Warlock of Firetop Mountain – From Analogue to Digital

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First, a moment of disclosure. I like actual – I’m trying to avoid the word real– things. I read David Sax’s recent book The Revenge of Analog with pleasure, nodding along at all the right moments, and generally subscribing to the argument of the book’s subtitle, that ‘real things matter.’ I’m also a long-standing fan of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy Adventure Gamebooks, a series I read when it was first released in the 1980s, and on which I’ve written before in an attempt to confirm my sense that the print form has affordances that don’t translate easily to the digital realm. So, when I downloaded Tin Man Games’ reboot of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain I did so with a set of preconceptions – pre-formed questions at least – that make it necessary to say that what follows isn’t so much a review of the app – which would require a measure of concern for the intended player-readers -- as a series of thoughts on the remediation of Jackson and Livingstone’s first gamebook into a new digital format. So, what can reader-players of Tin Man Games' new app expect?

The original story, as many will know, is that of a hero seeking fame and fortune in Firetop Mountain, setting out from relative safety to take on the minions of the eponymous Warlock and ultimately to steal all his good stuff. Why? Because it was ever thus. Heroes in the classic mould simply can’t resist entering caves and killing stuff. Jackson and Livingstone’s dungeon-crawl premise provides the point of entry, and much of the content, of Tin Man Game’s new app. They describe this as a ‘reimagining of the Fighting Fantasy Adventure,’ and while much of the story remains intact, there is also much that is new in terms of both content and presentation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqNj0LTWEWM

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that Warlock has been translated into digital form – that happened as early as 1984 when Crystal Computing launched it on the ZX Spectrum, a platform whose computing power is dwarfed by the power available on the iPad, and to be clear, Tin Man have taken full advantage of this. With this increased computing power to hand, and a desire to produce something other than an ebook port of the original, the app offers an animated experience of the Fighting Fantasy world. Rather than being a digital book (as is the case in Tin Man’s earlier Forest of Doom) the app is closer to a digitised board game, offering its reader-player an isometric view of the world under the mountain that is close in appearance to titles such as Games Workshop’s Advanced Heroquest.

These graphics are generated by the original, and some new, text and the kinds of hyperlinked choices with which readers of the print books will be familiar (Early in the game you encounter a ‘strange Goblin-like creature in leather armour asleep at his post,’ where you can either ‘test your luck’ to sneak past him, or else engage the creature in combat). Happily, Tin Man have retained Russ Nicholson’s original pen and ink illustrations which can be viewed in their original form and in a newly colourized form. Given the centrality of the black and white illustrations in defining the original print series (Nicholson deserves a great deal of credit for establishing the look and feel of both the world and the book series) it’s great to see them once here, and if this publication brings them to a new audience then it’s doing that audience a great service. The unlocking of the second stretch goal of Tin Man's Kickstarter allowed them to commission Nicholson to create six new illustrations and for this fact alone I'd recommend downloading the app - hunting these easter eggs is a great reason to spend time in Zagor's maze.

 

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Visually then the app is impressive. The world is nicely rendered, with Zagor’s maze slowly building in the style of a nicely painted set of Hirst Arts cast blocks. This is the first analogue/digital switch that sees gains on one hand (fancy graphics) and losses on another as it largely does away with a key attribute of the analogue FF experience – mapping.  A cursory search of the Internet brings up a host of fantastic (and many heart-warmingly awful) hand-drawn maps of the original book’s maze. That this practice was central to the lives of the book’s early readers, and perhaps the lives of its authors, is confirmed by what is arguably one of the most curious articles in Warlock, the magazine of the Fighting Fantasy series: ‘Maps.’ There, in the magazine’s first issue readers would learn that ‘Maps can be drawn out on plain paper, but squared graph paper is by far the most convenient’ (Jackson and Livingstone 1984, 10). By way of illustration, the editors (also Jackson and Livingstone) were good enough to provide a sheet of squared paper on the facing page. An analogue art form once encouraged seems to be at risk.

A change that goes beyond the cosmetic (though it has all the appearance of being just that) is the shift from the genre-defining second-person address – ‘you’ (as in ‘YOU are the hero!’)  -- to a more clearly third-person perspective. Here players choose from a range of predetermined characters with character selection altering the way in which the game is played, with certain characters possessing skills and attributes that open new hyperlinked choices, whilst removing others.  The characters themselves are presented as digital renders of 28mm gaming figures produced by Otherworld Miniatures and while the text of the app retains the second-person address there’s a marked shift in the reader’s relation to the in-game avatar.  As if to confirm that these are pieces to be moved rather than personalities to be inhabited, the models look rather awkward when in motion. Represented as if on plastic slotta-bases, the models hop along as if hobbled in a graphic representation that takes the appeal of the materiality of gaming figures and demonstrates why that appeal is so clearly located in the realm of actual things. In gamer-friendly parlance, it just looks a bit dorky.

A final change comes in the introduction of a new combat system that Tin Man call GridBluff. Supplementing rather than replacing Jackson and Livingstone’s dice, the app requires players to engage in a series of battles in which the various playing pieces attempt to outmanoeuvre one another. While the system is less cumbersome than the original, to a player accustomed to rolling actual dice the new mechanic -- which adds a modicum of skill to the proceedings – seemed to lose some of the drama of the original (for more in-depth commentary on this lunatic-sounding claim see Carter et al 2004 and Rogerson et al 2016).

As this summary hopefully indicates, Tin Man have clearly set out to create a new product rather than a direct port of the book to iPad, and in many ways, it’s a fun thing. It’s great to see life injected into the original and I can see many new players losing themselves in Zagor’s maze. Ultimately though, for me, the app recalls the ‘presentness’ of the original in all its awkward analogue splendour.

 

Tin Man Games' Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's Warlock of Firetop Mountain can be downloaded from the App Store, Steam, Google Play and Amazon.

 

Works Cited

Carter, Marcus, Mitchell Harrop and Martin Gibbs. 2014. ‘The Roll of Dice in Warhammer 40,000.’ ToDIGRA: Physical and Digital in Games and Play 1, 3.

Jackson, Steve and Ian Livingstone (1982) The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Harmondsworth: Puffin Books.

Jackson, Steve and Ian Livingstone (eds) (1984) Warlock: The Fighting Fantasy Magazine, May, Issue 1. London: Games Workshop.

Rogerson, Melissa J,  Martin Gibbs and Wally Smith (2016) ‘I Love All the Bits: The Materiality of Boardgames’ Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems pp. 3956-3969

Tin Man Games, ‘Aussie Winter June Update!’ (2016) Tin Man Games, http://tinmangames.com.au/blog/?p=4719. Accessed 26th February 2017


Paul Wake