Frankie: the greatest game I never finished…
Posted by Surface Lizard on Wednesday, 22nd September, 2010
1986 was a grand year for the ten-year-old Surface Lizard; a mere burgeoning reptile on the face of this indifferent planet. The Chernobyl reactor disaster shifted the perception of nuclear power. The Challenger shuttle tragically exploded. Mexico hosted the World Cup, with sinister green hobbit mascot Pique. Chris De Burgh violated our charts with ballad-vomitus The Lady in Red. Surface Lizard had his gaming universe redefined by Frankie goes to Hollywood: The Computer Game. Almost 25 years on, and I have still not completed it, and never want to. What is that magic of older games that defined us in our youth? Am I terrified that, if I finish those beloved classic games, the world will end? At least that would mean an end to The X Factor.
It was July 1986. I had birthday money. I got a tank full of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and I was wearing sunglasses. I was never a Blues Brother, alas. That money was burning a hole in my pocket like a piece of volcanic ash, and I had third-degree burns of the absolute certainty that I was not going to leave the computer shop without a game. Even if it were to be some generic arcade port coded in BASIC, and as much fun as an impromptu rusty-razor circumcision. Frankie say: ‘Buy our game’. And I did. Even at a young age, I was getting weary of endless shooters and platform titles, and craved something different…anything different. Spectrum games could take up to ten minutes to load, and for all my pre-pubescent life, I was not going to sit through all that for another Jet Set Willy rip-off.
Fellow UK veteran gamers will recall CRASH magazine; back when games journalism had soul and passion (enter controversy, stage left). In one copy, amongst the endless reviews of space shooters, Ultimate clones and appallingly-parsed fantasy text adventures, was a game based ‘upon’ notorious polito-pop libertines Frankie goes to Hollywood. I was a big fan. I had a tape-to-tape copy of Welcome to the Pleasuredome. I had no idea about their sexual preferences and exhibitionism, nor the critiques of Thatcherite Britain and global politics that permeated their work. A brilliant game can allow you to understand the inspiration that spawned it, and Frankie (shortened thus for my own typing apathy and carpal tunnel ease) was one such game. I understood what the band was ‘about’. The game symbolised the human condition, even if I only realised this after returning to the game a few years later, as an angst-ridden teenager who thought that hating things was the way to appear intelligent. Rather like the average online FPS player.
The purpose of the game was to become a ‘real person’, at which point Frankie would allow you access to the Pleasuredome. Quite what was in there I dread to think, but I suspect a lot of it involved lubrication. The instructions of the game surmised the premise perfectly: ‘You begin your adventure devoid of personality in an environment of suburban boredom, but don’t be put off by ennui, all may not be as it appears!’ I am still devoid of personality now, but what a promise to the young Lizard. The game world was a surreal, disjointed fugue of realities, pop-out windows, and satirical mini-games. A shooting gallery with targets of Maggie Thatcher and Arthur Scargill? A Beach Head parody of shooting invading planes over Liverpool? Disembodied heads of Reagan and Gorbachev spitting a literal war of worlds? I was transfixed.
Through the game, via blind luck, skill and deduction, your percentage factor of being a ‘real person’ increased. I had not, and never have, seen a similar measure of progress in a game. Towards the end, there is a logical deduction exercise in which a series of clues have to be located throughout the houses that are the basic environment for the game; twenty two in total. I have deduced that the killer is Mr Straight. Yet, I have never completed the game. Every time I approach the finale, I retreat like the weedy kid at school without his bully friends to protect him. Every year, around the Christmas season, I habitually load up Frankie, and spend a jubilant few hours becoming a real person. But I never complete it. I never consummate it. If Frankie were a girl, she would be frustrated, and shopping in Ann Summers for a remedy. What is my major malfunction? Talk about ludus interruptus. One of my top-five games of all time, and I have never ‘clocked’ it.
With contemporary titles on the PC or the PS3, I complete them, and enjoy the experience as much as the accomplishment of the ending, and the satisfaction of a narrative arc completed. If I displayed an equal aversion to completing modern games as I do classic ones, it would be considered dysfunction, or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Calming nurses, unpronounceable medication, and quiet rooms would all await me. Which actually sounds like the best reason FOR never completing games. I evidently have no desire to transcend to reach the denouement of Frankie, and become a genuine human being. Yet, the problem runs deeper than the evasion of the Pleasuredome.
In my salad days of gaming, I was young, naïve, and deplorably fickle. I could barely anchor my attention to a single title for more than a matter of days, and completing games was mere afterthought, an occasional cherry on as many cakes as I could gorge myself with. I was punished by choice. The era of the home computer (for me, it was the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore Amiga) was also the era of the bedroom developer. Any small team, or visionary individual, could create a game, and find a publisher. This was before Metacritic, and the sole voice of opinion were the scattering of magazines on the shelves. Each week, the shelves would buckle with new releases, both exemplary and atrocious, and the only way to keep up was to skirt the periphery of the law via copied games. I can read that thought. It’s not just me. We all did it back then! I could only afford a new game every month or so; what did you expect me to do?
I had so many C90 cassettes full of games or, later, boxes of ripped Amiga floppies, that the number of titles available to me meant that I dedicated so little time and appreciation to many of them. Yet, they have crystallised in memory in that state of almost romantic incompleteness, and mystery. The unfinished classic game is like an unrequited love. I adore the enigma of the unexplored, but, greater still, I relish the deferred hope of simply not knowing. Perhaps it is a mania exclusive to me, but how many of you gentle readers procrastinate playing that new, release day, wrapped game? Putting off that moment of revelation is a beautiful anguish. Imagine that with games you have been playing for over two decades.
It’s simple mathematics, and a version of what economists refer to as marginal utility (‘let’s learn with Surface Lizard!’), a form of time-to-pleasure ratio. Take your common or garden triple-A release. Multiplayer aside, which has no ‘completion’ criteria per se, how long will the campaign take to complete? An average of between ten to twenty hours, with RPGs verging closer to fifty in many cases, over a few weeks’ duration. Moderate input, moderate return when the credits roll, and that gold trophy DINGS! Add a decade or two to the equation. A game that you have played throughout the years, wrestled with and been astounded by; completing that is almost like an exorcism. A demon from the past, a gaming sin, has been cleansed. The sensation of euphoric closure is quite unlike anything a modern title can perhaps offer. Give it a try. Load up an old classic, one that typifies your gaming youth. Complete it at last, savour the ending, and see how it feels to connect with memories of an older experience, transplanted to the present day. It’s a different kind of refreshing. And don’t use POKES, or cheat codes. I’ll find out, and will pay you a midnight visit with a copy of Rise of the Robots.
For those who bothered to read past the first paragraph, you can play Frankie for yourself, legally, online: CLICK HERE FOR THE PLEASUREDOME…
Surface Lizard signing out. Relax!
Surface Lizard is 56% a real person. He lost points after an indiscretion with a tube of hand lotion. He plans to hit 60% in the next 20 years. He procrastinates everything, and his laundry bill for bed sheets is astronomical.