The games that are no more…

Paweł Schreiber
The old Amstrad CPC6128, in front of which I happily wasted large parts of my childhood, is now lying hidden in a cupboard somewhere. At least it’s not covered with dust. It’s partly dead – about 15 years ago the disk drive stopped working and nobody bothered to repair it, because our desk was already ruled by a brand new PC, Populous and Civilization. Another cupboard is filled with old Amstrad diskettes. They’re lying there in black rows, elegant as ever. Two-sided, 178 kb per side. Which means several games. All of them signed with a marker. You can see how we used the computer: “GAMES I”, “GAMES II”, “GAMES III” and so on. Perhaps we should have kept a special record, to remember which disk held which titles, but we remembered it even without writing it down. Now, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I run an Amstrad emulator and play the old hits for five minutes before I get bored again. But there are also games I cannot play – games written by my brother. Games that no longer exist. They’re lying in the cupboard, saved on the diskettes which I can no longer read, like the writings of some ancient civilization. It’s not just the question of the damn disk drive – the magnetic diskettes, lying forgotten for too long, themselves forget what they used to carry. Today it’s probably all riddled with bad sectors. Something disappeared when we weren’t looking. And today I realize more and more it had deserved more attention.
Before my brother moved on to Turbo Pascal and C++, he wrote in BASIC. Lots of people created amateur BASIC games at that time. Back then, programming was a relatively natural reaction in a person who has access to a computer. Of course, BASIC gave very limited possibilities, so usually the games were simplistic – like clones of Breakout, Space Invaders or Pong.
That’s what my brother started from. His first hit was called Gobbler - I can’t remember what it was about, all I do remember is you had to escape from a randomly moving smiling face. At that time, my brother was fascinated with the random number generator, which allowed him to create not only a dangerously unpredictable monster, but also its triumphant scream when it caught my hero. It was an absolutely terrifying random gurgling coming from the computer’s speaker. Today it probably wouldn’t be very impressive, but then it was the closest equivalent we had of Akira Yamaoka’s work.

Amstrad CPC 6128

The next title – House – was a bit more complicated. It was set by a river, crossed back and forth by a boat. The player controlled a builder, dropping into the boat parts of the house being built on the other bank. There were no builders in sight, so I assume the house built itself. I think there was also a nasty bird able to steal a part of a wall, door or roof (apparently it was a very strong nasty bird), but how – I can’t remember.
House still did not move beyond the average level of a BASIC game. Real insanity started with a game whose title (I’m sorry to say) I can’t remember. I recall, however, what its protagonist looked like – a two-sprite-tall little man with a huge beak. The details of his adventures elude me. The important thing is that his task was to find 10 crystals in a huge mansion, and then escape over the sea in his flying craft. The second part was banal – he flew right all the time, shooting everything that moved. But it was the first part that was a real challenge for both BASIC and my brother’s programming abilities. Even though the mansion was presented in 2D, it was quite complicated, filled with monsters and décor (you could move around it, but also jump on it) that with each frame of the animation the computer had quite a lot of counting to do. My brother made and elementary mistake – the game engine performed all the calculations between the disappearance of one frame and the appearance of the next one. The game flickered rather nastily. Nevertheless, we thought it was very impressive. Almost like our own Pyjamarama, and Pyjamarama was a game we could play forever.

Pyjamarama. This is what adventure games used to be like.

Finally, it’s time to discuss the reason for which I have written this text, my brother’s BASIC magnum opus: House 2. He thought a lot about his experience of writing his previous game. He created an engine that was much more efficient and much less flickering. He designed better, more detailed graphics (the size of the sprite representing the main hero was 2x2 characters now, not 1x2, as in the previous game). However, most importantly, House 2 had an impossibly complicated physics engine (at least for a game written in BASIC), which made it possible to perform all kinds of silly tricks. Because House 2 was the first game I saw featuring a full interactive and destructible environment.
The main Hero (clearly inspired by fat Berk from the Trap Door series, whom we knew only from screenshots in computer magazines) wanders a quite large world with the intention of building a house. He has neither money, nor building materials. However, if he looks hard enough, he can find a hammer and some glue. After several hits with a hammer, each element of the surroundings can be picked up. It can then be glued in another spot. For example in the chamber at the top of the game map, where our little fat hero is supposed to build a house. In short: the point is to break everything in one’s path and empty the subsequent chambers, filling one’s pockets and running back up to build whatever one wants.

House 2. The main hero, front. Reconstruction from memory

Each kind of material has its specific resistance and is attached to the ground more or less fixedly. When taking a single loose stone, you have to be careful not to cause an avalanche of stones that lay on top of it. Of course, such stones or logs can also be dropped on the monsters lying in wait to kill our hero. Hitting stuff with a hammer long enough allows one to destroy practically everything (I remember clearing whole chambers like this, out of boredom).
House 2 was supposed to have one more component – when the protagonist had already finished his little house, the program was supposed to run a simulation of difficult weather conditions, checking how the house would react to heavy rain and wind. This was to determine the final score, saying how good a builder the player is. Finally, my brother never created this stage – he did not have a good idea for implementing it, so it seemed it would turn out rather boring. What remained was pure sandbox – building just for fun, using materials found in a fully destructible world.
Back then I knew the game was interesting and ambitious, but I concentrated mainly on the fun one could have playing with the world and the physics engine. Today I know that, for its time, it was amazing. The problem is, in the whole history of video games, only two people have ever played it.
I wonder what would have happened if back then, in 1991, somebody had shown us Minecraft. Maybe we would have sighed it’s exactly like House 2.
In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, Septimus Hodge, one of the characters, talks about the history of civilization:
We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Rufus Sewell as Septimus in the first staging of Arcadia, dir. y Trevor Nunn w pierwszej inscenizacji "Arkadii" Stopparda, reż. Trevor Nunn
Perhaps there is no point in regretting all the games once created by amateurs in their homes? The breakthroughs made in them would later be made again by somebody else. House 2 was probably one of many proto-Minecrafts. And today Minecraft has already been created. Let House 2 rest in peace and oblivion on its black disk riddled with bad sectors?
Next month – the first anniversary of my brother’s death. The absence of this game is one of the thousands of signs of his absence.

Nov 1, 2011

The games that are no more… [PDF]227.88 KB
Tomasz Schreiber's Memorial Session