Recollections / April 2, 2019
In 1984, I knew with absolute certainty that my life was about to change. The arrival of a paradigm shift had been announced to me through the pages of Your Computer magazine, and the tawdry provincial realities around me were soon to disperse like fag smoke on the breeze, making way for an exciting new existence whose structure would be hewn out of glowing, chirping digital matter. The adverts in Your Computer were divided between plebeian black and white boxes advertising retrograde dross like “Use your ZX80 to plan your allotment” and the glossy, patrician full-pagers for flash games and expensive hardware; but even by the standards of these last, the double page splash for H.U.R.G.—which promised to let you “design your own computer game in minutes”—stood out. The throbbing sprites that had filled my mind since the first time I’d played Space Invaders were about to burst forth. A new world was coming.
It was a world for which I’d been preparing for over half of my life, and my preparations had gone into overdrive when, in 1982, I had received the black plastic tablet that had spent the subsequent year sitting on the carpet in front of our telly while the McKenna family eyed it with the same awed respect as the apes in 2001 gazed at the monolith. Somehow, the Sinclair ZX81 felt far more like the incursion of an artifact from the future into the present than the touring Apple II that my dad, by some quirk of the local education authority, had been allowed to bring home from work for a weekend the previous year. As mind-blowing as it was, the Apple still felt mechanical—a massive metal box with stuff buzzing inside it, like a Teasmade or something. The ZX81 just sat there in intimidating silence, like some beautiful fragment of the gods.
After the ZX81, various shitty odd jobs, and the largesse of a great-uncle who had won some money on the premium bonds in the ’50s (and who, for a man who kept sheep as pets in the front room of his Lancashire council house, was surprisingly forward-looking) permitted me to move up to a Spectrum. I doubt that anything I encounter in the rest of my life will carry with it such a powerful tang of futurity as that smooth, cool, black parallelepiped. Certainly, nothing has so far. On the Spectrum I had learned to program in hexadecimal—well, learned is probably overstating it: with the help of a ring-bound book from the local library, I’d cobbled together a thing that made random visual arpeggios on the screen that felt to me as though I’d projected a CGI hologram of Manic Miner onto the moon. I’d obtained a machine code compiler by paying a kid who another kid knew in a nearby village to make me a copy of his, though as the nearest photocopier was another long bike ride away, I had no instructions about how to work it. But none of these efforts granted me admission into the cathedral of electronic ecstasy I could sense coming into view over the psychic horizon: my mind might be filled with beeping ghosts that traversed the dark spaces inside the computer, but my actual life still seemed to be spent continually cycling down dull country lanes between endless fields of oilseed rape, the only excitement provided by the yokels who occasionally came in pursuit, vowing to “knack” me.
As soon as I had seen the advert for H.U.R.G., though, I knew that tables were about to start turning. Just the name that belch-like acronym stood for—High Level User Friendly Real Time Games Designer—seemed couched in the language of a spell straight out of Tunnels & Trolls. It instantly made the crappy reality around me seem insubstantial, endowing me with mage-like powers just by the nature of its existence. Even better, the company that was producing it was a guarantee: Melbourne House, for fuck’s sake! A company that had been founded as a publisher in the late ’70s by Naomi Besen and Alfred Milgrom, Melbourne House began to take an interest in the home computer market and opened a subsidiary, BeamSoftware, in 1980. I didn’t know about any of that, though. All I knew was that Melbourne House (whose name seemed to combine the sunny Antipodean jauntiness we’d become accustomed to since Channel 4 had started showing The Paul Hogan Show with august solidity) was responsible for Hungry Horace, the Commonwealth’s answer to/rip-off of Pac-Man and 1983 Scramble clone Penetrator, which combined transcendent playability with hugely satisfying indigestion-like sound effects. Melbourne House had also released The Hobbit, an adventure game adaptation of Tolkien’s book complete with vector illustrations that drew themselves upon the screen with the care—and lack of speed—of an actual artist. The Hobbit had felt like something huge had happened to the nature of reality, so it seemed reasonable to expect that H.U.R.G. would be just as transformative.
With its nods to Monty Python and The Memphis Group, the company’s advertising seemed to exist on another level from that of the competition. They never skimped on their promotion budgets, and a quick glance at the advert at the top of the page will suffice to explain why gullible 13-year-old me instantly bit: I was that hysterical moron gazing, mouth open and drooling, at a TV screen exploding with the dross of his own imagination, drunk on the avalanche of brightly colored cosmic imagery that accompanied all this stuff. Sight unseen, purely on the basis of Melbourne House’s rhetoric, I became obsessed with H.U.R.G.—finally, the visionary games I envisioned would become reality! Finally, I would be vindicated! Finally, Katherine in 3C would notice me and the hard kids would stop taking the piss out of me! And no more typing in vast data dumps of hexadecimals from Your Computer only to find that 3D Star Quasimodos (or whatever had been promised) was just another shitty version of Frogger. I devoted myself to preparing for H.U.R.G.‘s release. It cost £14.95, which to a 13-year-old in provincial Yorkshire felt as imposing as a down payment on a house—but I began putting aside my odd-job money. Summer was ending by the time I had saved enough to send off my order, and the air was sultry and full of thunderbugs the day the package—the one containing my future—finally arrived. I could barely bring myself to open it: H.U.R.G. came in an oversized box whose aura of fateful potency bespoke software: slick, professional technology, not just some program to calculate your water rates that someone had knocked up in a back bedroom in Preston.
The promised opportunities to design your own game in minutes died a rapid death that muggy afternoon, however, as my truncated attention span collided head-on with H.U.R.G.’s lack of intuitive thrill power. The instruction manual (which began with an extended restaurant metaphor for H.U.R.G.‘s novel menu-driven approach, warning that “H.U.R.G.’s menus are slightly different to those you find in a restaurant”) suggested starting out by fiddling with one of the pre-made games that came on the B-side of the cassette while you learned how it worked. But with their piss-take names that sounded like the kind of cheapo knock-offs to be found on the three-for-the-price-of-one game cassettes in a rack at the petrol station, it felt as if they were mocking me: “Manic Koala,” “Ms. Hortense,” and… “Egg Pack,” for fuck’s sake? Who had authorized this farce? An awful, sinking feeling started to descend upon me while, grey in the face, I impassively soldiered on. But the much vaunted interface turned out to be even more numbing than the hexadecimals and, after several increasingly desultory efforts—one of which produced my Moon Prison, possibly the least playable game ever—I put H.U.R.G. back in its box with the gravity of a druid laying to rest a beloved tribal chieftain, soon after selling it to a kid at school for five pounds. It was a turning point for me. I still loved computers, but suddenly, for some reason, I felt locked out of the whole thing.
Why did I take the letdown of H.U.R.G. to heart? Well, I was a ridiculously shallow idiot who obsessed about nonsense things and lived a privileged enough life to be able to, true. But looking back at it from the vantage point of what has happened over the last 30-odd years, it does feel as though perhaps there was something prescient about the whole micro-debacle. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a slight possibility that H.U.R.G. wasn’t actually the grotesque turd I remember it being, and that the problem was my unwillingness to read the instruction manual. Most contemporary reviews of the program in the specialist press are glowing. Was I the only one perspicacious enough to see through Melbourne House’s corporate bullshit? That seems unlikely, given that I hadn’t been even perspicacious enough to resist the impulse a couple of months previous to stick the business end of my Spectrum’s power lead into my mouth to see what would happen (which was that I was thrown across the room and couldn’t focus my eyes for a couple of hours).
But I’ve no intention of passing up a pretext for a fatalistic rant just because it clashes with reality: H.U.R.G. had seemed to be promising control and power over a world that anyone involved even tangentially with computers was increasingly aware was going to dominate our lives—was going to dominate everybody’s lives. The exponential blossoming of home computer capability became more and more visible with every passing day: this shit was going to be the MCP, and H.U.R.G. would allow you to walk tall on the grid. Given what a Sinclair Spectrum was capable of, H.U.R.G. was an incredible piece of work, but it was also by its nature limiting, and in this seems in some way to foreshadow an essential facet of the digital technologies that have succeeded it: the more liberating they are promoted as being—and in many ways actually are—the more constricting they also become. They promise vast things, and for a time seem often to actually deliver them: but not long afterwards comes the realization that, with increasingly few exceptions, their real effect is to channel and limit our experience, generally in ways that benefit their producers and not their users.
H.U.R.G. was the future. And it seemed to hint that, at least in some ways, the future was going to be shit.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.