Monday, November 5, 2007

MATTHEW SMITH: THE MANIC GAME DESIGNER

Last time, I discussed how we see a game designer in the context of the studio system. I set out to examine whether the perception of game designers was different at a time when they made their games alone, locked away in isolation, staring at prehistoric radiation-heavy monitors or TV screens and programming the legendary classics in machine code, thus intimately familiar with the machine's circuitry.
Next day, by convenient coincidence, I got a message from a friend with a link to an English-language blog run by a Czech game-designer-turned-film-critic, further linking to a YouTube video featuring the inscrutable and long-lost mythical hero of the British game industry, Matthew Smith.



Before launching into tabloid sensationalism and biographical detail, let us look at the very beginning of the film clip. The modern-day British journalist acknowledges the supremacy of the U.S. and Japan in the videogame industry of that day. It is important to bear in mind that the modest, largely home-brew and profoundly nerdy early eighties British games industry was a slightly isolated world with its own weird platform (ZX Spectrum) and a community feel expressed by the gaming magazines such as Your Sinclair or the aptly-named Crash. Thanks to the wide availability of the computer and the fact it was NOT a console, anybody could join the programming ranks and gain fame and respect. The magazines featured game designer inteviews almost every month, and at a very personal level (they described Dave Perry, later of Earthworm Jim fame, as "endowed with all the native charm that one would expect of a man with pure Celtic blood flowing through his veins").

And what about Matthew Smith? He was a prodigy, a 17-year-old kid neatly fitting all the programmer-guy stereotypes: geeky, strange, and with a bad haircut. The old footage shows him as the author of the acclaimed Manic Miner, a wonderfully balanced and surreal game that defined what the ZX Spectrum platform would be capable of. After making a hugely succesful sequel, Jet Set Willy, the young programmer vanished into thin air (watch the clip for details).
But even before his disappearance, he was considered alien. He was too good to be true. The May 1984 issue of Crash magazine brings up uncanny hints at the guy's non-existence: "There were rumours that Matthew Smith was a figment of the Liverpool computing mass psyche [...] There were rumours that Matthew Smith didn’t really exist." The review of Jet Set Willy ends with another eerie statement: "Jet Set Willy is a high point in the development of the Spectrum game. I hope there will be others, maybe ones of a different kind, but I’m sure nothing will top this game for addictivity, fluent graphics, responsiveness and sheer imagination. The nightmare quality of the events suggests its author should be receiving therapy. Instead, he’s probably getting rich. Good luck to him..."
The sheer imagination led Matthew to, of all places, a Dutch hippie commune and druggy oblivion. Manic Miner fans set up a website reporting his sightings. Isn't that familiar? Remember Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, an artist damaged by LSD, trapped in youth, naivete and craziness? His fans did the same thing. As "brhodes0" puts it in the YouTube comments section: "If you look at the stuff he came out with age 17, the psychedelic images... then combine it with the drugs. Well it's good he's kind of recovered, a top bloke." Barrett never recovered, though.
Smith became a legend for one more reason. By fleeing the programming world and doing crazy things, he completely shook off the programmer stereotype and became elusively fascinating. The fact that he was instrumental in establishing the British gaming industry made the contrast between his exploits and his post-fame life even more striking. And, well, he does not seem to remember much of his post-fame life.
Looking back at his old games, Smith says: "Ten years after I was a history, twenty years after, I am a legend." That is especially true in the British ZX Spectrum fan community, which is one of the most active retro-gaming groups, remaking old classics and taking them onto the web - you can even play Jet Set Willy online. And when there is community, there is myth.

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