When I was a nipper I fell in love with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s adventure gamebook series, Fighting Fantasy. The sight of those familiar green spines on the shelf of Walker’s bookshop in Stamford was always enough to get the fantasy nerd in me excited and as they moved from one genre to another quite often you didn’t know what you were going to get next. Would I be the hero attempting to survive the Trial of Champions or would I be a superhero fighting the good fight in Titan City? As I read more and more certain titles would rise up to become a regular read and chief among them was Steve Jackson’s House of Hell.
The first and only – until the recent release of Ian Livingstone’s Blood of the Zombies – Fighting Fantasy book to be set in a modern, real-world setting as opposed to the fantastical worlds that the other books inhabit, was a book that paid homage to so many aspects of horror literature, art and cinema. The book sees you having an incident with your car one stormy night, and fate leads you to the titular House of Hell – not that they put that name by the doorbell, that would have been helpful. As far as Fighting Fantasy books go House of Hell was a devious little blighter with numerous pitfalls ready to ensnare a curious adventurer, but it was also packed to the hilt with content. Mapping out the book was almost essential if you wanted to complete it – unless you were a good old cheater who just kept a thumb in the previous page.
So why am I talking about a thirty year old game book series?
Well two reasons actually.
Firstly the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – as well as other game books of the time such as Grail Quest and Lone Wolf – really gave us Eighties kids something to immerse ourselves in, at a time when we really needed a lot of imagination to sell the fact that seventeen white squares on a fourteen-inch portable screen was a heroic protagonist. The detail lavished upon these adventures – essentially Dungeons and Dragons in a portable format – ensured that you could lose yourself in Allansia with alarming ease. These books were the PS Vita of their time and I adored them.
Secondly, they are seeing something of a resurgence, driven in part by nostalgic thirty-somethings trawling charity shops and eBay in an attempt to reconnect with their past in what is rapidly becoming an age of detachment and also by companies who are looking at bringing the format back in a more relevant format. It started with Wizard Books re-publishing some of the titles from the classic range, with random dice configurations printed in the footer of the pages, allowing a player to simply flick through the book and avoid the necessity of carrying dice around with them at all times – which is a negative thing actually, I have loved having a pair of D6′s in my pockets these last few months. Then Big Blue Bubble adapted some of the books to mobile devices and tablets. The reaction was mostly positive, but for me they didn’t innovate enough to dissuade me from just picking up an old Puffin release.
Then Ian Livingstone announced that he was writing a new Fighting Fantasy book, Blood of the Zombies and it revolutionised the gamebook format by taking established console gaming tropes and laying them on top of the traditional Fighting Fantasy format. Combat was streamlined and zombies were scattered around the book with such generosity that battles became desperate struggles for survival against mounting odds. It was a great book and it got a great adaptation by digital gamebook veterans Tin Man Games. Having already published their own Gamebook Adventures series as well as a rather splendid Judge Dredd gamebook they were granted the license to adapt Fighting Fantasy books, and kicked off their reign with Blood of the Zombies. It was glorious. The combat system worked brilliantly as a ‘game’ and the knowing nods to gaming genre stereotypes and Fighting Fantasy history it opened a door to the world of Fighting Fantasy that no-one else had managed thus far. For me I was hesitant, how could an app really capture the feeling off flicking through a book, rolling dice and making notes (NOT ON THE GAMESHEET!)? In short it achieved this by layering stylistic design and music over the pre-existing format. Playable in either full on ‘retro’ mode that retained the black and white illustrations familiar to any Fighting Fantasy fan or in a modern update with colourised images and textured effects on the pages. All very impressive. More impressive still was the option to play ‘Hardcore’ as originally intended, or with difficulties based around accessibility and the fact that most people cheated their way through the books. So I was satisfied and craved more. And more I got with House of Hell, which was released this week.
The first thing that struck me going into the app is how good the selection of music was that Tin Man put into the opening sequence, very seventies horror inspired with a few subtle nods to great scores from great films. The title screen brings Ian Miller’s very familiar book cover to life and there are a couple of extra features dealing with the history of Fighting Fantasy and the inspirations that led Jackson to write a book based around horror – which is even more surprising given that most of the kids reading these books were under twelve. Getting into the game was like slipping my feet into a well worn pair of trainers, comfy and inviting.
The comfort soon slipped away as I got back into the journey that befalls you in House of Hell. A tale of Satanic worship, ghosts, sacrifice and a lesson in when not to pick up metal objects that have sat on top of an oven. I won’t go over the plot too much, as the fun in these books was always discovering it for yourself, but I will linger a little while on the mechanics of the game.
Now as I mentioned Blood of the Zombies simplified a lot of the complex elements of the combat and adventuring found in the Fighting Fantasy series, so when Tin Man Games tackled an established book with the complexities that it brings with it I was pleased to see that they didn’t opt to update the combat from the original format to that of BOTZ. Skill, Stamina, Luck and Fear all play a part in combat and adventuring. Combat is determined by four dice being rolled, two representing the player and two for the enemy. The combined total of the dice roll, added to the character’s skill determines whether or not a successful hit is landed, or whether the enemy takes a chunk out of you. It may be slower than the rapid fire combat of BOTZ but it feels a lot more satisfying and controlled. Finding a weapon – you start off the adventure unarmed and as such suffer a skill penalty until you are armed – is key to success, and adds a motive to exploring rooms that are just as likely to contain life-ending elements as they are a handy tool of destruction.
Choice is also a huge factor in House of Hell. What you choose has an immediate – or sometimes ultimate – effect on your adventure. Choosing wisely is key, as is repeated attempts of trial and error. Fear is also unique to House of Hell – and would remain so until Beneath Nightmare Castle – giving an extra risk factor in the game. Every turn of the page could reveal something that frightens the player’s character. This adds up to a Fear total, and a dice roll at the beginning of the game determines the level that you can withstand before you simply die of fright. It’s a harsh, unforgiving element in the game but essential to generate the level of tension required to sell the ‘horror’ aspect of the adventure. Do you open the door with the scratching sounds coming from behind it? There could be an essential item, or you could be faced with a dead body falling out onto your screaming face. It’s brilliant.
Achievements are in place to encourage further adventuring and a simple system of in-game Tweet prompts if you are so inclined to share highlights from your adventure automatically with out leaving the adventure. The bookmark system used in some of Tin Man Games’ earlier titles makes a welcome return offering a chance to go back to a marked point – which is essentially cheating, but can be very useful in terms of saving progress at a point at which you feel you’ve accomplished a lot. The gamesheet and options are accessed by swiping upwards from the lower area of the screen, feeling very tactile and retaining a lot of the charm of the earlier books by filling information out in an informal hand written format. Notes from your adventure and items you are carrying, along with health restoring objects are all found here. It is brilliantly designed and is more functional that the similar one seen in BOTZ.
At £3.99 some may see it as a high price, but as I’ve argued many times before you pay for what you get these days, especially when it comes to something niche like a gamebook. As with The Room a few months ago I got a limited experience for a higher than average price, but I didn’t regret it once, because it was pure quality throughout and that’s exactly the case with Tin Man Games’ game book apps. It is currently available for iOS, Android and Nook.
(Originally posted on Mature Gamer Podcast)