Sinclair User, November 1985
Chris Bourne braves
the Gargoyle's lair and penetrates the misty world of Cuchullain
and Celtic folklore.
WHEN GREG FOLLIS was born, in the mists of time, before the
dawn of legend, when prehistoric valve computers stalked the
earth and roared defiance at the lowering skies, comets blazed
and earthquakes shook the rolling meads of Smethwick. And
wise warlocks knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Gargoyle
had arisen in the land.
"I was born too," avers Royston Carter, knight-programmer
and keeper of the bytes.
"You were hatched," says Greg. "I remember
the shell on your head."
This wise-cracking pair of programmers are among the geriatrics
of software, which is to say, they're both well over 30. "We
started in commercial programming about 17 years ago, by which
you can deduce that none of us is young" says Greg.
And so they sweated and they swore and they learned their
craft over years of writing utility packages and CP/M monitors
and even a language, DPL 1, used in on-line development systems.
"We're both entranced by computers," says Greg.
"For me it was when our engineer, Keith Potter, walked
in and kicked our 8K ICL 1901, and it started working. I knew
then it was for me."
And they're still entranced, though they've given up the
world of Al research, expert systems and the rest to write
adventure games which knock for six most conventional examples
of the breed.
"We were writing software for someone else and they
were marketing it poorly," says Greg, mincing no words.
"We wrote an integrated database for a micro system.
It was sold to the Steel Stockholders Association. God knows
"We were salaried and that's all. There was no potential
for any vast increase."
Remember, these guys had visions of wealth. Royston smiles
as the memories surge. "You were quite interested in
sordid sex," admonishes Greg, "and couldn't afford
any. And I couldn't provide it."
At the time, a million lasers were lighting up the evenings
of Spectrum owners all over Britain. It was 1983, year of
the shoot-'em-up, and games like Time-Gate, Arcadia,
Zzoom, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and many,
many others were all the rage. Greg and Roy, not unnaturally,
decided to do their own, still working for the taskmasters
at their research software.
So they wrote Ad Astra. It had very big graphics,
which have become something of a trademark with Gargoyle.
It was a straight invaders-style zap game, with asteroids
hurtling at you, and waves of aliens. It was very good, as
far as it went, with bits of humour such as the Starship Enterprise
making a fleeting appearance. It still sells a few hundred
copies every so often, according to Gargoyle.
"We had a very arrogant look at the games market."
Greg explains. Of course, by the time it was released, nine
months after conception, everybody was into Jet Set Willy
clones in multi-screen jump 'n' dodge games. Greg and Roy
gave up trying to outguess the market and did their own thing
They took a trip to the world of Celtic mythology and produced
two of the best games ever seen on the Spectrum - Tir na
Nòg and Dun Darach.
all started with the "walking man," a 14-part animation
written by Greg, which produced a cartoon of a man walking
across the screen. That formed the basis for Tir na Nòg.
To explain where Cuchullain comes from we have to go back
to Greg and Roy's distant youth.
"Roy and I first got together on SF and fantasy. I gave
Roy a list of books to read, and we used to take afternoons
off to go down to London to Dark They Were and Golden-eyed,
a bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. It's not there any more."
They were also fairly fanatical if not downright obsessive
about Tolkien. They don't speak elvish, but you can bet they've
read all the runes.
"... and Thomas Covenant and Black Cauldron and the
Katherine Kurtz books . . ." continues Greg. "I
also used to play Dungeons and Dragons and Tunnels
and Trolls. And real-life mythology of course and - all
right, I confess! - I still read Imagine magazine."
It was obvious from the start that some sort of fantasy setting
would be ideal for the walking man. "One we thought of
first was Gilgamesh." That is Greg showing his high literary
taste. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first known piece of written
fiction, recorded on Sumerian tablets. It's thousands of years
"Unfortunately Gilgamesh is a little remote, and if
you take the seamy bits out there's not much left. We cast
around for something more interesting."
During the casting, they managed to hook into the Irish myths
of Cuchullain, the mighty warrior. "We realised that
it wasn't just Irish, it was a full Celtic mythos right across
Then they saw the TV series Robin of Sherwood, full
of Celtic magic and mystery, which so upset Mary Whitehouse.
"It was lovely. It had that super soundtrack by Clannad
and it was a clincher for a Celtic game."
In Tir na Nòg Cuchullain seeks the seal of
Calum in the land of the dead. The graphics system is superb,
and quite different from anything else seen on the machine.
Gargoyle games are designed by Greg and programmed by Roy,
but Greg does all the pictures.
"We both started as programmers but Roy's better than
I am. I do most of the design side. There was a memorable
day when Roy laboriously drew a picture of a duck. He looked
up and said "Do ducks have big ears?" He's never
done a picture since."
They're quite modest about their own programming skill, but
at the same time they don't enthuse about anybody else's.
One of their strengths is the sheer volume of experience they
have in programming. "Looking back," says Greg,
"I don't know why we didn't write Dun Darach four
years ago. We could have, and it was easy to sell software
then. We'd have made a million."
Dun Darach was begun on February 10, 1985. "We
were very lazy in December and January," admits Greg.
Although Dun Darach looks very similar they both swear
the coding is completely different, with only the central
character and the scroll routines the same. Dun Darach
is set in a Celtic metropolis, an enchanted city where Skar
the sorceress has imprisoned Loeg, Cuchullain's friend and
You have to map the city, discover a number of secret doors,
collect objects and solve visual puns and puzzles to put them
in the correct place, crack a combination lock, and work out
the motives of at least a dozen independent characters, such
as Mhor the gentlewoman, forlornly in love with Dain the bard,
or Ryde, who acts as policeman but in reality longs to put
out to sea again and return to his home Galicia.
Dun Darach was originally much larger than the 55
streets it now comprises. Unfortunately it took far too long
to find the other characters when you needed them - although
a street can be stored in memory in about 30 or 40 bytes,
the characters took up a lot of space, and adding more would
have been prohibitive.
Censorship also reared its ugly head. If you've mapped Dun
Darach, you'll notice an empty space in the centre of
the city. The locked location, Lady Q's, in the pleasure quarter
Iomain, is a brothel, and originally opened onto a scene with
courtesans, and in turn onto a whole red light district at
the centre of the city. Now all you see is a sign saying "Forbidden"
and the moral conscience of distributors and retailers is
They even had to slow down the speed of the central character,
Cuchullain. His slowness, which seems impressively fast given
the complexity of the animation, is simply because the other
characters have to use the same movement routines, and Cuchullain
kept walking straight into them with no time to dodge. In
the new game, Marsport, the central figure is speeded
up a little.
"The coding is completely different for Marsport,"
insists Greg, but wilts somewhat when Royston says he agrees
that people may say it looks the same. Purely superficially,
"Look, when you buy an adventure you're buying the story,
not the text interpreter," says Roy. And he does maintain
that Tir na Nòg and Dun Darach are adventures,
which seems obvious unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool purist
who still thinks Scott Adams is the finest living blah blah
blah. ((c) Keith Campbell, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985...)
"I hate owning up," says Greg.
Marsport is clearly bigger than either forerunner,
and with its SF theme is a new departure for Gargoyle. In
fact, with two fantasy games and then a SF trilogy projected,
Gargoyle appears to be following in the footsteps of Level
9, which started with the famous Middle Earth [Jewels
of Darkness] trilogy and followed that with the Snowball
series of text adventures. Level 9 is one of the few companies
Greg and Roy will admit to admiring.
In Marsport you take the role of John Marsh, sent
to the abandoned dome on Mars to recover the plans for strengthening
Earth's own dome against the insect Sept race. True to Gargoyle
style, the scenario is supported by a grandiose background
of future history. The instruction booklet has five pages
of it, all about the development of the Craig Effect force
field and the emergence of the Sept as man's enemy.
As well as the hero there are the enemies to contend with,
in the form of droids which automatically guard the dome and
the Sept themselves. You can blast them if you have the right
weapons, and although the problems and layout have the same
overall style as the earlier games, there are much more of
them - over 800 paths, 200 locations for objects and scores
of puzzles. Since the city is built on 10 levels, and connected
by elevators, the game will be a mapper's delight - very,
very, hard to find your way around. "The puns are even
more atrocious," says Greg, of the visual problems.
"Our games represent a development of technique,"
he adds. "Alien 8 was a sideways step from Knight
Lore. That's not to detract for Ultimate - though they're
a little arrogant, perhaps. We should be so arrogant."
"We should be so wealthy" chips in Roy.
"I'll agree with that," says Greg.
Apart from the atmosphere, clearly of vital importance, the
Celtic games had two other keys to success. "Firstly
the animation," he says, "which was eye-catching
- there was nothing like it at the time. Secondly the depth
- considerably more than most. The amount of gameplay is very
The one thing they haven't touched on in their games is sound
effects, beyond the odd blip. "We manfully sit and accept
the criticism," admits Greg. "We initially thought
of having Holst's Planet Suite running through Marsport,
but it would have to be perfect and add to the game."
"Pleasant little tunes wouldn't apply," says Roy.
"If you want sound on Dun Darach stick Clannad
or Mike Oldfield on the record player," Greg suggests.
"We've got no objections."
game to look forward to is Sweevo's World, which Greg
says will be a Gargoyle Games Special Edition - just for fun.
"We're making it very clear that it's an arcade adventure.
And if it doesn't have you rolling about on the floor, what
more do you want?"
Sweevo stands for Self-Willed Extreme Environment Vocational
Organism, which means it's a very stupid robot which keeps
falling over. It's a jump 'n' dodge game and Greg says it's
going to be thoroughly bizarre, with characters like "the
dreaded little skipping girl who hits you over the head with
Fornax, the second part of the Marsport series,
will be back to serious stuff again, and Greg swears there
will be a completely different graphics system, but he won't
"We're thinking of black ink on black paper," he
says. "There's one thing about being someone who likes
fantasies - it has to be be as good for you as it is for everyone
else. I admire Level 9 because they obviously enjoy the games
themselves - I thought Return to Eden was particularly
You can't accuse Roy and Greg of not being gleeful. They
love games, even if they have no time to play them any more.
"I can see every reason to encourage kids to play computer
games - if only so they won't be frightened of computers in
10 years time. We grew up in a system where we found a £250,000
machine wouldn't sell because a businessman thought he'd look
silly sitting in front of one."
"We saw that in exhibitions," adds Roy. "We
always used to incorporate games into the display, because
the customer felt better for being able to beat it."
"Eventually we'll go back to research," says Greg,
"but with our own company. Deep down inside, research
programmers and analysts want to be God and create life. Come
the time we have holographic and sensurround TV, think of
the games we'll have. Oh, we'll be writing them."
And, with an afterthought, "What we'd really like is
to be spacemen. I expect we will be, too."
See you on the moon, Greg.