Friday, March 6, 2009

Choose Your Fate!

You are standing in a bleak and alien landscape. The land is patterned in a black-and-white checkerboard formation that stretches to the horizon. Above you a blood-red sky boils angrily. Bizarre architectural ruins seem to hang suspended from the clouds in the distance. Your eye falls to the bottom of the paragraph where you notice that there are several options allowing you to decide what happens from here on…With mounting trepidation you realize that you are reading a critique of those old choose-your-own-path books which is itself written in the style of a choose-your-own-path book! A more cryptic and fiendish literary device you have never come across. A wizened old man approaches you and asks "Say kid, do you remember the 80’s?"
If you do remember the 80’s, read section 5. If not, read section 3.

Anger radiates from the old man. “You filthy cheater! There IS no Pendant of Scaramanga in this game! Dammit, that was always the problem with those stupid gamebooks-there was no way to stop cheating bastards.” He sulks and will not talk to you. Your adventure is OVER. We hope you’ve enjoyed this interactive conversation.

The old man pauses to swallow a bug that was buzzing too close to his mouth before beginning his narrative. “In the 80’s, before there were videogames, there were gamebooks. People wanted very much for there to be videogames that featured orcs and wizard’s keys and locked dungeons and villages where you had to talk to everybody in the town square to acquire the Pendant of Scaramanga in order to access the Trident of Aaaargorn and that kind of thing. They just didn’t know it yet, because all they had at the time was Pong and Space Invaders. So, they invented elaborate role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. While taking part in such activities was seen (and still is) as social suicide, at least it got you out of your dorm and mixing with other pointy-hat wearers. Gamebooks were like a condensed form of this, except you played them on your own.”

“Each book told a more-or-less Tolkienesque story broken up into 400 paragraphs. At the end of each paragraph options were given on how to advance the story.” You interrupt here to say that you are indeed familiar with this technique. “The parallels with modern videogames are striking. Each book had zero character development, a plot that makes Scooby-Doo look inventive, and gameplay that hinged on collecting ridiculously titled items to defeat bosses and challenges. The player invariably assumed the role of some adventure-craving Conan-alike that makes the marine from Doom seem like a complex and rounded character, and was sent off to the pit/castle/dungeon of Eternal Terror to defeat some hideous if uncreative adversary. The game mechanics meant that the player could not turn back or retry anything during the quest, which resulted in some bastardly unfair and difficult adventures. Some adventures were truly enormous, well thought-out puzzles, and part of the appeal was deconstructing the book and learning how the author thinks.”

“The most well known series was the Fighting Fantasy series, which had Brit authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone plastered on the cover even though they stopped actually writing the damn books less than halfway through the series. Weirdly, the first book written by a ‘secondary’ author, Scorpion Swamp, was written by an American also called Steve Jackson. These books had a pretty nifty system for keeping character stats which was simple but effective, and showcased how gamebooks were descended from RPG’s. All the creatures and monsters the player had to fight also had stats that were displayed like this”- as the old man says this an enormous snarling sabre-tooth tiger appears before you.


The man waves his hand and the tiger is no more. There is no sound but the eerie whistling of the wind. The man smiles and says “The Fighting Fantasy series also had great pulp magazine-style painted covers featuring monsters which were frequently super bad-ass and cool. Sadly, like all fads, the gamebooks died out. They sold like hotcakes from 1982 till about 1990.” You are about to say that you think you saw a re-released gamebook in Waterstones recently when the old man stares at you intensely and says “Now, in order to survive this final task, you must possess the Pendant of Scaramanga.”
If you possess the Pendant, read section 2. If not, read section 6.

You sense that he doesn’t believe you. An angry snarl appears on his face. Read section 6.

‘Of course’, says the old man sagely. Old men are always wise and sagely in fantasy. “You look about old enough. According to Wikipedia, one of your generation’s defining characteristics is a particular fondness for 80’s nostalgia- Transformers, Michael Jackson, that kind of thing. However for some reason one bizarre yet hugely popular 80’s phenomenon, the choose-your-own-path gamebooks, is totally forgotten about today! Seriously, even the biggest nerds you’ll ever meet, the guys who have every Yu-Ghi-Oh card ever don’t know about them, and yet they were huge in their day.” What will you say to the old man?
If you wish to tell him that in fact you were a nerd in the 80’s and you do remember these gamebooks, read section 4. Otherwise read section 3.

You realise with horror that you have stumbled upon an Instant Death Paragraph. The ground beneath you begins to tremble. The checkerboard earth heaves as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse erupt from the bowels of the planet to drag you to the 7th layer of Dante’s Inferno where you will be forced to listen to both Killers albums. Simultaneously. Your adventure is OVER.

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