The British surreal gaming movement – the roots of modern indie gaming

Although indie gaming is seen as a recent phenomenon, hobbyists and small teams of developers making cheap, unique games is nothing new at all. Xbox Live, the IOS and Android stores, and Steam may have encouraged huge growth in independent game development, the 80’s in Britain was where the spirit of the scene really kicked off.

With the big console business in hibernation after the Atari console crash, PCs were entrusted with the torch of providing video games in the home. One such personal computer, the ZX80ZX81 and later ZX Spectrum, made by British inventor Clive Sinclair, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Clive’, were affordable and easy to use in comparison to other home computers, and enticed an entire generation of lower income people to take an interest in computer programming and games. The ZX Spectrum formed the backbone of an entire piece of gaming history, right in the British Isles.

The ZX Spectrum, the primitive home computer that inspired a generation of Brits

Known as the ‘British surrealist movement’, hobbyists made their own games and distributed them to friends and other enthusiasts via tapes, sometimes for sale, others for free. They were sold in computer shops and by mail order in magazines, often arriving in plastic sandwich bags. It was very DIY, very indie, without sounding too hipsterish.

Dan Whitehead, author of the book Speccy Nation, said of games at the time as, “Offbeat, inexplicable, often brilliant and sometimes hilariously rubbish games that evolved in a home grown industry with few boundaries and guidelines.”

The scene received its name because the games were characterised by distinct traits that were quintessentially British. The games were crudely made, cheap, had a sarcastic and ironic sense of humour and were often very weird and strange, hence the ‘surreal’ title. But the games, although painstakingly aware that they were a little crap (but in a good way) had some unique ideas. The developers cited Monty Python as an influence on their surrealist creations.

Mel Croucher is seen as the forefather of the British game development scene at the time, and his ideas of fantasy and humour set the template for the surrealist movement. He produced many games, including Can of Worms, in which players did bizarre things such as using whoopee cushions to give Hitler a heart attack, performed vasectomies and filled a King’s toilet with water to unblock it.

Mel Croucher – father of the surrealist gaming movement

“I was trying to blur fantasy with reality, but my method was to take those dreary traditional game plays and get the player laughing as they went on idiotic quests,” said Croucher, in Tristan Donovan’s book Replay: The History of Video Games. “The themes were overtly stupid, with a bit of propaganda chucked in.”

There were many other small development companies across the entirety of the UK, fuelled by the affordability of the ZX Spectrum. One such company was Llamasoft, founded by developer Jeff ‘Yak’ Minter. Minter made bizarre shooter games for the Spectrum and other computers such as the Commodore 64, which all featured his favourite animals, llama, sheep, camels and giraffes. Games he made included Attack of the Mutant CamelsSheep in Space and Gridrunner, and his company Llamasoft are still producing games today.

Attack of The Mutant Camels, an example of Llamasoft’s mantra

Other successful games that sprang up from the scene included Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, made by Matthew Smith. These games were also infused with surreal elements such as mutant telephones, evil toilets and Greek housekeepers. A long list of other bizarre British games included Dizzy: The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure, a platform game about a happy egg man that almost became Britain’s own Super Mario, Skool Daze, a game about a naughty schoolchild who must cheat through tests, and the Games Workshop’s Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, a gladiatorial wizard battle in which various beasts can be summoned to fight.

Croucher explained the odd nature of the games that sprang up in the scene, suggesting it was down to the inherent nature of British people. “We are a surreal nation, left to our own devices. We are not at all what we seem to be – politically, linguistically, historically and, above all, in terms of humour.”

The British scene also saw the world’s first potential art game, which is surprising since it’s now a common aspiration within the modern indie scene to make artistic games. Deus Ex Machina was an ambitious project made by the aforementioned Mel Croucher, and told the tale of the life of man in seven stages of abstract mini games. It had an eerie science fiction and cyberpunk feel to it, with an electronic soundtrack and narration by famous names such as John Pertwee and Frankie Howerd. It’s arrestingly pretentious and vague, but a sign of the ambition of games developers at the time, despite limited technology.

“I thought I’d better get in first and produce the computer game equivalent to Metropolis and Citizen Kane before the bastards started churning out dross,” said Mel.

The British indie scene fell away once the video game industry rose again with the resurrection of the console, and only a few development companies still in business today. However, the spirit of the scene still lives on. Games like Apple Jack, developed by My Owl Software, bears the hallmarks of the surreal scene with its sense of humour, silly gameplay and titular character Apple Jack, a boy with an apple for a head.

With digital distribution opening up indie development to young programmers in the same way affordable home computing did in the 80’s, perhaps British indie development can come back and provide a silly and fun niche that’s sorely missed. A little silliness does no harm.

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