The Storytrails gamebooks are to Fighting Fantasy what a French arthouse film is to a dumb Hollywood blockbuster: by comparison, they’re weird, hard-to-find, and deeply unmarketable.
Fighting Fantasy sold shedloads of books in the 80s by pimping the whole pseudo-Tolkien vibe. ‘YOU get to be the hero,’ their copy yelled at you from the garishly-painted cover- ‘yes, you! The skinny kid with bad skin!’ Readers got to forget about being a lamewad British schoolboy for an afternoon and become Conan the Barbarian, merrily running amok in a land of elves and magic. There was treasure to be collected, glory to be won and a wizard to be slain. And all of this was solidly grounded in the now-standard sort-of-British/Celtic mythological/medieval background that all Tolkien clones have slavishly imitated since the 1940s. It was sensationalist, gory, crowd-pleasing stuff.
The emphasis was on the game rather than the book (and the writing quality usually confirmed this). Sections were brief, allowing the reader lots of freedom in exploring the landscape of the book, but leaving little room for plot development or characterisation. There was lots of fighting and puzzle-solving.
Storytrails, on the other hand… well, the chances are, you’ve never come across one of these books, even if you were a fan of gamebooks in the 80s, which gives you a few clues about them. They don’t seem to have been marketed at so broad an audience. In fact, they’re so strange that I don’t really know what audience they were marketed at at all (this I consider to be a good thing, in many ways).
Firstly, they’re far closer to being interactive novels than games or puzzles. The plot’s the thing, and there’s no dice-rolling or item-collecting in sight. The writing style is more mature than in FF, and the fact that the story is told in the second-person rather than the first adds to the ‘real-novel’ feel. The sections are all two pages long, meaning that there’s a lot more depth to the story, though the number of reader choices is massively diminished (they are very short books). The reader's decisions mostly influence the plot rather than allowing them exploration of an area. So there isn't any mapping necessary as in FF.
Secondly, some of the plots and themes of the books are downright bizarre. Gamebooks at their best perform as a sort of wish-fulfilment fantasy, wherein the reader can adopt a new identity and have exciting or scary adventures. But can you imagine any child of the 80s fantasising about-
-holidaying on the Outer Hebrides, when a US space probe accidentally alters the trajectory of a comet, causing giant monsters to emerge from the sea? (Night of the Comet)
-returning to your hometown in the swamplands of Florida to protect an old friend from a ghostly Spanish child with missing hands? (The Hands of Pablo Santos)
-being trapped in a farmhouse with your cousins while being stalked by a witch that’s taken the form of an evil pixillated frog from a video game? (The Dark Awakening)
-being a Soviet scientist carrying out weird experiments on children in Siberia? (The Wolf With No Tail)
-being a 19th-century Australian who goes hunting in the outback for the legendary bunyip? (To Catch a Bunyip)
(Actually, I probably did fantasize about that last one… but then not everybody is a victoriano-phile with cryptozoological leanings like me).
In fairness, I’ve picked out some of the strangest ones. There were Storytrails that peddled more traditional scenarios involving space travel, haunted houses and secret agents. But there were just enough batshit insane titles to make the series stick in my head as a child as being deeply weird. The generally remote settings and odd antagonists lent them a mildly disturbing air, slightly unsuitable for children.
The entire series was written by one guy: Allen Sharp, and I’d love to meet him. He seems to have used Storytrails as a depository for any number of weird interests and ideas that he had in the early 80s. I’d have a beer with the guy for sure.