This article is essentially about two zx spectrum games, “Go to Hell” (1985) and “Soft and Cuddly”(1987) by John George Jones. For those reading who aren’t aware, the zx spectrum was a cheap, British microcomputer from the 80s. I’d like to point out that I never owned a spectrum and I wasn’t even born when they were released.
I came across these games several years ago while I was researching software on the spectrum, looking for unusual and obscure titles. After viewing close to 100 spectrum games, only a few managed to piqué my interest (“Chaos-the battle of the wizards” and “R-type” are worth looking at, both for completely different reasons). I believe the relatively small number of decent games on the spectrum is probably a reflection of the limitations of the computer more than anything. By comparison, there’s a far greater number of commodore 64 games from around the same era, which I can appreciate, but that’s off topic.
Out of the games on the spectrum, “Soft and Cuddly” and “Go to Hell” both stood out to me, primarily due to their distinct art style and atmosphere.
There’s other articles on the internet which describe the two games in terms of their game play, but I don’t want to focus too heavily on that, mainly because I don’t consider it to be the strongest aspect of these games, nor is it what really interests me about them.
However, I think a short summary is necessary to provide some context.
“Go to hell” is basically a top down, multi-screen exploration game, which is set in hell. The player has to navigate a little blue man through hell and collect six crosses, and finally return them to a large “Alice cooper” head, which is supposed to represent the Devil (perhaps?). Running into walls injures the player, rather than blocking them from movement, as is the norm in most other games. I suspect that the author did this because he couldn’t easily program the player to stop moving. The player can also kill enemies by shooting crosses at them, which rewards you with some additional health.
“Soft and Cuddly”, which was released two years later and is the slightly more polished game out of the two, is a multi scrolling, side-view exploration game. The player can fly with a jetpack and fire a defender-esque laser. The aim of “Soft and Cuddly” is similar to that of “Go to Hell”, except instead of collecting crosses it’s severed body parts which have to be assembled inside a giant fridge, apparently to rebuild the android queen. The locations of the body-parts and the fridge are randomized with each game. In “Soft and Cuddly” walls do prevent the player from moving, but you can also sort of “muscle into them”, which is perhaps the result of poor collision detection. To compensate for this quirk/feature, moving too far into the walls will drain the player’s energy. There’s also an invincibility button which infuriatingly also makes the player "invisible". I have to wonder whether this “special ability” is really some kind of sarcastic joke made at the player’s expense.
To give the games some credit for their use of mechanics, I do appreciate the fact that they’re moderately open ended in terms of exploration. In both games, the player can move in 8 directions and the world maps also offer a reasonable number of choices in terms of alternate paths to follow.
What’s really notable about these games is the eyeball lacerating visual art style, which is characterized by the garish and severely limited color palette used by the spectrum. Depicted throughout the games, in the same stark, high contrast color scheme, is an assortment of hellish imagery. Conveyor belts process an endless flow of bodies, rivers of blood gush across the landscape, severed heads are repeatedly crushed and eviscerated and conjoined twin babies conspire to tear each other apart. It’s not half as horrifying as it sounds and that’s primarily because the resolution is so low that it all more or less looks like abstract art. Along with all the horror imagery are some fairly surreal visuals, including bouncing sheep, bobbing feet and falling anvils. There’s also a few sparse touches of humor which help to lighten the tone; “Go to hell” begins with “Aureviour or is it goodbye” and “Soft and Cuddly” ends with the text “Whip me with a banana”.
In my opinion the games have a “fresh feel” to them. Speculatively, this might be because the author wasn’t much of a game player, and as such may have had a bit of an outside perspective. An article in “Sinclair user” suggests that as a lyricist he was more interested in writing music than making games (“Soft and Cuddly” came with a copy of a song from his band, “H.E.X.”).
To me, part of the appeal of these games, is that they can be viewed as an early attempt at self expression through the medium of video games. Playing them feels a bit like walking through an absurdist neon art gallery of the macabre.
In both games, there isn’t any time limit and the enemies just float around randomly not really providing a real threat to the player. This contributes to the feeling of casual exploration and stands in contrast to most action games, which include a constant pressure for survival and/or achievement. Also unusual is the structure of the games, which feels quite haphazard and chaotic; heads pop up out of random walls, some paths lead nowhere. Half the screen might collapse on the player, killing them for no apparent reason.
In terms of sound there is little more than some sparse crackly sound effects, which seems somehow fitting. Another aspect which I value, is how these games don’t feel as prescriptive as many modern games, which tend to be carefully structured around rewarding the player and driving engagement. It’s worth noting that the tone of the two games is characterized by indifference, even enmity towards the actual player. Most games have an unwritten contract with the player; the player is made to feel in control, they have trust that a program will play fair and not mislead or deceive them. At the start of “Soft and Cuddly”, this player/program relationship is basically violated from the very start, when an anvil is dropped right above the player, killing you if you don’t move out of the way immediately.
A key element to the atmosphere of both games is that they include large areas, consisting of nothing but black space. I would argue that the heavy use of black and the high contrast color scheme adds to the mood, and helps to evoke some unsettling emotions. The reason darkness works so well in building atmosphere is that it causes us to reflect on the unknown and arouses our unconscious fears. Empty space also stimulates the imagination; this is evidenced by individuals who spend time in sensory deprivation chambers, who reportedly experience very vivid sensations. The lack of sensory input causes people to ruminate continually. In the case of visual media, which consists of mostly darkness, the visual stimulus which is present has additional power, as it informs what we imagine in the empty-space, through psychological priming and context effects.
This same technique is utilized in film noir, to help establish a mood of suspense and mystery.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t say that “Go to Hell” or “Soft and Cuddly” are as effective in creating a strange atmosphere as a game like “Another World” for example, but considering their on the spectrum and taking it’s limitations into account, I find them fairly impressive. I appreciate them for their originality, atmosphere and their irreverent vibe.
Here’s a link to a web browser version of “Go to Hell” :
Note: the images and animations on this page are sourced from the two games featured in the article and are not my own work.