Ian Greener recalls the vibrant early hobbyist IF scene in the UK, briefly discussing The Hobbit, The Philosopher’s Quest, and interactive fiction creation tool The Quill, before turning to a long discussion of the 1984 game Hampstead.
In many accounts of the development of IF, the 1980s were the era of Infocom. However, from the perspective of the UK, there is a different story to tell, one about technology and a very different social context.
The following is necessarily a partial account of IF in the UK in the early 1980s. After giving some context, it is focussed on a best-selling, but perhaps less-remembered game, Hampstead. I chose this game as it illustrates a number of points that I want to explore about the UK scene. I argue that Hampstead is not only an important game in its own right, but also because of the way it was made and what it tells us about the UK in the early 1980s. As such, it represents a fascinating case-study that tells a very different story compared to the way we often narrate the early development of IF on personal computers.
Prelude – UK IF in the early 1980s
The home computer scenes in the early 1980s in the UK and the US had a great deal in common, but there were also important differences. Without going down the road of technological determinism, those differences affected the production and reception of IF in each country.
In the UK it is impossible to overlook the importance of Sinclair, which made cheap but much-loved machines that were the introduction to computing for millions of homes. The ZX80 (1980), ZX81 (1981) and Spectrum (1982) had terrible keyboards, but made home computers affordable enough that children could persuade their parents they needed them for “homework.” Alongside Sinclair we also had Acorn, which made the BBC Micro. It had a better keyboard and was found in most schools, but was more expensive and so less present in homes. These machines weren’t really part of the scene in the US, and the Spectrum never got a disk drive. Neither the Spectrum nor the BBC Micro ever received official versions of the Infocom games.
Of course, not everyone bought British-made machines. Britain began its love affair with Commodore in a limited way with the VIC-20 and more expansively with the Commodore 64, especially after its aggressive price drops. Like the BBC Micro it had a decent keyboard, but was eventually far cheaper. While it did open the gateway to US-made games that often didn’t get great conversions for Spectrums or other UK-made machines, only a tiny number of UK Commodore 64 owners ever bought a disk drive. This meant that although we saw Infocom games being reviewed in magazines with text adventure sections such as ZZAP64! and Computer and Video Games, they seemed exotic and unaffordable. You simply didn’t see machines such as the Apple II unless you had a very rich friend.
So the UK was on a different trajectory to the US at the beginning of the 1980s. Our games came on cassette tapes which had to be loaded into memory all at once, or in parts (which were often gated with passwords). Infocom games were not the reference point – we didn’t have the kit to play them, and they were hardly ever seen outside of specialist shops.
The Hobbit – 1982
Any account of the development of IF in the UK probably has to include The Hobbit, even though it was an Australian-developed game. The Hobbit had a version on just about every type of personal computer, with some ports better than others. It was an incredible achievement for a game that was made so early, and which came on cassette. It’s hard to capture the excitement this game brought. It had pictures! It had a parser that accepted more than two-word phrases! It had NPCs that wandered off and did their own thing – and with whom you had to interact to solve some of the problems! It came with a copy of the book (at least at first)! If you wandered into a high street computer store in the early 1980s, The Hobbit was probably playing on a computer somewhere. Text adventures were mainstream and exciting. Heady days.
The Philosopher’s Quest, Peter Kilworth, and the BBC Micro – 1982-1984
As I noted above, you can’t talk about the 1980s in the UK without talking about both Sinclair and Acorn. Fierce rivals, both companies were based in Cambridge – a detail not unconnected to the presence of the University there. As well as its proper keyboard and a text-only mode (called mode 7) Acorn’s BBC Micro was supported by the developer Acornsoft, where Cambridge University luminaries of the UK text adventure scene published their work – often conversions from the mainframe games they had previously developed.
The Philosopher’s Quest is a puzzle-fest. It’s tough and obscure, and not a little academic.1 It’s funny and frustrating. I once wrote to Computer and Video Games seeking the solution to a place where I got stuck on it, and despite my question getting published, no-one replied. Perhaps no-one else got very far in it either. Peter Killworth, a Professor at Cambridge, authored it as part of a series of really tough games, but that wasn’t his only contribution to the UK scene.
Killworth’s book How to Write Adventure Games (1984) was based on BBC Micro BASIC, and showed you how to squeeze in a parser and a full game, while saving every possible byte of memory. Reading it today reminds us of the constraints IF writers were living with in the early 1980s, and the publication of the book (which was far from being the only one that explained how to write text adventures in BASIC) indicates a market of people who wanted to make their own games. However, these from-scratch guides were not the main means by which home-brew adventure games were developed.
The Quill – 1983
It was the release of “The Quill” that gave us a toolkit for actually making our own games. Developed by Gilsoft in Wales, it was effectively a database allowing people to create rooms, objects, verbs, and the links between them so that people could construct their own IF. People across the country got to work, and a huge number of games were written and published. Early on, some people put adverts in computer magazines and sold and distributed their cassette tapes themselves. Later on, tapes were sent to eager publishers (including Gilsoft), who marketed and distributed them. It was no shame for a game to be “Quill developed,” and an active home-developed adventure game scene developed in the UK. We were not only playing games but developing and even selling them ourselves as well. The Quill later added the ability to include graphics and then developed its systems further into a more complex parser. Its influence went beyond the UK into Europe, being developed into tools that are still being used today.2 Although it was marketed in the USA under a different name, it never took off there – I’ll explore some reasons why America was less interested in “do-it-yourself” adventure games later on.
Hampstead – 1984
Hampstead was a Quill-developed game that claims to have sold over 70,000 copies (more than most Infocom games) and won “game of the year” from the popular Listener magazine. It was distributed by Melbourne House (the same software house that published The Hobbit) in a striking art-deco-illustrated box featuring two Afghan Hounds on a sofa.3 If you want to play it today, it’s available to download for free on iOS and there are websites that allow you to play it via emulation on the Spectrum, Commodore 64, or BBC Micro if you are prepared to look for them.
Hampstead was written by two people – Trevor Lever and Peter Jones. Both were a little older than many of the bedroom coders of the era, with Trevor having seen Colossal Cave on a university computer while studying for a PhD. The publication of The Quill made it possible for them to create their own very different world, initially on the humble Spectrum.
The game is inarguably very British, being about social class and social climbing, with the player aiming to move from their council house (government owned and subsided housing) through to owning property in the most desirable area of London, attaining an executive job, marrying into a wealthy family and gaining a knighthood along the way. It shows something remarkable – the move from IF-as-puzzle-fest to social commentary. Hampstead displayed the potential of games to engage with their social context. I don’t know of any adventure game produced as early that has such a satirical bite.
It’s worth spending a little time talking through the main beats of the story to think about what the game tells us about the 1980s, and this obviously involves spoilers.
The game begins with the player needing to go and claim their unemployment benefit, which in turn requires you to find the form necessary to get the “giro cheque” (the ubiquitous UB40 form), get dressed (in a tracksuit), find a bike in your shed as a means of transport (to avoid getting mugged), and join a queue in the job centre to get the benefit cheque itself. A later commentary on the game suggested that these opening moments (which contain descriptions of squalor) express a patronising view toward the lives of the poorest – as if it is self-evident that such lives need to be escaped from. I can understand how you could come to that conclusion. The aim of the game is social climbing, which does imply that there needs to be a motivation for the player to want to change their societal position, and the descriptions in the game do make it clear that things aren’t good at the start of the game. The author of the commentary, however, did admit that the game also described the lives of the richest in scathing terms, perhaps balancing this critique.4
A short trip to Hampstead Heath brings you a lost wallet and a credit card, which allows you to commit fraud later on. You must also cash your giro cheque, which brings a jarring description of a non-white person serving in the post office. If that sounds racist, it probably is. But perhaps that captures something about the dominant attitudes of the 1980s. The game was widely-reviewed,5 but I remember only one review questioning what they found in that scene6 (or a later one in a fast-food restaurant which is similarly uncomfortable). The question of how we should treat games from a different time which portray things that are problematic to today’s audiences is something I’ll return to later.
Having avoided the temptation of buying a Sony Walkman, you buy a magazine to be able to conspicuously demonstrate your interest in art, and after taking a train to the centre of London, you have the opportunity to meet an art dealer and exchange your lathe (which is mistaken for modern art) for an old school tie – the symbol of the British establishment. Having arrived in the City of London, you then fraudulently use your credit card to buy a better suit, and your old school tie brings you access to a club, where you can receive a letter of recommendation for a well-paid job.
Crossing town, you find your new employer, and an opportunity to later engage in industrial espionage. You are then called to a board meeting, where if you vote in the right way (which of course, is the least pleasant option for the workforce), you are given a bonus and a company car. The bonus allows you to buy a home in Hampstead (which you might have seen listed in an estate agent back in town). Your boss invites you to a party in town in a wine bar, where, after finding your way through a maze of restaurants, if you’ve got both the company car and purchased your new home, you have the opportunity to enter a relationship with a well-connected woman (Pippa, a model).
After meeting Pippa, you must go to her parents’ home to be introduced. This brings the opportunity to impress her father by sharing some company secrets. He is then happy for you to marry his daughter, as well as to recommend you for a knighthood. Pippa is therefore somewhat objectified – being impressed by material things only, and willing to accept her father’s view on who she should marry. Once again, I don’t remember any reviewers questioning this positioning at the time of the game’s launch. While we can be glad that this kind of portrayal wouldn’t fly today, perhaps its quiet acceptance does reflect something about dominant gender attitudes of its time.
So you have your home, your car and your wife. However, you still haven’t “achieved Hampstead.” As you are warned in the game’s introduction and documentation,7 Hampstead is both a place and a state of mind. To actually complete the game, you can’t be too conspicuous about your new wealth – you must wear it more easily than arriving at your home in your new suit and impressive vehicle. Instead you must enter your new home wearing the track suit and with the bike with which you began the game. Only then can you show you are combining obvious wealth (the expensive home you bought with your bonus) with fashionable casualness. Only then will you have achieved Hampstead.
What does all this tell us about the 1980s? It’s hard to come away from the game and not feel like you’ve engaged in quite a lot of lying and deception. You’ve got a school tie by presenting a lathe as an example of modern art, and used that tie to gain entry to places you shouldn’t have access to, in order to get a job that was never meant to be yours. But at the same time, why on earth is it the case that those in positions of power appear to be reserving such lucrative favours for those they (think) they went to school with, and isn’t it interesting they seem to be so easily fooled? That’s a complex and interesting message to be communicating in a 1980s computer game.
Once in your job you gain favour by voting in a way that goes against the workforce of your organisation, and then sell industrial secrets in order to gain favour with your potential father-in-law. In return you get a bonus, a company car, and a glamorous partner. This is all very transactional and really quite horrible. But it’s not a million miles away from the world portrayed in other fictional accounts of the 1980s. The novel Money by Martin Amis was also released in 1984, and in the US, the film Wall Street with its mantra of “greed is good,” in 1987. If we were to pick a single cultural character to represent it, Hampstead is perhaps better represented by British TV Comic Harry Enfield’s creation “Loadsamoney”8 rather than Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, with Enfield’s character attempting to capture the vulgarity and excess of the 1980s in a way that was more linked to everyday life than the high finance world of Gecko. If the world portrayed in Hampstead is pretty unpleasant, perhaps that’s because the social changes released in the 1980s weren’t always ones that made the world a better place.
If you got stuck in the game, the box included a card which you could send to the publishers (in the post, of course, this was the 1980s) to claim a hint sheet. But the same card was also the only means of getting a certificate for completing the game, so you could only get one of the two. That dilemma feels very much in keeping with the game’s themes.
As mentioned above, from the perspective of 2023 there are some worrying elements in the game which are, frankly, sexist and racist. This raises a difficult question – how do we think about older IF games that are troubling to our sensibilities today? One answer is not to play them. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes the elements we find troubling tell us something important about the times when the games were written. If we are to understand where we are today, and avoid the mistakes of the past, then we need to know where we came from. By playing games such as Hampstead we can enter a different world where we don’t have to agree with everything we read about, but by reflecting on what we find, we can try and do better today.
Hampstead’s two authors went on to make two other games, both using The Quill, but with more advanced versions. Terrormolinos (1985) satirises the British package holiday in Spain, requiring the player to take photographs of their family, generally in humorous situations. This is still satire, but of a different kind to Hampstead. The third game was Dodgy Geezers, again with graphics, and in which the player has to assemble a gang and then pull off a robbery. It’s a cockney crime caper, still rooted in the crime and language (albeit a bit strained) of the times, but not as concerned with the wider social context as the first game.
The social commentary in Hampstead appeared a year before arguably the most powerful example of societal critique in IF, with 1985 being the year A Mind Forever Voyaging was published. The sales of Hampstead, however, suggest it was much more widely-played (certainly in the UK!). It is an interesting question as to whether the larger homebrew scene for games in the UK created the potential for more of this social commentary, as well as making such content more acceptable in mainstream games. There are, as another example, a number of adventure games published about the threat of nuclear war including Ground Zero (1984 – this was also made with The Quill) and Four Minutes to Midnight (1985, a year before Infocom’s Trinity). With the ability, for a few short years, for authors to write games with software such as The Quill, and the presence of publishers keen to market IF, it is perhaps unsurprising that people sometimes wrote about the world as they saw and experienced it, as well as about their fears.
If we now move away from the specifics of Hampstead and The Quill, what can we conclude from the discussion above? One interesting point is to revisit the differences and similarities between the UK and US scenes. I have heard it claimed that the homebrew IF scene didn’t take off in the US during the 1980s in the same way as it did in the UK because Infocom set such a high bar. Americans saw what was possible with the tools that were available to them, and knew they couldn’t possibly match them. Not until the rise of more advanced authoring systems such as Inform and TADS was it possible to produce Infocom-quality games.
Perhaps there is some truth to this – unencumbered by the high standards of the Infocom games, with the simpler parsers and more limited worlds of cassette-based formats, people in the UK felt it was more possible to make commercial games themselves. In those terms, maybe The Quill occupies a similar position to that of Twine, which has produced so many memorable yet very personal games. The Quill’s much earlier appearance, however, meant that such home-brew games could also be commercially viable.
The UK 1980s scene deserves to be remembered and cherished because the games produced tell us something about the time and place in which they were made. It was a time when, armed with The Quill, you could make your own game, send it to a publisher on a cassette tape, and sell 70,000 copies. You could make IF that was very personal, or which said something about the world which you saw outside your door. You could compete with the “big boys” who had vastly superior technology, but who faced similar technological limitations to you. What a remarkable time.
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1 The October 1984 edition of Micro Adventurer has a piece on the problems the adventurer faces in Philosopher’s Quest, and gives some hints on how to solve them. There is an online archive of the magazine that includes this issue.
3 Mark Hardisty reproduces the cover of Hampstead on the front of his The Classic Adventurer magazine in edition four, as well as having a wonderful interview with Trevor Lever and Peter Jones inside.
4 Shaun McClure’s book A Guide to ZX Spectrum Adventure Games – 1982-1985 suggested there was a “bit of a whiff of snobbery about [Hampstead] that grates a bit” although that was qualified by “It pokes fun at the toffs as well though, so it just about gets away with it.” (p. 333).