Skip to main content

Cardboard Children - Return to Port Blacksand


Hello youse.

My ma died on Friday night just past, but instead of curling up into a ball and rolling into a hole at the bottom of my garden I'm going to talk to you all a little bit about games, because I love to do that. The death of a parent is a difficult thing to process, but I find that it helps to keep talking and reminiscing. And we've done a lot of reminiscing in this column over the years, so I'd like to do a little bit more of that today, while I'm among friends. I appreciate your patience.

My ma was always very supportive of my interests, and it's doubtful that I would have ever become a writer without that support. As a child, I was always reading. Always. My ma had taught me to read at a very early age, and it was a thing she was very proud of. I'm told that as a toddler she'd ask me to read things out from the newspaper to impress the aunts and uncles. But as I moved through childhood the things I wanted to read were things that weren't exactly appropriate. I read my first Stephen King novel at 7 years old (The Dead Zone, so beautiful) and I tried to keep it hidden from my ma – sneaking away into my sister's room to leaf through it. I'd check for words I didn't understand in a big blue dictionary. In truth, my ma knew what I was doing, and more Stephen King books would show up in the house. I loved those books, loved horror, loved frightening myself – and my ma was happy to see me explore all that.

My ma bought me my first ever Fighting Fantasy gamebook in 1984, right in that period when I was reading adult horror. It was House of Hell, by Steve Jackson, and I think it was an attempt by my ma to move me towards something more appropriate but still in keeping with my interests. It was a book, it was scary, but it was also a game. It also allowed me to make maps, which is something else my ma knew I enjoyed doing. Some of my younger readers might be surprised to learn that computer gamers from three decades ago used to make pencil and paper maps of their favourite games, to help them to navigate. Yes, back then, game worlds weren't always structured in a straight line. Back then you could get lost.

House of Hell was a revelation. I had no idea that a story could be a game, or that a game could tell that kind of story. I was fascinated by the fact that I kept dying at the end. I'd read and re-read, fight the same monsters over and over, take different routes – always, I'd die. I'd rolled dice during games of Snakes & Ladders before, during games of Ludo, but here I was rolling dice to see if I lived or died in the House of Hell. Never had I felt dice carry so much weight.

My pocket money didn't quite cover the amount of Fighting Fantasy books I wanted. I was hammering through those things. My ma removed them from the pocket money equation entirely. She'd buy me them. If I read them, beat them (I'd occasionally have to lie about beating them), she'd get me another.

I've said this before, but City of Thieves changed my life. It's a Fighting Fantasy gamebook set in the streets of Port Blacksand, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by the great Iain McCaig. Stephen King novels sparked my love of dialogue, but it was City of Thieves that made me fall in love with the world-building aspect of writing. I mapped Port Blacksand and wrote little backstories for the characters who lived there. I would go to sleep at night and dream about the place. I'd bore my ma with my adventures there. She'd listen. She'd always listen.

I distinctly remember reading City of Thieves on a beautiful summer's day in Glasgow. In the morning, in my childhood home, the sunshine would hit the back of the house. So a day in the sunshine would have you start out back. I'd arrive in Port Blacksand in the early morning, in my back garden. Lying on the grass. My ma would be at the kitchen window, keeping an eye on me. I can see her standing there right now.

By the afternoon I'm on a seat in our big side garden, my back to the sun, fighting off living plants as I try to pick a lotus flower from Port Blacksand's public gardens. I need them to kill Zanbar Bone, the necromancer. My da is weeding the garden behind me, fighting plants of his own.

By evening, I'm in my front garden, the sun low. There's music playing. It's Heartbreaker by Dionne Warwick. I've just met a beautiful vampire woman in Zanbar Bone's tower. These books are formative. I'll have a thing for beautiful vampire women for the rest of my life. My sisters are lying on the grass, and my ma is having her first wee whiskey of the night. Ah, she was a cracking wee wummin.

And I'm reading. Reading, but playing. And learning to write as I play. Thanks, ma. A neat trick.

So what is this? It's a recommendation for you to go and pick up some Fighting Fantasy books. Yes, let's call it that. Play them yourself, give them to your kids, go on some adventures together. Defeat the Snow Witch. Find your way through the Forest of Doom. Battle for fuel on the Freeway. There is nothing else like those beautiful books, those lifesavers.

When I hit a difficult point in my life, I tend to pick those books back up and play through them all over again. It's always feels like going back home, back then.

Let's all go, back to Port Blacksand. We can all make a map.

I feel like I need a map right now.

Read this next