The lost art of typing in computer games by hand

Home computers used to come with simple programming languages built-in. They booted into BASIC interpreters when you turned the things on! This heralded an era of simple type-in games pounded into life, laboriously, with one's fingers–and shared in magazines, books and photocopies. Aaron A. Reed, author of the hit book 50 Years of Text Games (previously) wrote a new article about the rise and fall of this peculiar meta-genre for Incredibly Strange Games. It centers on The Antagonists, a 1985 title that came not only as its own source code but as a book full of narrative and epistolatory details required to understand and complete the game.

When the connection between book and game works, The Antagonists can be a unique kind of fun: a story told simultaneously in two media, the player tasked with navigating both together. But the balance proves hard to maintain, and most of the blame for this stems from the need to keep the game small enough that its source code could be published in a book. As a consequence, the digital side of The Antagonists is simply too primitive to be the equal partner the premise demands. …

The game's source code fits into fourteen densely encoded pages at the back of the book, an impressive feat (though not one without consequences, as we'll see). Printed source code was not then an unusual means of distributing simple programs, though it was on its way out as disk drives dropped in price and software distribution channels rapidly matured. Many popular computing magazines still printed "type-in" game or utility programs in each issue, usually in the popular language BASIC. Hundreds of books collecting such type-in programs proliferated between the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Even MAD magazine printed a type-in in its October 1985 issue: "Here's a great way to waste time, energy, and money!" the editors wrote. "You can try this program on a Mac," they added, "but it won't work."

The snide comment alluded to a challenge facing type-in publishers: a sea of incompatible computer systems were still competing on the open market, each with their own slightly different versions of BASIC.

The way the program is encoded to avoid human readability, its dependence on the author, editor, publisher and reader to get reproduction right, the sheer manual labor of typing it in, the peculiar multimedia entanglement needed to consume it… it's so incredibly fragile and of its time. The notion of something that could only truly be experienced then is a compelling thread in game nostalgia precisely because there are so many games (or ideas of games) that depend on a particular brief convergence of technology, availability and the fleeting times.