Orcs and Oulipo

I’ve been thinking and writing a bit about nostalgia recently. And then – whaddyaknow? – the world conspires to give me a massive hit of the stuff. It turns out that this year is the 35th anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was a huge part of my diet when I was younger. Not only that; one of the series’ founders, Ian Livingstone, has written a new book, The Port of Peril, to mark the occasion. I felt that old yearning to be the hero, all over again.

And so I devoured The Port of Peril. And then I wrote about it, and gamebooks in general, for the Times Literary Supplement. The TLS! It’s my first ever piece for them, so I’m kinda excited. You can read it here, but here’s a taster:

Potted histories of gamebooks tend to mention, for example, B. F. Skinner’s investigations into linear programming, or the birth of the Oulipo group in 1960s France – and not without reason. After all, one of the principal texts of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, is a collection of ten sonnets that allows readers to interchange the lines, allowing for a hundred thousand billion combinations. Which is to say, you are the poet.

There is also something Oulipian about the way in which Fighting Fantasy authors write within a set of self-imposed constraints. According to Livingstone, the main challenge is ensuring that all the winding paths don’t wind so much that they become closed loops, and that they reunite with each other when necessary. But there are also a hundred other considerations: ‘You’ve got to do the gameplay balancing, so that the monsters aren’t so tough that readers can’t get past them. You’ve got to make sure the economy is right, so there are enough gold coins, but not so many that readers can just buy their way through the adventure’.

To which I would add: go buy some Fighting Fantasy books, whether for your kids or for yourself. Alongside The Port of Peril, Scholastic are republishing some of the classics – and they all show how a normal book, a collection of pages between two covers, can be turned into something strange and wonderful.