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.

Do you know what you want?

Do you? Really?

I was chatting to Will Sliney, an interview we’ll hopefully include on the Sunnyside Podcast Show, and we got chatting to what he wanted. For him spider-man was the dream. And Lo! It’s where he ended up. For me, the height of my ambition was drawing Judge Dredd. And it’s where I ended up.

Talking to other irish writers/artists and it feels like, very often, like more than just “I want to draw comics” – “I want to draw this character” became their goal and they went about it, whether they realise or not, with a sort of singular purpose. I mean, it often doesn’t feel like it, because the time-frame from thinking “I want to draw Judge Dredd” (for example) to actually doing can be 20 years. (It’s a lot faster for others, though).

What happens is, though, you make positive choices. You choose to do fan art in one location, choose to draw a strip for a certain kind of fanzine, push towards a certain editor/artist/writer strongly associated with the character, and this cumulative build up of positive steps, if you’re lucky, have a following wind and have the stamina, patience, pure-luck ends with you doing the job you wanted. Or at least, getting close enough to smell victory.

What happens next is the tougher question, and here on in I’m only speaking for myself, but you get the thing you’ve spent decades building towards and suddenly you’re left… fulfilled, I guess.

The target, previously utterly unattainable, becomes within easy reach and whatever driving ambition, whatever decision making animus pushed you to choose certain projects dies a little. Now, maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe the trajectory of your career is such that … whoosh, off you go – Neil Armstrong, strapped to the most powerful rocket mankind had ever built on a trajectory to another planet. (You git).

But I think it’s beholden on you to find other goals. It can take you a long time to figure this out, though. And it may well be those other goals have to be more… abstract – success defined less by a single objective “Drawing Dredd” and more by a less-easy to define goal “Pay my bills, get to draw comics, work with creators I like”. Harder to really quantify how to achieve that though, isn’t it?

I think what I’m saying is… breaking in is easy – it’s just, for many of us, a long game. What happens next is really the thing you need to think about.