Chris Bourne braves the Gargoyle's lair and penetrates the misty world of Cuchullain and Celtic folklore
WHEN GREG FOLLIS was born, in the mists of time, before the dawn of legend, when prehistoric valve computers stalked the earth and roared defiance at the lowering skies, comets blazed and earthquakes shook the rolling meads of Smethwick. And wise warlocks knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Gargoyle had arisen in the land.
"I was born too," avers Royston Carter, knight-programmer and keeper of the bytes.
"You were hatched," says Greg. "I remember the shell on your head."
This wise-cracking pair of programmers are among the geriatrics of software, which is to say, they're both well over 30. "We started in commercial programming about 17 years ago, by which you can deduce that none of us is young" says Greg.
And so they sweated and they swore and they learned their craft over years of writing utility packages and CP/M monitors and even a language, DPL1, used in on-line development systems.
"We're both entranced by computers," says Greg. "For me it was when our engineer, Keith Potter, walked in and kicked our 8K ICL 1901, and it started working. I knew then it was for me."
And they're still entranced, though they've given up the world of AI research, expert systems and the rest to write adventure games which knock for six most conventional examples of the breed.
"We were writing software for someone else and they were marketing it poorly," says Greg, mincing no words. "We wrote an integrated database for a micro system. It was sold to the Steel Stockholders Association. God knows why.
"We were salaried and that's all. There was no potential for any vast increase."
Remember, these guys had visions of wealth. Royston smiles as the memories surge. "You were quite interested in sordid sex," admonishes Greg, "and couldn't afford any. And I couldn't provide it.'
At the time, a million lasers were lighting up the evenings of Spectrum owners all over Britain. It was 1983, year of the shoot-'em-up, and games like Time-Gate, Arcadia, Zzoom, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and many, many others were all the rage. Greg and Roy, not unnaturally, decided to do their own, still working for the taskmasters at their research software.
So they wrote Ad Astra. It had very big graphics, which have become something of a trademark with Gargoyle. It was a straight invaders-style zap game, with asteroids hurtling at you, and waves of aliens. It was very good, as far as it went, with bits of humour such as the Starship Enterprise making a fleeting appearance. It still sells a few hundred copies every so often, according to Gargoyle.
"We had a very arrogant look at the games market." Greg explains. Of course, by the time it was released, nine months after conception, everybody was into Jet Set Willy clones in multi-screen jump 'n' dodge games. Greg and Roy gave up trying to outguess the market and did their own thing instead.
They took a trip to the world of Celtic mythology and produced two of the best games ever seen on the Spectrum - Tir na Nog and Dun Darach.
It all started with the 'walking man,' a 14-part animation written by Greg, which produced a cartoon of a man walking across the screen. That formed the basis for Tir na Nog. To explain where Cuchullain comes from we have to go back to Greg and Roy's distant youth.
"Roy and I first got together on SF and fantasy. I gave Roy a list of books to read, and we used to take afternoons off to go down to London to Dark They Were and Golden-eyed, a bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. It's not there any more."
They were also fairly fanatical if not downright obsessive about Tolkien. They don't speak elvish, but you can bet they've read all the runes.
"... and Thomas Covenant and Black Cauldron and the Katherine Kurtz books ..." continues Greg. "I also used to play Dungeons and Dragons and Tunnels and Trolls. And real-life mythology of course and - all right, I confess! - I still read Imagine magazine."
It was obvious from the start that some sort of fantasy setting would be ideal for the walking man. "One we thought of first was Gilgamesh." That is Greg showing his high literary taste. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first known piece of written fiction, recorded on Sumerian tablets. It's thousands of years old.
"Unfortunately Gilgamesh is a little remote, and if you take the seamy bits out there's not much left. We cast around for something more interesting."
During the casting, they managed to hook into the Irish myths of Cuchullain, the mighty warrior. "We realised that it wasn't just Irish, it was a full Celtic mythos right across Europe."
Then they saw the TV series Robin of Sherwood, full of celtic magic and mystery, which so upset Mary Whitehouse. "It was lovely. It had that super soundtrack by Clannad and it was a clincher for a Celtic game."
In Tir na Nog Cuchullain seeks the seal of Calum in the land of the dead. The graphics system is superb, and quite different from anything else seen on the machine. Gargoyle games are designed by Greg and programmed by Roy, but Greg does all the pictures.
"We both started as programmers but Roy's better than I am. I do most of the design side. There was a memorable day when Roy laboriously drew a picture of a duck. He looked up and said 'Do ducks have big ears?' He's never done a picture since."
They're quite modest about their own programming skill, but at the same time they don't enthuse about anybody else's. One of their strengths is the sheer volume of experience they have in programming. "Looking back," says Greg, 'I don't know why we didn't write Dun Darach four years ago. We could have, and it was easy to sell software then. We'd have made a million."
Dun Darach was begun on February 10, 1985. "We were very lazy in December and January," admits Greg. Although Dun Darach looks very similar they both swear the coding is completely different, with only the central character and the scroll routines the same. Dun Darach is set in a Celtic metropolis, an enchanted city where Skar the sorceress has imprisoned Loeg, Cuchullain's friend and charioteer.
You have to map the city, discover a number of secret doors, collect objects and solve visual puns and puzzles to put them in the correct place, crack a combination lock, and work out the motives of at least a dozen independent characters, such as Mhor the gentlewoman, forlornly in love with Dain the bard, or Ryde, who acts as policeman but in reality longs to put out to sea again and return to his home Galicia.
Dun Darach was originally much larger than the 55 streets it now comprises. Unfortunately it took far too long to find the other characters when you needed them - although a street can be stored in memory in about 30 or 40 bytes, the characters took up a lot of space, and adding more would have been prohibitive.
Censorship also reared its ugly head. If you've mapped Dun Darach, you'll notice an empty space in the centre of the city. The locked location, Lady Q's, in the pleasure quarter domain, is a brothel, and originally opened onto a scene with courtesans, and in turn onto a whole red light district at the centre of the city. Now all you see is a sign saying 'Forbidden' and the moral conscience of distributors and retailers is appeased.
They even had to slow down the speed of the central character, Cuchullain. His slowness, which seems impressively fast given the complexity of the animation, is simply because the other characters have to use the same movement routines, and Cuchullain kept walking straight into them with no time to dodge. In the new game, Marsport, the central figure is speeded up a little.
"The coding is completely different for Marsport," insists Greg, but wilts somewhat when Royston says he agrees that people may say it looks the same. Purely superficially, of course.
"Look, when you buy an adventure you're buying the story, not the text interpreter," says Roy. And he does maintain that Tir na Nog and Dun Darach are adventures, which seems obvious unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool purist who still thinks Scott Adams is the finest living blah blah blah. (© Keith Campbell, 1982, 1983, 1984 1985 ...)
"I hate owning up," says Greg.
Marsport is clearly bigger than either forerunner, and with its SF theme is a new departure for Gargoyle. In fact, with two fantasy games and then a SF trilogy projected, Gargoyle appears to be following in the footsteps of Level 9, which started with the famous Middle Earth trilogy and followed that with the Snowball series of text adventures. Level 9 is one of the few companies Greg and Roy will admit to admiring.
In Marsport you take the role of John Marsh, sent to the abandoned dome on Mars to recover the plans for strengthening Earth's own dome against the insect Sept race.
True to Gargoyle style, the scenario is supported by a grandiose background of future history. The instruction booklet has five pages of it, all about the development of the Craig Effect force field and the emergence of the Sept as man's enemy.
The walking man - where next?
As well as the hero there are the enemies to contend with, in the form of droids which automatically guard the dome and the Sept themselves. You can blast them if you have the right weapons, and although the problems and layout have the same overall style as the earlier games, there are much more of them - over 800 paths, 200 locations for objects and scores of puzzles. Since the city is built on 10 levels, and connected by elevators, the game will be a mapper's delight - very, very, hard to find your way around. "The puns are even more atrocious," says Greg, of the visual problems.
"Our games represent a development of technique," he adds. "Alien 8 was a sideways step from Knight Lore. That's not to detract for Ultimate - though they're a little arrogant, perhaps. We should be so arrogant."
"We should be so wealthy" chips in Roy.
"I'll agree with that," says Greg.
Apart from the atmosphere, clearly of vital importance, the, Celtic games had two other keys to success. "Firstly the animation," says Greg, "which was eye-catching - there was nothing like it at the time. Secondly the depth - considerably more than most. The amount of gameplay is very large."
The one thing they haven't touched on in their games is sound effects, beyond the odd blip. "We manfully sit and accept the criticism," admits Greg. "We initially thought of having Holst's Planet Suite running through Marsport, but it would have to be perfect and add to the game."
"Pleasant little tunes wouldn't apply," says Roy.
If you want sound on Dun Darach stick Clannad or Mike Oldfield on the record player," Greg suggests. "We've got no objections."
Another game to look forward to is Sweevo's World, which Greg says will be a Gargoyle Games Special Edition - Just for Fun. "We're making it very clear that it's an arcade adventure. And if it doesn't have you rolling about on the floor, what more do you want?"
Sweevo stands for Self-Willed Extreme Environment Vocational Organism, which means it's a very stupid robot which keeps falling over. It's a jump 'n' dodge game and Greg says it's going to be thoroughly bizarre, with characters like "the dreaded little skipping girl who hits you over the head with a mallet."
Fornax, the second part of the Marsport series, will be back to serious stuff again, and Greg swears there will be a completely different graphics system, but he won't say what. "We're thinking of black ink on black paper," he says. "There's one thing about being someone who likes fantasies - it has to be be as good for you as it is for everyone else. I admire Level 9 because they obviously enjoy the games themselves - I thought Return to Eden was particularly gleeful."
You can't accuse Roy and Greg of not being gleeful. They love games, even if they have no time to play them any more.
"I can see every reason to encourage kids to play computer games - if only so they wont be frightened of computers in 10 years time. We grew up in a system where we found a £250,000 machine wouldn't sell because a businessman thought he'd look silly sitting in front of one."
"We saw that in exhibitions," adds Roy. "We always used to incorporate games into the display, because the customer felt better for being able to beat it."
"Eventually we'll go back to research," says Greg, "but with our own company. Deep down inside, research programmers and analysts want to be God and create life. Come the time we have holographic and sensurround TV, think of the games we'll have. Oh, we'll be writing them."
And, with an afterthought, "What we'd really like is to be spacemen. I expect we will be, too."
See you on the moon, Greg.