April A to Z – R is for Readers part 1 – an interview with Murray, author of the Turn to 400 blog

Murray is nothing short of a comic genius who has turned his talents to making witty and sometimes scathing remarks about his play throughs of Fighting Fantasy books.  At the time of writing, Murray has reached number 10 – House of Hell and you should check out all of his posts at http://turnto400.blogspot.co.uk/.  I cannot offer you a better introduction to the blog than Lee Williams


Are YOU interested in Fighting Fantasy? Are YOU unafraid to giggle like a tipsy schoolgirl in front of your computer? Turn to this excellent and hilarious blog immediately.


So with that, let’s get onto the interview…


What was the first gamebook you read? 

Starship Traveller (1984). Not many people like that book so you might wonder why I stuck with it. Well I couldn’t have not stuck with it. I was hungry for fantasy, a sucker from a young age. I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings very early on, before I really understood them I guess. Definitely Lord of the Rings, I was skipping a lot of pages, Tom Bombadil and all that hey-nonny-nonny crap, I would just skip 100 pages ahead until Strider was stabbing guys or whatever. Anyway from there you couldn’t hold me back. I remember I found out Dungeons & Dragons existed somehow, I didn’t really know what it was but the elements are right there in the name so I was already fiendin’ for it. I thought it was something you could play by yourself, as a little kid. I asked my Mum to get me D&D and she looked around at the bookstore or whatever, I guess she figured out that it was pretty complicated and probably Satanic or whatever so she ended up getting me Starshipinstead. I was still young enough at that time that she would read books to me, Roald Dahl and such. I’m pretty sure she read paragraph 1 aloud to me before leaving me to figure it out for myself. The start of that book is a pretty awkward read (“Panic! …Engineering section has reported an overdrive malfunction which has locked the warp engines at a 10 percent gain.”) so it amuses me to believe that she read it to me in this measured maternal voice, though I don’t strictly speaking remember it.

What is your favourite gamebook? 

I’ll have to split this. What I’m doing with the Turn to 400 blog is actually the third phase in my life encountering Fighting Fantasy. The first was my childhood, obviously. My favourite from that time was definitely Talisman of Death, it was one of the few FF books that I actually owned. I’m pretty excited that I’ve almost reached that one on the blog, I’m looking forward to running through it. I think it’s gonna hold up to scrutiny.
The second time I got into the Fighting Fantasy books again was when I was a university student around ’98-’99. One of my best buddies had an incredible collection from his childhood, almost the complete series, and he brought it around to our flat. Over a few weeks, some of us boys read them to chew through those obscene expanses of free time that you often have as a student (arts major, anyway). That was the same collection that is now in my custody, which allows me to write the blog (thanks Dave!). We were making fun of the books a lot of the time but I remember being seriously impressed by Legend of the Shadow Warriors by Stephen Hand. It’s number #44 though so at my current work rate it will be a race to see if I get there on the blog before I’m drowned by rises  in the global sea level.

What gamebooks/interactive fiction would you recommend to a newcomer to the genre?

I’m not sure. Maybe Deathtrap Dungeon. It’s so iconic, and unlike most of the other early FF books it doesn’t have any big flaws. It’s a really pure expression of the form, and a favourite for a lot of people. Or maybe the first Lone Wolf, though I haven’t read it for many years, I do remember loving it as a kid, and I remember it having quite a different flavour to FF.



Summarise what a gamebook is to a newcomer in 100 characters or fewer.

“Part story, part game, this is a book with a difference – one in which YOU become the hero!”
Why are gamebooks great compared to games or books?
Most games have a totally rubbish story. I don’t know if you’ve thought hard about what happens in Ludo recently, but it’s all bullshit. And the plot ofTexas Hold ‘Em? Horse-shit. Whereas the weakness of books is that they have almost zero replay value, and normally YOU are not the hero, unless you can be bothered writing the book from scratch and putting yourself in there like the lady did with Twilight
Though I guess if you’re talking about video games, these days some of them do have pretty good stories, but they take millions of dollars and a cast of hundreds to create, so, the medium is a little out of reach for your garage tinkerer. Whereas a gamebook can be written by one person, without any financial backing. So there’s that. 
Click here for a larger image.

A gamebook can combine a good story with well crafted puzzles, simultaneously engaging the reader in two separate ways. They are quite distinct skills for a writer too I think. It could be great literature. I’m not sure whether I’ve read anything quite like that yet, but I can see the potential anyway. It’s a bit of a neglected format. I’d like to see Dave Eggers write a gamebook. I’d like to see Cormac McCarthy write a gamebook. I just read in Wikipedia one second ago that gamebooks were invented by Borges – how’s that for literary cred? I dunno what these guys are waiting for.

When reading a gamebook, what do you imagine your character is thinking?
Sometimes the options in FF do make it pretty hard to imagine what your character is thinking. Like the options to eat random fungi or clamber into a sewer for no apparent reason. Usually that gives me something to write about. I make fun of myself for it, but I do actually role-play when I read these books – I try to bring a consistent sense of character to each run, which depending how the book is written, can have odd results (e.g. Forest of Doom)

Where do you come up with the ideas for your blog posts when reporting on your gamebook play through?

From the formless wash behind my eyes. I just riff on things, I pick up on absurd details in the text or the art and run with them. I apply unfairly high standards of literary criticism to the text and see what falls out. If it ain’t happening, it ain’t happening – that’s one of the reasons there’s often a long wait between posts (though I am trying to be a bit more disciplined and speed up a bit this year). Google Image Search has been a great boon to me because I can just plug any old tangentially related nonsense in there and usually retrieve some hilariously absurd pictures to fling into the mix.
There’s a template that emerged organically when writing about Warlock for the first time that I have more or less stuck to. The SKELETON Report is worth mentioning, that’s an idea that has been simmering for a very long time. I mentioned that phase in the late ’90s when me and my friends were reading FF again, I remember in one of those books you burst into a room and there’s a couple of SKELETONS sitting at a table arguing with each other over the bones of a rat. I forget which book it is, but they’re in this room arguing over who gets to keep the rat-bones or whatever. Like that would be important to a SKELETON. Who are these guys, what’s their motivation? It really struck me. After that I started noticing SKELETONS having funny shenanigans in a lot of the other books. It became a thing.

As a reader, do you have any secret tips regarding choices/dice rolls/cheating?

I’m not sure what counts as a secret tip. Keep your fingers in the pages?
Having thought far too hard about this stuff for a while now, I think it pays to get a handle on the psychological profile of the author, because that will bleed through in terms of what they reward and punish in the context of the book. For example, if you understand that Steve Jackson is an awful fiend who will never ever allow you to win, then that helps you to give up much earlier than you otherwise would have.
What have you got coming up in terms of your gamebook projects?
I’m just going to keep plugging away at Turn to 400. At the time of writing I am only up to book #10, so in theory there are many years material still ahead of me. Perhaps I will tire of the project before I read all of them, but for the time being, I’m enjoying myself, and I see no end in sight.
Do you have any other sites besides your blog?

I have a music blog at doubledragonradio.com which is, I’m afraid, now very much neglected. It’s the Turn to 400 of my record collection. I think about reviving it from time to time but I’m also concerned that eventually someone from Universal Music will pull me into the back of a van, so maybe not.
What do you think the future of gamebooks is?
To be honest, when I started Turn to 400 I didn’t think gamebooks had a future. I didn’t think they had a present, either. I thought I was just cavorting in the mortal dust of the form. Gradually, through readers of Turn to 400and blogs like your own, I realised there was something of a community out there, that FF was being reprinted and even expanded, that projects like Destiny Quest were being done. I’m intrigued by the new stuff that’s out there but I haven’t read much of it to date, I’m only up to House of Hell after all. So I guess,now I know that gamebooks do have a present and a future, but I don’t know whether they will ever recapture the popularity of their hey-day or remain somewhat niche.

Image from Realm of Zhu.

I’ll repeat myself a little and say again that I’d really like to see an established author with existing mainstream cred just suddenly write a gamebook out of nowhere. See how the world deals with it. I could imagine Neal Stephenson doing a great gamebook – it would undoubtedly be a doorstopper, and all the better for it. Or Neil Gaiman, that guy wrotecomics for chrissakes. I’m sure he can lower himself to gamebooks. Come on guys. 




So for more of Murray’s comic genius, get on down to turnto400.blogspot.com and check out his music blog at doubledragonradio.com.
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4 thoughts on “April A to Z – R is for Readers part 1 – an interview with Murray, author of the Turn to 400 blog

  1. Murray's blog is very funny. I didn't know about his blog when I started my own plough through the Fighting Fantasy books, in order, and unfortunately (for me) I'm not only not as funny, I'm also perpetually one book behind. So even when I do think of a funny line, Murray has either written it first, or done something far better.

    And yes, it is sometimes 'squirt coffee through your nose' funny.

    Like

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