powerful wallet opener, and perhaps these digital recreations could snare new generations, the way their analogue forebears had enchanted me. So I decided to test out a few. Was the magic still there?
Though there are countless variations in theme now, the classics were usually cut from a pretty generic cloth. Evil wizards, galactic empires, hordes of goblins. The plots were perfunctory. Stoic hero seeks McGuffin, rolls dice, saves world. The sceptre of Bliz Blaz! The Orb of Blargothar! Classic nonsense. I selected three to keep me company on the train and let the years fall away.
Fighting Fantasy – Island of the Lizard King by Ian Livingstone
There are an abundance of Fighting Fantasy titles available via Tin Man games. I’m not sure exactly why I selected this one. I think I remember it from my childhood. I certainly remember the cover art. I don’t remember the writing being so poor. I start out on a fishing boat headed towards the titular island accompanied by my long-time friend ‘Mungo’. I roll a one for my skill score. Without the option to simply give myself maxed out stats (don’t lie, we all did it) this basically ensures I’m fucked for the entirety of the game. Three pages in Mungo gets killed by a giant crab. Then I get killed by a giant crab. Then Mungo gets killed by pirates. Then I get killed by pirates. Mr. Livingstone is not fucking around with this one and I only now remember that most of these things were written by sadists. There are some quaint dice roll animations to accompany the battles but concessions to modernity are few. This both helps keep the feel of the original books intact whilst failing to wow, with the re-coloured artwork looking particularly cheesy. At one point I earn an achievement for burning a village of cannibals alive in their homes. There are no Pina Coladas on this island.
Cost: $2.99 Authenticity: High Innovation: Low Cheating: Allowed Mungo: Useless
Deaths: Devoured by Giant Crab, Felled by Swamp Beast, Dinner for Cannibals, Skewered by Pirates.
Rating: 2.5 folded pages out of five
Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!
Spanning four volumes (each SOLD SEPARATELY!) the Sorcery! Series was always aimed at the older reader, with more complex prose and mechanics than its predecessors, including a rudimentary magic system and a plot that continues between books, allowing your character to carry over from previous instalments and likely leaving you fucked from the get-go. Right from the start you can see that developers Inkle have put some effort into taking advantage of the medium here. Straddling the sweet spot between book and game, the addition of an overworld map helps immeasurably with spatial awareness in what can otherwise be a sprawling adventure. One of the highlights (as it was in the original books) is the artwork of John Blanche. His hyper stylised ink work really helps set the mood, even if it contrasts oddly with the more conventional overworld and battle art. It’s by turns sinister, weirdly idiosyncratic and utterly charming and seeing it again here has inspired me to order some prints for my wall. Speaking of battles, there’s plenty of them here, although the game does an admirable job of giving you options to avoid non-essential encounters in most cases should you wish.
Rather than a simple dice rolling mechanic, the combat has its own engine (go brave new world!) where you and your opponent take turns selecting blows of different strength, defending, attacking and managing stamina based upon procedurally generated text-based cues. This glorified and dolled-up-for-the-ball version of Rock, Paper, Scissors lends a modicum of strategy to proceedings and takes advantage of the medium without feeling either intrusive or tacked on. All of this is accompanied by minimalist music and ambient sound effects that are best experienced on headphones to help block out the din of your commute.
Sorcery! hooked me pretty bad. By the time I had bested the first book and made my way through the Shamutanti Hills to the foreboding gates of Khare Cityport of Traps, I knew I was in for the long haul with this one. I immediately forked out for part two and have been enjoying enhanced bus rides in its company ever since. Each instalment grows more confident, more in-depth and more innovative as the developers grappled with the possibilities at hand, unafraid to expand upon the source material. Book Three, The Seven Serpents was particularly ambitious, featuring an open world structure and a cool time warping mechanic that goes beyond what was present in the original books to help make the world feel more interactive and more alive while successfully bolstering the illusion of choice. There are still some bullshit unfair moments (fuck you, Manticore) but a forgiving ‘rewind’ mechanic acts as a virtual finger between entries that alleviates much of the frustration. I am currently closing in on the end of book four and the coveted Crown of Kings, trapped in the Fortress of Mampang with blistered hands, a dull blade and no rations. Only Couraga knows if I will prevail.
Cost: $5.99 per episode. Authenticity: High Innovation: In Spades Cheating: Encouraged Cube: Gelatinous
Deaths: Withered by Hunger, Ravaged by Plague, Ambushed by an Assassin, Entombed within the grain of a Wizard’s Living Door, Stomped by a Manticore, Poisoned by a Cultist, Devoured by a Gelatinous Blob, Impaled by a Ghoul, Fried by a Sun Serpent, Drowned whilst intoxicated, Dashed to pieces at the foot of a Chasm, Hurled into a vertiginous ravine by a Birdman
Rating: 4 dice under the couch out of 5
Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf Complete
One of my absolute childhood favourites, the late Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf Saga of the Order of the Kai was always a go-to whenever I discovered a new library. The deeper than usual character creation they offered, paired with Gary Chalk’s iconic artwork always set them apart as a more evolved early take on the classic FF formula and I became duly enamoured. Obviously I wasn’t alone as there are numerous adaptions of his work on the Play store, ranging from labour of love style free basic adaptions of the books all the way up to the deluxe graphically intensive ‘Lone Wolf Complete’ (‘complete’ with a hefty price tag of twenty bucks). For the sake of journalistic variety I opted for the latter and discovered the point that the reinvention of a game book transcends their origins as a book to become, for better or worse, an actual video game.
By far the most ambitious out of the bunch, this take on the formula features acres of visual flourish, a full orchestral soundtrack and a fully three-dimensional turn-based combat engine. And the combat doesn’t pull any punches either. Fights are plentiful. Too plentiful. It’s almost as though the developers were so proud of their shiny polygonal fisticuffs they front-loaded the game with endless battles. The problem is that no matter how shiny it looks (a kind of stuttering PS2-era quality), these battles are slooooow. And not particularly thrilling. A JRPG-inspired combination of command menus and quick time taps and swipes, there’s sufficient delay in the actions being performed onscreen to rob the fights of any kinetic heft, whilst at the same time being obtrusive enough to disrupt the flow of the story. This noble if misguided attempt at modernity not only falters in the expanse between ambition and execution but robs the recreation of the nostalgic charm that is surely the strongest hook these offerings can muster.
I wanted to like this one, but after being stabbed to death by the same cadre of Giaks about 4 times in 4 identical fights I swiftly scurried back to the pillowy bosom of Sorcery! Sorry Joe.
Cost: $19.99 Authenticity: Fair Innovation: Distracting Cheating: Nope Giaks: Plentiful
Deaths: Stabbed by Giak, Stabbed by Giak, Stabbed by Giak, Stabbed by Giak
Rating: 2 loading screens out of five.
All in all these relative relics still have the power to engage and sometimes surprise. They’re are all full price apps so you get what you pay for. There are no ads, no micro-transactions and no virtual florins available in exchange for your hot, stinky real-world cash. All of them scratch a certain niche itch that is best consumed in small doses. Perfect for public transport, waiting rooms, or a quick dive whilst propped up by pillows before bedtime. None of them are going to win any literary awards. None of them are beacons of gameplay or innovation. They are however, pretty fun. Although the ephermeral nature of these particular incarnations will always struggle to match the tactile pleasures and olfactory bliss of a genuine wood pulp artifact, if you grew up on these things then it’s well worth a saunter down memory lane to a simpler time when the smell of musky paper and eraser crumbs filled the room and for a little while, you were a hero.