Hindsight : The Pawn
Cart: The Pawn
Cab: Atari ST / Amiga / C64
Coin: Magnetic Scrolls
The fourth wall is a special place.
The thin and fragile boundary between fantasy and reality that we cherish so dearly and absorb ourselves in so frequently and yet there’s always a sense playful joy when it’s broken. The tongue-in-cheek comment; the knowing glance; the subverted private joke; the nudge and wink: we employ these techniques in our daily lives as a sort of fourth wall of our own but when a creative medium that we have submitted ourselves to breaks it, the effects can be truly magical.
And yet it’s a place where few games seem to dare to tread. Why? Is the medium taking itself far too seriously? Is challenging it seen as a sign of irreverence? Perhaps; perhaps not. If it is an issue linked with the maturity of the medium though, it’s interesting to note than many early games, most especially text adventures, were already skilful manipulators of the fourth wall long before many of us had even been born.
In 1975, an unassuming ARPANET engineer called William Crowther married his love of caving with his considerable programming skills to create the very first Interactive Fiction (IF) title: Colossal Cave Adventure. Released over ARPANET, it’s difficult to quantify just how many wheels this title set in motion. A genre defining piece of work deployed over a fledgling technological infrastructure, it covered a very significant amount of new ground in one fell swoop. Over the next decade, IF drove much of the early gaming industry in terms of its creativity and popularity with the major player being the Massachusetts-based Infocom.
Their titles, including the superb Zork, Enchanter and Planetfall series’, were hugely popular in America but were much less widely available in the UK. Remember: this was an era where the public relied upon the distribution of physical copies. Spotting a gap in the market, a motivated and highly talented collective of individuals formed the London-based Magnetic Scrolls and rode the wave of popularity surrounding the Atari ST and Amiga home computers. Magnetic Scrolls released a slew of critically acclaimed IF in the 80s that harnessed the power of these platforms, featuring an advanced text parser coupled with lush, detailed images thus pioneering the relatively rare and beautiful Illustrated Interactive Fiction sub-genre.
Magnetic Scroll’s first and arguably most iconic title was The Pawn.
Set in the middle-earth inspired world of Kervonia, The Pawn featured Pratchett-esque humour and a somewhat complex tale that was simple enough for a child such as I was to grasp yet deep enough to engage older players as well. Indeed, playing The Pawn with my dad and his friends is one my most early and fondest gaming memories. The relatively complex text-parser allowed for the input of lengthy, complicated sentences and created the illusion of real and deep interactions with characters and environments whose own properties were defined by their context within the game’s narrative.
The Pawn opens with you being attacked by a strange, bearded man on your way home from the supermarket. You awake some time later in Kervonia with a silver wristband attached to your arm that you are unable to remove. Featuring almost ninety different locations (over half of which were illustrated), your task is quite simply to find a way to remove said band and escape Kervonia whilst figuring out a way to despatch the sorcerer Kronos who has an evil influence over the land.
On your strange journey you encounter fellow Adventurers, Gurus, Alchemists, Jerry Lee Lewis (yes, THE Jerry Lee Lewis, complete with Piano), a Snowman, a Dragon, Hobbits a Princess and even the Devil. And if that wasn’t enough, towards the end of the game you even find a room with the game’s Programmers in who debug you and make you immortal so you are free to wander without destroying yourself!
The beauty of The Pawn (beyond the wonderfully written text and mesmerising images that were truly stunning for their time) lay in the perfect balance it struck between quite contrasting experiences. On one hand it invited you to use your imagination to picture the world it described yet this was complemented perfectly by images that expanded upon what your mind was already seeing. These images informed your thoughts but never dictated them – perhaps an unexpected victory that can only be claimed by ‘unrealistic’ images as opposed to the desperate clamour for realism that pervades today. The experience was quite dream like. Similarly, the balance between creating believable suspense and myth was regularly dispelled by the game being so willing to regularly and cleverly break the fourth wall:
Are you talking to yourself again?
It was little touches like this that made you feel as though there was hidden narration to your adventure, like you were being watched and judged somehow. To a kid that had just been blown away by The Never Ending Story, it was pure synaesthesia.
I sadly never completed The Pawn and was forced to look at guides and hints on many occasions just to make basic progress. To the game’s immense credit that did nothing, even as an impatient young lad, to stop me from spending hours with it happily speaking to characters, getting myself killed, taking my clothes off (in game!) just to see how people would react and wandering around aimlessly staring at the beautiful scenery whilst using my imagination to fill in the gaps. It was and remains an adventure in the truest sense of the word and whilst the genre eventually moved to purely graphical point-and-click for some time before wandering into obscurity, nothing married the creativity of text and the wonder of graphics together so well and so playfully as The Pawn and the superb sequels that Magnetic Scrolls produced thereafter, particularly The Guild of Thieves.
And the absolute best bit: you can try it for yourself.
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