Update: Find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book and the revised final version of this article!
(PERESTROIKA, or RECONSTRUCTION)
by Miroslav Fídler (as “UV Software”)
First Released: July or August 1988
Language: BASIC (Czech)
Platform: ZX Spectrum (cassette tape)
UV SOFTWARE SI U PRILEZITOSTI 20. VYROCI OSVOBOZENI CESKOSLO- VENSKA SPOJENECKYMI ARMADAMI DO- VOLUJE NABIDNOUT VAM LOGICKOU KONVERZACNI HRU: P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A. Program Revolucni Experimentalni Socialisticky Tvorive Avantgardni Voloviny Basniku a Analfabetu © 1988 UV SOFTWARE SAVE-S NAMET © 1968 ZIVOT
CENTRAL COMMITTEE SOFTWARE ON THE OCCASION OF THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE LIBERATION OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA BY WARSAW PACT ARMIES WOULD LIKE TO OFFER A CONVERSATIONAL PUZZLE GAME: P.E.R.E.S.T.R.O.I.K.A. Program for Experimental REvolutionary Socialist TRipe by Obvious Illiterates and Kooky Authors © 1988 ÚV SOFTWARE SCENARIO © 1968 REAL LIFE
[Note: All game excerpts below are translated from the original Czech; any errors are my own. Details on game and quotation translations can be found here. The article contains some spoilers for the game’s puzzles.]
On August 21, 1968, the Soviet Union sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia, bringing an end to a reform movement known as the Prague Spring. The movement in the fellow communist country had aimed to increase freedom of the press, allow for multiple political parties, and soften a Soviet-style system into a more modern and liberal democratic socialism. But to the Soviets it was unacceptable, an erosion of their dominance over the Eastern Bloc and thus their position in the global Cold War. They responded with one of the most aggressive military actions postwar Europe had seen. Troops occupied all major cities in the country; dissenters were beaten, jailed, or killed; and hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks fled. A new Soviet-backed government was installed, reversing the Prague Spring reforms and making Czechoslovakia “one of the region’s most dogmatic and conservative regimes... an era in which conformity was valued above all else.”
The story of what the invasion has to do with the history of computer games is a surprisingly complex one of ripples spreading across decades and continents, of generational shifts and cultural blind spots. One small piece of that story begins on August 21, 1968 and ends exactly twenty years later with a protest commemorating the invasion, and an invitation to attend it in a form no regime leader had yet considered as an avenue of dissent—a text adventure.
By the late 1980s personal computers were rapidly taking over most Western countries, but in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic less than 2% of the population owned one, an order of magnitude less than in the US or UK. This was largely because the state controlled all production, and had never made producing personal computers for its citizens a priority. As a sense began to grow that the nation’s youth might be falling behind Western countries in their preparedness for a digital future, belated attempts were made to jump-start a homegrown computer industry. But with neither the economies of scale that made cheap computer parts possible, nor marketing firms to convince the public they needed one, computers in Czechoslovakia remained rare and very expensive. And while computer game companies had become big business under capitalism, in the ČSSR there was simply no way for such an industry to arise. The state had no interest in games, and private citizens had no legal means of distributing them or making a living from their creation—even if they could get hold of a computer to write one.
So most of the few computers and computer games in the country had to be imported, often illicitly. While it wasn’t illegal to bring goods across the border, Czechoslovak crowns were not convertible with Western currencies, and the state charged exorbitant import fees even for those who did have foreign money. A more practical means of getting one’s hands on a computer was to pay a friend visiting abroad to smuggle one back for you. And one of the easiest computers to smuggle was the British ZX Spectrum, an aging machine already replaced by newer models in its home country. But its small size—contained within a plastic keyboard about the size of a trade paperback, designed to hook up to a television set—made it easy to shove deep into a bag or under a pile of laundry. One importer wrapped it up like a sandwich and hid it in a basket of snacks. By 1988 there may have been close to a hundred thousand Spectrums in Czechoslovakia, some brought in legally but most slipped in through “gaps in the Iron Curtain.”
The cost or the risk still kept computers inaccessible to most families, so at first the only way for most young people to use one was at a computer club. While it wasn’t legal to form private organizations or own equipment collectively, a number of official state organizations became umbrella groups for all kinds of hobbyist activities. Svazarm, a kind of all-ages Scouting designed to train comrades in skills that might be useful during military service (ham radio, first aid) began hosting computer clubs during the 1980s. At a branch in Prague, three early teens in particular bonded over the club’s shared computers: “the life-long dream of all of us was that we would one day have a computer at home,” one recalled years later. His name was Miroslav Fídler, who along with his friends Tomâš Rylek and František Fuka would eventually form a loose collective known as the Golden Triangle, and become some of the most famous game programmers in the country.
But that would come later. Without computers at home, the trio would often stay at the club until midnight when they were allowed, taking long walks along the Vltava River sharing project ideas and schemes when the available machines had all been claimed by others. Eventually Rylek and Fídler’s families went in on a joint purchase of a Spectrum the boys could share, and they worked out a plan to use it in shifts. Within a year they’d worn out the cheap keyboard: with no way to get official replacement parts, they scrambled to hack together a DIY keyboard out of scavenged materials, including doorbell buttons. Day by day, their hardware hacking and coding skills improved. Fídler had already been programming for years, writing simple code on a TI-58 calculator which he’d manage to hook up to a printer: “[it] could be told to print letters through some crazy method, so I made a program that made sentences out of words.” The Spectrum, even with its limited memory, was an impressive upgrade.
“The first software [we had access to] was program listings in magazines,” Rylek later recalled: sometimes in smuggled-in computer publications from the West, sometimes in official newsletters for computer club members only (private citizens couldn’t distribute literature or own a printing press). Rylek dryly remembers a then-typical experience with magazine program listings: “One typed it into the computer, and wondered why it didn’t work.” But soon Western games smuggled in on cassette tapes started circulating. The Spectrum could hook up to any tape player to read or write data, and tapes were easy to copy. These pirated games (though piracy was a fuzzy concept in a country without private industry) would circulate via a “sneakernet” of copied and re-shared cassettes. Many of the games had been locally “cracked” to remove their copy protection or add cheats and tweaks, and their loading screens would be modified with messages from the crackers. Club members in different cities who’d never met in person left elaborate chains of notes to each other on crack screens, forming friendships and rivalries encoded in hacked BASIC strings.
Soon the shared games “became a fully-fledged means of communication within a subculture of young geeks, like 8-bit chain letters or, perhaps, social media of the early digital era”: an internet that existed mostly on magnetic tapes shoved into school backpacks and zipping around the country on buses and bicycles. While literature and music was heavily censored by the government and could not be legally distributed by amateurs, software was not on the radar of the Party or its secret police at all. The authorities had not yet realized that the computer could be a medium for expression.
Soon the Golden Triangle members and other young hackers started giving out cassettes of their own original games. The analog distribution network was so efficient that within weeks, new games might spread to tens of thousands of players in all parts of the country. “One of the games that I released was offered back to me from Bratislava [200 miles away] six days later,” Fuka fondly recalls. And while many of the country’s amateur games used graphics, the most popular genre was the textovka, or text adventure. Few Western text games circulated in the country—fewer and fewer Western companies were even still making them—so an amateur Czech or Slovak text game had less competition from professionals abroad. Few of the pirated games were translated, so the novelty of playing a game in one’s native language was a big draw. And since they didn’t need graphics or sound, a textovka was easy for a single person to create. Authors would often put their phone numbers in the game’s title screen, hoping for calls from fans: Fuka recalls getting endless hint requests as his games got more popular. “Next to the phone, I had some basic questions and answers prepared on paper,” he remembers, “so when I wasn’t at home, my mother could answer for me.”
By the summer of 1988 Fídler was 18, and he and his friends had become some of “the most famous and respected Czechoslovak video game programmers.” But a wave of change was stirring in the country that year. Fídler’s generation was too young to have lived through the trauma of the Prague Spring’s final days, and few young people took the heavy-handed and ever-present Communist propaganda seriously. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had announced a reform movement called perestroika, a “restructuring” that would loosen state control, allow for more press freedoms, and introduce some free-market elements into the economy—almost exactly the reform ideas that the loyalist Czechoslovak government had spent two decades trying to suppress. Public confidence in the ČSSR Party dropped dramatically in the aftermath, falling from 57% positive in 1986 to only 31% by 1989, and murmurs spread of a public protest to honor the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion. While no revolutionary, Fídler counted himself among the discontented, in part because he “had always wanted to make a living programming and making games, and the regime, in a way, made that impossible.” That summer, with adulthood and a state-sanctioned career looming, he fired up his Spectrum and started a different kind of coding project: a protest game.
Its title was P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A., the Czech word for perestroika styled as an acronym. It was credited to the fictional ÚV Software, or “Central Committee Software,” implying an official game created by the state. But the irreverent acronym immediately winks at the conceit; a literal translation is something like “Poets and Illiterates Program of Revolutionary Experimental Socialistically Creative and Avant-garde Drivel.” The game takes the form of a short text adventure purporting to star a devoted, loyal comrade: familiar Party slogans appear after most commands, and the tone is as earnest as a propaganda film. Yet each puzzle functions as a punchline, poking fun at sacred cows and deflating the pomposity of the state’s fealty to outdated Soviet ideals, which even the USSR itself had begun to move on from:
YOU ARE STANDING IN A SMALL DUSTY ROOM. EXITS: N,S,W YOU SEE A HATCH. WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE ! WEST YOU ARE STANDING IN A DARK ALCOVE. EXITS: E YOU SEE A LIGHTER. DEATH TO THE IMPERIALIST SQUADRONS ! TAKE LIGHTER YOU TOOK A LIGHTER EXAMINE LIGHTER SURELY SOMETHING COULD BE SET ON FIRE WITH IT. IT IS A QUALITY "MADE IN THE USSR" LIGHTER. LIGHT LIGHTER THE LIGHTER SKIPPED... GLORY TO THE LENINIST POLITICS OF THE PARTY !
The quality Soviet lighter, in fact, is coded to only work thirty percent of the time, a joke more poignant in a country filled with shoddy goods made by state-run factories. Nearby, a dark tunnel gates your progress, but even when the lighter does strike, it’s not enough alone to illuminate the passage. Fortunately, in another room you can find something combustible:
EAST YOU'RE IN A DIRTY TOILET. I'D RATHER NOT DESCRIBE IT TOO MUCH, YOU MIGHT FEEL SICK. EXITS: W YOU SEE A BOWL. EXAMINE BOWL IT'S COMPLETELY DRY. YOU FOUND SOMETHING ! YOU SEE A BOOK, A BOWL FOR THE LIBERATION OF THE EXPLOITED! EXAMINE BOOK IT'S MARX'S KAPITAL.
When lit on fire, the tome provides enough illumination to make it through the tunnel: “KEZ OSVITI TVOJI CESTU!” the game exclaims (May it enlighten your way!) Later you need to dig a tunnel, but can only find the proper motivation to do so by reading some inspirational words in the official party newspaper:
DIG YOU CAN'T BE BOTHERED. READ EDITORIAL YOU READ THE EDITORIAL IN RED LAW. YOU IMMEDIATELY ACQUIRED A TASTE FOR WORK, WHICH IS AN ESSENTIAL HONOR FOR ANY SOCIALIST CITIZEN TO DO. DIG YOU MANAGED TO DIG INTO THE LOWER FLOOR !
Fídler’s game wasn’t the only political game making the rounds in the scene. Stanislav Hrda’s Shatokhin takes its title from the star of a widely screened Soviet propaganda film—a buff action hero meant as an answer to Hollywood’s Rambo—and pits him against his famous rival. While also purporting to be a loyal pro-regime product (it begins with an enormous graphic of a hammer and sickle) Hrda used the unique ability of games to present multiple possible outcomes in a cleverly subversive way. While you play as Shatokhin with the nominal goal of defeating Rambo, the game is nearly impossible to win, with most choices leading Shatokhin to a constant series of violent and humiliating deaths: “‘charred to bits’ in a burning helicopter, crushed against a coral reef, simultaneously poisoned by crude oil and eaten by sharks, drowned in a sewer,” even killed in an embarrassing accident involving a beer bottle. Michal Hlaváč, who did the graphics for the game, recalled fondly how its creation
allowed us, through humor and satire, to exert some kind of control over something we didn’t have power over. ...We were not going to pick up a gun and go out into the streets, so we wrote a game about a major of the Red Army, and we made it difficult for him to win.
In P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A., you eventually escape the building you’re trapped in and break out onto the streets of Prague. The climax of the short game involves finding a stick of dynamite and using it to blow up a statue of Lenin, inside which is a golden brick. “GRATULUJI VITEZI !” (Congratulations winners!) the game declares once you take it:
YOU SEE, A SOCIALIST MAN CAN BE HELPFUL IN ANY SITUATION... CONGRATULATIONS AGAIN. WE WILL ALL MEET ON AUGUST 21 IN OLD TOWN SQUARE...(OR ANYWHERE ELSE)
Old Town Square in the heart of Prague was one of several places where rumors said protestors might gather to mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet occupation. Any reader at the time would have understood the import of the date and the place. If you had put these notions in a leaflet or a novel—burning Marx, blowing up a statue of Lenin, invitations to an illegal protest—you might very probably have been arrested or worse. Though the authorities had never shown much interest in or awareness of games, Fídler was taking a risk.
“I was so proud of my technical abilities,” Fídler later recalled, “that I thought: there are five people in this country who can do things at my level, so I must produce bad code so that the State Police does not catch me.” Though he was by then an accomplished assembly programmer, he wrote P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A. in straightforward and amateurish BASIC in the hopes of disguising his authorship, and took great pains to ensure no code comments or other details in the files might be traced back to him. He distributed the first copies only to trusted friends who would have deniability: each could claim they had acquired it in the course of their prolific cassette trading, not from the original author, and that they hadn’t even known what the contents were: since people might swap dozens of games at a time on compilation cassettes, this was eminently plausible. The paranoia, though, proved unfounded. State police hadn’t even begun to suspect that computer games might be a medium for political statements, and even if they had, the size of the potential audience of savvy computer users—a tiny fraction of the country’s total population—wasn’t large enough to worry about. But none of that changes the way Fídler must have felt as he handed out the first copies of his game: wondering how far it might spread, and to whom.
On the 21st of August, the rally took place. A few hundred citizens gathered in Old Town Square and nearby Wenceslas Square—where in 1969 a student had set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion—for a small protest that seemed at first as if it would be relatively inconsequential. But as police began to disperse the gathering, the streets swelled with thousands more protesters who’d seen the crowds from their apartment windows or heard news of them in the street. Eventually nearly ten thousand people were marching on the seat of government, shouting for reforms and freedom. The rally would prove a catalyst, triggering larger protests in the months to come put down by more violent police actions, which in turn spurred further protests. Another wave of protest games appeared in response. One textovka starred Western hero Indiana Jones, who’d become a popular game avatar in a country free from enforcement of copyright laws, casting him as a protester defending himself and the crowd from murderous cops. In another, you must find a camera to document instances of police brutality at a riot that had turned deadly. The game had been created within forty-eight hours of the events it depicted, and was being swapped from peer to peer days later. By November of 1989, a peaceful coup—the Velvet Revolution—deposed the Soviet loyalist government in favor of a new leadership dedicated to permanent reform. Elsewhere in Europe, the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet bloc was crumbling. By the end of 1991, the USSR itself would dissolve, ending an era. Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since the second world war in June 1990.
The influence on these events of a handful of computer games, with their audience of a few thousand teenagers, was tiny. But the amateur protest games “became part of the ’chorus of activist media‘ that included student papers, rock songs, and samizdat—handwritten or typewritten versions of banned books and publications that circulated illegally,” according to journalist Andrada Fiscutean. In Gaming the Iron Curtain, a history of the country’s 1980s games scene, Jaroslav Švelch writes that the Czechoslovak amateurs
became some of the first in the world to continuously make activist games about current political events... The amateur scene developed its own genre conventions, its own canon, and even its own programmer stars. It discovered that games were a medium, and used them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression.
In the aftermath of the revolution, as groups of citizens came together to try to form a new government, Fídler and his friends kept helping in their own small way. One night they took a break from their computers to make posters and hang them in the subway: “The Golden Triangle supports the Civic Forum.”
In a democratic Czech Republic, Fídler would realize his dream of programming for a living, working for years making bestselling commercial games before switching to tools and infrastructure. In 2016, the Czech game industry—grown from a hobbled start into one of Europe’s most successful indie game hubs, producing titles like Factorio, Samorost, Beat Saber, and DayZ—honored Fídler and his Golden Triangle buddies by inducting them into the country’s gaming Hall of Fame. It was a fitting coda for some kids who’d once worked a single plastic computer in shifts, typing on a hacked-together keyboard made of doorbell buttons and spare parts, trying with all their hearts to put a piece of themselves in their games.
Next week: how tens of thousands of players explored a shared virtual world with a quarter of a million digitally simulated rooms using nothing but pencils, paper, and postage stamps.
Jaroslav Švelch’s wonderful book Gaming the Iron Curtain provided a major source for this article and is the source of unattributed inline quotations; thanks also to reporting from Andrada Fiscutean, and to Stanislav Hrda and Vojtěch “sCZther” Straka for providing additional info and feedback. If you speak Czech, you can play a modern web port of P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A. or run the original in a Spectrum emulator like Fuse. English translations of several games mentioned in this article have recently been released, with more expected soon.