Czechoslovak 8-bit Underground

Over the past two decades, the topic of using videogames as tools of political activism has been discussed very often. Designers like Paolo Pedercini (Molleindustria) have created games that draw attention to social problems. Some political candidates have used video games as a part of their political campaign (as Jean-Luc Mélenchon did with the game Fiscal Kombat); other games have been created to mock politicians (e.g. Pussy Walk, the game mocking Czech president Miloš Zeman). However, we shouldn`t forget that the history of political and activism-focused video games is much longer. Especially in the former Czechoslovakia, where they were thriving during the era of “normalization”. This exhibition presents eight games from the years 1987-1989, subversive to the official ideology of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Despite the limited accessibility of hardware, a very agile and inventive community of computer enthusiasts formed in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In 1989 there were around 100 000 owners of the British 8-bit computer ZX Spectrum and other compatible machines. A large part of computer enthusiasts met in hobby groups under the auspices of Zväzarm (Union for Cooperation with the Army) and of other official socialist organizations. However, the games weren`t censored. The communist party probably didn`t realize the potential of this new medium to express personal and political views. Therefore, local and foreign computer games could freely spread among gamers who copied them from tape to tape.

In the late 80’s the political pressure over the society loosened a little as a result of Soviet “perestroika”. The new coming of age generation didn’t believe in the Soviet model of socialism and they hadn’t experienced the traumatic repressions after the Prague Spring. In 1987 first games mocking the communists and the Soviet propaganda appear. They were mostly text-based adventure games, narrating the story through on-screen words and illustrations. They often combined western influences with local inspiration. In Šatochin (1988), one of the comic text-based games by Bratislava’s Sybilasoft, the heroic major of the Soviet army was supposed to eliminate John Rambo. On the other hand, the protagonist of Mr. Frost (Mrazík, 1988) was Rambo himself. Video games also included references to local unofficial culture. Just like the song by Jaromir Nohavica in Fuksoft (1987) or the adaptation of the forbidden comic book Rychlé šípy in Petr Mihula’s videogame The Mystery of Conundrum (Rychlé šípy: Záhada hlavolamu, 1988).

These games were followed by titles openly criticising the communist regime. Given the sensitivity of the topic, their authors were anonymous, and we managed to find out the name of only one of them. Each of the four protest games included in the exhibition is related to one of the anti-regime demonstrations, which were gaining more and more support from the youth at that time. The satirical game R.E.S.T.R.U.C.T.U.R.I.N.G. (P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A., 1988) invites the gamers to participate in the protest commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Indiana Jones’s Adventure in Wenceslas Square (Dobrodružství Indiana Jonese na Václavském náměstí, 1989) confronts Indiana Jones, iconic hero of American pop culture, with the police brutality during the protests of 1989. In the text-based game 17. 11. 1989 (1989), the protagonist’s task is to shoot a documentary about the violence against the protesters at Národní Avenue in Prague. And Strike (Stávka, 1989) focuses on the general strike in 1989.

These text-based games for ZX Spectrum belong to the oldest political and activist games in the world that have been preserved to this day. They are short and quite simple, but in their time, they reacted react very promptly and strongly to contemporary events. In retrospect, it is very difficult to estimate their influence. It was probably smaller than the impact of student press or folk songs. However, their authors were among the first to see the potential of video games not only to entertain, but also to criticise unfavourable social conditions and to express one’s political views.

Jaroslav Švelch, curator

 

Exhibited Games:

 

Fuksoft
(1987, Sybilasoft)
Stanislav Hrda, Pavol Čejka, Juraj Hlaváč, Michal Hlaváč, Martin Sústrik

One of Stanislav Hrda’s first games takes place in a fictitious tenement house, where the author situated the microcosmos of his social and cultural life. Most of the characters are his friends or high school classmates. The task of the protagonist is to save the legendary Prague game programmer František Fuka from a deadly explosion.  Fuksoft initiated the trend of autobiographically inspired text-based games and paved the way to the activist games that were created later. The opening melody echoes the song Když mě brali za vojáka by Jaromír Nohavica, whose works were officially banned, but people secretly copied them on audio tapes. There is one particularly fitting political joke in the game: in the house, you can find a hammer and a sickle and take them, but they will be of no use to you.

 

Šatochin
(1988 / Sybilasoft)
Stanislav Hrda, Pavol Čejka, Juraj Hlaváč, Michal Hlaváč, Martin Sústrik

Šatochin mocks Soviet war hero stories and American action movies that were clandestinely distributed on pirate videotapes. The Red Army major Šatochin (famous protagonist of the Soviet film Odinočnoje plavanije) sets out to Vietnam to eliminate John Rambo. Despite the Soviet soldier is supposed to be the protagonist, Stanislav Hrda’s script thrives on depicting him as a loser who always dies under grotesque circumstances. The icing on the cake is the hidden minigame that can be unlocked by pressing the keys K, G and B. Mini Šatochin is situated in an institution for war veterans, where Šatochin must smother Rambo with socks (and avoid being stabbed to death with a fork by the American hero). Šatochin is not an explicitly activist game, it undermines communist mythology and iconography in a funny and ingenious way.

 

Mr. Frost
(1988 / Palas)
Karel Papík

Mr. Frost (Mrazík) proves the popularity of Rambo among young Czechoslovaks. While in Šatochin, Rambo was the lead character’s enemy, in Karel Papík’s text-based game, he is the protagonist. Rambo must infiltrate a Soviet base and get hold of classified files. During the game, there are several jokes about perestroika and Russian officers’ liking of vodka. Just like The Mystery of Conundrum, it is a longer text-based game aspiring to catch up with western video games. The life-like portrait of Rambo on the title screen and the illustrations of the game locations prove this ambition.

 

The Mystery of Conundrum
(1988 / MS-CID Software)
Petr Mihula

Petr Mihula, programmer from Brno, wrote The Mystery of Conundrum during his compulsory military service. He created it in his free time in the military barracks, as he was officially allowed to bring and use his ZX Spectrum there. The comics Rychlé šípy by Jaroslav Foglar were banned at that time, but many families managed to preserve old issues from the 30’s and 40’s and from the period around 1968. However, Mihula didn’t adapt the comic, but the novel The Mystery of Conundrum, which was perfect for the video game thanks for the detective plot structure and the mysterious mood. The complex and elaborated text-based game came was one of the most popular local videogames at that time. While the television adaptation of the book was banned during the normalization period, the game quickly spread among Czechoslovak gamers. In 1990 it was reissued as a commercial title by the Bratislava-based company Ultrasoft.

 

R.E.S.T.R.U.C.T.U.R.I.N.G..
(1988 / ÚV Software)
Miroslav Fídler

In 1988 Miroslav Fídler, a.k.a. Cybexlab Software, was one of the most famous and respected Czechoslovak video game programmers.  He published the game R.E.S.T.R.U.C.T.U.R.I.N.G. anonymously as a “naive form of protest”. His authorship was revealed after the Velvet Revolution after 1989. The aim of the game is to blow up Lenin’s statue situated in a nameless Czechoslovak town. The hero’s quest involves destructing many other symbols of communist ideology. To be able to cross a dark room, he has to use a burning copy of Marx’s Capital as a torch. As an ironic counterpoint, the game is interwoven with socialist mottos like “Workers of the world, unite!” However, at the end of the game, the player is invited to join the demonstration on 21 August 1988, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. R.E.S.T.R.U.C.T.U.R.I.N.G. was so popular that it was also ported to Atari.

 

Indiana Jones’s Adventure in Wenceslas Square on 16 January 1989
(1989 / Zuzan Znovuzrozený)
Anonymous work

Thanks to unofficial text-based games created by František Fuka and others, Indiana Jones became one of the most popular heroes of Czechoslovak games. In this anonymous work, the American archaeologist finds himself in Prague’s Wenceslas Square during the protests in 1989 that were brutally supressed by the police and the militia. Indiana Jones must fight his way through the crowd and get to the airport, which is far from easy, because bloodthirsty policemen and militiamen are everywhere. This extremely violent game shows the traumatic events from the point of view of an action hero who can fight back, unlike the real protesters. The author is unknown, but from the fierce tone of the game and the faithful geographic depiction, we can assume that he or she was one of the protesters.

 

17 November 1989
(1989 / Doublesoft & Hoblsoft)
Anonymous work

According to the date on the title screen, this game was released on 19 November 1989, only two days after the violent police intervention at Národní Avenue in Prague. At that time, it was not at all certain, how the Velvet Revolution would turn out and official media didn’t inform about the events.  The text game 17 November 1989 addresses the general demand for undistorted information. It shows the demonstration from the point of view of an amateur journalist who has been assigned to record testimonies about the brutality of “white helmets” and send them to the western media. The title screen is a remarkable collage of protest slogans combined with graphics borrowed from the Australian karate combat game The Way of the Exploding Fist (1985).

 

Strike
(1989 / Svosatasoft)
Anonymous work

The name of this videogame refers to the general strike on 27 November 1989, when the workers of Czechoslovakia supported the demands of students and helped invalidate the legitimacy of the Communist government.  Just like the game 17 November 1989, this title aims at spreading information, mainly the news that the passage of the leading role of the Communist Party has been removed from the constitution. The rest of the game consists in wandering around abandoned office spaces and looking for keys to closed doors. This game illustrates the fact that the authors of activist games didn’t spend much time designing sophisticated puzzles. Their priority was to react as fast as possible to social events and spread out important messages.