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The RPG Scrollbars: Usborne Origins

Usborne, Yesterday

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Earlier this month, Usborne re-released something very special – its iconic 80s books on game programming. Talk about nostalgia in PDF format. I remember these so well, particularly the two that my junior school had back in the day – Write Your Own Fantasy Games and Write Your Own Adventure Programs. They’re a genuine slice of UK game development history, not so much because of the very simple games that they contained, but the basic message that it was even possible to write your own.

Well. The BASIC message, at least. These were more primitive times.

I don’t have much fondness for the 1980s, if you ignore a few specific memories like racing back from swimming practice to watch Mysterious Cities Of Gold and the realisation that my first year teacher at junior school was probably going to die quite soon. Computing is one of the exceptions. It wasn’t just the BBC Micros of my schools and the Amstrad 1512 we had at home, 8086 powerhouse that it was, but the excitement of being on a whole new frontier that was changing the world right before my eyes. When I got my first, by which I mean, when my family got its first, since these were expensive things back then, Bill Gates’ dream of a PC on every desktop still seemed ridiculous. Never mind one in every pocket. They were magical devices, and I mean magical in pretty much the Arthur C. Clarke way – something as simple as Granny’s Garden or Flowers of Crystal being nothing less than windows into amazing new worlds. Now, it’s hard to see it. Easy to make sarcastic videos. But still. I can’t look at The Witch without feeling at least a little childhood trauma. Argh, her laugh!

For me, Usborne’s books bridged the gap like nothing else. They wouldn’t teach you how to make the next King’s Quest, or even anything particularly playable or fun beyond a stolen ‘I (sort-of) made this’ satisfaction, but they did demystify the big jumps in incredibly clever ways. Explaining that a dungeon design was done with an array for instance, not just by explaining it, but by showing imps filling up that array and talking you through the process from basic design to final game. Even those games were good enough to be worth making. Sure, Write Your Own Fantasy Games especially offers up the most generic schlock (“Here you find the once-fair Castle of Crekkan lying in ruins, devastated by the evil sorcerer Klimm…”), but it’s not as though most actual games of the time boasted better stories. Hell, some modern ones aren’t much beyond it.

Besides, it was all wrapped in more inspirational pictures that proclaimed that you, yes, you could soon be creating tales of epic heroism where Barbarian would clash with orc and Thief snatch gold from the dragon’s very clutches. The book was as much about encouraging you to create your own tales and better ideas as simply retyping the provided code. Moreso, really, because there were few things more tedious than spending all night painstakingly transcribing half a book. Far more fun to play the designer, and imagine that the future might actually hold a job where you could simply say “We should make a game where you’re a cool dragon that eats people,” and be told “Brilliant! Have a million pounds and a whole box of Quality Street just for yourself!”

(Incidentally, for young-uns, it’s probably worth mentioning here that a number of magazines at this sort of time would ‘give away’ games in the form of pages and pages of code that you were expected to type into your computer, despite knowing that the inevitable result was going to be a typo on line 43 that broke the entire thing, or if you were super unlucky, the game actually working. Better to imagine the wonder it could have been than the barrel-scraping Galaga clone or whatever that you’d just spent an evening failing to bring to life, like Dr. Frankenstein staring at a cloudless sky.)

Adventure Games went even further, breaking down basic puzzles and going step-by-step through the design of its simple haunted house game and encouraging the reader to think of other puzzles and solutions that could be made. “Here are some situations players might find themselves in during an adventure,” it offered. “You are trapped in a room about three meters square. There are no doors. There is a thick carpet.” Suggested solution – Lift the carpet and find a trap door! Hmm. Okay. A little prosaic. “You are standing on the battlements of a castle. Beneath you is a horde of angry slaves. You have a parchment scroll in your hand.” Which, apparently, and not a little conveniently turns out to be a proclamation to free all of the slaves.

Hurm. Did Roberta Williams have a copy of this book by any chance? Let’s see:

“You have been invited to dinner by the evil arch-villain. He has taken away all your weapons. As dessert is served, he shows you the remote control for his world decimator weapon.” Solution: “Throw the desert (which happens to be custard pie) in the arch-villain’s face. Grab the remote control and escape.”

You know, this would explain quite a lot.

But I don’t want to pick holes at the examples, especially given the general standard in adventures at the time. As with Fantasy Games, it wasn’t a question of what the book gave you, but what it enabled you to do for yourself. In particular, while neither would particularly prepare the average reader to know about, say, sprite sheets or how to go about making an action game, they were great at letting you look at other games and start to go “Ooooooh. So THAT’S why it’s a grid. So THAT’S how that’s animated. So THAT’S how-” I appreciate that by modern standards that might sound pretty shallow, but again, this was an era of magic as much as technology. I remember one of the UK magazine shows, Motormouth, I think, trying to show people how racing games were made by putting an arrow on a 3D animated road and explaining, more or less, “Then we replace the arrow with a car.” Technically true, but not exactly a mastercourse.

We also have to remember how primitive the machines were. The Adventures book on Haunted House for example warns that the program itself takes a whopping 7K of RAM before running, and will need a whole 3.5-4K more to actually run. This unfortunately did also have a knock-on effect on how much commenting and niceties the code could have, which is basically none, though the books did their best to explain things instead of just purely spooling out code. These were games aimed to run on the Vic-20, the 48K Spectrum and the BBC Micro. It’s not hugely surprising that they were simple.

But they worked! They got results! While I can’t say my dabbling ever resulted in anything like an Ultima – take a shot – or even a particularly good game back in the day, they directly led to being able to create the true masterpiece that was The Celestial Toymaker, an astoundingly surreal BASIC adventure based on our class’ even more surreal weekly improvised drama project. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, except it being a Victorian set murder mystery that went off the rails almost immediately, with the game version (written with the help of a friend or two) becoming little more than a rolling ball of confusion and random theft. There was a town called Woodtick for instance, because we’d just played Monkey Island 2. At one point I remember you went up to a factory and then the floor fell away and suddenly you were in the blatantly stolen “Downhill Racer” game from Practical Things To Do With A Microcomputer, only different, because now you were falling down a hole instead of skiing, obviously.

Look, I’m not saying it’s the greatest adventure ever made. In my defense, I’d say that it was at least professional… in that the only possible way to finish the thing was to use the hint-book, which I tried to sell for £1. In retrospect, I’m amazed I wasn’t head-hunted by Sierra On-Line right there and then, though I would probably have had to have finished designing the new Space Quest or whatever in time for PE. Sigh.

In short, these books have a very warm place in my heart, dated and clunky as they obviously are, for the same reasons that I think a lot of the early RPG systems are to others – that spark that tells you that you can create stories, that the people who made the games and stories that entertained you likely went through the design process instead of just waving a magic wand, and that the barrier to entry doesn’t have to be a mile high. You don’t need to write Lord of the Rings today. You can just have a dungeon, a dragon, and some friends by your side as you conquer them. You don’t need to create Monkey Island to have something that you’re proud of, at least in the moment. You don’t have to be a programming savant to make something great, as platforms like GameMaker have been reminding us over the last few years.

These books never lied. The road was hard, especially in an era where the internet was a literal pipe-dream. Their promise was a starting point, not a destination. Still, they set so many people on their paths, at least in the UK, that they deserve to be remembered and given proper due. It’s great that they’re still around, for the nostalgia, if not anything that any kid should try and learn from any more. Especially those puzzles. Brr.

Read and download the whole set here.

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Richard Cobbett

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