Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at 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.
It was second-hand or not at all in my household – a mindset that meant we lived in a significantly bigger house than we perhaps should have done, but were dressed in jumble sale clothes. As my school contemporaries slowly adopted their first Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Sega Master Systems, we welcomed an old BBC Micro into a corner of the dining room. My father had bought it from a work colleague, and his plan was very much that it be a work device. I was two for two on gaming devices which bore a keyboard, and my course was forever set.
I look at the specifications of the BBC Micro now, and it seems it was not far away from those toys I so yearned for, and in some respects superior. Something which remains the case for today’s PCs and consoles perhaps, but back then it seemed so intractably second class. Already well on the way to social ostracisation – those jumble sale clothes, and a pathetic, hair-trigger temper inherited from or inspired by my oft-warring parents – I could impress no-one, and I could only listen to amazed and amazing tales of Mario, Sonic and Zelda. The BBC Micro was a system for the school computer room, a symbol of oppression, not a vessel with which a near-teenage boy could explore new electronic frontiers. The BBC Micro made me feel so much more alone.
And yet it was such a faithful friend. Its disk drive freeing it from the dread unreliability and glacial wait times of the Spectrum’s error-plagued cassette storage, and I was now old enough to be left to use the machine by myself. It was less age, perhaps, and more that it was by now evident how much I respected the computer, the screen – I would not harm it, pull it apart or slam at it in fury, because I knew what it could bring me.
I played so many games on the BBC Micro, but I don’t know where any of them came from. I remember Elite, of course, and I remember creating basic things in BASIC, but mostly I remember Repton.
THE LIFE OF REPTON
1987, BBC MICRO
DEVELOPED BY TIM TYLER/MATTHEW ATKINSON, PUBLISHED BY SUPERIOR SOFTWARE
Maze-game starring a diamond-collecting, rockfall-evading lizard-man,but with a far more precise puzzle structure than Boulder Dash, to which it is often compared. The original 1985 Repton spawned a number of sequels and expansions, including Repton 3 add-on The Life of Repton, which variously depicted the titular character as a baby, adult and old man.
There was always something faintly tragic about Repton, and as I was just beginning to feel the first flushes of loneliness and self-consciousness I inevitably empathised with him. I didn’t sense the metaphor then, but it’s impossible to not now see the game of life in the ultimately pointless journey of an entity who trudged endlessly through claustrophobic tunnels, in search of money which seemed to achieve nothing but allow him to continue doing just that. Repton didn’t seem to have anything other than these hollow goals – no friends, no love, no higher purpose. He seemed not on a quest, but trapped in some bleak purgatory. I wanted to help him, but my attempts saw him crushed by rocks or devoured by monsters or simply unable to reach escape so many times that a sense of guilt grew in me – I was making this lost soul’s miserable existence even worse.
The Life of Repton hammered this second-hand misery home. Life? No, this was Repton’s death sentence – consigned to these mazes from infancy to hunched, exhausted geriatric . I felt deeply complicit in his suffering, forcing this cane-dependent old man to hunt diamonds and dig through earth, even wander through mazes made of graves so he could be under no illusions about his grim fate. Repton would surely go to his grave without ever having seen daylight.
I played on hoping I could save him. I played on because I cared about a game character as something more than a means to score points or get my initials on a high score table.