You could hardly hear the train clattering on the rails. As a matter of fact with all those kids shouting, laughing and singing all over the car you could hardly hear even your own thoughts. They were all older than me. I was still in kindergarten and they were all students. But they were my father’s students! And I was fortunate enough to join their summer camp that year. We were on our way to the seaside. It was one of those old train cars with no separate compartments, where you can see everybody and walk around… Dad was chatting with his colleagues, some of the students were playing cards, chess or simply arm-wrestling, some were listening to music, others were walking around and enjoying all those simple pleasures you get on the train, like sticking your gum under the seat, or spitting out of the window… But not me! I had a far better occupation!
I was choosing my destiny!
Two of the guys had a bunch of books with them… Colorful covers illustrated with knights, dragons, ninjas, goblins and all sorts of things that can set your imagination on fire and make you crave for adventures! Those were the first gamebooks I had seen.
Above the title there were captions such as “YOU are the hero in this book!” or “Choose YOUR adventure!” They were all written in 1st person. They were divided into “episodes” and at the end of most of them there were choices to be made – “You finally reach the crossway. If you want to turn left read 37, if you decide to go right read 64, in case you continue forward read 11, if you prefer to go back where you came from read 59”
The rest of the world had known them for years, but they were something completely new for the Bulgarian kids in the beginning of the 90s. We had no idea about Role Playing Games, never heard of “Dungeons and Dragons” or such, most of us didn’t have PCs but even if you were one of the few lucky fellows – the graphics in those 5,25’-Floppy-Disc days could hardly compete with the adventures described in the gamebooks.
I was trying to spell from my space and dinosaur encyclopedias ever since I got an idea about the letters. But in the beginning when my parents bough me my very first gamebook, “The Castle of the Goblins” (“Замъкът на Таласъмите” от Колин Уолъмбъри / Любомир Николов) my reading was still kinda slow, so it felt much more enjoyable when others were reading aloud for me and I was taking the decisions. It must have been 1992, because I remember that dad bought me my second game book, “The Master of Darkness” (“Господаря на Мрака” от Джордж М. Джордж / Георги Миндизов), just before he took me to the cinema to see “Jurassic Park”, and “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993 - the year when my bro was born and I started school. In school my reading got a lot better and I would spend many nights reading gamebooks till late hours.
I virtually grew up on those books and they were the reason for me to get interested in literature and get my first library card. So no wonder that I was really pissed off when my literature teacher in secondary school claimed that gamebooks cannot be classified as literature by any means. Boy was she wrong!
What had inspider me to start reading now inspired me to start writing. I was making up my own gamebooks - writing adventues in notebooks and even occasionally borrowing my aunt's typewriter. When I was 9th grade, at the age of 15 the "Fantasy Factor" magazine published my article "The Gamebooks: A cult of a whole generation" as a main topic of issue #8 and I was so mighty proud and happy that I bought a box of chocolate candies and gave a little treat to my classmates in high school :)
There were both Bulgarian and translated foreign gamebooks on the market. Among the best translated titles were Steve Jackson’s Sorcery series and also his world-famous collaboration with Ian Livingstone – the Fighting Fantasy series.
The very first Fighting Fantasy book, “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain” was actually published in Bulgaria as number 3 as “Магьосникът от Огнената Планина”. I remember the day I saw it in the bookstore down the street. They sell snowboards and sportswear there now, but back in those days it was a great bookstore, filled with the smell of coated paper and fresh-printed ink. I begged my mom to buy me the book and I was jumping with joy when she agreed. Instantly it became one of my top favourites! A couple of years later I gave the book to one of my classmates. He didn’t return it for moths and I was about to use my fists in order to persuade him to give it back. I was heartbroken when he told me that he had lost it and offered me some money to cover the loss. But it was a loss you cannot cover. The book was rare and out of print for years! I searched for a copy everywhere but I couldn’t find one.
Some years later, on my way back from school I stopped by a second hand book stand. It was a religious experience! I went through a heap of gamebooks and suddenly there it was!! “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain”! My heart was pounding in my chest, I could hardly believe this miracle! But… but I had no money. It wasn’t expencive, it was just that my pockets were desperately empty! I was holding the book in my hands and I felt that if I leave it there for even one day I may never see it again. What if I come back tomorrow and somebody else have bought it? I couldn’t stand the thought of losing the book again. I looked for the seller. I saw him sitting on a chair behind the stand. He was an old, blind man. Iremember that I had seen him from time to time on the bus on my way to school. I went to him holding the book and asked him to give it to me even though I couldn’t pay. I promised that I will come back as soon as I can and pay, but he didn’t want to listen my promises. He just said “Ok, you can take it”, and I think he smiled slightly. I was so happy! I runned, no, I flied home!
I’m not sure, but I think that the next day I went there again and the stand was closed. I went there again and told the man “Maybe you don’t remember me, a few days ago you gave me a book and I came to pay for it…”. "I remember” –he said and I think that again he slightly smiled. “I knew that you’re an honest boy”. And I gave him the coin… I will never forget it – the bland man who was selling books and the trust he had in me.
* * *
In the years to come the gamebooks became bestsellers, they developed and evolved in various ways, new rules were coined, thew ideas were explored, there were several publishing houses which focused especially if not only in this field. New titles were printed every week. Stories from every genre from fantasy and science fiction action adventures to horror and detective stories and even historical and sport gamebooks.
The Bulgarian gamebook writers were sort of celebrities now (you can’t even imagine how happy I was when I got “The Castle of the Goblins” and its two sequels signed by the author Liubomir Nikolov at a convention in Plovdiv). We fans found out that they were using pen-names because in the beginning some policy was forbidding them to use the gamebook pattern as if some foreign publisher owns the rights to the idea. So our Bulgarian publishers found a way to get around this rule – they pretended that they publish only translated gamebooks! And by the way American authors were selling better, especially in the beginning of the 90s, when we had just abolished communism and our society was hungry for “decadent western culture”. The authors were hiding behind their western pen-names. Later on things changed and they could use their real names but the pen-names had become a tradition – they continued to use them even after they uncovered their real personalities.
For some reason the gamebooks’ golden age faded away and I can’t help it but get nostalgic talking about this. They are no longer being published (or at least not in Bulgaria). Some of the kids these days have heard about them from their older brothers and sisters or maybe even have read/played a book or two. You can find dusty volumes at second hand book shops. Fantastic adventures awaiting on forgotten shelves. And if by any chance you happen to find some of these books… do not hesitate! Take it. Turn the page over… and Decide Your Destiny!
What you’ve just read is far from comprehensive and in case you’re interested and want to find out more on the subject, I give you these useful links: