Britsoft: An Oral History – book review

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Oh the 1980s was a fun time in Britain – IRA bombings, miners’ strikes, riots, the Falkland’s War, recession and sky-high unemployment. Not that I was aware of any of that because I was far too busy losing myself in the fledgling medium of the video game (and it all went over my head because I didn’t turn 10 until 1990). It was a decade that saw the coming and going of a staggering number of computer platforms; some still fondly-regarded, many now long forgotten. But more importantly, Britain was home to an exciting, pioneering and rapidly-evolving video game scene that grew out of the bedrooms of teenage programmers into a thriving industry and national success story, helping to the shape the modern video game and create the global multi-billion dollar industry that we know today.

If, like me, you get all teary eyed with nostalgia about this era or have more than a passing interest in video game history, then chances are you’ve watched Anthony and Nicola Caulfield’s excellent feature-length documentary From Bedrooms to Billions, released back in 2014. Well, as an accompaniment to the film, Read-Only Memory have published Britsoft: An Oral History. As with From Bedrooms to Billions, the book tells the story of the British video game industry from the late 1970s to the present day, primarily focusing on the formative years of the 1980s. And like the film, the loosely chronological narrative is constructed around the personal recollections of many of the era’s legends, pioneers and key figures – coders, designers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and journalists. But Britsoft doesn’t just simply regurgitate the film in book form, it draws on the hundreds of hours of interview footage that didn’t see the light of day.

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The story commences with the advent of affordable home computers in the early 80s, creating a generation of self-taught programmers and game makers, and how this evolved into a cottage industry with its own inclusive subculture. It traces the journey from small-scale entrepreneurs running mail order businesses from their bedrooms to the founding of the highly-successful software houses such as Imagine and Codemasters and big publishers/distributors such as Ocean and U.S. Gold. The middle chapter is devoted to the rise of video games journalism, in particular the establishment of the cultish Crash and Zapp!64, essential reading for gamers in a pre-internet age. While, the last few chapters outline the gradual decline of the UK industry from the late 1980s onwards, brought about in part by the inability of British outfits to compete in the emerging global market and the spiralling costs of development.

It finishes on of somewhat of a downer, an exodus of talent to the US; others, burnout and a little jaded by the total commercialisation, leaving the industry altogether. There is pride to what was achieved and how the influence of the British trailblazers can still be felt on today’s games, but there’s also regret of mistakes made, opportunities missed and the lamentation of a bygone era. Though the epilogue manages to inject a hint of optimism with talk of the revitalised indie scene and the popularisation of retrogaming, which has seen a return to niche games made by small teams producing innovative and quirky offerings reminiscent of the 8/16-bit era.

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It sounds like pretty heavy going and weighing in at 424 pages and measuring 160x230mm it’s certainly a hefty tome; the minimalist layout, purple and green colour scheme, and tinted monochrome photos brings to mind a 1980s school textbook, which I presume is the intended effect. Yet it’s a enjoyable and effortless read. The style is light and conversational, and the recollections are broken down into easily digestible chunks, frequently switching between interviewees to keep it fresh. While the accounts themselves are satisfyingly articulate, intelligent, revealing and to the point (no doubt the result of some skilful editing). The beauty of Britsoft is that you don’t have to read it from end to end, it’s something you can dip in and out of. It’s interspersed with photos (check out those mullets!), box art, press clippings, adverts and magazine covers, and the appendix includes mini-biographies of the contributors and a timeline of the hardware mentioned. While directional page numbers at the top of each anecdote allow you to easily follow a single interviewee through the course of the book.

There’s some great anecdotes, like the drunken shenanigans of snooker legend Jimmy White and Virgin Boss Richard Branson during a publicity event for Archer Maclean’s 3D snooker simulation, former Doctor Who actor John Pertwee turning up late to do voice recording for Mel Croucher’s Deus Ex Machina because he’d had a motorcycle accident on the way, and Sensible Software’s Jon Hare confessing about having an entry in his old phone book labelled “The Bitmap wankers”. There’s fascinating accounts of technical innovation – coders and musicians pushing the available hardware to its limits and sometimes well beyond. And a wealth of heart-warming stories such as Martin Kenwright (Falcon, F29 Retaliator) still wanting to thank the general studies teacher who encouraged him into computer graphics, and graphic artist Mo Warden (the Mercenary games) holding her own in an almost exclusively male-dominated profession as a single mother of two. There’s also cautionary tales of how some of the period’s seminal games struggled to get published, such as the “suits” at Thorn EMI failing to see the potential David Braben’s Elite because there wasn’t a score and you didn’t get a free life when you reached 10,000 points.

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And crucially it provides insights into the creation of some of the best loved games from the 80s and 90s, such as Archer Maclean on IK+, Nigel Alderton on Chuckie Egg, the Oliver Twins on the Dizzy games, Julian Gollop on Laser Squad and UFO:Enemy Unknown (X-COM), Peter Molyneux on Populous, Andrew Braybrook on Paradroid, Geoff Crammond on Revs and Dino Dini on Kick Off, to name just a handful.

There’s really not much to criticise. I would have liked it to have included screenshots of the games discussed to be able to put faces to names (although Google is your friend in matters like this), but there may have been technical or budgetary reasons for this omission, and an index of the games would have been a welcome addition. Overall, I found it thoroughly entertaining and a great piece of nostalgia, but I also learnt a lot of new things about the era and it’s great resource to have at hand. Alex Wiltshire has done a astounding job editing and compiling an important first-hand account of a fascinating and formative period in the history of video games. It completely stands on its own from the film, but if you loved From Bedrooms to Billions then I’d say Britsoft: An Oral History is a must buy. Certainly, it should appeal to anyone with a strong interest in 1980/90s video gaming. And at £30 I’d say it’s decent value for money.

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One thought on “Britsoft: An Oral History – book review

  1. Pingback: rotational » Britsoft reviews - Alex Wiltshire

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