Horror Theory, ZX Spectrums and Me
Dan Pietersen recalls the oft-forgotten majesty of the late Clive Sinclair's ZX Spectrum and its myriad games, both horror and weird...
When I think back to my childhood experiences in horror, it’s rare that books or films are first on my mind. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalisation – Bilbo’s encounter with the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit or the very real horrors of Charley’s War, Transformers: The Movie’s nigh-unstoppable Unicron or the entirety of Watership Down – but what I think of more than anything are video games. Not just any video games, either, but the very specific library of games released for the Sinclair family of home computers.
The Sinclair ZX80 was my first computer. My Dad bought it in kit form and, in all honesty, it didn’t do much more built than it did unbuilt. Then we upgraded briefly to a Sinclair ZX81, its black shell far more futuristic than the ZX80’s 70s throwback beige until I finally got my hands on the Holy Grail; a ZX Spectrum, known fondly at the time as the Speccy. This was a proper computer. You could tell that due to its proper, albeit distressingly rubbery, keyboard and the ability to attach peripherals like a basic printer or, far more excitingly, a joystick.
Even now, much as I love modern horror games like Bloodborne of The Last Of Us, I still think back to those early days. From the almost laughably basic 3D Monster Maze to Ant Attack or Where Time Stood Still and even the weirdly minimal adaptation of Alien the strange, skirling music that accompanied the Sinclair loading screen has always offer the promise of horror from across the genre’s entire range.
Which made me think. Maybe I could use these memories to look at my experience of horror today? In this article, I’ve taken four subsets of horror – Survival Horror, Gothic Horror, Folk Horror and Weird Horror – and used some of my favourite Spectrum games of the 80s to explore what they mean to me. Hopefully, it may make you think about what they mean to you.
It may seem strange to start this article with a discussion of Survival Horror given that it’s often seen as a relatively new addition to the horror family, one first popularised in the mid-to-late 90s by games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Yet its lineage, as is often the case with horror, goes back much further than it’s often given credit for. Resident Evil, for example, was directly inspired by much earlier games like Alone In The Dark (1992) and Sweet Home (1989). Equally, the genre’s key concerns – managing dwindling resources and health, collecting artefacts and divining their uses, deciding whether to fight or flee in the face of overwhelming odds – lie at the heart of horror from its earliest days.
I want to talk about Survival Horror first, though, because it goes back to my roots. Survival Horror is bound up in many of my formative experiences of horror – things like the TV show Knightmare, id Software’s near-literal game-changer Doom and the unflinching terror of Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero) – but it also forms a key part of one of my very earliest gaming memories: Atic Atac.
Developed by Leicestershire-based company Ultimate Play The Game – fresh from the success of Jetpac and its sequel Lunar Jetman, soon to unleash the Sabreman series – Atic Atac could never be described as a complex game; you are trapped in a castle and you must escape, or die in the attempt. However, Atic Atac’s gameplay is striking, at least for 1983, in its speed and fluidity. This was achieved through two core design decisions. Firstly, Atic Atac could only be played on a ZX Spectrum upgraded with 48kb of RAM, a significant jump from the mere 16kb of the previous model. As a kid, this increase in computing power felt like living on the cusp of the future but, to put it in perspective, my current computer (which can hardly be described as cutting edge) is equipped with roughly 16 million kilobytes of RAM. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Atic Atac offers such pure gameplay by adhering very strongly to the core concepts of Survival Horror.
Like many games of the time, your character starts with a limited number of lives. You also have a health meter which is illustrated, with the irreverent humour endemic in Spectrum games, a roast chicken. Your health decreases on contact with any of the many ghosts and ghouls that inhabit the game’s sprawling rooms but, crucially, it also decreases over time. This adds tension to the gameplay as, even if you manage to avoid every enemy in the game, you need to manage your health by consuming food in order to stay alive long enough to escape. These food items – represented by apples, milk bottles and, no doubt to keep your blood sugar up, lollipops – are limited and never reappear once consumed. Fortunately, you have a limited inventory in which to store items. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t consider food as an item and you consume food by simply touching it. How greedy.
Your inventory is used instead to store the artefacts that are scattered around Atic Atac’s castle. The most important of these artefacts are the three sections of the Golden Key of ACG, used to unlock the mansion’s main door and escape. The game implies that ACG is part of an ancient spell or incantation but it actually stands for the far less occult Ashby Computer Graphics, Ultimate’s parent company. After this come the smaller, coloured keys that – foreshadowing Doom by a decade – open doors of the same colour, allowing you to explore the mansion more thoroughly. Atic Atac also looks forward to the inventory management of games like Resident Evil as the three parts of the Golden Key need to be assembled into its complete form and there are four of the smaller coloured keys, more than your three inventory spaces. Finally, there’s a smattering of random items like a crucifix, a spanner and, for reasons I never discovered, what looks like a turnip. Many of these are useless red herrings but a handful, when used correctly, give you an advantage against some of the mansion’s denizens.
Most of Atic Atac’s never-ending enemies are simple sprites – in both the folkloric and computer design senses of the word – that disappear with one hit from your character’s weapon. They float around the mansion’s rooms randomly, seemingly unaware of your presence, and can often simply be avoided. However, some enemies – like the sinister Vampire or lumbering Creature – are not only immune to your attacks but actively attempt to kill you on sight. At least unless you have the correct artefact in your possession; the Vampire cowers from the crucifix and the Creature can be permanently disassembled with the spanner. Not the most fiendish of puzzles but, in my defence, I was six when Atic Atac came out. Yet this is, in a very simple way, the precursor of Survival Horror’s saw-tooth of tension and release; you encounter a threat that seems insurmountable, learn how to overcome it and progress to the next seemingly insurmountable threat.
In all honesty, even the most delicate of gamers would be hard-pressed to find Atic Atac frightening but it still has a well-deserved place in both horror theory and gaming history. In fact, Atic Atac not only introduces Survival Horror themes but it is one of the many Spectrum games – like Manic Miner, released in the same year as Atic Atac, and 1986’s Everyone’s A Wally – that allude to concerns around class. At the start of Atic Atac the player can choose from three characters to play – a serf, knight or wizard. Each of these characters can, in addition to the standard doorways, use their own secret passages to explore the castle – barrels, clocks and bookcases, respectively. These separate social strata of characters, each creeping around within the walls of a haunted castle, lead us nicely to the next epoch in my personal history of gaming horror.
My abiding memory of Spectrum games – and one that is shared by most gamers of the time if comments on YouTube playthroughs are anything to go by – is how hard they could be to complete. This was rarely due to any complexity of gameplay – although the need to accomplish pixel-perfect jumps combined with limited lives didn’t help – but more because you often had no idea what you needed to do, let alone how to do it. The video game adaptation of the previously-mentioned Knightmare – which, showing the incestuous nature of the time, was itself inspired by Atic Atac – is a case in point. Many players, including myself, never escaped the first dungeon because we never made the logical leap of asking their fellow prisoner for a magical spade. It seems so obvious nowadays…
Yet this obscurity and obfuscation, as frustrating as it can be when created by poor design, can become a narrative tool in itself. In fact, one category of horror is almost defined by the use of shrouding mists and fogs, by unreliable narrators and the tattered pall of madness. We are now talking about Gothic Horror.
Gothic Horror, in one form or another, has been a rich seam for games throughout the ages and the ZX Spectrum was no different. Knight Lore, part of Ultimate’s Sabreman series, sees the protagonist infected with lycanthropy, which must be managed and ultimately cured. Gargoyle Games’ Tir Na Nog and its prequel Dun Darach draw inspiration from Celtic myth but also have an eerie, sinister atmosphere that drips with gothic dread. Even Pyjamarama, a brightly coloured and bizarre adventure, explores the sleeping subconscious of Wally, the game’s protagonist, by using the gothic doubling and unreal landscape of dreams to sometimes unsettling effect. There is one game, however, which epitomises not only the aesthetic obsessions of Gothic Horror but also its use of bewildering and sometimes bewitching obscurity.
Fairlight was written in 1985 by Bo Jangeborg for publishing house The Edge. This relationship quickly soured when The Edge, in an act of gothic treachery and foreshadowing, refused to pay Jangeborg for his original game until he created a sequel. This turned out about as well as expected and the sequel is notoriously bug-ridden. The aim of Fairlight is not too dissimilar to that of Atic Atac as the player, in the guise of the becloaked adventurer Isvar, starts the game in the courtyard of a gloomy castle and must explore its grounds and dungeons in order to escape. Unlike Atic Atac, however, we have no idea how to accomplish this. The only hint we are offered is that the game’s cover artwork – a depiction of a hooded figure holding a glowing book, framed by a stone window – shows what we need to do. So, like Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle, we are left to explore our surroundings and try to make some sense of our predicament while avoiding the castle’s denizens – a bestiary of goblinoid guards, poisonous plants and sinister spectres.
All this adds up to what is, for quite some time, a dense and frustrating experience. Dead enemies, at least the few that can be killed by Isvar’s sword, quickly reanimate. The monochrome graphics and isometric perspective, initially impressive and atmospheric for the time, can make useful objects hard to spot. Even picking objects up doesn’t help as, beyond easily identifiable items like barrels and stools, the game offers no description of what they are or are intended to do. Like many gothic heroes, Isvar spends much of this time stumbling around in the dark, pursued by relentless horrors.
Like many gothic heroes, however, a minor revelation can give Isvar the upper hand. Perhaps, due to the game’s slightly clunky inventory system, you might drop what I always assumed to be a pineapple in the path of an approaching spectre, destroying it and revealing the pineapple to actually be a vial of holy water. Perhaps, driven mad by frustration, you walk into a nondescript wall and discover one of the game’s hidden doorways. Perhaps, and this is very much a perhaps, you even realise that the decoration above one of the castle’s gateways is actually the crown which will allow you access to a subterranean crypt, itself hidden behind one of these invisible doorways, that serves as the secret hiding place of a dusty grimoire.
Perhaps, the biggest perhaps of all, you’ll remember the picture of an old man, looking out of a window and holding a similar book.
This, hidden under layers of gothic obscurity and confusion, is the simple aim of Fairlight. You have to find a book and deliver it to the old priest who waits, gazing out of a window, at the top of the tower in the centre of the castle. And that’s that.
Or is it? Of course, it’s not…
Fairlight is an excellent example of Gothic Horror in gaming not simply because of its oppressive aesthetic or use of obscurity but also because it is a game that uses a shocking twist to talk, directly and indirectly, about one of Gothic Horror’s other key concerns; betrayal. Gothic Horror is very interested in what happens when trusts are betrayed – whether that be the private trust between friends and lovers or the implicit trust that people have in the persistence of hierarchies, systems and even reality itself – and all of Gothic Horror’s key tropes are founded, ultimately, on a collapse of this trust: the corruption and fall of nobility; the blurring of life and death into undeath, the failure of humanity’s control over the world.
As I mentioned earlier, the game’s publishers betrayed the trust between employer and employee by refusing to pay Jangeborg until he provided them with a sequel. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Jangeborg designed his game to betray the player; once you offer the book to the old man he transforms into a spectral figure and attacks you. You haven’t, as you first believed, brought a powerful spell book to the court sorcerer for safe-keeping. You’ve willingly handed it over to an evil necromancer who will corrupt and misuse it.
You have no choice but to grab the key for the castle’s gate and flee, alive but defeated.
The trust between the player and the game, that the game will play fairly and will reward good play with success, has been betrayed.
These ideas of obscurity and betrayal, of hints and revelations, also feature strongly in my next category of horror; Folk Horror. Like Survival Horror, Folk Horror is often considered to be a relatively recent development in horror theory – the appearance of films like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man in the late 60s/early 70s leading to a slow, fungal gestation into more modern works like The Witch or Midsommar – yet it too has roots that go back much further, back into the mists of folklore and myth. Like Gothic Horror, Folk Horror also looks at what happens when trusts are betrayed, bargains are forgotten or pacts are broken.
Happily, there is a word for the state of enmity that exists when a long-standing pact is broken. That word is Feud.
In 1987’s Feud you play the part of Learic, a sorcerer, who has been cursed to aged rapidly by his own twin brother Leanoric, also a sorcerer. The only way to lift the curse is, inevitably, to kill Leanoric before you die yourself. In order to do this, you must gather the components, depicted as herbs, for the various spells in your spellbook and then hunt down Leanoric before he has the chance to do the same to you. Although this probably makes Feud sound like a relatively basic game, and in many ways it is, there are a number of reasons why it’s interesting and why it made such an impact on my then-ten-year-old brain.
Firstly, Feud uses some surprisingly modern gameplay mechanics. There are no levels in Feud and, although the game uses a similar flip-screen method to Atic Atac, Learic can wander wherever he wishes through woodland, a small village and even into ancient ruins. In fact, most of the game is spent simply wandering around what we would now call Feud’s open-world environment searching for herbal ingredients. Occasionally you might encounter a wandering villager, the local farmer (who becomes understandably annoyed if you steal his crops) or even Leanoric himself but you are much more likely to be accompanied by nothing more than the sound of your footsteps as you wander between trees and over streams. Even allowing for the game’s primitive graphics it is a strangely bucolic experience. In addition, Feud presents a very early example of emergent gameplay; the concept that simple rules and abilities can combine in complex ways to produce different gameplay experiences. This is achieved by the wide range of spells that Learic, and Leanoric, have access to. If you combine samples of Dragonsteeth and Mousetail in your cauldron then you’ll be able to attack Leanoric directly with a Fireball while Cud Weed and Knap Weed generate bolts of Lightning. A more subtle approach might use Doppelgänger, distilled from Fox Glove and Catsear, to confuse Leanoric while you unleash Zombie thralls against him, created by using a concoction of Devilsbit and Bones on unwitting villagers. In 1987 this felt like an immense leap in gaming but, like Folk Horror, it also uses the trappings of the past to investigate what is possible in the present.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that I found Feud utterly terrifying. Watching a YouTube play-through today makes this almost embarrassing but I still remember the genuinely chilling feeling that Leanoric was actively trying to kill Learic. This was in direct contrast to the monsters in Atic Atac, which flew about randomly and with no apparent agency. Even Fairlight’s enemies, which would chase after you, could be easily outwitted by simple barriers. Leanoric, however, hunts you without remorse or pity and has access to exactly the same abilities that you do. Leanoric, in fact, is not an external threat but an example of what happens when we struggle against our own selves and our own natures.
I think it is this, beyond the rural setting and magical trappings, that makes Feud so very Folk Horror; the core of folk horror is the angst we suffer trying to rationalise our inherent need to be part of the natural world and our desire to have control over it, what philosophers like Eugene Thacker would call the clash between the world-in-itself and the world-for-us. It is no surprise, I think, that Learic and Leanoric’s dwindling health is shown as a human figure slowly returning to the loamy earth and that this figure flings its arms up in horror in the final moments before it disappears back into the ground, into its grave.
This clash, taken to its extreme, is also the core of our next, final category of horror; the strange, liminal and nightmarish cosmos of Weird Horror.
Beyond any stereotypical ideas of tentacles and unspeakable horrors that may come initially to mind, Weird Horror fundamentally talks about category errors. Weird Horror explores what Mark Fisher’s The Weird and The Eerie describes as anything which “does not belong” and which Freud outlined, in his essay The Uncanny, as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”. Like Gothic Horror before it, Weird Horror happens when expectations and trusts are broken but, unlike Gothic Horror, these breaks create something that is not simply unexpected or unwanted but previously thought impossible. Weird Horror is the slimy, lymphatic fluid that leaks out of wounds in reality.
And what better game to illustrate this than one of the most iconic releases for the ZX Spectrum? What better game than one that makes a nightmare out of uncanny mundanity?
What better game than Matthew Smith’s 1984 masterpiece? What better game than Jet Set Willy?
The plot of Jet Set Willy is an exercise in the mundane. It is, at least when taken at face value, almost as dull as the notoriously awful Super Trolley, a game that simulates stacking shelves in a supermarket. It is, for a game that someone was trying to sell as entertainment, audaciously dull.
Jet Set Willy begins with the eponymous Willy, having spent the fortune he acquired in Manic Miner on a lavish mansion and even more lavish party, suffering the effects of a hangover. All he wants to do is crawl into bed but Maria, his housekeeper, refuses to let him until he’s cleaned up the mess from the night before. Quite right.
Yet something, as we will soon see, is not “quite right” in Casa Willy.
In fact, “not quite right” is possibly the best way to describe the Jet Set Willy experience as a whole.
When computer games came on tape cassettes copying them was a simple case of dubbing the contents onto a blank tape, a trivial task to any child of the 80s with a twin deck tape player. In order to prevent this many games came with rudimentary copy protection, often requiring the player to type in a word or phrase from the manual before playing the game. Jet Set Willy asked the player to find a specific cell in a psychedelic grid and type the relevant colour code into the game’s loading screen. Completing this would reward you with the game’s logo – the kind of impossible object called a Penrose Triangle – and a warbling, off-kilter version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which, after the visual overload of the copy protection, always made me feel unpleasantly queasy.
Now, finally, we can start the game. Which is where things get strange. Where, in fact, they get weird.
Unlike Fairlight’s fairly traditional gothic castle, Willy’s mansion is a Gormenghastian affair complete with immense trees growing up through its structure, an elaborate security system comprised of battlements and watchtowers, and even a gateway to Hell itself. Each intricately designed room of the mansion normally contains a few of the scattered pieces of rubbish that Willy must tidy away, some static obstacles and a handful of wandering creatures; an uncanny menagerie that stretches from angry chefs and giant penguins to leering masks and animated pliers. Like Atic Atac, these creatures appear to be unaware of Willy’s presence but, unlike Atic Atac’s random sprites, the dancing rabbits and wobbling jellies in Willy’s mansion follow strict, repetitive lines of travel. For me, the way these creatures manifest – their appearance and actions – is part of the core weirdness of Jet Set Willy.
In attempting to define the Weird, Mark Fisher states that “it involves a sense of wrongness” and that it involves a kind of object which make us “feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here”. The absurd creatures in Willy’s mansion not only do exist – and exist to a degree that they can kill Willy with a single touch – but their repetitious and single-minded movements make me feel that they will persist in existing in a way that is deeply wrong, a way which recollects one of Freud’s most chilling phrases; “a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves”.
The realisation of this persistence, when compared to Willy’s transience once his lives run out, brings with it terrifying vertigo that is a hallmark of Weird Horror. Although we are exploring what is ostensibly Willy’s mansion it is he – and by extension us – who is the invader, the aberration. Fisher talks about the Weird as something which pierces in, irrupts forcibly into our reality but it is equally true that we can pierce into the uncanny logic of the Weird’s reality. Willy’s attempt to impose order on his world, by simply trying to tidy his house, becomes hollow when compared to the higher state of order in which the mansion and its weird denizens already exist, in which they will always exist.
Jet Set Willy, almost without us realising it, takes the mundanity of the human need to impose order and shows how futile that need is when compared to a wider reality.
And it doesn’t stop there.
In a moment of quite glorious cosmic accident that takes Fairlight’s treacherous ending to its extreme, Jet Set Willy in its original state is impossible to complete. Not difficult or time-consuming, but impossible. A bug in the game’s code – specifically a very early example of what would be called a buffer overflow error – meant that certain rooms would become instantly deadly to Willy, preventing him from accomplishing his goal of tidying the mansion.
Willy’s actions in the game are shown as futile. Our actions in playing the game are shown as futile.
The feet dance on by themselves, regardless.
So what does this tell us about horror? I think it gives us an insight into one of horror’s most insidious facets; it exists everywhere, everywhen. Even games, and specifically games created for children, are suffused with it in all of its various forms. Equally, horror is a form that creators turn to even with the most basic of tools, perhaps entirely because horror can be formed from the gaps those tools leave behind and the eerie glitches their use creates.
I think this happens because, when we really look at it with a clear eye, the world is horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. Our bodies dwindle and decay like Atic Atac’s roast chicken. We spend most of our lives confused and unsure as Isvar does in Fairlight. We struggle, like Learic struggles in Feud, and eventually become the things we struggle against. Ultimately, as in Jet Set Willy, we are confronted with the futility of it all, with the chaotic nature of the world and our infinitesimally small place in it.
But, despite all this, it’s still just a game. So have fun while you can.
(This article is dedicated to the memory of Sir Clive Sinclair, the pioneer behind the Sinclair range of home computers, who died on 16th September 2021)