Responses to A Personal History of Personal Computers part one

Just a quick update from a reader of the last entry. Ian Holmes says:

“BTW have you seen the resurgence in free adventure games (rebranded “interactive fiction“)? Free programming systems like Inform (for text adventures with parsers) and Choicescript (for choose-your-own adventures) have generated a massive renaissance and some real artistic/literary progress. Emily Short’s blog is a great place to start. Also see “Get Lamp” documentary which I believe was recently screened on BBC.”

Really interesting stuff. Great to see text adventures maturing in such a literary way.

Inform, in particular looks absolutely fascinating. A natural language adventure game writing system? I would have killed to had that as an 11 year old!  Check out this video of how to get started, with Aaron Reed.

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A personal history of personal computers – part one

We live in interesting times for IT. Who’d have thought back in the eighties that thirty years later we’d be carrying round communciation devices that are many times more powerful than the most sophisticated business machines of that era?  However, there are many parallels between now and then, not least the bewildering plethora of hardware, platforms, applications and devices – from Nokia, Palm, Android and others. Form factor, operating system and UI vary widely. Its an exciting time, and for me this is strongly reminiscent of the eighties.

A fecund landscape of technology is very healthy and creative, even if many are destined to fall away but the hope is that in the process, the best ideas survive.

With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to talk about my own experiences of the original British home computing revolution (although a fair few of the computers weren’t even made here), and some of the hardware I owned, the games I played and how this contributed to me ending up as a computer programmer (damn you, Clive Sinclair!)

Obviously there were a large amount of machines available, some of which I owned, some I didn’t and some that I wanted to. I’m not going to cover everything otherwise it would be a book rather than a blog post, but just the machines I find interesting, and culturally significant. These machines might not even be the best of breed – for instance,  I never owned a BBC Micro Model B, those were for the rich kids, and besides there weren’t many games beyond Elite worth bothering with – but everything covered here meant a lot to me at the time.

Commodore Vic-20

Me and my Grandad exploring the Commodore Vic-20 in 1981.This was the first computer I ever owned.  We had a Magnavox pong console a few years previously, but the Vic was obviously much more of a blank canvas for an 11 year olds mind, evidenced immediately on xmas morning 1982, watching my Dad type in a simple program which filled the screen with an xmas greeting with MY NAME in it!!!  Looking back, the Vic was basic even by early home computer standards.  Possessing 3.5k of usable memory and with a resolution of only 22 columns and 23 rows of 8-by-8-pixel characters (higher mode for video, but not that much higher), graphics were large and necessarily low res. The build quality on the Vic was fantastic though – featuring the kind of solid, full, qwerty keyboard that later and more advanced computers from competitors would later eschew for cost savings – it felt as professional in some ways, as home computing in the eighties would ever be.

It’s big brother, the Commodore 64 later used the same keyboard chassis, but instead of the Vic’s cream exterior, it had a toasted brown finish, which lets be honest, looked even cooler.

The Vic had a Commodore tape player / recorder that served as its storage, but you could also use chunky cartridges to load programs and games. My first experience with gaming on the Vic was a Scott Adams game. Scott Adams created text based adventures, inspired by Colossal Caves, the first text based adventure game ever written, by an Arpanet programmer called Will Crowther, on the DEC PDP-10 mainframe. As Scott explained, in an interview for Crash magazine in 1985:  ‘In those days there was no such thing as a micro, and you were lucky to see a mainframe terminal. Our school, as an experiment got a mainframe terminal for students’ use and it became my terminal. I was one of the original hackers.’

Adam’s adventure games would present the user with a scenario, a description of your environment, any threats and the exits from the location. The games featured a simple two word parser for input of commands, so “GO NORTH” would produce a particular result. The games seemed simple, but often featured frustratingly fiendish puzzles, involving sequences of actions in multiple locations.

I struggle to comprehend how the current generation, used to the most sophisticated high definition games would react to these games.  It’s safe to say the games required a huge amount of imagination on the part of the user, and as a child they seemed unbelievably atmospheric and evocative. I was always a compulsive reader anyway, and these games felt like interactive books, where choices could often lead to untimely death and conclusion of the story. They were, of course, proto role playing games, minus the stat management, and an isolated experience compared to the massively multi player net based RPGs of today.

I kind of fell headfirst into an obsession with RPGs of all descriptions, Fighting Fantasy books, Dungeons and Dragons, you name it. There, I admit it, on the net too. I’m willing to bet good money that many other programmers could tell the same story.  I even wrote some adventure games myself, the actual mechanics of such an effort being surprisingly easy – essentially involving construction of an array holding data on rooms, actions, monsters, with it all being cross referencable, so when the user moved through the rooms, the program could call up descriptions, threats and applicable actions – but writing the actual story was a lot harder.  This is also cogent regarding modern systems development – the technology is the least difficult part of the process, working out what the damn thing should do and dealing with other humans is far trickier. Unbeknownst to me, this was a key step in making me the engineer I am today.

There are many text-based adventure games available on the net today.

However, the Vic wasn’t all about text-based games – there were also some scorching arcade classics released for this machine. The game that really sticks in my mind from this time is Jeff Minter’s Gridrunner.

Jeff Minter, just like Adams, is an enduring presence in video gaming. A dedicated hippy, Minter started progamming in the late seventies, releasing surreal titles through his company, Llamasoft, often featuring camels, llamas and other incongruent video game characters. Jeff was also obsessed with light synthanasia, a project he has pursued throughout his career. When the XBOX 360 launched, Jeff wrote the music visualisation program, that burnt out your retinas with wildly psychedelic colours pulsing in time with your mp3 collection.

Gridrunner was a shoot-em up, but like all Minter’s games, there was something quirkily different about it. Navigating your ship on a huge light grid whilst enemies spawned and pylons zipped about on an X / Y axis shooting electric bolts at you felt like a wild and exhilarating collision of video game tropes and genres at the time. Looking at it now, Geometry Wars is highly reminiscent of Gridrunner. However this was an early game for Minter and he hadn’t yet developed his distinctive style, that was to manifest itself much more strongly in games such as the mutant camel series.

In the next post, I’ll examine the true love of my early computing life, the ZX Spectrum.