with Philippa Irving

Philippa Irving


Trinity term has arrived, and in the glorious spring weather the returning students are spreading themselves out on college lawns in a determined effort not to do any work. Meanwhile, those who have Finals in — ulp — seven weeks are contemplating the attractive properties of Magdalen Bridge as they finally realise that the last bit of work they did was to read half a Penguin introduction in their second term three years ago. Oxford rings to the gentle sound of Finalists plunging into the Isis and Japanese cameras clicking.

One thing at least that won’t be keeping me from my wonderful revision timetable (and I’ve got a new one now, I got fed up with the old one) is the pastime which distracted me constantly in my second year two years ago; playing the latest computer game releases. I may still load up an old one, but I know what my tried and tested favourites are like so the compulsive interest and urgency isn’t there. Elite, Doomdark’s Revenge, Uridium and others aren’t going to go away and are there to play when I have more time. As for games like Marsport, Dun Darach and Heavy on the Magick, I’ve come close to solving these after many dedicated and absorbing hours of play. But in the last six months I haven’t bought a single Spectrum game. I intend to get Starglider sooner or later, and I’ll be buying The Professional Adventure Writer when I have enough money to spare, but two pieces of software in six months when I used to buy three a month isn’t an impressive total. The reason is simple: almost nothing I’ve seen recently has interested me enough to part with my limited financial resources.

It’s hardly worth re-iterating what every Spectrum gamesplayer must be well aware of these days, that the amalgamation of smaller, innovative companies into big multi-nationals has resulted on a collapsing of standards from underneath. By that I mean that the programming of a game may be as excellent as a 48K machine with attribute blocks trying to look like a dedicated arcade machine can be, but the content — the game and the ideas underneath the on-screen appearance — has drained away. Someone, I suppose, must buy these film and TV licensed games. I presume, in fact, that they must be a really commercial concern for the producers or there would be no point in making them. Occasionally a media licence has resulted in a good game, but on the whole these types of product are being turned into marketing exercises. The cynicism of the big companies is appalling; they must know there’s nothing artistically or intellectually satisfying about these pieces of software, but I should imagine that if they shift a reasonable number of units then such considerations are irrelevant.

There were always naff games, but in the past one found honestly bad products like the classic among turkeys, The Great Space Race, and weedy platform games with improbable scenarios produced from someone’s back bedroom. It used to be much more common, two years ago, for a game to fall down on presentation and programming rather than imaginative input. I am interested in computer games as self-justifying entertainment: works of art, if you use the word in a broad, unpretentious sense. Part of the art is entertaining the player — the plays of Shakespeare are judged not only on the beauty of their poetry but their ability to entertain an audience in the theatre — a part of it is the visual design and something of the quality of imagination in the coding itself. Starglider is a game with imaginative coding, and so were Elite and Knight Lore in their day.

‘Elegance’ is the word I would use to describe the aesthetic effect of programming like we see in Marsport and the Mike Singleton games. Unless a game is designed from the start with the Spectrum in mind, and with an idea which is going to be a computer game and not anything else we will not see software with these qualities. Theoretically there should be nothing to stop designers taking a theme from a film or television programme and using it to build a computer scenario, but in practice this seems to paralyse the creative abilities.

Wargames are the last bastion of the old-style bad games. I am unlikely ever to find myself reviewing a film license in Frontline, despite the popularity of warfilms recently. This would be a good thing if the standard of presentation and programming of wargames was higher! In the meantime, I ought to be grateful. My purse and leisure time (which ought to be revising time) are now freer than they used to be.