Overlap - Investigations in new and forgotten storytelling

Ian Livingstone Interview

A discussion with Ian Livingstone at Games Britannia 2012 in which YOU become the interviewer!

 

RUMOURS

Loved by the adventurous, feared by the goblin-ey, every good barbarian knows the name Ian Livingstone. Alongside the warlock Steve Jackson, Livingstone brought kobolds and beholders to Britain’s shores as the first distributor of Dungeons & Dragons, before setting up boardgame and miniature heroes Games Workshop, editing White Dwarf and co-creating the million-selling Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. Those are the legends, but more recently he’s moved into videogames with Eidos and attempting to turn around the eighteen wheeler in a alleyway that is UK education policy with the Next Gen report.

Today you’re braving the UK videogame festival Games Britannia – home to more astounding phantasmagoria than a night on the ale in Port Blacksand- to talk to the reveared dungeon master about his most recent project – a return to Fighting Fantasy with Blood of the Zombies!

1

Sat in a plastic chair in the majestic surroundings of Games Britannia at Magna you unsheathe your four colour Bic as you consider the figure before you. Ian Livingstone regards you evenly, wrapped in a majestic cape of sixteen-bit console tunes. His hand twitches towards the phone in his pocket and you consider your first move…

Will you get straight to the point with a question about the use of characters in Livingstone’s work (turn to 5) or produce your copy of the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and ask if the author would mind signing it (turn to 3)?

 

2

“Tell us about what it’s been like to return to – ” You hesitate. “Is it – Titan?”

“It is,” Livingstone confirms. “I wanted to write something to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Warlock. So I started thinking about it in 2009 and started making some notes and things. I didn’t want to make something around Warlock of Firetop Mountain without Steve – maybe we’ll do that for the fortieth anniversary! It’ll probably take us ten years to write it!”

“Has the new book, Blood of the Zombies, taken a while?” You ask.

“It’s taken two years,” Livingstone replies, with a steely gaze that reminds you this is the man who’s known as ‘Lara Croft’s Uncle’. “It used to take me two months.” You ruminate on the challenges of family and other work that can lead the bravest of adventurers’ swords to rust.

Will you continue to listen (turn to 10) or turn the conversation to the Games Nights that Ian Livingstone runs with Steve Jackson and Peter Molyneux and the like (turn to 8).

 

3

The 25th Anniversary Edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain contains a history of the book, a first draft of ‘The Magic Quest’, hints and a suggested route, as well as the original, classic self-guided tale itself. It also contains a gorgeous fold out map of the whole book. But, beautiful though the map is, it can’t compete with a player’s imagination, you offer. Livingstone nods. “It’s like being told how a magic trick works,” He replies. Your offering appears to have pleased the co-creator of the Fighting Fantasy series and he signs the legendary tome. Place the book in your backpack, add 1 L U C K point and move swiftly on to your first question. Turn to 5.

 

4

“You’re presenting at one of the talks by interactive story creators Inkle during your stay at Games Britannia,” You offer. “Which is another system for creating stories.”

Livingstone anticipates your move. “I’ve never used any technology other than a word processor. I can give you a little secret now though. This is how I create my adventures… In a very analogue way.”

Ian’s Eye of the Dragon Map. Click to enlarge.

“This is [Fighting Fantasy Gamebook] Eye of the Dragon. So you can see as you build up the adventure, you have to keep a record of the branching narrative,” Livingstone explains. “And all the things I’ve highlighted – the important items you have to find. If I realize I need a key I’ll go back and add the key here,” He suggests, pointing to a circled number on the chart.

 

Excitedly, you begin talking about what a mess the map you created for your Google Docs-based Gamebook for R-Type was. But without warning, Livingstone produces the map for his new gamebook, Blood of the Zombies.You will have to fight the urge to talk about yourself if you are to find out more about the author’s Fighting Fantasy comeback…

 

URGE TO TALK ABOUT YOURSELF                SKILL 5              STAMINA 7

 

If you win turn to 2.

 

5

You clear your throat. “You’re a storyteller with a list of credits on the likes of Fighting Fantasy, White Dwarf and the like as long as a troll’s schlong but does your focus on role-playing mean you don’t really have a central character that people associate with you?” You ask.

“Well I suppose I’m a road builder in a way,” Livingstone replies. “People can go down whichever road they wish and encounter who they might.”

You sense a opportunity to press your advantage. Will you ask about the interactive storytelling app Inklewriter (turn to 4) or go straight to asking about Livingstone’s involvement in the famous ‘Games Nights’ with Steve Jackson and Peter Molyneux (turn to 8)?

 

6

You suggest taking a photograph of the little seen Games Night Newsletter that Ian Livingstone is holding in his hand. The Cheshire-born author reacts with mock horror.

“Oh no no no! We’ve had lots of requests for cameras and filming games but we’ve said no every time…”

You sheathe your cameraphone and press on. Lose 1 S T A M I N A point and turn to 16.

 

7

“Sure.” Livingstone sits forward in his chair. “And I didn’t want them to be disappointed by a childhood memory that exists. To have them go, ‘Is that it?’ So I’ve tried to blend the two. Fighting Fantasy has to compete with videogames today too so there’s going to be an app…”

Now would be a good time to ignorantly interrupt. Choose your response.

“Whaaat? How’ll people be able to cheat and say they won all the fights…” (Turn to 15).

“Well this isn’t the first time Fighting Fantasy has explored different platforms…” (Turn to 9).

 

8

“You’ve spoken before about the games nights you have with Steve Jackson and Peter Molyneux and others.” Livingstone shifts slightly in his seat at this mention. “I think a lot of people would like to look through the window of those evenings but I’m just as interested in the bulletin I believe you produce for these events…”

There’s a glint in the author’s eye. “Yeah, the games night newsletter. I’m on issue 376 I think. First one came out in 1996 and it’s got a grand circulation of six!”

“Why do you do it?” You ask.

“It’s sort of like a spoof of a gentleman’s club.” Livingstone ventures. “We have a league table. So for every game played we keep a record of the points and at the end of the year there’s a cup presented formally and the name gets engraved on the back. The newsletter’s an opportunity to poke fun at Steve and Peter and everybody and give them a really tough time in print where they’ve got no comeback whatsoever…”

“There’s no letters to the Editor or anything like that?”

“I only allow letters of praise!” Livingstone replies, laughing. “But of course it’s also a record of how the league table’s progressing…”

Will you highlight how the use of a newsletter to provide a canonical recording of events recalls the Brontes’ Young Mens Magazine (turn to 12) or say nothing and continue to listen (turn to 18).

 

9

Excitedly, you reel off a list of Fighting Fantasy’s innovative exploration of other platforms for branching narrative. “There was [innovative, telephone-based FF] F.I.S.T. From Steve Jackson and you did the Legend of Zagor boardgame that looked amazing!”

“It was.” Livingstone replies, apparently pleased by your reference. “I designed the game and it was fun but it was massively engineered. I designed a boardgame initially but they wanted to make it electronic so when you landed on a square Zagor would tell you that you were gonna die because you’d fallen down a pit…”

Turn to 17.

 

10

“I had to make a number of choices,” Livingstone suggests, apparently unaware of the neat Fighting Fantasy reference in his statement. “Was I making it for the ten year old of today or the ten year old of 1982 who’s now in their late thirties?” Choose your response carefully…

Will you reply “People like me?” (turn to 7) or pursue another line of questioning (turn to 8).

 

11

You decide to ask a final, reflective question. “When you’re playing more characterful games have the characters you’re attracted to changed over time?”

“Well we like the cut and thrust of strategic board games and you get a bit more self-conscious about role-playing as you get older but I was very fondly linked to my own character, obviously. It’s your alter ego so you don’t want them to perish. A barbarian called Amvarl. He’s still alive somewhere…”

You try and hide your surprise. Amvarl! The hero of the Northern Wastes! The barbarian with eleven toes hadn’t been heard of since the Long Black Night… “He hasn’t retired?” You ask excitedly. “What was he up to last time you were around?” You ask.

Livingstone sucks his teeth. “It’s been a long time since I spoke to him. But he was at least 20 level, perhaps 40 level. He was a pretty tough guy.”

You smile at your luck. Add 1 L U C K point. Amvarl lives and you have completed a dangerous summit with the master of interactive fiction! As you go to switch off your dictafone a soft noise surprises you and when you look up Livingstone is gone.

Turn to 400.

 

12

You briefly outline how the Bronte sisters built the ongoing, multi-platform story world of Gondal through a combination of improvised play sessions (including one on a train), poetry, stories – and a newsletter which acted as both record of events and inceptor of new stories.

Livingstone nods as he rummages through his bag before producing an object. Turn to 18.

 

13

“An intruder! You should not be here!” The voice is gone before you can react and the skeleton warriors’ bones creak ominously.

Empty eye sockets regard you with bottomless stares. Outnumbered, you look for an exit. But just as there was no way into this part of the adventure by non-magical means, there is no escape and you fall under a hail of swords beside the Out Run 2 cab.

Your adventure ends here.

14

“My memory of playing Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks is completely bound up in the intricate ways I’d arrange my fingers so as to keep multiple page references open at the same time.” You enthuse. “One time I’d used up all the fingers on one hand so I started putting pencils and things in the pages to hold more of them open!”

Livingstone is amused. “I used to enjoy being on the underground and seeing the five-fingered bookmark in action!”

Your inquisitiveness has led to important insights that will no doubt prove useful in your quest. Add 1 L U C K point and go to 8.

 

15

You complain about how modern technology like iPads and catapults can leave fingers out of work. Livingstone indulges your complaint with good humour.

Turn to 9.

 

16

You decide to take a different tact. “What do you think of the fact that a lot of the things from role playing games that video games use are the least interesting?” You ask. “The dice roles and stats and the like. Can you see any way in which the more sophisticated mechanics – the ones based on collaborative storytelling in particular – could find their way into video games?”

“I think Heavy Rain shows how branching narrative and decisions can alter the mood and the game-flow. Do you:

Run him through with your sword (turn to 21).

Ask more about Games Night (turn to 19).

 

17

“I started writing Blood of the Zombies in a fantasy world.” Livingstone continues, adjusting his sword. “I’ve always been the medieval guy from Deathtrap Dungeon and City of Thieves and the like. But after working in the videogames industry for twenty years I thought ‘Zombies have an everlasting appeal and I’ve never done a zombie book, so why not try and join the two up?’ I thought I’d do a contemporary setting but I couldn’t go the whole hog. I couldn’t do shopping malls and high streets so I put the adventure inside a castle.”

“I’ve really enjoyed using social media too. Asking readers to decide what the title should be, and support from people after I lost a whole load of writing to a computer crash.”

The thing I’ve done in this one is to have it more story driven.” He explains “A lot of the early books were dungeon adventures with no coherent story so I’ve got a lot more dialogue going with NPCs in this book, there’s more of a mission and a few surprises that’ll hopefully drive people to their doom! Although 99% of people cheat.”

Will you insist that you don’t cheat at FF and attempt to run Livingstone through (turn to 22) or admit you’ve been known to bend the rules (turn to 14).

 

18

Ian Livingstone produces a sheet of paper and you gasp as you realise what you are looking at. It’s a Games Night newsletter! The mage draws your attention to a brief list of rankings. “There you go,” He pipes. “Current leader – Ian! Peter languishing in forth.”

Will you attempt to take a photograph of the precious treasure (turn to 6) or ask a question about the mechanics of RPGS versus collaborative storytelling (turn to 16).

19

Livingstone continues. “With the Games Night club we make a special effort to meet up every ten days or so. It’s in the diary – fixed, miss it on pain of death. We always try and play one – what we call ‘game of substance’, which has something really good to offer. Then we play lots of light games at the end. I thought Caylus was a great game, Puerto Rico was good. But even Warlord, which we published at Games Workshop as Apocalypse had a transformational combat system. There’s lots of ‘he knows that I know that he thinks’ second guessing.”

Time is pressing. Do you want to risk a final question?

If you decide to ask a reflective question, turn to 11.

If the time for talk is over, turn to 23.

 

21

You weakly attempt to highlight the shortcomings of Ubisoft’s disingenuous title. “It did have instadeaths that remind me of Fighting Fantasy…”

Turn to 19.

 

22

Your protestations are met with a raised eyebrow and you resolve to avoid deceiving this arch foe in future. Lose 1 L U C K point and manoeuvre the conversation to another topic. Turn to 8.

 

23

“The time for talk is over,” You intone, menacingly. Livingstone shakes your hand, throws a handful of sparkling dust to the ground and disappears in a cloud of smoke. When you go to check your backpack your money bag has disappeared. Lose 1 L U C K point and turn to 400.

 

400

The author of ‘City of Thieves’ and vanquisher of Baron Sumkuvit is gone! Banished to a presentation at interactive fiction overlords Inkle.

You regard the halls of Magna with cool detachment. The assembled crowd continue their revelry and multiplayer sessions of Minecraft EDU as if nothing has happened. But your mind is on other adventures. Someone, somewhere, needs a 2000 word article on iPad apps…

Blood of the Zombies by Ian Livingstone is available to buy now and the official Fighting Fantasy website is here. He’s also on Twitter.

Rob Barker’s demake of level three of the videogame R-Type for Google Forms is available to play here.

 

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