Black box: A sense of risk, danger and the unknown is far more compelling than beauty, says Rory Olcayto
‘You are in a large dry cave, which is quite comfortable. Below is the small insignificant crack. Visible exits are: south. You see: nothing. Thorin enters.’ OK. What now? I’ve just come from the south, so… ‘Wait’. ‘Time passes. Thorin says, ‘Hurry up’. Someone opens the insignificant crack. The nasty goblin enters.’ Oh no. ‘You are captured by the nasty goblin and put into the goblin’s dungeon.’
There’s a door to the north – but its locked. And there’s a window to the west – but it’s out of reach. Luckily, Thorin’s here too. But he’s not much use. ‘Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.’
Arghhh! I should have typed, ‘wear ring’ in the large dry cave. The goblin would never have seen me.
I, or rather Bilbo Baggins, was stuck in that dungeon for weeks. Months. In fact, I’m not sure I ever managed to escape. Maybe your Baggins was trapped there too, if you ever played The Hobbit, Beam software’s 1982 adaptation of JRR Tolkein’s Middle Earth adventure. It ran on the then-ubiquitous 8-bit computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64. In the game, you played the eponymous hobbit, following the quest from the book: help Gandalf and Thorin recover the horde of stolen Dwarf gold, jealously guarded by the great dragon Smaug.
The Hobbit was advanced for its day and, from 2013’s perspective, looks like a landmark in virtual reality design, a shaper of things to come. Unlike previous popular adventure games, some locations were illustrated by an image that, somehow, despite crude, angular three-colour graphics, seemed revelatory at the time, like pages from the Book of Kells or a numinous Behzad miniature.
Yet Beam’s programming really was smart, and included a primitive physics engine, a tool now commonplace in videogame design as well as advanced CAD modelling. Objects, including the characters in the game, had a calculated size, weight and solidity, and could be placed inside other objects. They could be damaged, broken or even linked together.
Crucially, time passed of its own accord in this computer-generated Middle Earth. Events continued to happen without waiting for your next command. If you left the keyboard for more than a few minutes, the game purred: ‘You wait – time passes’, and your companions, the wizard Gandalf, Dwarf king Thorin, and half-elven Elrond would wander off, make demands of you or sit and start singing about gold. Sometimes they even got killed. It felt new, transgressive, dangerous. Wouldn’t the whole of Middle Earth come crashing down if Gandalf died?
It’s what I was thinking about when I went to see Peter Jackson’s film of The Hobbit during the Christmas holidays with my brother (we lost days, playing the Oric-1 version – one typing, the other mapping locations). Filmed in 3D and at 48 frames per second, it looks very beautiful, especially the architectural design. The art and craft of Bilbo’s Bag End, exquisitely shaped with carved, dowelled timber. The skyward thrusting art nouveau of Rivendell – Victor Horta by way of Rodney Matthews. The cold-hewn, slab-faced grimness of the Dwarves’ Lonely Mountain, an alternative Edinburgh Castle built not on top of, but into, its volcanic rocky site. There’s even a scene, the film’s best in my opinion, where Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold!
But there’s no tension, no sense of existential threat. It’s why the game, despite the crude graphics and simple command-line entry, is the more evocative of the two adaptations. Like all great art, it stays with you for longer. I mean some of us are still trapped in that nasty goblin’s dungeon, wondering how the hell to escape.