My Fantasy World – Fighting Fantasy by Alex Davis

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Second in our series ‘My Fantasy World’ writer and workshop organiser extraordinaire Alex Davis give us some insight into what inspired him to get involved with Fantasy.

I found myself really geeking out recently.

I was attending Watford’s annual Gamesfest event, and a special guest was announced late in the day – Steve Jackson, creator of (among other things) the Fighting Fantasy novels. I’ve met a fair few notable writers in my travels and my work, but I don’t think I’ve felt quite as excited as I did for this signing. At the event, I held in my shaky hands a copy of The Citadel of Chaos which Steve graciously signed. We chatted briefly about some of the reaction to the Fighting Fantasy books, from the positive acclaim to people stating that they were ‘works of the devil’. That signed book still has pride of place on my bookshelf, alongside a decent number of other (unfortunately unsigned) Fighting Fantasy books.

The reason that I felt so awestruck at that moment was that Steve Jackson wasn’t just one of my writing heroes, he was my first writing hero, alongside co-creator Ian Livingstone. I must have been about eight or nine when I picked up a plastic-coated copy of Warlock of Firetop Mountain from my local library. It had probably seen better days, and already had the character pages at the front filled in, but I picked my way through the adventure, notepad and dice to hand, and from that moment I was hooked.

I proceeded to play through pretty much any of the books I could get my hands on – titles that particularly stood out were Scorpion Swamp, which gave you a choice to be good, neutral or evil and the insanely difficult Creature of Havoc, which I never managed to complete. Having rattled through what I could realistically get, I went on to any number of other brands of gamebook, including Choose Your Own Adventure, Lone Wolf.

People a little younger than myself may not quite understand that fascination, but for me these were the books that first opened up the worlds of fantasy for me. The world of computer gaming was in its relative infancy, and I was a good few years away from getting my first Amiga 500+. 16-bit consoles were just a dream back them, so having this stream of written adventures to lose myself in was fantastic. One of the things I remember from queueing for that signature was chatting to the people around me – some friends, some strangers – who had brought dog-eared copies that had obviously been well-loved in childhood, and sharing reminiscences with them.

It made me realise that these books were our games as kids, before we could load up Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft or Age of Conan. Over time gamebooks have become a common experience to many people. How many of us have kept our thumb on the previous chapter, just in case we found ourselves walking into a dead-end or an unfortunate death? How many people out there have drawn their own crude maps through mazes and corridors, or written down every tiny detail or word just in case it pops up later? And how many of us have gone to the corner shop or the library to photocopy a job lot of character sheets ready for the next adventure? There’s something nostalgic about it, and something that many people still have a great fondness for.

Fighting Fantasy has recently had a re-release, and I for one am pleased to see it. Much as it’s great to immerse yourself in a computer game, I think it does so much good for kids to lose themselves in something that really needs some imagination. Placing yourself in the role of the hero, seeing what they see, makes you think about stories, how they work and what their appeal is. Whether these new releases are banking on the nostalgia market, or are something that today’s generation can engage with, only time will tell.

Although there may be books and series of books that are more acclaimed and have sold more copies down the years, Fighting Fantasy was something important to a generation of budding readers and writers of fantasy. For me it was my very first fantasy world, the thing that spurred me on to taking an interest in the genre, reading my first novels and in turn penning my first pieces of writing. Who knows what I would have been reading today without it?

Since leaving University, Alex has worked in events management and publishing, including running three Alt.Fiction events in Derby and a number of literature festivals in the East Midlands. He organised the first East Midlands Writers Conference in Loughborough, and is a long-time writer and reader of sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

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