Gamebook store

Friday, 22 November 2013

A noose of light

I probably don’t have to declare at this stage that I’m kind of an admirer of Russ Nicholson’s artwork. I’ve wanted his illustrations in my books since way back in 1984, when I had to track him down to Papua New Guinea to get him to supply the drawings for Eye of the Dragon.

And everybody knows that as far as the Fabled Lands series is concerned, Russ is “the third author” (it’s like being the Fifth Beatle, only with less hair). His imagination made it real, gave it substance, and that’s not just my and Jamie’s opinion – just look at how the apps drew on his original art.

Likewise Leo Hartas, not just an artist who is brilliant at conveying charm in his quirkily imaginative scenes, but one of my closest friends and, of course, my creative partner on projects like Mirabilis.

As I was lucky enough to get these guys as the illustrators of my Virtual Reality books in the mid-90s, you can bet that I wanted to retain their illustrations in the new incarnation of those books under the Critical IF imprint. And yet, Once Upon A Time In Arabia (the book formerly known as Twist of Fate) does not feature Russ’s great pictures, instead relying for visual embellishment on the more obscure (these days) William Harvey. No, not the blood guy.

I am very conscious that gamebooks are all about the nostalgia. Switching things around is as welcome to most gamebook aficionados as a bacon sarnie to a Salafi. So why the change?

To explain that, first I must ask you to cast your mind back – or, indeed, just click the link – to the announcement that Fabled Lands LLP would be partnering with Osprey Books to bring back Virtual Reality in digital format. Because the original plan to do them in HTML5 was deemed too expensive, we decided to go with EPUB3 format, which we thought would be cheaper. (It wasn’t, but that’s a detail.)

It soon turned out that we wouldn’t be able to have much interior artwork in any EPUB3 versions. As in, no art at all once you were past the prologue. So each book was to have two or three black and white illustrations. These were not by Russ or Leo and I wasn’t involved in commissioning them. No big deal, I thought, as I could still use the original artwork in the print editions. Then it turned out there were to be no print editions after all, only the ebooks.

Dry your tears. For various reasons, the planned partnership was abandoned and the ebooks canned. Still, we had the books all edited and ready to go – and Createspace makes it very easy to publish paperbacks and distribute them via Amazon. So, after quickly striking agreements with Russ and Leo, we were back in business.

Except… These are pictures you don’t want to mess up. Only sharp high-resolution images would do. I finally got the best quality my scanner is capable of by razor-blading copies of the VR books to pieces and scanning at 600 dpi. It worked out fine for Heart of Ice, Necklace of Skulls and Down Among the Dead Men. The snag is that I had no spare copy of Twist of Fate (I hope you’ll forgive me not wanting to mutilate the only one I had left) and it would cost $150 to buy a spare on Amazon. Hence the decision was taken to resort to the illustrations of Mr Harvey, which had the benefit of being (a) specifically drawn for the Arabian Nights and (b) out of copyright for seventy-seven years. Oh, and pretty good. Not Russ or Leo quality, but evocative enough.

As Scheherazade’s beleaguered heroes are fond of saying, God alone is all-powerful. OK then. But I managed three out of four, and I can live with that.


  1. I have a box of remaindered gamebooks, picked up in a sale long ago, and gradually buried ever deeper in storage over the years… but I strongly suspect it does not contain a copy of Twist of Fate, or indeed any of the other less-common gamebooks that you sometimes see popping up for silly money online.

    It does irritate me, though, that I never foresaw this situation: at the tail-end of the original gamebook “phenomenon” in the 1990s, I *did* have sufficient awareness to realise that some gamebooks, such as the last few volumes of the Lone Wolf series, were not being printed in large numbers (judging by their scarcity on the shelves), and so to be sure of obtaining copies I got into the habit of ordering them in advance through bookshops. I just assumed then that gamebooks were slowly fading into eternal oblivion, and it never occurred to me that there would be a market for any of them, even though there must always exist the possibility that a distinctive genre/format will experience a nostalgic resurgence at some point in the future. I should have been buying three or four copies of each title. Oh well.

    1. Hardly a week goes by, Graham, that I don't hear Jamie lamenting that we don't have a few dozen spare copies of our old books to sell on eBay. Not that they would necessarily fetch the price they are sometimes listed at, of course.

  2. Although you've burst the Heart of Ice bubble by re-releasing it. That said, people are still trying to sell Across the Blood Dark Sea for silly money on eBay for five times the price of new.

    1. Ah, but like with like, James. The original is a much nicer product with those fold-out flaps and all. Our new edition is cheaper but we couldn't match that.

    2. Fair enough! But you've still got the paragraphs and the Russ Nicholson artwork though? The fold out flaps were lovely. But then I had Once Upon A Time In Arabia, without Mr N, and it's still cool. I remember you saying that the original FL had a much too low a price for what it cost to make (or words to that effect)

  3. Hello Dave and everyone,

    First, thanks for the explanation. It is rather amazing to think that despite the fact you are the authors of these books, you don't have one to spare or sell, while these old books are selling for some big money (for a paperback book). Twist Of Fate or BloodSword books are selling over £100 ... I could imagine such a situation in a Cugel-like story (R.I.P.Jack Vance).

    Second, would it be possible to get the illustrations from Twist Of Fate in electronic format? I explore the whole world wild web (including Russ's blog of course) and dont find these :-(

    Best Regards,

    1. Hi Vinny, well, I don't feel too bad. At the end of his life, Rembrandt didn't own any Rembrandts. That's a lot worse than my and Jamie's situation.

      I'm not aware of any scans of the illustrations from Twist of Fate. If I were, I'd have used them in the new edition. I guess Russ would be the best person to ask.