Branching-path fiction is a book genre that peaked in early ’80s and began to die soon after with the advent of sophisticated home video games. That doesn’t mean we’re done gabbing about it though, so read on to take a nostalgia trip to a bygone era and learn a thing or ten about the greatest interactive stories of their day…
Apparently the Choose Your Own Adventure series came about when its creator got tired of telling his kids a bedtime story and let them decide the ending for him; proving once and for all that bone-idle parenting is A-okay.
The Mystery of Chimney Rock is the fifth volume in the CYOA series – a pre-teen haunted house story about kids snooping where they shouldn’t. It’s a spooky tale with a Scooby-Doo vibe and some surprisingly Hitchcockian endings. And for the lazy among you, it’s also one of the few gamebooks out there that gives you the option of not going on an adventure at all.
Grailquest is another gamebook series aimed at the pre-teen demographic, though this one is set in King Arthur’s realm of Avalon. In it, you play Pip, a farm boy (or farm girl) who wields a junior Excalibur and undertakes quests on behalf of the wizard Merlin.
The Grailquest books are light in tone and don’t take themselves too seriously, constantly spoofing the fantasy genre and layering on plenty of surreality and slapstick. In Gateway of Doom you are likely to happen across talking snakes, hungry coins, gorillas, a recurring character called the Poetic Fiend and… a nerd. Go ahead and give Grailquest a go, just pray you don’t end up in the dreaded Section 14…
In the The Way of the Tiger books you got to fulfill every young man’s fantasy… and become a ninja warrior! (I was a late developer). The books could be played in order or as standalone adventures, although playing them in sequence let you keep any abilities, bonuses or special items you acquired along the way, which I think you’ll agree is pretty frigging boss.
Aside from the artifacts you could collect, you also got to use things like garrotes, shuriken and poison needles, but the real draw were the ninja fighting moves, which a disclaimer at the front of each book cautioned you against performing as “They could lead to serious injury or death to an untrained user.” Despite the warning, I must have spent a whole summer trying subject my sister to the dreaded Teeth of the Tiger Throw with only a bruised pelvis to show for it…
Clash of the Princes was a two-book package: The Warrior’s Way and The Warlock’s Way. Together they could be combined to create the world’s first two-player gamebook experience. If that doesn’t sound absolutely incredible, understand that this was a generation ago and that PlayStations were still the stuff of a madman’s dream.
Though the books were written in a rather spartan style, the novelty of playing a Fighting Fantasy game with a friend was just too good to resist. The books were a mite more demanding than many of the single-player FF experiences, but the biggest challenge of Clash of the Princes was the inevitable argument over who got to play the wizard. That and the frustration born from accidentally picking a thick playmate and having to constantly wait on them to finish reading their damned section, Steve.
Super villains are messing with the juice in New York City, and it’s up to you to get in there and kick some dick.
What gave Spidey’s City and Darkness an edge was the quality of its writing, which was a cut above a lot of the cookie cutter books on the market back then. It also excelled in terms of narrative structure. Instead of telling the story as a linear sequence of events seen entirely from the point of view of the player, there were story sections that allowed the reader to follow the POV of the villain. It’s very possible I find this more exciting than you do.
Proteus magazine was a cheap-as-chips game rag that came out every couple of months in the UK and ran for 20 issues. While it lacked the polish of its contemporaries and featured a mixed bag of art, when it was good it was very good, and Treasures of the Cursed Pyramid was one of the best. Set in a pseudo-Egypt, TotCP let you risk the fate of the entire world for the chance to rob an ancient tomb, because why let something as inconsequential as condemning all humanity to certain death get in the way of little filthy lucre?
Another appealing part of Proteus magazine (at least in hindsight) was its homespun adverts, which possessed all the ‘you only get so many shots in the can’ limitations of a pre-digital era…
The Lone Wolf series was for the hardcore gamers of the day and was about as close as you could get to real roleplaying without breaking out twenty-sided dice and developing Mountain Dew induced diabetes. The books were dense, complex and mercilessly tough, with death lurking around every corner. The old ‘finger bookmark’ trick was never as oft-employed as with these bastard books.
The lure of the Interplanetary Spy books were their illustrations. Not that they were particularly well drawn – the real appeal of them were the books’ The End drawings, which added an extra grisly layer to everyone’s favourite part of gamebook experience – the brutal death scene (see the You Chose Wrong Tumblr for many, many more)…
Deathtrap Dungeon was the sixth volume in the Fighting Fantasy series and still stands tall as the best swords & sorcery gamebook ever written. In the story you took on the challenge of screwy Baron and got stuck into his trap-filled, monster-infested labyrinth, all for a shot at gold and glory. It was basically the American Gladiators of its day, only with poisoned spears instead of those giant Q-Tip things.
The best part of Deathtrap Dungeon was that you’d occasionally happen across evidence of other contestants’ passage within the bowels of the dungeon – by which I mean their mangled, eviscerated bodies. Sadly there was no option provided for curtsying your nutsack on their dead dumb faces – a rare oversight in an otherwise excellent book.
Straddling the line between porn and torture porn, the Sextrap Dungeon books have been described as “Leisure Suit Larry meets Saw,” in that each morally dubious sexual advance the player makes is rewarded with a gruesome demise written with the relish of a vulture swooping on fresh carrion.
In Critical Ass the cataclysm has occurred and you play a post-apocalyptic adventurer with a singular mission: to turn a total catastrophe into a total cat-ass-strophe. That’s right – it’s not just the story you’re trying to get inside with this book, it’s anything remotely close to a woman. And if that’s not your thing there’s even a time-travelling sequel called Clock Tease where you get to play a sexually liberated lady on a mission to hump Jesus himself!
Got a favourite gamebook that didn’t make the list? Let us know on Twitter @UncannyKingdom