Steve Hammond’s Manual Override – Legends

Steve Hammond’s Manual Override – Legends

A_Book_of_MythsLegends, folklore and myths of the computer games industry is a particularly hard topic to research on the Internet. Those very terms of myth and legend are used differently nowadays. Clickbait headlines use ‘myth’ when they really mean ‘misconception’ and ‘legend’ when they mean ‘well-known.’ As for ‘folklore’, most of the search results are for the game called ‘Folklore.’

I am talking myth in the sense of a story handed down through the generations, or passed on as a kind of oral history – an odd thought in the days of recording everything. It’s what happens when rumours take on a greater form as their story. It’s what I can recall from memory, or have heard spoken of, but can’t search for. It is, for example, what happened to Matthew Smith.

Which is that he vanished.

It’s Stavros Fasoulas creating the hits Sanxion and Delta followed by Quedex before being called to serve in the Finnish Defence Forces. When returns, the Commodore 64 will be dead and his knowledge inapplicable. His fourth C64 game becomes an eternal what-if along with Matthew Smith‘s never to be made Willy Meets the Taxman.

These are not stories within games, not even stories about games. It is stories about the people, culture and environment within which games were created. It is the stories about the environment itself. Even better, it’s stories which don’t always have information existing anywhere on the Internet.

WalkerBoxBut it’s important to point out that I don’t mean mere salacious rumour and innuendo. Those are shallow and uninteresting. Myths have a meaning greater than just the bare facts, illuminating more than appears on the surface. There is certainly no lack of stories about the movie industry, and no shortage of Hacker lore. (Ponder, for example, the September that never Ended.) Is it the same for the games industry? Rumours about Generation Ships and wandering Space Stations in Elite if you fly far enough, the existence of a trailer, as per the cover art, in Lunar Jetman, or the control combination which disrobes Lara Croft. But those are within games, not about them.

How about a lesser-known legend, closer to home, that DMA Design’s Walker was written to have three complete, entirely different game styles but was only released with two. Though this may be true, it is not legend material, but the circumstances leading to it may be. I reality I have no idea why, however I know who to ask and, in principle, how to get in touch with the designers. In that sense, it is not a classic legend. A true legend, perhaps, is one where the question cannot even be asked.

And it’s into that gap where the richness of legend goes.

Space_InvaderIncidentally, I make no apologies about many of the examples being from decades before you may even have been born. The older the origin of the legend, the greater the shadow it casts on subsequent culture. Think of the single blocky space-invader being the symbol for all of videogames. Being closer to the beginning imprints on us as a kind of cultural memory, which is why some traffic signs have cars which do not look like cars. Or that the save symbol is not just a floppy disk, but the 3.5in floppy disk invented by Sony.

The symbol has become detached from the object.

Legend is Commodore reverse engineering their own graphic chipset after losing the blueprints. It’s Tetris coming to the west with involvement of the KGB. It’s the Elan Enterprise 8-Bit home computer briefly becoming the Flan Enterprise for legal reasons. It’s Lara Croft’s cleavage being due to a slip of Toby Gard‘s mouse. It’s Donkey Kong getting its name because Monkey Kong didn’t survive the translation. It’s the 3DO version of Lemmings being impounded at Japanese customs on suspicion of it being porn. And it’s Atari somehow assuming they could sell more cartridges of ET than there were consoles to play them on.

And this last one was recently in the news cycle.

Because it, along with the rumoured landfill, turned out to be true.

ET2600-JDWhat could be more compelling than a mystery, an open-ended question, which doesn’t have an answer? We now have an answer to at least one of them: excess ET cartridges really were buried in a New Mexico landfill. No-one now doubts this. But the fact of it having made the mainstream news has not been entirely well-received, there being a distinct undercurrent on Twitter, a whiff of embarrassment. It doesn’t reflect well on the games industry, even though it was the industry as it was from over thirty years ago. Perhaps it was an unwelcome surprise that even the rumour existed, let alone the cringe generated from the subsequent media coverage.

I say we embrace it wholeheartedly. It means that the games industry has a richness in its mythology. Any industry is going to have its stories, and the fact that we have ours is simply a sign that we are maturing. Better yet, that we are large enough to absorb any imagined embarrassment with good humour. And we have some pretty good ones…

So what does this mean for games? The history of games is longer, more varied and richer in character than you think. It should be embraced rather than shrugged off. One day it will be as mainstream as the film or TV industry and that means some of the names too. Very few personalities in games are household names, perhaps even none. When we start to talk about them, the stories surrounding them will also come along for the ride, and the stories which they tell. We have comedies and tragedies, epic tales and mysteries, stories within games, stories about games, meta-stories about people.

FlammarionThat is why ET being exhumed from a New Mexico landfill is a good thing. It makes our shared culture richer. All of the wild stories I’ve mentioned above are entirely, mostly, probably, true. Matthew Smith reappeared after a decade, having lived in an Amsterdam commune. And Stavros Fasoulas? Rumour has it that he has not so much as touched a computer since the Commodore 64. Is that true? How can we tell, if he can’t be contacted? It’s a question which cannot be asked. The legend is cemented and we’re the better for it.

True or not isn’t really the point.




[Steve Hammond is a regular contributor to the SGN. He directed Britain’s first Star Trek fan film. He wrote for DMA Design. He now codes by day and writes by night. His Manual Override column is written voluntarily, in return for semi-regular beer and crisps…]

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