I Saw That Years Ago Podcast: Ep 15 – The Lawnmower Man

This week Martyn and Joe don their best garden shoes and admire the handiwork of…The Lawnmower Man.

lawnmower man

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Classic Computer Games, and why we should let them rest in peace

I love computer games. In fact I’ve been an avid gamer now for over thirty years. You can probably tell this by the way I referred to them as ‘computer’ games rather than the more up to date epithet Video games.

Eeeeeeeeeee *shakes his stick at the young kids of today*

It occurred to me recently, when I was knee deep in the virtual blood of my fallen foes, that things used to be simpler when I was young. Video games (dammit! They got to me) today seem entirely reliant on tremendous amounts of violence to carry a story along. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m completely fine with murdering thousands of fictional guards with little common sense or regard for the dangers that bullets represent, but I wonder if I’m just beginning to get a bit jaded by the predictability of games?

the-lords-of-midnightWhen I first started back in the early eighties, there was bugger all chance that my little ZX Spectrum would be able to render any kind of realistic graphics at all. This ensured a definite disconnect between the things on the screen and real life. Because of this limitation creators wrote far weirder games, often involving llamas, pigeons, and occasionally Paul McCartney as principal characters. You also had plot lines that involved drunken lords having to collect flashing items from his peculiarly designed house before his maid would let him sleep. Of course today the wealthy gentleman would probably set himself up with a sniper rifle and double tap the unruly servant from a few hundred yards away. Ah, progress.

It was a more innocent time, a golden age, an oasis of innovation set against the depressingly cruel stage of an eighties England slowly tearing itself apart in street violence and trade disputes.

Hmmmmm, or was it?

Knight_Lore_ZX_Spectrum

I came across a link to the Internet Archive the other day which allows you to replay classic games. With joyful tears in my eyes I clicked at great haste to travel back to my childhood. What did they have? Aaah! The Hobbit! I loved that game. Wait… Karateka? Let the melee begin again. No……Knight Lore!!!! Wow, this was going to be great. I loaded up the game, watched the classic splash screens appear, replete with 8-bit art, smiled, rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

Bloody hell…these games are awful!

The-Hobbit-Spectrum-loading-screen

Karateka requires a thousand keystrokes to execute a kick, Knight Lore boasts the most ridiculous navigational control idea ever devised by man, and The Hobbit seems intent on denying any knowledge of the English language whenever I asked it to do anything. How did I survive these torments, and then come repeatedly back for more?

It was a sad moment. Like meeting your favourite uncle after many years, the one you thought was cool and funny when you were a kid, and realising that he’s a slightly boring old man.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we don’t pine for many earlier iterations of computers or software in general.

‘No, I don’t want these modern fangled Google Docs! Give me Wordstar instead, and a dot matrix printer while you’re at it!’

But it’s odd when you confront such a different experience to the one your memory curated for you. I remember playing Flight Simulator by Psion for hours when I was ten years old. The forty year old version of me might last a couple of minutes before falling asleep, or whipping out the iPad to check Amazon for books on travel, while the badly drawn plane edged slowly towards its destination.

Psion_Flight_Simulation_on_ZX_Spectrum

Just like the faithful old bike that you first ventured out on as a kid, these games served their purpose well. The laughable graphics and crazy control systems played their role of training wheels, until the day when I could balance myself and leave their restrictions behind. And just like real life, you don’t really want to ride on that bike again once you get the chance to sit in your first car.

Games may be hitting a wall creatively at the moment, but in the past two years I’ve played Mass Effect 2, Skyrim, Bioshock Infinite, and the Walking Dead – titles which would have dropped my younger self’s jaw to the floor. So things aren’t too bad at all.

It’s good to remember where you came from (in all walks of life), because sometimes it helps us to see that the best really could be yet to come.

Gandalf, carry me East.

game over screen

Living in the Past with… The 7th Guest

My name is Martyn Darkly and I’m a gamer.

It’s been over thirty years since my first frantic battle on a Binatone version of Pong and I’m still addicted to the wondrous world of computer games. Along the way I’ve been, among others, a barbarian warrior, heroic space adventurer, confused visitor to a haunted town, a hobbit, a professional athlete, Arthur Dent, Bruce Lee, Paul McCartney, and a monster that felt an uncontrollable desire to engage in winter sports. You can see the attraction.

Throughout this journey there have been certain games that stood out more than others. Either they were the most fun, the most challenging, the weirdest, or just technically amazing. In a new series entitled ‘Living in the Past…’ I intend to revisit some of these classics and try to divine what made them special and the stories behind their creation. To begin with we must travel back to the early nineties, where Rob Landeros and Graham Devine had an idea to scare gamers witless with a mysterious invite to a haunted mansion.

7th Guest Cover

The 7th Guest is like the Kennedy assassination, in that most people remember where they were when they first played it. From the beautifully animated 3D mansion to the groundbreaking full motion videos of ghostly apparitions, Trilobyte’s spooky puzzler introduced players to what could be achieved with ingenuity, imagination, and a new thing called a CD-ROM.

‘Rob and I were really into the old TV show Twin Peaks,’ says co-creator Graeme Devine, ‘and the company we worked for, Virgin Games, had the rights to the board game Clue. So our initial thinking was that we would make a version of Clue with a Twin Peaks feeling to it. We also loved the old movies House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting, so slowly the idea morphed into a haunted house.’

The house became the home of Henry Stauf, an evil toymaker whose creations claim the lives of several children through a strange virus. As the game begins the player enters the mansion to find it populated with bizarre puzzles to solve and ghosts roaming the halls playing out a tragic story.

‘Initially his name was Henry Steeple,’ Graeme admits, ‘Matthew Costello came up with Henry Stauf because he thought it was good to have his last name be an acronym of Faust. I think we just wanted to find the creepy angle, toy maker, creepy…’

Stauf

The bulk of the puzzle design was on the shoulders of co-creator Rob Landeros, a long time fan of pen and paper brainteasers.

‘I think my main inspiration was a little game called The Fool’s Errand.’ Rob states. ‘It was a series of puzzles of various types with a tarot card related story and theme. Every time you solved a puzzle, you would get a piece of a map that would lead you to the final goal – that’s how we structured 7th Guest. Most of the house is inaccessible to start, but each time you solve a puzzle or solve a riddle, another part of the house is opened to you.’

Players had to contend with an impressive array of logic puzzles involving slicing up cakes, word play, mazes, classic board games like Reversi and chess, and deciphering patterns. But the real star of the show was the lusciously animated mansion itself. From the stained glass window in the entrance hall, to the iconic staircase that dominated the lower floor, every location was an impressive artistic feat and a world away from the typically blocky graphics of the time.

‘Our original idea was to find a mansion,’ says Rob, ‘take a camera in there, set it up on a tripod in the middle of the room, then scan 360 degrees and use that. So we found the largest house in Oregon…but there are no mansions here that have 100ft art galleries. They’re very claustrophobic and it wasn’t working. Then one of our artists, Robert Stein, played with 3D Studio and put together a room, animated it, and had furniture floating around eerily. It was kind of a revelation at that point and we said yeah, we’re gonna do it that way.’

7thguest Ghost Pot

The introduction of the ghostly video scenes that the player encounters was also something truly revolutionary.

‘There had been the Sherlock Holmes games which had tiny 160×100 videos,’ Graeme remembers, ‘but no one had tried full screen and certainly not in SVGA. A lot of people thought what we were doing was impossible and that our demos were smoke and mirrors.’

Assembling a cast from Oregon’s thriving acting community the team set about capturing the spectres that would inhabit the house and reveal the terrible story of Stauf.

‘We filmed for two days on SVHS’ says Graeme, ‘against a blue screen that wasn’t really blue (we got it at an art supply store) and that we broke (one of the actors fell through it), then repaired with blue painting tape. All in all, that’s not the best way to film ghosts. We left the halo around the actors in place because we couldn’t clean it, and made it into a ‘ghostly aura’.’

The Ensemble

A game of the 7th Guest’s size and ambition required huge amounts of storage and advanced multimedia capabilities. Something made possible by the arrival of the CD-ROM.

‘It was timing.’ states Rob. ‘That tool was there and we were one of the first to use it. Only a handful of people had CD-ROM drives in their computers when we first started looking into them. People were still thinking of doing things the old fashioned way pixel by pixel and building up graphics. The debate was how do you fill up a CD-ROM? And even if you did how can you screen video? Those were the questions…and we solved them.’

The game was released on the Mac and PC in 1993 and sold over two million copies. Even Bill Gates became an advocate when he called it ‘the new standard in interactive entertainment’. The game also spawned a sequel ‘The 11th Hour’, and was re-released on iOS in 2010.

‘We were expecting some success,’ admits Graeme, ‘but we didn’t expect people to rush out and buy CD-ROM drives just so they could play a game. We were blown away by the reaction. I think it was something magical you could buy and play for the first time. Moving real 3D that looked nice. The puzzles were fun and the story, while a bit goofy, held your attention. More than that it was a game you could sit down as a family and play. It wasn’t Doom. There was a lot of people who wrote saying they took turns with the mouse to play the game, and while a lot of the game was spooky, it was scooby doo spooky, which you can easily sit through with a family. That said…a lot of people did seem to get really scared playing the game alone in the dark.’