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The remembrance of things parsed

Usborne have released their early 1980s Computing Guides as free downloads. Why are people hooting about this?

I generally have limited shrift for Gen X childhood nostalgia media. Things from the past turn up again. You have changed. They have not. You had to be there. But when Usborne released their 1980s computing kids books as free downloads, how much sharper than a serpent's tooth the pang of sentiment.

It's hard to exaggerate how important these books were. Usborne's books were our YouTube. It's where kids went for diversion and information. There were no memes, or whimsy, or cat videos. Nobody had a video camera, and cats had only just been invented. All that lay in the future, which was exciting, assuming there was no nuclear apocalypse, which felt no better than even odds.

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God, it's so odd talking to not-even-young people about the pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-mobile age. Of how there was no way to cheat at pub quizzes. Of how good you needed to be at recalling and imitating the thing you'd seen on TV last night because you'd probably never see it again. Of how you needed a physical copy of a thing to experience it. But here it is, an actual, factual printed book - well, a .pdf in a tab in a browser on a screen - thrillingly primitive-prescient, like the back of Marie Curie's envelopes, or Newton's beermat, a cosy guide to a new age. Shall we?

Well, first I have to explain some things. Where we're going, analogue isn't retro, it's futuristic. Bread is sliced, coffee is instant, and orange juice comes frozen in cans. Grundig is still a mighty force in portable cassette players, which was how you can listen to music not in the sitting room, and also how you install games. VHS is new, but Betamax is clearly the superior format. The year 2000 is impossibly far in the future, and we still have science fiction dates to look forward to: Space 1999, 2001, the 21st Century, quivering with matte-painting special effects and wonder.

Cars are rectilinear, and nobody has them. You can park anywhere in London. People still ask what things cost in Old Money. Everyone grown up has fought in the war, and some teachers still use their wartime rank. You know people at school who've been on a long-distance flight. There's Smoking on these planes. You can smoke upstairs on buses, on the Tube. You can trust Old Men.

And then these astounding sci-fi props started appearing in our houses. And Usborne holds our hand and shows us that we too can write shit, buggy code.

Immediately, there's the delicious clash of mediums and paradigms, a book about computers, a thing from the past about the future, an Olde-Style Guide to The New Thing That Will Change Everything presented in the medium-that-will-be-replaced. Let us leave to one side Usborne's brilliant The Know-How Book of Spycraft [which I have just this moment bought again, mainly so I can read the bit where it gravely counsels kids that cotton wool, when dyed and combed, can be artfully wrought into a convincing disguise beard]. Look how nice these books are. How thorough and loving the layout. Let us for the moment disregard the flaming cover lie "NO COMPUTER NEEDED", instead gaze at the helpful little computer men, the displaced Space Invader blockpersons, the lovingly hand-tinted colour washes. These are admirable introductions to an exciting new thing. The text is assured, friendly, encouraging:

  • Computers are fun. You can play games with them, ask them questions, write poetry with them and play music on them too. This colourful new series of books shows you some of the exciting things computers can do and explains how they work and how to use them. Written in clear and simple language with lots of pictures, these books provide a fun introduction to computers and computing for absolute beginners.

Wait, did they even have Desk Top Publishing to lay out the text? Was it cut and pasted with actual cuts, real paste? And then, all at once, it's 1982. This is my Proustian madeleine, redolently reminiscent of another age, a time gone by.

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Oh god, ROM! Whatever happened to ROM? RAM is rampant, but no roads lead to ROM. And not even REM remains, replaced by the //comments that are all I can understand of webpage source. Subroutines, which I now only encounter playing Netrunner. Gosub, PLOT, UNPLOT, PEEK and POKE, the Gog and Magog of our infant ambitions, giants striding past us. And such machines! Texas Instruments, Tandy, the Dragon 32, BBC Micro, Amstrad, the mighty Commodore 64. Commodore. They do not name computers like that anymore.

I wonder if my delight in mechanical keyboards stems from the BBC Micro I never had/could never use. Digits meet mechanical apparatus. Clacky. Mmmm.

  • The robot will attempt to follow your instructions even if they are wrong, or incomplete.

No, that's what it's like being a developer.

  • Mistakes in a program are called bugs and they can sometimes lead to unusual results from the computer.

F**k you.

  • This game is different from the others in this book because it uses graphics.

That's how basic this BASIC is. This is fundamental computing, with no sound, and barely any graphics, let alone 3D or first person. Most of Football Manager would still work perfectly, mind. And there's no audio. That would come much, much later, then irono-regurgitated as Chiptune, a grumpy old man's bitter parody of what young people will listen to these days. Hahaha wasn't rationing great, Grandad? No. And turn that racket down.

  • The best way to learn BASIC is to try out lots of programs from books and magazines, then alter them a little to see what happens.

I just felt something weird. I heard my inner voice say "Program? Not Programme?" and then saw the footnote primly proscribing:

  • Spelt like this when used for a computer.

And, reader, I was 10 again.

Oh my God, it's got a Procedural Limerick Generator! There was a young man from...

  • 80 DATA TASHKENT, TRENT, KENT, GHENT
  • 90 DATA WRAPPED UP, COVERED, PAINTED, FASTENED
  • 100 DATA HEAD, HAND, DOG, FOOT
  • 110 DATA IN A TENT, WITH CEMENT, WITH SOME SCENT, THAT WAS BENT
  • 120 DATA IT RAN OFF, IT GLOWED, IT BLEW UP, IT TURNED BLUE
  • 130 DATA IN THE PARK, LIKE A QUARK, FOR A LARK, WITH A BARK
  • 140 WHERE IT WENT, ITS INTENT, WHY IT WENT, WHAT IT MEANT

I still can't parse information this way. It was and is as baffling as the notation of the Beatles songbook, with the first line of each verse stacked one above the other:

  • Wednesday morning at / Father snores as his / Friday morning at
  • Well, she was / Well she looked / Whoah, we danced

I just touchtyped that out, badly, in Notepad ++, a splendidly ugly text editor for coders that in no way processes words well. I use because it makes me feel Pro. And it doesn't add formatting data to .txt files like Word does, so it won't break game engine localisation tools. Except when it's encoding the file as UTF-8 without BOM. I have no clue what that is. Anyway, because I'd already written Ghent it autocorrected GHENT to Ghent. I have no idea how to stop it doing that. I'm 43. I've been in the games industry for 14 years. I'm surrounded by master coders. None of it has rubbed off since I was 10. None. 10 GOTO 43.

  • How to make the computer look clever.

Not how to make YOU look clever, which was all we were interested in.

But look at those knock-off Chris Foss-esque illustrations. Colossal primitive shapes, lightly furred with antennae, forever zooming to or from vanishing points.

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Only now do I realise how much of an itch blocky retro-Rogue-like FTL was scratching. Retro Futurism. Retro Futurism never changes.

So, on to the games. A lot of them are set in space. Starship Takeoff, Evil Alien, Moonlander, Space Commando, Space Attack, Alien Snipers, Asteroid Belt, the trademark-flirting Monsters of Galacticon. This is the "You Won't Believe Your Eyes" era of computer games, where the same few expensively conjured dots of light were alleged and indeed felt to be racing cars, spaceships, particularly spaceships, because A: Space and B: space plays to abstraction, and a lack of assets feels like authored, deliberate sensory austerity. It's a good way to make the contentless void of empty computer screen seem not shit.

  • Space Attack: In the game you are on a star ship being attacked by a wave of alien fighters. Your ship's computer locates the aliens and gives you their coded position. To hit each alien you have to work out the firing range by multiplying the codes and typing in the answer.

What a great game. Hold on! IT'S JUST MATHS.

  • Intergalactic Games: There is fierce competition among the world's TV companies for exclusive coverage of the First Intergalactic Games. Everything depends on which company wins the race to put a satellite into orbit at the right height. You are the Engineer in charge of the launch for New Century TV. The crucial decisions about the angle and speed of the launching rocket rests on your shoulders. Can you do it?

I can't help but marvel at these hopeful, incantatory blurbs, and how close they feel to my job as narrative designer and writer. Making the coloured blobs of light mean something, sort of, for a bit. Here are the sums we can make a computer display the results of. Come up with a reason why that would be good. We've got much better at concealing the If X Then Y transactional fiat of our fiction-rationing devices, but this is that first better mousetrap. We're still trying to dress up the limitations of our tech as virtues. We're still good at drawing cubes and making things explode, and awful at People, or psychological realism. And the game that are best at people? They're made blocky. It's all been a terrible blind alley.

Let's all go back this simpler, more golden age, when every bit and byte had to be apportioned, counted, cherished. When we were afizz and aflame with excitement to type something and see it on a screen. Now we have more memory than we have clear ideas what to do with. We choke on it, like some huge, I dunno, metaphor.

These books are a flashback to an earlier, more innocent, hilariously modest time. You have a spare TV you use to not watch TV. You must ration out your kilobyte of memory. It doesn't seem far from pre-Industrial Middle Ages, of stockings darned, buttons frugally guarded and reused, and judging whether something was worth the candle. How inexplicable their charms to anyone for whom this was never the future, or exciting, or un-quaint. What weird Rosetta stones they are.

Looking back, the UK got lucky. We played games on tapes, code printed in magazines, not on immaculate console cartridges code that could be pulled apart and learned from and rebuilt. These books were to computer games what Bert Weedon's 'Play In A Day: Guide To Modern Guitar Playing' was to rock'n' roll. Quaint, but quietly revolutionary. Lots of children suddenly had the means to make a game, creating a generation of bedroom programmers which still imparts some eccentric spin to our games industry's trajectory.

The early 80s were an awful, shitty, racist, sexist, homophobic time, in the permanent shadow of the mushroom cloud. I was afraid to blink, in case the missiles detonated the instant my eyelids closed. But these books are some of best bits of that time. The lack of sarcasm or Cool. The goodwill. The wonder. The first laborious crushing of the rocks to make the sand to make the beach of the internet we can now all swarm and shit on, and games we can get called Fag in. Whatever age you're in, these books will be worth your time.

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