Raised By Screens – Chapter 1: The Hobbit

I’ve written before about the games that ‘made’ me, but really that refers to a specific type of touchstone, the sort of game which informs the games I most enjoy today. There were many others whose formative effects are perhaps less certain, but at the time they seemed boundlessly important to me. They raised me. They helped fire a young imagination into life. They carried me away from problems at school and at home. They are, I suppose, family, and just like family, I don’t necessarily have to think they’re wonderful in order to know that they’re important.

This is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – dancing through the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.

Whirr. Click. Squawk. A tape plays, a screen flickers into life, a memory is born. A first memory of a computer game, of an introduction to what computer games were.

It’s a hazy memory, and like so many of our earliest ones it’s more a series of still images entangled with strange emotions and stitched together by the mind’s own internal Chinese Whispers than it is a replay of events. The edges of those images are fogged out, like viewing a map by torchlight, leaving only hints of context.

A suggestion of a forgotten but familiar room; the outline of a wood-framed television set that seemed impossibly vast at the time but would no doubt seem like a dollhouse decoration next to the monstrous monoliths that rule our living rooms today; a father watching me carefully and curiously as, for the first time, I pressed my young and clumsy fingers to the alien rubber rectangles of his ZX Spectrum’s keyboard. A cassette tape of course, and something tells me its label was yellow-orange. That cassette tape started something lifelong, something that began with two words:

THE HOBBIT.

1982, ZX Spectrum
Developed by Beam Games, Published by Melbourne House

Illustrated text adventure based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel for children. A powerful sentence recognition system and unpredictable behaviour from its non-player characters set it far apart from the simple commands and routine outcomes of other adventure games.

The Hobbit was a book. The Hobbit was Gandalf and Bilbo and Gollum and the trolls who turned into stone. The Hobbit was words and adventures, but to me it was also this cover:

It’s extremely difficult to reconcile what I saw on a cinema screen recently with that image.

I didn’t feel that same disconnect when I played the Spectrum game which bore the same name. Instead, that game almost immediately became an intrinsic part of the meaning held by ‘The Hobbit.’ To me, then, it expanded the definition of Tolkien’s book and Tolkien’s world, rather than robbed it of life and plausibility, as those vapid and – perversely – videogame-like Jackson movies do.

In truth, I don’t remember much about the original game – still images again – but I remember the excitement and confusion of meeting Gandalf. I was talking to Gandalf, who I at the time regularly conflated with Jesus, and he was talking back to me. This was not possible. This was incredible.

This was a computer game, my first computer game, asserting itself over reality, becoming reality. This was a game doing all the things we now look to games, and the billions of transistors in the machines which play them, to do. Except it was doing it with this:

Bag End. Inconceivable. The hot pink carpet and apple-green door didn’t seem the faintest bit unusual: I was beholding reality. I was transported.

Screens are everywhere now. One reach into our pocket and we can be transported to another place, have all our aspirations switch in a heartbeat from mortgages and lovers into dramatic battles and escalating points. Perhaps a child today will experience from Angry Birds or Minecraft the same shock and wonder I did when I was first shown that comfortable tunnel like hall, but more likely they will already have some concept of screen-as-portal even before then. I look at my phone too often in my one-year-old daughter’s presence – she has no words, but she knows full well I’m going somewhere else whenever I fix my eyes to it. I hope her first game will startle her like The Hobbit did me. I hope it will suddenly fling open the doors of possibility and imagination for her. I hope she isn’t already taking that for granted.

Next: Repton 3

19 Comments

  1. Lexx87 says:

    My first real gaming memory comes from my mum playing Tetris on the Gameboy.

    I think it was the first time she managed a high enough score to get the rocket to fly up the screen. I must have only been 3 or 4 at the time, but I remember that moment clearly. The chair she was sitting on, the look on her face, watching her place those blocks down over and over.

    It’s that rocket that will stay imprinted on me forever though. Not knowing what it meant, but knowing it meant something good and something I wanted experience for myself. I’m still chasing that rocket I think, in all the games I play.

  2. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    If you go to the Internet Archive, they now have in-browser emulation working for a lot of old software, so all you have to do is go here, and click Run on the right hand side to load up a ZX spectrum in your browser and play the original version of The Hobbit.
    I think you can even embed it in a page if you like.

    (press space to start the game, although I’ve not got any further than that, but man, check out that screen fill! The magenta carpet takes about 5s to flood fill around the chest)

  3. RedViv says:

    The cover I grew up with (this) possibly makes it easier to cope with how odd the films turned out. Then again, I also grew up within an hour of scenery like this, so that might have something to do with my not minding sprawling fantasies.

  4. Oakreef says:

    The Spectrum was before my time (though some fancy has been dancing in my head recently to buy one). My first gaming memories are vague and malformed. Games booting on DOS that I can only recall vague shapes of. Looking back I think it might have been a pack of games? Perhaps educational ones? I may be simply conflating memories. One stocks out in my mind though. Transporting precious cargo back and forth through a single screen. A representation of a forest perhaps? Three things had to be taken across. Now I realise it was the first time I encountered the standard grain, chicken, fox puzzle or whatever the standard name for it is. I’d encounter it again many times. Most memorably in Soleil for the Mega Drive where one of the objects of the puzzle (a caterpillar who may act as lunch for a chicken in this case) actually joins your party after you solve it. Most recently in Puzzle Agent which throws in a silly joke into the framing. A joke that I probably should have found less funny than I did. I have an odd fondness for that simple puzzle.

  5. steves says:

    Repton! Talk about games that made me…on an Acorn Electron to boot. I even vaguely remember trying to make levels for the third one.

    That game was truly brutal, get right on writing about it, please.

  6. Wret says:

    …vaguely remembering a childhood conversation with the Butler-bot in Starship Titanic. Trying to convince him he was a loved and precious life. I think I was preaching out of that mini-“children’s” bible my grandmother probably gave me (blood coming from the ground, totally child-safe and not reminiscent of DOOM at all). In the end I think he gave in to desperation “Oh well I suppose you’re right”. These days I’d probably just hold him over The Well railings until fear instilled a love of life into him.

    I don’t think I’ve played a game with an open speech parser like that since Double Fine’s/Pendleton Ward’s Amensia Fortnight prototype, Little Pink Best Buds.

  7. JayG says:

    I loved the Hobbit. Along with Lord’s of Midnight, Dragontorc of Avalon and Chaos probably the games that started me on the gaming path I’m on today.

    • LexxieJ says:

      Ohh, Dragontorc! LOVED that game- Steve Turner had a lot to answer for in me not revising for my exams!

      Lords of Midnight too- absolute classic, and really enjoying playing it again recently on iOS. Such a shame about Mike Singleton passing away so early.

  8. heretic says:

    The first games I remember must be on the Atari PC! Playing with my dad and brother :D Gauntlet / Gato etc.

  9. Mercurial says:

    Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold….

    The Hobbit was also one my first gaming experiences, it along with ZX Flight Simulator were the first 2 games (along with Thru’ the wall) which I had for my rubber key Spectrum (Christmas day 1983 iirc).

    Setup in the top drawer in a chest of drawers(!) of which my Dad had channelled out grooves for the wires with the families old 1960s black and white TV resting on top of it in my bedroom. For a special treat I was sometimes allowed to move it into the lounge (and use the awesome colour PYE TV there).

    I lavished so much attention on that game determined to beat with the singlemindedness only a 13 year old could (I did the same later with Elite, which contributed to my poor O levels ;) ).

    Good times from hazy memory. I still remember making a map for the Goblin dungeons and the frustation of that damn butler and the barrel….

    I have my own children now and hopefully they will have the same sense of wonder and awe for something in their early lives, no matter what it is.

    • Premium User Badge

      Mungrul says:

      AAAGGGHHH, bloody Thorin and his bloody gold.
      I think The Hobbit was my second Speccy game; the first was an Imagine game called Zip Zap. I’ve just gone and watched a YouTube video of Zip Zap to refresh my memory, and was delighted by the imagination on display and the innocent abuse of copyright.
      The game shamelessly plays the Star Wars theme on the start screen, and when you get into the game itself, the programmer has done an incredibly good job of creating an almost 3D effect on the main sprite.
      I seem to remember a lot of the game’s concepts being hard to grasp for me back then, but within seconds of watching it now, I’d pegged exactly what needed to be done.

  10. drewdupe says:

    My first significant gaming memory is definitely of my dad playing through The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy on the NES. I have fond memories of just crawling up into his lap and watching him play through parts of it night after night, putting pieces together one at a time, until he finally could complete the whole game.

  11. Unknown says:

    I think my first games were the educational Math Rescue and Word Rescue by Apogee, which had awesome music, and Playroom and Treehouse by Broderbund, which were mostly just minigames.

    I think the first non-educational game I played, or at least the first one I loved, was Commander Keen. I must have had an Apogee collection disk.

  12. LexxieJ says:

    The very first game I saw and played was a Pong variant on a Grandstand TV game thingy. I was just transfixed and knew I HAD to play it, and I had to have one for myself. Bought it myself after making a deal with Mum & Dad where they’d pay me each time I did chores over and above my usual quota. The dishes had never been so clean!

    Good times.

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    cairbre says:

    C64 was my first computer and I used to love Last Ninja. Leaving my computer on for days because you couldn’t save. The first game I ever played was on an Atari console that had planes fighting each other in local multiplayer. It blew my mind and my long campaign for a computer for ‘educational reasons’ began.

  14. jonfitt says:

    I’m sure I played games at the arcade, or on a cousin’s computer first, but the first games I remember playing were on the compilation disk that came with the Spectrum +3. The one I remember most distinctly was Gift From the Gods. It was a flip screen maze game which provided no explanation and was extremely punishing. I mostly died from a deadly pile of skulls that we called the “big pile of poo!” because it sort of looked like one.
    link to worldofspectrum.org

  15. buttersoccer says:

    Boom.

  16. sonofsanta says:

    First game… there were so many possibilities and promises inherent in those first splashes of colour. Mine was Captain Planet on the Amiga 500 I got for Christmas ’90 (or ’91?); the first two levels (that you could play out of order) were Fire, where you had to rescue the dolphins swimming above the ozone layer that was being eroded away, and the Water level, with the astonishingly cool power to create little ice platforms from your ring.

    Dolphins above the ozone layer is so crazy it is either (a) an invented fabrication of my mind recalling recollections or (b) a fairly run-of-the-mill Amiga game, which were all mad.

    Within a day of getting that Amiga my Dad caved in and showed me how to turn it on myself, as he was so sick of getting up from his chair to do it for me (there had, I think, been some plan to limit my time by using my ignorance); within a week I had hidden the Lemmings floppy disk behind the bookcase so Dad couldn’t play it and take away from my time on the Amiga. I still regret that childish act of malice and misdirection now; perhaps, had Dad been able to play it more, he’d be more into games now, and we’d have more to talk about.

    I can’t wait for the day when my sons will be content to sit on my lap and watch me play, so I can show them all the worlds out there (although my eldest already sits and vrooms at the PC if I’m sat down, from the brief period of time earlier this year when I was playing GRID).