One Pixel Too Far and the Character is Dead: A Chat with Bartłomiej Kluska
Bartłomiej Kluska is a digital culture historian and the author of numerous books on Polish digital culture. In an interview with Culture.pl’s Paweł Schreiber, he recounts the story of the oldest Polish video game, lost code and looking for sources.
Paweł Schreiber: Why do we need video game historians?
Bartłomiej Kluska: Video games have been around for half a century now. The last thirty years saw the rise of widespread access to video games in Poland. Despite their brief presence, they are one of the most popular mass culture mediums today. I think this is enough to study their history like we study the history of film or literature.
PS: What is the nature of a digital culture historian’s work?
BK: The central problem is the lack of written sources. The designers of old games, their publishers and the journalists writing about them didn’t archive their work. So we often have to build on spoken sources. The creators of the oldest games are beginning to pass away – it’s the last minute to talk to them. Of course, their memory sometimes fails and it’s difficult to verify their stories by comparing them with historical documents. At times, the access to old magazines is difficult, because they weren’t archived. Even the source codes of video games went missing – and I am not necessarily talking about the very old ones. For example, we can’t republish the video game adaptation of Blade Runner (1997) – the source code and the original graphics have gone missing.
PS: What did your work on Bajty Polskie (editor’s translation: Polish Bytes) look like? The book in which, together with the late Mariusz Rozwadowski, you collected information about the earliest Polish video games?
BK: Our research was the first one of its kind – nobody had done it before in Poland. First, we had to go through all available magazines and (the very few) books from that period. Then, we tried to get in touch with the designers, it wasn’t always possible, because many of them didn’t want to share their memories, besides it was difficult to reach some of them because they are in different lines of work nowadays. Of course, many creators were excited to share their stories. Their stories made it into our book. A lot of similar stories simply vanished without a trace.
PS: What’s the story of the oldest Polish video game – the game of tic-tac-toe written by Bogdan Miś around 1960?
BK: We found out that Bogdan Miś bragged somewhere about writing a game of tic-tac-toe for the Polish XYZ computer. We managed to reach him – it turned out that despite his advanced age, he’s still active on the Internet. He agreed to be interviewed. Of course, we have to remember that his own account is undoubtedly true, the are no other sources to back it up. It’s a problem with a historian’s craft – we should have two independent sources, but sometimes that’s just not possible. That was also the case with Marienbad from 1962 (an implementation of the mathematical game NIM on the Odra 1003 computer) created by electric engineer Witold Podgórski. We know about it from his story, but there are no texts and photos to prove its existence. The situation improved in the 1980s – the first announcements and reviews started appearing in the press.
PS: Why do people indulge in nostalgia for old video games and hardware?
BK: I think that there are two reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, it’s the fascinating conventionality of the old graphics and audio. There are some pixels on the screen which combine to create a whole story – a plane flying over a river fighting enemy forces, a short moustachioed character jumping from block to block to save a princess. Those stories are born in the minds of the players. No contemporary game can compete with that kind of imagination – they are way too direct.
The second explanation is the difficulty. One pixel too far and the character is dead. Once it dies three times, we have to start all over again. You can’t save the game in the middle, there are no hints. In comparison, the games of today are easy-peasy. Sometimes playing a video game is like watching a TV show – players are guaranteed to finish the game and reach a happy end if they spend a few hours on it. Back then, games could be played for years without ever being finished. Of course, at times we have to evoke the words of Raymond Chandler: ‘The swans of our childhood were probably just pigeons’. We should be careful when we go back to old video games.
Originally written in Polish, translated by AP, Aug 2017