Formats Unpacked: Fighting Fantasy

How a book format inspired a groundbreaking Netflix experiment

Hi all,

As expected, a lot of you had feelings about last week’s unpacking of Snow Fall. It still touches a nerve for many. I got quite a few emails from people pointing out the problem of accessibility with Snow Fall that I didn’t mention. Others reminded me that the story itself just wasn’t as interesting as the format and the hype it generated.

It’s unlikely we’ll see such criticisms levelled at today’s format. Doing the unpacking is the ever-reliable Rob Mansfield. Check out his excellent previous unpacking of Big Brother then sign up to his fortnightly newsletter. It’s a great read!

Over to Rob


What’s it called?

Fighting Fantasy (book series)

What’s the format? 

A series of books published initially in the 1980s that turned the role-playing game of Dungeons and Dragons into an immersive, interactive, literary experience you could enjoy alone in the comfort of your own bedroom.

What’s the magic that makes it special? 

When The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, it was (for this 10 year-old) a revelation. It turned you, the reader, into the hero of the book for the first time. And that was more than just a marketing tagline. The Fighting Fantasy books were a cross between gripping fantasy stories and games.

There had been ‘choose your own adventure’ stories before – I remember using my pocket money to buy ‘By Balloon To The Sahara’ and ‘The Mystery of Chimney Rock’ – but the authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone added one crucial element. 

The Fighting Fantasy books melded the role-playing facet of D&D - where you used a dice to determine certain qualities of your character – with a tense, fantastic story, telling it from the perspective of ‘you’. 

At each step of the story, you – the reader – were in charge of what happened next. Do you go left or right? Do you run or stay and fight?

Here’s a sample from that first book: 

“You load the bow and fire, but despair as the arrow flies through the air directly at him, stops centimetres from his chest and falls to the floor. He looks up and smiles at you with an evil, gloating smile. What can you do:

Draw your sword and advance? Turn to 142

Try something else from your backpack? Turn to 105

Nowadays, these sort of options don’t seem particularly revolutionary, but it’s not hyperbole to say that the Fighting Fantasy series changed the way that stories, particularly within books, were told. 

They brought interactivity to an old format. The standard linear storytelling mode was completely jettisoned in favour of intricately-plotted pathways. Opening up the book at a random page and starting to read just didn’t work. Although you started at 1 with the aim of reaching 400 (where the quest ended), every story was different. Armed with just a pair of dice and your own decisions, you were in charge of your own destiny. 

In fact, the tricksy nature of the books was summed up neatly by author and comedian Charlie Higson. He was commissioned to write a new Fighting Fantasy book in 2018 and in an interview revealed just how complicated it was to write: 

“Only the characters you meet can talk and readers must choose their own responses… the other thing I hadn't fully taken on board is that you must constantly provide the reader/player with choices. I have over 400 sections/paragraphs, about three on each page, and each one needs to offer significantly different options… That forces you to come up with incident after incident after incident and really makes you think about how stories work, plus there’s a danger of your story spiralling out of control.”

In a world of smartphones, MMORPGs and automated reality, the Fighting Fantasy books could easily appear a quaint anachronism, but they still fire the imagination and were a crucial part of the evolution of interactive storytelling and modern gamification.

Favourite book

Probably Forest of Doom for me, in which the hero goes on a quest through a perilous forest to find the missing pieces of a magic warhammer that can help the dwarves in their war with the trolls. 

Similar formats

If you watched Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch – the 2018 interactive episode of the Black Mirror series – then you’ll see echoes of the Fighting Fantasy form of storytelling. 

Successful interactive stories are actually few and far between. In the late 90s, Onlinecaroline was the story of Caroline and her relationships, told through video. Each short episode ended with you being given a choice of what happened next. You returned the following day to find out the consequences. 

The award-winning Tour-Réservoir was a fascinating French attempt to tell stories of a community in Le Havre via different media.

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Thanks Rob,

If you’re a new subscriber I’ll love to hear from you. How did you stumble across Formats Unpacked and what do you all do? Ping me a mail. I’ll always reply. If you would like to unpack a favourite format like Rob I’d love to hear from you too.

Thanks for reading.

Till next week,

Hugh