It’s not hard to draw a line from Echo Bazaar back to adventure gamebooks. You know the stuff: “You are in the wizards tower. If you go down the clear, well-lit passage that certainly doesn’t contain inescapable death-traps of any sort, turn to paragraph 278 you gullible fool. If you go through the door with the cheerful music behind it, turn to paragraph 40 and be prepared to throw the book against the wall in frustration.” There are those of us with fingers worn thin – thin! – from spending hours reading with them lodged in a previous page as insurance should, say, turning left instead of right prove to have been the act of a reckless lunatic.
Many of the form’s most interesting experiments came from the minds of one or both of Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson. They and their collaborators played with making a solo hobby social, giving us co-operative gamebooks and competitive ones. They let us command armies. They made us kings. And in the mid-90s, right at the end of the hobby’s craze, they released a series of books called Fabled Lands.
Fabled Lands can be imagined as a primordial MMO, one without the ‘M’, the other ‘M’, or the ‘O’. Rather than leading you through a pre-determined story, they laid a world full of trouble at your feet and expected you to dig in. Each book covered a different region, like Sokara – torn by civil war – or Golnir and its cruel fairytales. When your wandering feet took you across a border you just swapped your current book for the next one and played on. Connections between the books were frequent. A good deed in one would be repaid in another, or a map you found would lead to a treasure halfway across the world.
And they made that world your plaything. Adventuring was just one of the things you did in it. Go shopping. Become an initiate in a temple. Make offerings to win the blessings of the gods, or secure resurrection arrangements to insure against death. Buy a house. Buy another one. Buy twelve. Keep your spare stuff in them so that when disaster strikes (and disaster will strike) you’ve got a stash to fall back on. Buy a ship. Fill its hold with commodities to trade at far-off ports, or explore the furthest isles of the sea. Invest in the markets. Some of this peripheral activity was aspirational (who doesn’t want to own a ship?) but all of it helped convince the reader that the Fabled Lands depicted a robust world; a place worthy of your time. It could stand up to a little poking.
Actually, a lot of poking. The Fabled Lands remembered what you did. Through a system of checkboxes and codewords, the changes you made to the world were recorded. Free a wizard from his imprisonment and you could visit him at his home to call in the favour. Restore the true heir to the throne of a land torn by civil war, and see the character of his city change. Your actions had consequences.
The paragraphs were short and punchy. The locations were vivid. The quests were inventive. The art focused on the places you travelled through, again contributing to that sense of a believable world. The whole series was illustrated by the incredible Russ Nicholson: the gentleman who illustrated The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and in so doing fixed what fantasy looked like in a generation of 10-year old brains.
A fair amount of that probably sounds familiar to our Delicious Friends. While Fabled Lands might not have been a massive influence on Echo Bazaar, for those of us who played it its lessons are lodged deep in our brains.
There’s a hundred other clever little things to talk about. How custom encounter tables are used to keep travel surprising and give every corner of the map its own flavour. The way all conflicts allow you at least two chances of success. The careful balance of risk and reward. The books stand up today as a remarkable achievement of interactive fiction. There’s nothing else quite like them.
Sadly, though twelve Fabled Lands books were planned, only six were ever published. We never got to visit the City in the Clouds or the Underworld (so tantalisingly glimpsed when you sailed your ship off the edge of the world). Lately though, the first four books have been rereleased and are available through Amazon: The War-Torn Kingdom, Cities of Gold and Glory, Over the Blood-Dark Sea, and The Plains of Howling Darkness. There are murmurings that the Fabled Lands aren’t done with us yet. Handy links and further information can be found on the Fabled Lands blog.