City of Thieves
Entertaining the dream of making the show "Jonah Non Grata" a viable... money... life thing I once considered rewriting in full the book which serves Jonah as a bible, and to which I had never sought the rights - Fighting Fantasy Gamebook 5: City of Thieves. Printed below is as far as I got with this. It was too wordy, too intentionally dark (I was reading a lot of Chris Ware) and Ian Livingstone's prose style, so simple and yet so completely free of poetry, seemed impossible to imitate. Or so I thought! For last month (since when Livingstone was pleasingly awarded a CBE) the great Will Maclean - writer, well-wisher, pub quiz prodigy, proper scifi-ist and penner of the phrase "the pliant mortal before the giant portal" - released just such a pastiche: The Maze of Despair, which I downloaded like a shot, and it's a joy.
Now, a few things occurred to me while playing Will's version: Firstly, it turns out I still find the use of the second person incredibly potent; reading that I am standing in an alley remains for some reason far more thrilling than seeing it on a screen in even the most immersive computer simulation; it's a situation I feel more responsible for, more a part of. The technology is still sound, is what I'm saying.
Secondly, I was reminded of how fiddly as a child I found the question "Do you choose to attack it?" Because no, I wouldn't, but then I'm not a barbarian. But here I am a barbarian. But I'm also the hero. And in the end I would try and do the right thing, not because I hoped for success, more because I was using my avatar as a moral guinea pig. Also I wanted a story where the hero does the right thing. The rewards in Fighting Fantasy were pleasingly arbitrary though, something perhaps unprecedented in a children's bestseller. And there was nobody to tell you what to do either, nobody to trust anyway, which was also unusual in fantasy, and exciting and it felt a bit adult (and the polar opposite - if you'll excuse the pun - of Philip Pullman's drama-dampening altheiometer).
Thirdly, pictures of monsters are always great. It was this as much as anything that originally attracted me to the books as a child, and made me steer clear of their occasional forays into science fiction whose illustrations were unfailingly ugly. However, having enjoyed "Maze of Despair" so much I decided this month to pop into Barnado's and break my duck. I bought Gamebook 15: The Rings of Kether. The cover is fantastic. The artwork within you can enjoy below. Here it is then, all I once rewrote of "The City of Thieves":
You begin to notice fearful warnings - tiny windows, bags in trees, gutters clogged with old masks, a child on fire trying to steal a car, men hugging, and everywhere hoardings advertising Umbrella Sex. You pat the pocket of your robe, checking for the presence of your knife. On reaching the city gate a tired man dressed in metal as a dog with its head on backwards blocks your path. "Excuse me sir, Sir? Sir!" he explains "What is your business in this city? Sir?" Will you:
Tell him you are looking for Quiddity Pantibin. Turn to 202.
Tell him you just came to return a book? Turn to 33.
Stab him to death? Turn to 49.
You remove your piercings and hurl them at the enormous snake collective. With a sulphorous hiss it withers and shrieks. Its death throes sound almost human, like the screams of a wrongfully arrested widow. What have you done? The tunnel is now clear and you can proceed further into the sewer. You're in a sewer. The tunnel ends in a brown, grill with sewage spilling out of it. You can try and remove the grill if you like. You're in a sewer, and there's sewage coming out of it. Why not? 377
If you would rather leave the sewer the way you came in, over the body of the thing you murdered, turn to 174.
"Would you like to buy a broken owl? It is industry standard."
Acknowledging your interest, the stallholder starts rolling his eyes and making fish-like gaping movements with his mouth. "Mup! Mup! Sir! Friend! I can bring you wonderful luck. Mup! Mup! Three euros." he explains, "A very good trick. Won't take long. Make a beautiful trick with my mouth. Mup! Mup! If you give me 3 Euros I will bring you luck with my mouth." If you wish to pay this man for his mouth trick, turn to 37. Or you can move onto the next booth, (turn to 398).
You pull your knife on the mongrel bitch and vault his counter, sending a smoky bowl of tat flying across the shop. He drops the plug he was changing and attempts to defend himself with a screwdriver.
MONGREL SKILL 8 STAMINA 5
If you win, turn to 371.
The tired man has clearly had enough of everything, and assaults you. You must try and stab him to death.
TIRED MAN SKILL 8 STAMINA 7
If kill him in six or fewer feints turn to 212. If it takes any longer to stab him to kill him, turn to 130.
You reach into the concrete vat and unfurl the slice of food. As the scent of anchovies hits your nostrils there is a burst of thunder and the sky above darkens. It begins to rain offal. Do you have a butcher's parasol? If you have, turn to 237. If not, turn to191.
You head north.
Already lost, you proceed down the narrowest of these streets, bored with your objective and generally sullen. Unfortunately, you still encounter something. It is a sad, thin man who has tied bits of chair to his arms and legs with wet felt and is sitting, head in hands, and concentrating. Do you wish to sit on this stranger? If so turn to 331. Or you can continue walking East, ignoring everything until it stops (turn to 161.)
Before you can escape, the forty-year-old lady throws one of her pretentious pets at your head. It lands on your neck and lays eggs in your skull, causing the loss of 4 STAMINA points and 1 SKILL point. Now she is on the phone to a murderer. If you are not dead from the eggs, you draw your knife and go to kill her (turn to 249.)
You tell the tired man that another man whom you helped to get work in a restaurant left this book with you and that there was nothing in it but that you'd like to return it all the same...You pay the stallholder. Delighted, he produces a wire coat hanger from the folds of his robe and tries to put it in his mouth. "No, I can do this," he says. But he doesn't. "Anyway, what happens is that I tie a knot in it with my tongue. Brings you luck." You say you've paid your money and are happy to wait. You tell him you can wait all day if needs be. He tries again many times. After two and a half hours he finally manages to get the hangery bit to twist round the neck bit, a bit. As he hands you the structure it is clear from the sounds that he is making with his face that this really is the best he can manage. Add 2 LUCK points. You accept the hanger all the same and leave him to have a rest on his side, proceeding to the next booth. (Turn to 398)
You get pierced, and feel sexy. The man explains that you are sexy. You feel great. Some people are laughing. You stagger out of the bar and head North (turn to 296)
The man explains that you are sexy.
You look through the forty-year old lady's drawings of her boyfriend, and flick the rim of your wineglass with your thumb. She has finished whatever it was she was doing now and is clearly becoming impatient for an opinion of her work. "You don't seem to understand. You don't have to like them," she says. You spill the wine. "I'm going to call the police," she says, "Stay here." Now is your chance to make a break for it (turn to 32) or you can try and kill her (turn to 249)
The strong smell of sewage hits your nostrils. A ladder leads down into the darkness. This clearly is a sewer. Do you want to climb into a sewer? (turn to 10). Or you can replace the manhole, and do something else, although you are not yet sure what that is, turn to 205
The car alarm no longer sounds.
The car alarm no longer sounds. The snow has settled. You wash the couple's blood from off your hands in some sleet, and head North (turn to 31)
Swinging the broken owl above your head, gobbets of phosphorous illumine the otherwise pitch-black room. It was industry standard after all! You can now make out clearly standing with its back to the far wall a nameless horror. There is absolutely nothing else of interest in the room. You head back out and up the stairs (turn to 65)
You can turn right down Street number Four (turn to 139), or head back and take the turning down Eleven Street (turn to 91)
You head North.
You throw yourself into the snake collective, both hands about your knife, jabbing furiously at the dry writhing mass in an attempt to protect your face.
SNAKE COLLECTIVE SKILL 10 STAMINA 5
If you win turn to 272
"You head north."
You continue west, eating on the move. The pie is sweet and savoury in equal measure, Apple and kidney slip down your tubes, restoring 1 Stamina point to your animal constitution (turn to 307).
Its death throes are strangely human.
The forty year old lady defends herself with an unexpected ferocity and her thumbs.
FORTY YEAR OLD LADY SKILL 9 STAMINA 7
If you kill her turn to 295
The Happy Couple are scarcely a match for your skill with a knife. You must treat them as one flesh. However for every wound that they successfully inflict upon your body deduct 4 points from your Stamina score, as their teeth break off and become dislodged in your shoulder.
HAPPY COUPLE Skill 5 Stamina 5
If you win, you may leave their home by the front door (turn to 75.)
You and the tired men clearly hate each other, and would do so even if you got to know each other. You have nothing in common, but they let you pass. You head north (turn to 227).
You head north.
You find nothing of any use on the body of the creature you have stabbed to death, and so continue North (turn to 217)
Thanks to Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone for introducing so many children to the word "stamina". Thanks also to whatever this is for reproducing Nik Spender's "Rings of Kether" illustrations, so I could post them here. Anyone wanting more drawings of monsters because drawings of monsters are great should try this.
The admirable Limmy. I admire Limmy.