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.
My early gaming life seemed to involve pinballing between the same two systems, always a country mile behind whatever the console kids were up to. At home, the Spectrum was replaced by the BBC Micro. At school, a new computer room arrived, filled with BBC Micros, instantly rendering my home gaming machine even more uncool than it already was. So, as I've documented in the last two chapters, the somehow edgier Spectrum became god again. Then there was another reverse shift. The BBC Micro, be it at home or at school, wasn't just a device with which to play games – it was a device with which to create them too.
I realise now that this was a critical juncture in my life, a road not taken that, quite frankly, I dearly wish I had.
1981, BBC MICRO
Simple programming language for (and shipped with) BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers, later ported to many other platforms.
Memory fails me too much on this point. Life had begun to turn sour both at home and at school, and details of what I programmed have been subsumed by nebulous recollections of bad feelings. I remember, of course:
10 PRINT "Hello world!"
20 GOTO 10
I remember the wonder of that, that I had turned a computer to my will. No, that’s not right – there was a certain mystique to it, due to that de facto choice of words – ‘hello world’. I remember thinking that I had given the computer a voice, as though I had sparked life into it. This didn't last long, as naturally I decided it must have my voice. So I also remember twisting that magical code into 10 print FUCK OFF 20 goto 10 and whatever code made it all purple. It wasn’t magical any more. It was dirty. It was a mouthpiece for my cheekiness and dissatisfaction. Intoxicating.
BASIC wasn't purely a tool for unpleasantness. I remember something that made the words multi-coloured, I remember perhaps creating bubbles? I remember copying code from magazines, painstakingly, with a patience and diligence I could never have today. I remember this creating basic games – one was a text adventure, one might have been a maze. I remember typing out something that caused a monochrome, ASCII-like approximation of the face of Hot Lips Houhlihan from M.A.S.H. to appear on the screen. I remember someone having to then explain to me who Hot Lips Houlihan was, and that I didn't really care. I cared that I'd created a face.
I remember the fish game. The fish game whose name I cannot recall. The fish game that Google has not been able to identify for me.
The fish game that three years ago I misremembered as being a DOS game. Silly me – of course it was written in BASIC. That’s why I was able to quickly and easily edit its introductory screen so that it declared I was its author, and thus enjoyed one rare day of basking in the awe of my usually sneering classmates.
As far as I can now establish, this was not a game of any repute, for it was simple by the BBC Micro’s standards (this was a computer that could bear the likes of Elite, after all). It was probably just a throwaway program on a demo disk. Hell, it was probably something someone else had copied from a magazine. I can’t even remember where I’d got it from – possibly it was on one of the job lot of disks full of pirated games and programs that my father sporadically brought home from work.
I remember fish fell from the sky, infinitely. Why? Had there been some terrible tornado which had emptied the oceans? Were they fish-angels cast out and plummeting to fish-hell? I may well never know, and that pleases me. I want this game to remain intangible, even mythical. I remember you moved a basket back and forth along the bottom of the screen, trying to catch every last one of the doomed creatures. Miss one and it was game over. Catch enough and you’d appear on the high score board.
It wasn’t a great game. It was intractably boring to play solo. But it was competition when played in the classroom, and for a day it was the only thing any of us cared about. And it was my game, or so they all believed.
Critical junctures. Roads not taken.
Maybe, if I hadn’t been caught in my stupid lie, I’d have gone on to become a programmer, and by now I'd have a vast list of games to my name, rather than just one which I'd lied about. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the aptitude or patience – I know myself well enough by now to suspect that would have been the outcome. But maybe I would have at least tried to do more, because there would have been expectation and I would have felt I had to live up to it, that I had a chance to be something more, to my peers, than an awkward spod with a pathetically short fuse.
The next day, someone came in with a Spectrum tape (it may have been Commodore 64, now that I think of it, but it was definitely a tape). We didn't have anything to load the tape in, but the inlay bore a list of several games, each with a tiny monochrome screenshot and, damningly, the name of its author.
I don’t remember the game’s name. I don’t remember the author’s name. What I do remember is that the cassette inlay might has well have borne the words ‘MEER IS A LIAR’ in letters as tall as the sky.
Critical junctures. Roads not taken. No more programming.
Addendum: subsequent to my writing this piece, a Twitterer was able to identify the game from my loose description. It is, it appears, a simplified clone of Atari's Kaboom!, but replacing the game's falling bombs and bucket of water in which to catch them with sky-fish and a basket, and removing the Mad Bomber 'enemy' entirely. So, after all this time, it turns out that I ripped off a rip-off. Perfect.
What this means is that I now know who I stole from (indirectly, at least), who deserves the credit for that one day of classroom glory. Larry Kaplan, creator of Atari's Kaboom!, I salute you, and I apologise to you. May whoever changed your bombs to fish one day do the same.
There'll be a new chapter of Raised By Screens every Thursday at 1.30pm UK time, until it reaches its end.