Adam Spencer – The first true author of the 8 bit age

Creator of Fable of Salt and Tarmac, Against a Concrete Heel and Without Representation – The Paper Way Trilogy

The Paper Way trilogy absolutely blew me away. I loved the computer game industry and the potential of the beast, but hell, I was 26 and I was reviewing animated coloured blobs that ran up and down a television screen. I desperately wanted to know there were people with a brain and scope out there. It was a real Road to Damascus moment for me, when Spencer made it all grow up.” T’zer Maughan – Discussing Your Sinclair for Retro Gamer (1)

Before Adam Spencer, computer games consisted of surreal animated icons, and fast moving characters, loosely connected together with a magical beginning and some form of ending. Spencer introduced to the computer game something it lacked – Narrative.

Historical Context of British Gaming

By 1982, the world had an established videogames industry based on arcade machines; with Pong, Pacman, Space Invaders et al, developed in the United States and Japan for sale across the globe. This was followed by consoles: home arcade machines capable of running the same games children (and these were the primary market) had encountered in malls. This led to a clear step jump between home consoles, inert paperweights without an expensive game cartridge, and the large-scale computers that were playing an increasing role in industry, also used to develop these games. By the early 80’s the console market was beginning to mature, and competition between manufacturers for the relatively static market of console players was becoming vicious.

In Britain, consoles never really got a foothold due to the concerted efforts of three local companies: Acorn, Amstrad and Sinclair Computing. Each of these manufacturers were interested in producing a cheap home computer that was capable of sound, home programming, applications, running external devices and, almost as an afterthought, games. The initial skirmishes between these companies were provisional ideas, sketches to build a market before they released their main creations; Acorn produced The Atom in '79 and Sinclair produced the ZX80 and ZX81 in '80, these were self-assembly kit machines, an appetizer… In 1982 they all released their real inventions, Acorn released the state-subsidised BBC Micro (adopted as the education standard in every school), Sinclair Computing produced the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad came out with the CPC. Strange machines, with rubber keys, hard plastic cases that used audiotape players as the storage media. The competition between these manufacturers pushed the prices down, meaning that home computers became extremely common; the nature of these machines meant that any owner could develop software theoretically as good as that sold by the games manufacturers.

At this time the international videogames market was on the brink of collapse; Commodore, the only truly global home computer developer, instigated a vicious price war against the consoles, trying to market its platforms the Vic 20 and C64. Running the sale of the platforms as a loss leader, hoping to reclaim the money through software, this crippled their competitors, particularly the market leader, Atari. Once this strategy was rolling, Commodore found themselves unable to back down, and the expected yield from software did not prove immediate enough to maintain their share price. With console game creation requiring organized development teams, the resulting financial crash crippled games production. But Britain, where the industry was centered on a slush-pile process of buying promising games from home developers, the crash had negligible impact, with a market growing for games for the extremely common games platforms, particularly The Spectrum, CPC and C64.

Adam Spencers personal background:

Adam (born in Zambia in ’61, raised in Tooting, South London) was studying for his postgraduate degree in Inorganic Chemistry at Cambridge, when the industry began to gain momentum in 1982. An old friend of Jeff “Yak” Minter he witnessed, first hand, the stylistic arms race that took place between Matthew Smith (17, programming for the Spectrum) and Minter (21, The Spectrum, but soon to move over to the C64) in the early 80’s. These two freelancers, working from their bedrooms on the newly released platforms, were re-inventing the staples of arcade gaming:- the platform and ladders game and the shoot-em-up. Heavily influenced by the surrealist British comedy of the era, particularly Monty Python, Not the Nine O’Clock News and The Young Ones, they chose random oddities or household objects (particularly washing machines and toilets) as their monsters and threats, and threw in random, inexplicable touches that gave the games atmosphere, lacking in the more sober games produced for the American market. Smith’s Jet Set Willy in particular can be seen as the house of The Young Ones in a computer game. Spencer, without the technical ability of Minter and with less interest in the specific playing of these games, assisted him in stylistic touches, and was involved in some of the graphic design (he is credited for assistance on Llamatron) and it is acknowledged by Minter that he was a figure in developing and testing most Llamasoft productions.

According to Minter, Spencer, a “sophisticated individual” (2) , was more interested in the scope this new format lent for storytelling, adventures. The, text based, Adventure Game format had been among the first to emerge (ADVENT in the early seventies), but the scope of these stories was extremely limited. Interactive Fiction as it later came to be known, had a crippling association with pompous science fiction and running around in dungeons, with a painful proportion involving swords, leather, wizards and lead characters that were blank slates until the point of interaction. These were developed on industrial computers and were extremely memory intensive with a very limited parser – a choice of words and grammar rules - “Go east”, “Look up”, “Strike goblin with sword”.

The Hobbit, released in 1982 by Australia’s Melbourne House, was the first of these games to really succeed on the home machine market. With a system of auto-drawn graphics, this had scene setting pictures that made it much more visual, and by rigidly following the narrative of the novel but with set-piece puzzles (The Goblins Dungeon is legendary) it gave player something familiar. This game leapt off the shelves and was among the first 8 bit blockbusters. At the same time the graphics free Infocom games on the Inform parser were developing in terms of structure, but were nonetheless weak. It was immediately apparent to Spencer that this was the form he wished to develop, and that it would be criminally easy to do it much, much better. (3)

Fable of Salt and TarmacActivison Publishing, 1983.

Fable was greeted with critical acclaim: ZX Computing and Spectrum User giving it near top scores. I, personally, was a little young for this when it came out, but I was totally drawn in by the story when I discovered it later. Spencer had chosen to work with a moderately dystopian future, clearly influenced by Vonnegut’s Player Piano, where the unemployed masses were left wandering the streets, struggling for a way to spend their welfare cheques in a grimy, but open, industrial world. The game, and playing it, is better described on one of the many fansites. (4)

The game had several key technological and narrative innovations. Firstly, in order to cram as much narrative as possible into the meagre 48k of memory, and reduce the need for loading the game in parts from a tape, Fable adopted a limited palette of thousands of words, that were indexed in a dictionary: so that a sentence could be rendered by a series of numbers. Removing adjectives, Spencer adopted a Chandler-like style of clipped speech that suited this limited palette and his plot perfectly. More importantly, Spencer chose to make his characters less than fully interactive and gave everyone a back story. This was best seen in the cut scenes, where the story and graphics would appear on the screen and plot would develop without any interaction of the gameplayer. This device would be heavily adopted in later games, particularly the games of Lucas Arts (Monkey Island and Day of The Tentacle), allowing a real story to develop, and leaving the player wondering just who they are in the game. Spencer clearly understood the limitations of the graphics system, and therefore, rather than trying to show the landscape or scenes, he adopted an approach of showing surreal, warped, images, that served to emphasis the narrative rather than visualize it. I find his unsettling red chair scene particularly memorable.

Against a Concrete HeelElectronic Arts, 1984.

Heel was a much darker game, and a direct sequel to Fable. Written during Britain’s Miners Strike when the Thatcher government appeared to be imposing its Orwellian will on the economy of the nation, after engaging in a charade of a war with Argentina. It is very clear that this is the work of someone very upset with the direction of society. From the opening scene where Joseph (a minor character in Fable, now the lead) discovers himself in a room with a naked corpse, the atmosphere is much darker. This is a story about stifling government intervention and bureaucracy, as Joseph - an itinerant musician in Fable – is forced to shuffle papers while desperately avoiding suspicion for murder. Some of the cut scenes in Heel were truly harrowing, and I for one sat back after some of these, unwilling to live as Joseph any longer. But I always came back to finish the story.

There were several key technical changes from Fable. First, Spencer was clearly unsatisfied with the parser approach he had borrowed from The Hobbit, as an alternative he had chosen a list-based engine, similar to that used in the Magic Knight series of games and appended it to the text engine. Here, objects and features to interact with were selected on screen, rather than simply “use hammer on nail” the text engine more limited to navigating and specific tasks. Aspect of this approach were borrowed by Leisure Suit Larry and Maniac Mansion. The first game had been justifiably criticized for the linear nature of the narrative and simple nature of the puzzles. By fixing the responses to list commands, Heel allowed far more scope for interacting with the landscape, and was drawn on a far larger canvas allowing numerous rooms for the lead character to enjoy. Spencer quite clearly refused to adopt the standard devices of adventure games, his characters are never confronted with piles of sulphur, salt peter and coal and asked what to do with them. Instead he produced massive lists of objects meaning that rather than the traditional approach of shoving your “large brown key” at dozens of locks until it fit, the user really had to work out what all the equipment was for, if anything.

Without RepresentationElectronic Arts, 1987.

Representation was the bastard child of the series, and led to the disappearance of Spencer from industry. It was the third part in The Paper Way Trilogy, with Joseph again as the lead. There had been a number of threads, woven in discussions between characters in the earlier games, which suggested the story was building up to a climax. The gamer had been led to believe that in the third part of the trilogy there would be a concerted effort to take down the state; this failed, miserably, to materialize. While the same themes, characters and scenes follow through in Representation, the final article has an unfinished feel to it and the engine shows no technological development on Heel. The strongest explanation for why this trilogy is not better remembered is the letdown experienced by most gamers on completing it. It killed the story dead, and left many angry with Spencer.

In an extremely candid interview with Matt Bielby in Your Sinclair in ‘91, Spencer attempted to explain what had gone wrong with Representation. He admitted that since day one he had been trying his hand as a writer, and that upon completing Fable and Heel he had engaged in a stint of novel writing. Representation caught him with a contract just as he was hitting his stride on the novel:

“I was attempting to juggle the two projects when my wife gave birth to our daughter, and then Representation just collapsed. I had the story arc written, and I had some key changes to the engine developed, but I needed more time. Before the baby had stopped screaming at night I was hit with a suit from Electronic Arts demanding either the finished article in 3 months, or that I hand over all work in progress to be developed by another programmer”

“I didn’t really feel I had any choice, I handed the lot over and arranged to have limited oversight on the project, and to act as a consultant, but they gave it to this gangly kid who’d just finished working on a Dizzy game of all things.. Absolutely no vision.. I remember ringing him up night after night trying to give him the feel of the piece, but he just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get my name taken off the cover.” (4)

After the 8 bit age

Much like his peer Matthew Smith (who spent most of the 90’s in a commune in Holland), Spencer vanished. But the 8 bit age ended quite painfully, the 16 bit Amiga and the Atari ST maintained the home-programming aspect of the 8-bits, but development teams were increasing in size, and the British hardware production industry collapsed (most notably in MGT’s Sam Coupe). The infrastructure that had been developed ported over to a number of large companies, such as Bullfrog and Domark, but soon consoles were taking over the home gaming industry in the UK and the bootstrapping approach ceased to function. Punk was dead. There are a number of internet rumours (5) , that Spencer succeeded in his aims as a novelist under a pseudonym, but so far he hasn’t emerged back into the public eye.

The Paper Way series formed a key building block in modern adventure games. Text based adventures were for mammoth programming beasts of minicomputers, with no graphics. Because of the step jump in the American market there was no middle intellectual ground; Spencer provided a halfway point towards something more visual, and should be viewed as the parent of the modern Adventure Game genre.