In the late 1980s, Czechoslovak amateurs produced a series of text adventures that rank among the earliest examples of activist computer games. Usually written by high school or college students, these titles confronted the stagnant and oppressive state socialist regime. Some of them mocked its iconography, propaganda, or policies; others portrayed antiregime demonstrations and passionately criticized police violence against the protesters. One of them even pitted Indiana Jones (then a popular Western hero among young Czechoslovaks) against riot police, allowing the player to experience a major demonstration in the role of an action hero. The representation of protest through gameplay had several precedents in the history of board games—such as Suffrageto (ca. 1907–8), which portrayed clashes between suffragettes and police, or Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker! (1969), which recreated the 1968 occupation of Columbia University.1 The Czechoslovak titles, however, are among the first activist games written for home computers. Programmed primarily for the locally popular Sinclair ZX Spectrum platform, these games were often released anonymously and circulated on cassette tapes.
We believe that these games have tremendous historical and educational value, showing that the Czechoslovak amateurs and their openly political games long predated the more recent trends of activist independent computer games and presenting Soviet-bloc gaming communities as sites of open-minded experimentation with the medium. Moreover, their themes of protest against oppression and their critique of police violence resonate today; as we are writing in 2020, protesters are being beaten up in Belarus in a way that bears eerie resemblance to the events in Czechoslovakia more than thirty years ago.
So far, about ten such games have been recovered from cassette tapes by fan archivists. Despite being important pieces of digital cultural heritage, they have not been included in library or museum collections and are only available on retro gaming websites such as the Czecho-Slovak Speccy Archive.2 The code of these titles has been preserved, which allows historians to play and analyze them—as one of us has done in the final chapter of his recent monograph.3 But while preserved, they are not particularly accessible. They were made by enthusiasts who were passionate about their cause but not necessarily good at programming or user experience design. The games tend to be buggy and inconsistent, and their interface is cumbersome even by 1980s standards. To run them, one must install relatively arcane emulation software and have some familiarity with the original platform. Moreover, the texts were written in Czech or Slovak, both of which are lesser-known Slavic languages unintelligible to most international audiences. In this text, we reflect on our efforts to make three Czechoslovak activist games accessible to contemporary audiences and easy to translate into other languages.
Bringing Text Adventures to a History Exhibition
Although the idea of converting and translating these games had been floated before, the impulse to start the project came with the exhibition November 1989: The Road to Democracy (see fig. 1),4 organized by the Institute of Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution—a series of events that brought an end to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
A visitor launching R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. at the November 1989: The Road to Democracy exhibition. (Image courtesy of the Academy of Science of the Czech Republic)
Since the exhibition stressed the role of ordinary protesters and told their stories through do-it-yourself media such as posters, leaflets, and oral histories, homebrew games seemed appropriate. The curators of the exhibition, Jiří Hlaváček, Pavel Mücke, and Miroslav Vaněk, liked the idea of including games and asked us to develop versions of selected titles that would be playable both on-site and on the associated website, entitled 100 Student (R)evolutions.5 Our core team consisted of a game historian, Jaroslav Švelch, and a programmer, Martin Kouba. The two of us had played ZX Spectrum games as kids (sometimes even together), which gave us basic knowledge of the source platform as well as 1980s games in general.
We selected three text adventures relevant to the exhibition:
• R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N.,6 written in 1988 by Miroslav Fídler and credited to ÚV Software (or Central Committee Software, a sarcastic reference to the central committees of Communist-era institutions).7 This satirical game takes an unnamed protagonist on a quest through a decrepit city to deface symbols of Communist ideology, ultimately destroying a statue of Lenin with dynamite. Its name refers to the perestroika (or “reconstruction” in Czech) reforms initiated in the Soviet Union, and the game makes the argument that the oppressive system cannot be reformed but should be torn down. Upon finishing the game, the player is invited to take part in a real-life demonstration commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the country’s occupation by Soviet forces.
• The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989 (also available in English translation),8 written in 1989 by unknown author(s) and credited to Zuzan Znovuzrozeny (Susan Reborn).9 It was likely released as a response to the January 1989 Palach Week demonstrations that were brutally suppressed by the police. The player takes control of Indiana Jones, whose goal is to escape the square and get to an airport. In the process, he has to avoid tear gas and water cannons and violently dispose of policemen and militiamen. The game revels in hyperbolic violence and cruel game-over scenes, which serve to expose and criticize police violence.
• November 17, 1989, written in 1989 by unknown author(s) and credited to Doublesoft and Hoblsoft.10 According to the intro screen, the game was released only two days after the November 17 student march, which ended with a brutal beating of peaceful students by the riot police. The goal is to escape a police cordon, find video-recording equipment, and film evidence of police violence. The game’s theme resonates with the Czechoslovak citizens’ desire to learn more about the events, which were hushed up by the state-controlled mass media. At the exhibition, this desire was also documented by posters for screenings of such video recordings.
We received permission to create and exhibit the conversion of R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. from Miroslav Fídler. The authors of the two remaining titles remain unknown despite Švelch’s continued and rigorous efforts to identify them and despite appeals for them to come forward made in mainstream and specialist media. We are still hoping that copyright holders will contact us. For the time being, we treat the games as orphan works, which—according to the Czech copyright law—can be disseminated on a nonprofit basis by libraries, museums, or educational institutions.11 As for the copyright to our own code, the organizers agreed we would retain it so that we can continue developing the conversions after the exhibition.
The literature on game curation and exhibition stresses that there is not one correct and authentic way of exhibiting games.12 Niklas Nylund has argued that each exhibition is staged and constructed, and chasing an original experience is therefore futile and unproductive.13 Simply presenting original games on original hardware can actually run counter to the goals of memory institutions because the resulting exhibits may lack accessibility and educational value, and even degrade the condition of material artifacts. As Margaret Hedstrom and her colleagues have shown, users may find original platforms awkward and difficult to control due to, for example, different keyboard layouts or flickering screens.14 According to Nylund, a game exhibition can focus on three different aspects of games: objects, experiences, and context.15 The focus, and the resulting technological solution, depends on the curatorial goals of each project. Our case was quite specific because we were going to display games at an otherwise nongame exhibition, whose prospective audience was the general public rather than (retro) gaming enthusiasts. Displaying original hardware or software (objects) was therefore less important than providing gameplay experience and historical context. The goal was to present the games as a part of a broader do-it-yourself activist media landscape and to show how they responded to historical events by using the unique properties of the text-adventure format.
Rebuilding the Code
Besides the information needed to rebuild the games, the analysis gave us valuable historical insight into amateur game-programming practices of the 1980s. The games were written in a short amount of time, and the code was much less complex than commercial text adventures of the time. As was customary in the local gaming scene, the code included introductory comments jokingly discouraging people from reading it.20 Below, we reproduce the first three lines of R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. (see fig. 2).
Excerpt from the beginning of the BASIC listing of R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. that shows the introductory comment (on line 1) and the use of constants and functions (VAL, SGN, INT) to speed up the execution of the code (on line 3). (Image courtesy the authors).
The listing greets the reader with the message “Stop right there! Such cheating does not befit the morals of a socialist citizen.” While BASIC code is, in principle, easy to read, this particular program (as well as November 17, 1989) was obfuscated due to a common trick employed by ZX Spectrum BASIC programmers to speed up the code: using constants and functions instead of numbers (see line 3). Any occurrence of the number three, for example, was coded as INT PI (integer value of pi), and any occurrence of a zero as NOT PI.
Balancing Accuracy and Usability
Along the way, we had to make a series of design decisions that determined the extent to which we would replicate the original functionality and presentation, or make the games more usable and accessible. Given the focus of the exhibition, our aim was to provide access to the games as historical documents. This prevented us from updating them to conform to current game design sensibilities and from making any significant changes to the games’ mechanics, narratives, or paratextual elements such as introductory texts or copyright notices. We did not, for example, choose to remake these text adventures as point-and-click adventures. Instead, we recreated the type-in (or menu-driven in the case of November 17, 1989) interface and strove to accurately reproduce all the original puzzles and interactions. An important measure of success was testing whether our versions could be completed with the same sequence of commands as the original title, and all three conversions passed the test. At the same time, we made sure the conversions could be not only won but also lost in the exact same ways as the originals because game-over sequences are crucial to these games’ storytelling, especially in the case Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square. Correct implementation of all death scenes in this game was time-consuming, as the conditions under which they are triggered are wildly inconsistent, and the source code of this title was not available.
We did introduce several changes, all of which are detailed below. Most of them were made for the sake of user-friendliness and inspired by the feedback from a playtesting session conducted with fifteen students from the Oral History—Contemporary History master’s program at Charles University.
• Our parser recognizes several synonyms for most verbs, such as PICK UP or GET instead of TAKE, and some item names. It also allows the player to shorten all verbs and item names to the first three letters, which was only possible in R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N.
• The conversions enable saving and loading the game using dedicated commands, originally available only in November 17, 1989. This change makes the other two titles easier to play, and therefore arguably less challenging than they originally were. However, we had observed that playtesters already found the games difficult enough, and we concluded that having to restart after each game-over would be too frustrating. Besides, saving and loading game states is also possible in emulator software.
• The conversions contain hints for each location available through the HINT command. Additionally, the hint system notifies the player if they have reached a state that makes the game unwinnable (for example by losing a critical item). The hints, as well as some system messages, are displayed in a different color to indicate they were not featured in the original versions.
• We added graphic intro screens to the two games that did not have them, R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. and Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square, in order to give each game a recognizable visual identity that could be used in website thumbnails or publicity materials (see figs. 3 and 4). We commissioned the art from the Czech illustrator and pixel artist Jana Kilianová. The images were created in the resolution and palette of the ZX Spectrum platform, although they do not conform to its limitation of two colors per 8-by-8 square.
Title image for the English translation of R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. by Jana Kilianová. (Image courtesy of authors)
Title image for the English translation of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square by Jana Kilianová. (Image courtesy of authors)
• We recreated some elements of the 8-bit look and feel with modern means. While we agree with Nylund’s observation that original experience is a myth,23 we wanted to distinguish the program from other web experiences and give players the impression that they are interacting with a historical artifact (see figs. 5 and 6). To approximate the tardy responses of ZX Spectrum BASIC, we used a CSS effect that displays text letter by letter, although the text can be sped up by pressing Enter. We toyed with using the original ZX Spectrum system font, but decided against it because it is proprietary, difficult to read, and does not contain Czech and Slovak diacritics. We ended up using the VT323 font,24 which is derived from the DEC VT320 terminal font, and therefore anachronistic, but is proportional and easily readable, published under the OpenFont license, and includes diacritics. To communicate more of the feel of the 1980s versions, we sampled most of their sound effects and implemented them in our conversions.
Screenshot from the starting location of the emulated version of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square . (Image courtesy of authors)
Screenshot from the starting location of the converted version of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square . Note that the conversion adds diacritics (Image courtesy of authors)
• For the sake of readability, we corrected obvious typos found in the original games and added diacritics when needed.25 If a game was presented in uppercase letters only, we converted the text to regular sentence case.
• We included additional interface tweaks, for example using arrow keys to cycle though previous commands or the TAB key to auto-complete commands.
An important feature of our conversions is the help page accessible by clicking on the question-mark symbol on the top-right corner of the game window. It contains contextual information about the original game, instructions, frequently asked questions, a link to a bug report form, and—importantly—a detailed list of changes from the original similar to the one above.
Launching and Translating the Conversions
After some last-minute bug fixing, the Czech-language conversions of the three games were published on the website in time for the opening on November 11, 2019—although we omitted some text animations in the November 17, 1989 game due to time constraints. The exhibition space had three Windows personal computers, each running one of the titles, accompanied by a panel with descriptions of each game and its historical context, and a short text explaining the process behind the conversions. The computers were connected to the internet and ran the code from our GitHub repository, which allowed us to implement bug fixes by simply refreshing the page in a web browser. We encountered some technical issues common to web technologies—mostly related to interface or text displaying incorrectly in some screen resolutions.
The organizers did not collect detailed feedback but concluded that the on-site reception of the games was unanimously positive and that they played an important role in attracting visitors. Our own anecdotal observations suggested that the exhibition was a good place to learn about the existence of the games and try them out, but that they are more suitable for playing online at one’s leisure because of their difficulty and length. Fortunately, the exhibition website will be up for the foreseeable future while the physical exhibition was closed after one month. Since its launch until the end of August 2020, the web page with the games has had around three thousand hits, making it the most frequently visited page on the website. The games are also accessible from the companion website to Švelch’s book Gaming the Iron Curtain.26
The Benefits of Conversions
So far, we have identified several advantages of conversions over original hardware and software, emulation, or ports in these types of projects:
• A web-based conversion is eminently accessible because it does not require installing any first-party or third-party software and runs on most contemporary computers. It can also be adjusted to run on mobile phones and tablets, although we have not implemented that yet.
• Conversions allow for a more user-friendly interface, improving their usability by the general public or students. All in-game text is rendered by the browser, which allows users to copy and paste it for future reference, or to use text-to-speech tools and other accessibility options available in web browsers or operating systems.
• Unlike emulation, conversions allow for convenient translation into other languages. While translation of original programs through source-code editing or ROM hacking is indeed possible, it is time-consuming and has many limitations.29
• Conversions can integrate contextual information in their paratextual elements, such as our help page.
At the same time, we admit that handcrafted conversions such as ours are more labor-intensive than other solutions and may be a good fit only for a specific subset of relatively simple computer games, such as text adventures. Although we may consider converting additional text adventures in the future, our engine might not be capable of handling some of the more complex titles.
Conversions should not be understood as replacements of the preserved original versions, but rather as companions. We see our work not as “remasters” or “remakes” but rather as new editions of existing games.30 Besides translating the rest of the games into one or more foreign languages, our next potential step is to create critical editions that would add additional editorial content and hypertextual annotations to the text displayed by the game.31 Despite the project’s origin at a short-term exhibition, we hope that the resulting conversions can be used as a unique and accessible resource for teaching both game history and the history of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet bloc.
The authors would like to thank the curators and organizers of the November 1989: The Road to Democracy exhibition for their support.
1. ^ Renee Shelby, “‘I Incite This Meeting to Rebellion,’” ROMchip 1, no. 1 (July 2019), https://romchip.org/index.php/romchip-journal/article/view/46; and Jim Dunnigan et al., “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!,” Connection: The Magazine Supplement of the Columbia Daily Spectator, March 11, 1969.
3. ^ Jaroslav Švelch, Gaming the Iron Curtain: How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games, Game Histories (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).
4. ^ November 1989: The Road to Democracy, Institute of Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, https://www.avcr.cz/cs/pro-verejnost/vystavy/vystavy-v-budove-av-cr/vystavy/2019/listopad-1989.html. The exhibition took place in the main building of the Academy of the Sciences of the Czech Republic (Národní 3, Prague) from November 11 to December 14, 2019.
5. ^ 100 Student (R)evolutions, http://www.studenti89.usd.cas.cz/.
6. ^ R.E.C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N., https://primitivedesigns.github.io/remakes89/prestavba/.
7. ^ ÚV Software, P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A. (ÚV Software, 1988), ZX Spectrum.
8. ^ The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989 , https://primitivedesigns.github.io/remakes89/indy/; English translation: https://primitivedesigns.github.io/remakes89/indy/en/.
9. ^ Zuzan Znovuzrozeny, Dobrodružství Indiana Jonese na Václavském náměstí v Praze dne 16. 1. 1989 (self-pub., 1989), ZX Spectrum.
10. ^ November 17, 1989, https://primitivedesigns.github.io/remakes89/listopad/; and Doublesoft and Hoblsoft, 17. 11. 1989 (Doubles©ft, 1989), ZX Spectrum.
11. ^ Sbírka zákonů, “Zákon ze dne 23. září 2014, kterým se mění zákon č. 121/2000 Sb., o právu autorském, o právech souvisejících s právem autorským a o změně některých zákonů (autorský zákon), ve znění pozdějších předpisů, a zákon č. 151/1997 Sb., o oceňování majetku a o změně některých zákonů (zákon o oceňování majetku), ve znění pozdějších předpisů,” Sbírka zákonů—Československá socialistická republika 2014, no. 96 (2014): 2594–600.
12. ^ James Newman, “Ports and Patches: Digital Games as Unstable Objects,” Convergence 18, no. 2 (May 1, 2012): 135–42, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856511433688; Helen Stuckey, “Remembering Australian Videogames of the 1980s: What Museums Can Learn from Retro Gamer Communities about the Curation of Game History” (PhD diss., Flinders University, 2016), https://bit.ly/2WcL8lf; and Melanie Swalwell, “Moving On from the Original Experience: Philosophies of Preservation and Dis/play in Game History,” in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, Routledge Advances in Game Studies 9, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Helen Stuckey, and Angela Ndalianis (New York: Routledge, 2017), 213–33.
13. ^ Niklas Nylund, “Constructing Digital Game Exhibitions: Objects, Experiences, and Context,” Arts 7, no. 4 (December 2018): 103, https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7040103.
14. ^ Margaret L. Hedstrom et al., “‘The Old Version Flickers More’: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective,” American Archivist 69, no. 1 (2006): 159–87.
15. ^ Nylund, “Constructing Digital Game Exhibitions,” 103.
16. ^ Hedstrom et al., “The Old Version Flickers More.”
17. ^ See Andrew S. Tanenbaum, Paul Klint, and Wim Bohm, “Guidelines for Software Portability,” Software: Practice and Experience 8, no. 6 (November 1978): 681–98, https://doi.org/10.1002/spe.4380080604; Clara Fernández-Vara and Nick Montfort, “Videogame Editions for Play and Study,” TROPE 13-02, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, October 2013, http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/87668; Švelch, Gaming the Iron Curtain; and Paweł Grabarczyk and Espen Aarseth, “Port or Conversion? An Ontological Framework for Classifying Game Versions,” in DiGRA ’19: Proceedings of the 2019 DiGRA International Conference: Game, Play and the Emerging Ludo-Mix (Kyoto: DiGRA, 2019), http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/DiGRA_2019_paper_189.pdf.
18. ^ Specprint, http://archive.sundby.com/mirror/www.worldofspectrum.org/utilities.html.
19. ^ FUSE emulator, http://fuse-emulator.sourceforge.net/.
20. ^ Jaroslav Švelch, “This Game Has a Message: Subversive Gaming in 1980s Czechoslovakia,” Obieg: Magazyn Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej 3, no. 12 (2019), https://obieg.u-jazdowski.pl/en/numery/the-speed-of-guccifer/this-game-has-a-nbsp-message-subversive-gaming-in-1980s-czechoslovakia.
21. ^ The term engine, however, was not used at the time when these games were released. A word like system would be used instead.
22. ^ Edsger W. Dijkstra, “Go to Statement Considered Harmful,” letter to the editor, Communications of the ACM 11, no. 3 (March 1, 1968): 147–48, https://doi.org/10.1145/362929.362947.
23. ^ Nylund, “Constructing Digital Game Exhibitions.”
24. ^ VT323 font, https://fonts.google.com/specimen/VT323#standard-styles.
25. ^ The ZX Spectrum character set did not include either Czech or Slovak diacritics. Many locally produced games therefore did not use them, making the text somewhat difficult to read.
26. ^ Švelch, Gaming the Iron Curtain, http://ironcurtain.svelch.com/.
27. ^ Minako O’Hagan and Carmen Mangiron, Game Localization: Translating for the Global Digital Entertainment Industry, Benjamins Translation Library 106 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013).
28. ^ Andrada Fiscutean, “How Indiana Jones, Rambo, and Others Ended Up in 1980s Czechoslovak Text-Adventures,” Ars Technica, October 23, 2020, https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2020/10/how-indiana-jones-fought-the-communists-and-led-an-era-of-activist-video-games/.
29. ^ Pablo Muñoz Sánchez, “Video Game Localisation for Fans by Fans: The Case of Romhacking,” Journal of Internationalization and Localization 1, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 168–85, https://doi.org/10.1075/jial.1.07mun; and Mia Consalvo, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
30. ^ See Fernández-Vara and Montfort, Videogame Editions for Play and Study.
31. ^ See Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Literature, Culture, Theory 20 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Daniel Apollon, Claire Belisle, and Philippe Régnier, eds., Digital Critical Editions, Topics in the Digital Humanities (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014).