You Are The Hero – A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks

A review of a history of You Are the Hero adventure game books.

YOU ARE THE HERO cover 11.06.14 - frontThe Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos, Blood of the Zombies: the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are an international, bestselling phenomenon. However, when authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone first approached their publishers, the reaction was not one of unbridled joy:

“The idea was thrown out on its ear at the Penguin editorial meeting … Senior Penguin management roared with laughter at the idea, one laughing so much at the crazy idea of a game without a board and with all sorts of imaginary figures involved [Dungeons & Dragons] that he lay his head on the table and howled with laughter.”

The real fun was to be had when the books first hit the shelves and a whole generation of schoolchildren discovered a world of trolls, dragons and orcs for the first time. The key thing being that this series was a hit for boys and girls: the sex of the main character was never specified so the reader truly was the hero of their own adventure.

What child of the eighties could not thrill to the call to action at the start of Steve Jackson’s mammoth four-book Sorcery! series?

The Sightmaster Sergeant strides over and grasps your hand. ‘I will not wish you a safe journey, for the way ahead will not be safe. Kakhabad is a treacherous land inhabited by devils. But this you already know … From Kharé you must cross the Baklands, which are unknown. It is said that day and night on the Baklands are controlled not by the sun but by supernatural forces; and bear in mind also that, from Kharé onwards, your progress will be watched.’

That terse prose was a major part in the success of Fighting Fantasy, but Green doesn’t feature many quotations in his otherwise excellent history. It would have been nice to see more text fragments in this book like the one above from The Shamutanti Hills.

You Are The Hero‘s focus is solidly on Fighting Fantasy and Green has unearthed some incredible gems from its thirty-odd years in print. These include rare reproductions of colour maps of the legendary lands that the hero might explore.

There are also several large, full-scale reproductions of the covers painted for the series. Green gives due credit to the talented artists who brought the series alive, both through their high-quality black and white interior images, such as those of Russ Nicholson, and the awesome colour covers by Iain McCaig and overs.

McCaig emerges from these pages as a genuine star who would go on to design Darth Maul for the Star Wars movies. His images for Deathtrap Dungeon are the highpoint of the entire series — his cover of the monstrous Bloodbeast is beautifully reprinted here.

One other Fighting Fantasy alumnus who had a fruitful second career was Robin Waterfield, though it isn’t mentioned in You Are The Hero. After writing Masks of Mayhem and Phantoms of Fear for Fighting Fantasy, Waterfield moved into the rarefied realms of ancient Greek literature. He is now a translator of Plato and Xenophon for Oxford University Press. His version of the Symposium is well worth seeking out.

You Are The Hero is an exceptional achievement in its complete coverage of Fighting Fantasy, covering almost everything that has appeared under the brand name, including computer games, board games, mooted film projects and publicity campaigns. It’s an essential reference book for fans of the series whilst also packed with nostalgia value for those of us who grew up with the books.

Having a focus solidly on Fighting Fantasy, there is still room for another book looking at the history of gamebooks in general. Other popular gamebooks such as Joe Dever and Gary Chalk’s Lone Wolf get only a passing mention here and it would be nice to hear more about these competing series. That, however, would be a different journey, one that the author might have gone down had he opened the door to the left rather than take the corridor to the right.

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