‘Night has fallen and the foul are abroad’

I'm not much of a video gamer. Indeed, it occurs to me as I write this that I haven't really played one seriously for getting on for 25 years.

But like millions of children of the 1980s I owned a ZX Spectrum and have the usual keening nostalgia for some of the better games written for that little computer.

So I was sad to hear earlier today of the death of Mike Singleton, writer of my favourite game from those distant days, The Lords of Midnight. There's a fine reflection by Keith Stuart on Singleton's work in The Guardian, and many tributes on Twitter.

Singleton went on to write many other fine games, but The Lords of Midnight, released in 1984, expanded the very notion of what a computer game could be. Most games written for home computers like the Spectrum were simple arcade affairs, often entertaining, but little more than mad chases around various labyrinths or shoot-em-ups set in chunky alien worlds. Narratives were dumb and brutal: the prize for zapping one screenful of nasties was to move up to a new level to take on slightly larger, slightly faster-moving baddies.

The Lords of Midnight had an altogether different ambience. It was an adventure game set in a vast terrain bordered by ice mountains. The gamer controlled characters that moved around on a kind of grid allowing 32,000 different views, an incredible feat of engineering given that Singleton only had 48Kb to work with: less than a small word processing file on today's computers.

The game was one of the first to attempt to give the participant a sense that the action was unfolding in real time: after a certain number of moves the landscape became progressively darker, heralded by the solemn message 'Night has fallen and the foul are abroad'. During the night the screen would provide updates of the action that had happened that day, informing you of the various battles in which your armies had been involved.

Remarkably, given the limitations of memory and graphical power of the Spectrum, The Lords of Midnight really did have an epic quality. One felt immersed in another world, a world of spreading forests, great plains, mountains, lakes and rolling hills. It had something of the same encompassing quality of the virtual universes conjured by the likes of JRR Tolkien and Frank Herbert. It's testament to the game's continuing power that at the time of Mike Singleton's death plans were afoot to develop an version of it for the iPhone.

For me, The Lords of Midnight didn't lead to a continuing and deeper engagement with computer games. But it opened my eyes to the addictive power of those virtual worlds, and, it seems, those of many others who have since gone on to help build Britain's thriving computer games industry. As Keith Stuart puts it in his Guardian tribute: 'The video game industry is so young, we have not had to face losing too many of our heroes. But that is what has happened this week.'

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