Adventures in Programming

When I was 14 years old, my brother (then 13) and I received a joint birthday/Christmas present – this was not-uncommon. His birthday was 2 days before Christmas, my 3 days after, and we were one year apart (Mark passed away in 1997, if you’re wondering why this is all past tense). In 1994, my mum bought us an Amstrad CPC464 with a green screen, which, if memory serves, were about £399.

I fell in love.

Mark, ended up with the shittier end of the deal though, not fussed on computers (though he liked games) mum and dad ended up getting him a different present. The computer quickly became mine.

Every minute spent with my Amstrad was a delight, the noise of the tape deck and its bizarre mix of tones as it loaded programs, the clack of the mighty keys (hewn from the toughest of plastics, mined down Alan Suger’s working man’s silicon valley pits) and the glowing green screen – literally casting a sickly green spell over me. Decades before the matrix, I knew what it was like to be a lone hacker tapping on green screen console and hoping the universe was more exciting.

And the thing was, it could be.

Buying and playing games was boring, sitting in front of the screen keying in computer listings that allowed you to fly planes dropping bombs on an undefined enemy, to throw bananas at a monkey across the sky or collect squares as a snake all built line by hard won line over several evenings thanks to the back of magazines like Amstrad Computer User and Amstrad Magazine was living in the future.

It set me up for the rest of my life. Later that year, I took a one week job placement for school and found myself there for the next 15 years or so, doing tech support, writing software and sometimes selling computers. It also let me keep connected to comics in a period when I’d let peer pressure convince me comics where for kids, I’d still pick up Computer and Video Games PURELY for the work of Jerry Paris, one of the greatest unsong british comic artists that ever sloshed ink across a page. (Jerry and I are now friends, so that’s come into a lovely full circle).

Anyway, one of the main things I did with my Amstrad was write adventure games. I was obsessed. I fooled myself in to thinking I liked the ability to create mad, wild adventures that could go anywhere or do anything, but really … really… I loved the absolute control I had over the world. I could make the computer do all sorts of things and I could push it in fun, unsurprising ways.

The Amstrad didn’t have much memory, so one of my first little innovations was to create a very basic compression – it was crude, but it worked (how crude? Any letter of the alphabet that was followed by a space would have its ASCII number increased by 64, the space then would be deleted – this let me remove all spaces from a bit of text for storage – I mean it wasn’t neccessary at all for the tiny adventures I’d write, but I thought I was pretty clever for it).

I enjoyed taking the computers rigid data and turning it in to text. Taking an extant adventure game which would tell you, brusquely “You can go: NORTH, SOUTH” and turning it into an adventure with a little more finesse, so it became “You can go North or South” (cleverer than it seems)

My oldest son is now 13, he’s lived his entire life with at least three or four computer’s within easy reach. He’s done a little programming, in scratch, but lately he’s expressed an interest in doing something in python – it’s not a language I’m familiar with, but I figured, why don’t we write an adventure game together. So that’s what we’ve been doing.

And it’s fun.

Author: PJ

Belfast based Comic Artist who won’t shut up on twitter.

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