The Joy of Text

How would you like to come face to face with an eighteen year old version of yourself? It’s what I feel I’ve just done and it was a very weird, but wonderfully nostalgic experience. Strangely, it wasn’t through finding an old diary, letter, photograph or videotape. It was from playing a game. Let me explain…

Back in the early nineties, when all the cool kids were playing with their Amigas and Atari STs, I was still well into the adventure game scene on the ZX Spectrum. These were proper adventure games. No flashy graphics (in fact, usually no pictures at all) but lots and lots of highly descriptive prose.

Back then classic text adventures, such as Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure, Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Magical Scrolls The Pawn and Melbourne House’s The Hobbit were filled with more head-scratching puzzles, devious mazes and slimy monsters than you could shake a pointy stick at. Most of the games tagged “adventures” these days are a walk in the park in comparison.

In a text adventure your greatest enemy was usually the software parser which attempted to translate your two or four word instructions into something the game would understand. Many hours could be spent attempting to come up with the right “verb noun” combinations. Did you have to OPEN BOTTLE or UNSCREW LID or perhaps PRISE TOP? It was certainly a good way to build up your knowledge of synonyms.

Thanks to two wonderful pieces of software by a company called Gilsoft players were able to become writers and take on the big name adventure developers. With a bit of imagination and (sometimes apparently optional) basic spelling ability you could use their Quill or Professional Adventure Writer packages to produce your own, fully-fledged, standalone adventure games.

Some of the games crafted with these tools went on to be distributed by mainstream companies but the majority were the wares of home-grown publishers beavering away in their bedrooms, duplicating cassette tapes and photocopying inlays down their local libraries.

I was never the one stuffing the jiffy bags but I did write some of my own “amateur” text adventures which were fairly well received by the small, but enthusiastic, Spectrum adventuring community. Twenty years on my +3 disks with the game code are packed away in a box somewhere but thanks to the wonderful World of Spectrum archive I’ve not only recently been playing the games but I’ve also been able to read the reviews from Your Sinclair and Crash!

It was the first title I wrote that was provoking the strongest memories. Written seventeen years ago, it now seems an amazingly self-indulgent homage to all the things I liked and disliked at the time, capturing a snapshot of the home-grown Spectrum adventure scene and full of so many pop-culture references that the whole thing is pretty dated and embarrassing… rather like an old photograph.

I had no idea, back then, that I was creating some sort of personal time capsule. That, in my mid-thirties, I’d be looking back one day at the game and using it to remember a time when I should’ve maybe been a little more focussed on revising for my A-levels.

So what can you learn about the eighteen year old Strident by playing the game? Well he had very dodgy music tastes that’s for sure, with French electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre making a cameo appearance in the game (complete with laser harp). His status as a geek was firmly confirmed by plenty of references to Star Trek, The Hobbit and Doctor Who. Young Strident also had a pretty warped sense of humour which evidently came from listening to too many Goon Show radio episodes. A love of puns meant that many of the puzzles were based around homonyms. For example, smash a television showing a game of football and you’d be rewarded with an item that could set objects on fire.

It was nice to be reminded of some of these things about my teenage self that I’d forgotten. The mentions of so many magazines and computer personalities of the day (Your Sinclair, Mike Gerrard, Sinclair User, Crash, Zenobi etc.) also helped me remember just how great the old ZX Spectrum was.

But do you know what the worst bit about this excursion into my adventuring past was? I found myself getting stuck at certain points. There were times when I had no clue what to do next and even when I did I was often unable to figure out the required inputs to accomplish each task.

In the end I had to refer to a hint sheet. A hint sheet for my own flippin’ game! What makes it worse is that even when I was “cheating” I still got caught out by some stupid game breaking bugs (or bad design decisions).

Unbelievably, my eighteen year old self was actually flummoxing me! I can just imagine him sitting there laughing at how out of practice, stupid, and slow I’ve become! The spotty git.

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3 Responses to “The Joy of Text”

  1. You’ve provoked fond memories of mine of adventure games 🙂 I remember how infuriating yet strangely compelling they were, desperately trying to figure out what noun works. Happy days!

  2. A great read. I unfortunately missed the sort of games that you where initialy writing about but can relate to playing games that I well loved years ago and basking in the nostalgic glow. I recentmy played Fire Ant and Icicle Works and had fond memories of my early gaming life.

    I did not know you had a website but will be sure to check back regularly.

  3. Glad the article has provoked some nostalgic memories for you guys. I can easily spend too much time on World of Spectrum playing all the games I used to own… Unfortunately, I don’t seem to make any more progress than I did in the past!

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