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The return of the gamebooks

books Updated: May 14, 2007 17:42 IST
Elizabeth Kuruvilla
Elizabeth Kuruvilla
Hindustan Times
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Ian Livingstone stiffens perceptibly. From the corner of his eye, he’s noticed the camera aimed at him. He must make a choice, and quickly His mouth twists and shapes itself into an awkward smile, and he strikes a pose. He certainly couldn’t hope to disarm a monster with that attempt at pleasantry. And he meets a lot of monsters at work — and play.

Now the Creative Director of Eidos, Britain’s leading developer and publisher of video games, including the legendary tomb raider Lara Croft, Livingstone says sagely “If you have , a passion, make a business out of it.” Livingstone fantasised about adventure, battles and danger. This he didn’t find in the boardroom of the oil company he worked for as a marketing executive. “I hated it,” he says with the same vehemence he must have felt 30 years ago.

So Livingstone, along with his childhood friend Steve Jackson, decided to mix work with play. Fantasy role-playing boardgame addicts, they started Games Workshop to create their own adventures. But they only became stars when Penguin Books published The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. This was the first of their ‘gamebook’ series, Fighting Fantasy, an outstanding success that sold 15 million copies. Till its readers grew up, and grew out of the books.

Livingstone couldn’t care less. “The gamebooks were predecessors to video games,” he explains. Instead of the PlayStation control keys, readers would thumb through the pages of the gamebooks, making choices about what course the story should take. “There can be a hundred ways of going about it, but only one correct way. This makes it a compelling experience.”

The generation that grew up with Fighting Fantasy moved on to video games, and so did Livingstone. He is obviously still enamoured with Lara Croft (“She was first called Lara Cruz, but it wasn’t a very English name, so we changed it”). And he is enamoured with Lady Croft — who celebrates her 10th birthday this year — not just because he got to pose with Angelina Jolie, who plays her in the movies. “Along with her legend and brand name, parts of her anatomy too, have grown in these years,”,he points out with a grin. The secret: polygon — in Croft’s case, a virtual computer-graphic counterpart to silicon.

But the gamebooks are now back from the dead. With the revival of The Lord of the Rings creating a market for fantasy writing, Fighting Fantasy is back in print. “Plus, the children who first read these books have children themselves now. So there’s renewed interest in them.” In fact, Livingstone’s India visit involved both the expansion of his gamebooks as well as the video games. He discussed, with Indian publishers like Penguin, East West and Scholastic, the option of bringing the books to India. In a country that has virtually no retail presence in video games (“piracy is an issue here too”), the cheaper gamebooks could well be the perfect substitute.

Livingstone’s second reason for coming to India has to do with the fact that Britain, as most of Europe, is fast positioning itself as “a nation of IP”. Though video games account for nearly 1 per cent of Britain’s GDP labour costs are rising, he , says. With intellectual property rights to the games in his pocket, Livingstone is hunting Asian grounds to outsource the manufacturing process.

Livingstone still plays a lot. “I have an entire room dedicated to boardgames, 1,000 of them.” He may have won every one of them, but there is still one nightmarish battle in real life, where his duels never seem to stop. The enemies at the gate are those who see only the negative side of fantasy games. “They are not simply violent games for violent people. It’s only if you do it to the exclusion of everything else that it is bad,” he says with a hint of irritation. As for the persistent feminist complaint that an independent and powerful character like Lara Croft doesn’t need a gun to fight her battles, he answers back: “No one ever says that of James Bond.”