This week saw the return of one my all-time favourite TV programmes, Channel 4’s The Crystal Maze – the knockabout silliness of a team, thankfully not usually including Louie Spence, bopping around four time-zones (Industrial, Aztec, Medieval and Futuristic) in a quest to recover magic time crystals, win distinctly underwhelming prizes, and ideally not look like a complete arse. It’s a wonderful show. But, sadly, not one I can really justify talking about while pretending to write an RPG column. Luckily, it is but part of a great lineage – the wonderful world of British TV LARPing.
Just not the kind where you’re going to see many lightning bolt, lightning bolts.
I’m obviously not talking about LARPing in the traditional sense here, but those shows that set out to make a game out of fantasy. That’s not simply having some fantastical element to it, like, say, Incredible Games being hosted by a talking lift or Trapped having the gimmick of contestants just being shouted at occasionally. I’m thinking the shows that really encouraged the players to embrace the fantasy element of it all.
Likewise, I don’t think something like Time Commanders really fits, despite the premise being to step into the boots of great leaders, because the show is far too openly a studio set and competing teams openly playing Whatever: Total War. Good show, but I’m thinking of slightly different ones. Elsewhere, stuff like Interceptor, while as awesome as a game of Hide and Seek starring a villain who doesn’t know if he’d rather be a Bond villain or a bird can be, just doesn’t have enough of a fantasy element to it. Hell, asked what the contestants would do with the money, they immediately answer that they’d quite like to buy a new sofa. (“We desperately need one…”)
Oh, and Scavengers, from that video? It… uh, speaks for itself.
Before we begin, a note for anyone who’s about to say – for example – “Where’s Legends of the Hidden Temple?” or some other show that I’ve never seen or heard of. Chances are that it didn’t come over here, or it’s after my time. I grew up in England during the 80s and 90s, which means I only have the dimmest of ideas who Mr Rogers is, and no clue about Olmec and pals save that I’ve occasionally seen mention of them online. I don’t mean any value judgement by this, just that they’re not part of my childhood. Likewise, there’ll be shows from after my time that I’m sure are worthy of a quick mention. I’ve never seen a single episode of Raven for instance.
Luckily, British TV alone is already full of wonderful craziness where fiction and reality met, and usually left the reality part of it – celebrity or civilian – looking hilariously awkward. The BBC, for instance, had the glorious magazine program Parallel 9, in which elderly prince/Earthwoman kidnapper Mercator held court in an interdimensional prison colony, complete with fellow convicts (one of whom spent the entire series holding onto a primed hand-grenade he’d managed to slip before his trial, but not managed to actually use before sentencing). Not one word made up.
Then there was ITV with the likes of Ghost Train, in which a young woman inherits, well, a ghost train, and travels the country being pursued by a villain called Barry Mafia. The most memorable thing about it was probably the recurring game Skull, which started out with this incredible creepiness and ended with a grown man trying to smack a kid really hard with a furry club. You know, in retrospect, the 90s were a weird time…
The Crystal Maze comes somewhere half-way into the lineage and yes, I admit, it’s a questionable inclusion. It’s not part of it because of a story, really, but by how much it committed to one of the best sets ever put together for a show – the size of two football pitches, with an incredible sense of place and interconnectivity, and the tongue-in-cheek mythology created over the series by host Richard O’Brien to fill time while players comprehensively failed at solving sliding block puzzles and fell into water traps. It’s simple stuff, like the old gypsy fortune teller really being his mum, the Medieval Zone being his own castle, and having a flirty relationship with the computer in the Futuristic world, but it created the illusion of the Maze as a living, breathing place.
(The UK version of show that due to licensing weirdness it was simultaneously based on and later replaced by, Fort Boyard, would crank up the fiction with characters like Boyard the fort master and a professor locked in a watch tower. Where The Crystal Maze was a nice, friendly show where the worst that ever happened was someone taking a tumble, Fort Boyard was all about games like picking up scorpions and giant spiders, along with things like getting female contestants to mud wrestle or crawl over pipes in skimpy tops with the camera placed exactly where you’d expect.)
Luckily, the other major players are far easier to slip into the box. By far the most famous is Knightmare, a chromakey pioneer in many ways, in which one player acting as dungeoneer with a big helmet on his or her head would be guided around by a team of three advisors. I won’t talk about it too much here because I already wrote this last year. Suffice it to say that Knightmare was my absolute favourite show as a kid, the Wall Monsters terrified me with their bellows of “FALSEHOOD!” and probably my biggest fear during all that Operation Yewtree stuff was the idea we might find out that beloved Treguard had another, ‘different’ dungeon we weren’t meant to know about.
Almost completely forgotten though is another show from the same creators called Timebusters, which took the same concept outside. I’ve never found any clips of this one online and I’m working on 25 year old memories, so forgive me if I get the details wrong here. Still, as I remember, each week a couple of kids would be taken back in time on a bus by a mad professor type with the goal of stopping an evil villain… Dr Paradox, I think… from doing something very evil. It would usually be something like a Beamish type setting, where they’d run around, encounter actors charged with advancing the story and giving them simple challenges, and once a week, get locked in a room for a while. Once they’d foiled the villain they then had to get back to the bus before it left without them, and then for a prize they were given an avacado in the shape of their face or something. I forget and honestly it doesn’t matter much.
Sadly, Broadsword was never able to make lightning strike twice. Timebusters ran for a couple of years but was forgotten almost at once. Other attempts tried to harness the awesome power of early 90s and 00s virtual reality, and that… went as well as could be expected. Knightmare VR had exactly none of the charm of live-action. Then there was the adult version, Timegate, seen above, complete with CG boobs, in which Trip from Enslaved helps guide a CG guy around a Cryo adventure from what looks a bit like an SF version of the Treasure Hunt set if they forgot to pay the electricity bill.
All of these shows however paled before the failure of Craig Charles vehicle Cyberzone, which desperately wanted to be cool and cyberpunk, but then revealed that its actual game was a slow-paced, full-brightness version of The Crystal Maze where the games were digital versions of things like duck shooting galleries set in locations like – I am not kidding – CyberSwindon. Here’s a test to see if your virtual world is badass. Is it CyberSwindon? Then it is not badass, especially if you put duck shooting games in it.
Despite the awe inspiring power of the 486s used to power the show’s virtual world, it really didn’t last long. The production team later commented that they were quite proud of the show they’d put together, even though the game itself was clearly guff.
Before all of these though there was The Adventure Game, broadcast between 1980 and 1986. That might sound like a long time, but this being Britain, it’s only 22 episodes and some of them are completely lost thanks to the BBC’s habit of erasing tapes to save on resources and annoy Doctor Who fans. Some episodes were put up on sale on the BBC Store last year. Earlier this month, a complete DVD set was released containing all of the surviving episodes, and a warning that the quality of the footage should be taken… sympathetically. When you get to the episode that’s literally taken from someone’s tape of the show, and hisses more than the snake pit from Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s a surprise that warning doesn’t constantly flash on the screen.
The Adventure Game is honestly a bit before my time, so prior to the DVD coming out, I was only dimly aware of it from a few clips here and there, and the occasional half-remembered bit of nostalgia or Level 6 pop-culture reference. I’m fairly sure for instance that this room in The Feeble Files is based on the first series’ opening game, in which contestants have to cross a colour and shape coded floor…
The premise of the show changed a bit each season, but the basic gist is that the mostly celebrity contestants, ranging from luminaries like Graeme Garden and Paul Darrow and Chock-a-Bloke Fred Harris to, uh, Keith Chegwin for some reason, were really time-travellers or space explorers visiting the planet Arg – a world inhabited by mischevious shape-changing dragons whose names were all anagrams of the word ‘dragon’. Newsreader Moira Stewart for instance was Darong, while Gnoard was the helpful young lady tasked with putting the contestants on the right path, and the Rangdo was the leader of the planet, who was initially played by Just A Minute creator Ian Messiter, before being replaced by a sentient aspidistra.
Confused yet? Just getting started. But yes, the show was inspired by creator Patrick Dowling’s interest in two specific things – Dungeons and Dragons, and Douglas Adams, who turned down the chance to write for the show due to being busy with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Guernsey or something. Despite this, the show often struggled to commit fully to its concept. Series 2 episodes for instance started with Dowling himself introducing the show as if someone high up in the BBC had expressed concern that people might think it was actually real, and the license fee itself depended on the world not thinking they were genuinely shooting Keith Chegwin into space.
The actual show was about half The Crystal Maze style logic puzzles and half what we now call ‘escape the room’ puzzles. In series 1, the concept was that the mischevious dragons had stolen the time-travel crystal used by the contestants to get to Arg, and they were playing to try and retrieve it. Those crystals looked pretty much exactly the same as the Swarovski crystals of The Crystal Maze, though the puzzles…
Like I said, I don’t have nostalgia for this show at all. The DVD set is the first time I’ve seen a full episode. With that in mind, dear sweet SHODAN, was this show ambitious. And often fairly dull, honestly, unless watching three people slowly walk across a floor pattern and try and figure out a sequence is your definition of a gripping time. After that though, they’d face something more interesting, including literally sitting down at a computer to play a simple adventure game. Hey, it was 1980. This would have been awesome at the time, I’m sure, when just seeing a computer was cool.
The best bit looking back though is that while the game is a very simple maze affair, everyone is completely blown away by the technology. Told for instance ‘There is a small scarlet fish on the floor’, as in ‘do you want to pick up the red herring?’, one contestant starts physically looking around the set. Then midway through, having travelled to several rooms and solved simple puzzles, she happily declares “This is a pretend journey! I’ve just realised!” Uh… Yes. Top marks.
What awaits after that scene though is… stunning. The Adventure Game was aimed at kids, hence all the dragon stuff, and so rather than just letting the contestants into the room escape portion of the game, you see the dragons giggling as they set everything up and explain to each other how it works and what their role is. Part of the challenge, for instance, is to dial a number on a phone, so they specifically point out where that clue is. Easy enough. There’s a picture of a plane on the wall with a number, and a jigsaw with a picture of a plane on it that looks like it came straight from The Early Learning Centre’s “Toys For Particularly Slow Celebrities” section. Fairly standard stuff.
(Indeed, the aforementioned Ghost Train had something similar in the form of a game called The Haunted Dungeon, in which a contestant would slide into a small room, solve puzzles that often but not always included one of those robots that seemed so awesome in the 90s, and get a bucket of gunge if the clock ran out.)
The puzzles here though are on a whole other level. Without any assistance, the team is meant to take, say, a screw and some wire and figure out, oh, we can make an electromagnet out of this! But there’s no battery, so first they have to convert a bicycle to produce the power. But the bicycle is chained shut with a padlock key, and the only clue to the combination is on a record on a record player which doesn’t work, because they’re meant to take a piece of paper and fold it into a cone and stick a pin through it in order to create a pick-up device that plays the 1812 Overture that gives them the combination to free the bike so they can convert it from AC to direct current to create the electromagnet to pick up the key to open the door and- gaaah!
I’m out of breath just typing that. And all of this is presented by the show as just being incredibly logical and obvious, in a way that’s only slightly undercut by the fact that the action is repeatedly interrupted by EXTREMELY OBVIOUS EDITS as the team goes from clueless to being in the middle of a solution. By the end, they pretty much just give up, resorting to one of the dragons literally walking in to solve her own puzzle.
Each series mixed things up a bit. Series 2 for instance went for one big puzzle instead of a couple of smaller ones, and added a mole in the form of Blue Peter presenter Leslie Judd, whose job was to sabotage the team and slow them down. It also introduced the ludicrous Arg currency system based on shapes and colour, where contestants were expected to work out that value was based on multiplaying the number of sides by its position in the rainbow, and a game called The Vortex, which has to be a contender for the single most unfair game ever put to screen.
This quickly became The Adventure Game’s most iconic puzzle, but still… goddamn. The gist was that players had to cross a hex field without walking into a special effect alien effect, or else be ‘evaporated’ (teleported, oddly, not actually killed, to either walk home through space or try to get a bus back). The catch was that they couldn’t actually see the alien effect, making each turn basically a one-in-three chance of survival.
The last series would even the odds a little bit, but still. It’s supposedly based on Nine Men’s Morris, but that’s giving it a bit too much credit. On the other hand, a decade or so later a similar idea would show up in Incredible Games’s The Dark Knight puzzle. This would be a lot fairer as the Knight had to pick between targets, the grid was larger, and the contestants were actually allowed to see him.
By the fourth series, things had gotten… really strange. The leader of Arg was now a sentient teapot that spat smoke when cross and/or not bowed to, complete with shout of “Gronda! Gronda!”, the old text adventure was now a 3D maze voiced by a BBC Micro with a Scouse accent, and the floor-puzzle game, now called ‘the drogna game’ had even spawned a spin-off for very bored kids with their own BBC Micros.
While it’s not aged half as well as something like The Crystal Maze, there’s no denying that The Adventure Game was both very influential in the games that followed, and is still captivating for both the right and wrong reasons. Directly or not, it paved the way for a whole generation to take the idea of solving alien puzzles and questing for magic time crystals seriously, and the continuation of those days with the likes of Knightmare Live is awesome to see. That said, I still maintain that the best solution for any ‘escape the room’ game is to yell ‘FIRE! FIIIIIIIIIIRE!’ until they open the door for you.
What? It’s not cheating – it’s just thinking outside the box.