Update: Find out more about the 50 Years of Text Games book and the revised final version of this article!
by St. Bride's School
Released: late 1991 or early 1992
Language: PAW (Professional Adventure Writer)
Platform: ZX Spectrum
THE LAKE SHORE The bulrush-fringed lake lies to the north. An island rises fortress-like from the water, its sheer walls of black rock splashed with rusty red. NEXT SWIM In mid-stream a strong current sweeps me towards a whirlpool which sucks me down under the water... UNDERLAKE Here graze green sheep on white grass under a liquid turquoise sky. The air is scented with violets....
It was an odd advert for a computer magazine. Next to a sketch of a provocatively posed, long-legged young woman in stockings—okay, maybe that part wasn’t so odd—its copy hyped not a new piece of hardware, but a house in Ireland:
the famous school where grown-up girls are transformed into schoolgirls. ...Now you can find out for yourself as you guide Trixie Trinian through the classrooms, corridors and secret places of the strangest school ever—to uncover
THE SECRET OF ST. BRIDE’S
“Not so much a programme more a way of life,” the text below helpfully clarified. While not entirely apparent, this was an ad for an adventure game. Sending £5.95 to “St. Bride’s School, Burtonport, County Donegal, Ireland” would get you a cassette tape for your Spectrum 48K containing a text adventure written, according to its label, by “the Games Mistresses.”
At the address was “a white crumbling turn-of-the-century house overlooking the tiny fishing village of Burtonport,” where women could take a paid holiday that would immerse them in the life of a proper boarding school girl of an earlier time. “There were no electric lights in the place,” one game journalist wrote upon visiting: “the maid who answered the door was surely not of this decade.” The students wore bonnets and period clothes while attending lessons on mathematics, literature, and penmanship; plastic and other modern materials were forbidden; the headmistress was a severe woman in black who enforced strict discipline—stricter, at times, than some of the students might have preferred. “Quite where computers fit into this situation is difficult to understand,” another journalist wrote; and nobody could really put their finger on what the “situation” even was. Were the group “Victorian cultists?” Were they LARPers? Were they con artists preying on emotionally immature women? Were they a game studio with a very unusual front? Or was there, as one embarrassed Irish reporter asked, “almost a gay element to the activities here?” Answers were not then forthcoming. Few are even today.
The story of how St. Bride’s School came to release not one but eight full-length text adventures between 1985 and 1992—most with female protagonists, all cleverly written and well-reviewed—is one of the strangest in the history of gaming. It’s a complicated story where no clear heroes emerge, or even a clear cast of characters. The stories of their nearly-lost game Silverwolf and its creation are both about the beguiling and dangerous power of becoming someone else. They are stories full of frustrating riddles and beautiful imagery that never quite resolve into coherent wholes. They blur the boundaries of the everyday world with fantastic intrusions. They are stories it can be hard, at times, to believe.
Oxford, 1971. Two years after Stonewall, a wave of student and activist groups are loosely uniting under the mantle of the Gay Liberation Front, accelerating queer and feminist conversations about equal rights and alternatives to hegemonic patriarchy. At women’s college Lady Margaret Hall, one student group bonds over a difference with most of their sisters-in-arms: they reject the crass, drug- and sex-fuel decadence of the 1960s, even while admitting it “left openings for a new feminist consciousness,” as one member would later write: “We welcome [the rock culture of the sixties] as we would welcome typhoid in the enemy’s water supply. But we do not drink it ourselves.” Out of this group would arise several radical separatist movements with overlapping membership, including a religious one called Lux Madriana—worshiping a female god with rituals supposedly passed down from a “magical matriarchal community” in a distant past—and an elaborately fleshed-out otherworld called Aristasia. Much like the rich fantasy worlds created by Tolkien or the Brontë sisters, Aristasia became an ever-growing obsession for its creators, with its own customs, calendar, literature, and history, to the extent that some of the worldbuilders eventually dropped out of university to attend their own unofficial Aristasian school instead. In Aristasia there were two genders, both female (assertive brunettes and demure blondes); the decadent modern world was known as The Pit; and the word for person was not man but maid.
Eventually some number of this group took up residence in the remote coastal house in Burtonport, which would become the stage for their next decade of inventing new realities. At first they styled themselves a community of “Rhennish” folk, the last descendants of a five-thousand-year-old matriarchal culture, and called themselves the “Silver Sisterhood.” But their plans to live off the land fell through, and after a few seasons it seemed a quite different group was occupying the house, now called St. Bride’s School. St. Bride’s billed itself as something between a real school and a holiday retreat, posting ads for week-long terms where students would “spend 24 hours a day living in a different time, living a different life.” The staff and students observed a strict hierarchy, with obedient students appointed prefects to keep the others in line, and prefects reporting in turn to teachers: “Some maids like to tell others what to do,” as a visitor summarized the philosophy during the Silver Sisterhood days, “and some maids like to be told what to do.” Both the Sisterhood and St. Bride’s attracted copious media attention—which seems likely to have been deliberately sought out—and from news clips it’s clear at least some residents of both groups were the same people, though going by different names and speaking with changed accents. It was the first of many transformations.
The women behind the school reveled in shifting identities. At least two dozen different names were used at various points across the eighties and nineties by people associated with the school: they may have belonged to as many as fourteen distinct women, or as few as two. One of the women would become known to the gaming world as Marianne Scarlett (the name used throughout this piece) though she was Brighe Dachcolwyn in her capacity as St. Bride’s headmistress and Clare Tyrrell when she appeared on television. No matter the name, over the years the public face most often associated with the group was hers. When pressed about how many of the St. Bride’s personas belonged to her, she would be noncommittal: “we like to cultivate different personalities here, you see.” Asked once if the names used by the women at St. Bride’s were aliases, an associate replied: “Those are their real names, though not the names they were born with... One’s real name is the name you are using at the time.” Years later, when Scarlett was writing a magazine column under the name Marianne Martindale, the publication’s editor invited her to a staff party,
only for a stranger to show up: I said, ‘Oh... you don’t look very much like your pictures’. And this woman smiled and said, ‘There are many Miss Martindales...’
A second key name—though this one without a face—is Priscilla Langridge, who seems to have been the driving force behind the St. Bride’s computer games, if she in fact existed. The official story went that Langridge had been a St. Bride’s student who had smuggled in a computer, which the at-first skeptical headmistress came to find enthralling: “we discovered that she had this penchant for blasting things,” Langridge later explained. But this story seems fairly suspect. Why would someone paying to attend a holiday escape from the modern world bring along a bulky microcomputer? Why would the headmistress who styled herself a stickler for rules and an enemy of everything modern go along with such a scheme? Some evidence suggests instead that Langridge had been not a student but one of the group’s founding members back in the Lux Madriana days. The truth, as will become a common refrain in this piece, is difficult to know.
In fact much about Langridge’s identity is far from clear. While Scarlett was happy to be photographed by journalists (always in elegant period clothing), Langridge rarely was, and would be veiled or masked for rare exceptions. It should be noted that “Priscilla” is a diminutive form of a Latin name meaning ancient or old-fashioned (from the same root as “prior”) making it plausible that the name was another alias—but for whom? One theory is that there were many Priscillas: it was a catch-all name for whoever Scarlett happened to be working with at the time. Another is that Priscilla Langridge was a distinct persona of a woman from New Zealand who made public appearances with Scarlett under the name Miss Raynor.
Yet another possibility is that the veiled woman had a reason to stay concealed in 1980s Ireland, where homosexuality and other lifestyles seen as deviancies were still illegal. Some evidence, including hurtful gossip spread by at least one reporter, suggests Langridge may have been trans. A woman interviewed during the group’s Rhennish days identified as Sister Angelina (who may or may not be the same person as Langridge) is shown only from the back or side angles because of her “spiritual role”; in a follow-up piece, the reporter noted that “we had a number of calls from viewers who suggested the occupant interviewed was in fact a man. [But] we can only take the person interviewed at face value.”
If we do the same and also assume Langridge was one particular person, not a composite, the portrait of her that emerges from the available facts is a consistent one. She was a writer and illustrator with “an enviable knowledge of the more obscure comic strips,” and regardless of how she had inveigled computers into St. Bride’s, looked upon them “as another medium, like books or comics, to be exploited as a rich experience.” Both computers and comics, she wrote, were interesting as “unusual media for presenting fantasies.” Langridge also praised the “economy” of the simple parsers of early text games. “I like the two-word input,” she once told a reporter, “the over-use of ‘get’ and ‘drop’. It’s useful to have a very simple command structure which can be used inventively. People make a fetish of over-sophistication.” Langridge talked enthusiastically about the St. Bride’s games and once wrote a letter to a magazine to correct some mistaken points in a review. Since Scarlett rarely spoke about the specifics of the games themselves, it seems a reasonable assumption that Langridge was the driving force behind their creation.
The many quotes from journalists speak to the success of the school’s first game, The Secret of St. Bride’s, sold through direct mail via ads in gaming magazines. The cultivated air of mystery around the game’s creation and the school itself proved an intriguing angle for editors, and most reviewers agreed the game itself was surprisingly good. In it the player takes the role of a new student at St. Bride’s who finds herself seemingly transported from the modern world back to the 1920s. With the help of her schoolmates she must embark on an adventure to find a way to return to her own time. Whether the game had been designed to generate publicity for the school, or vice versa, it was working: copies sold, and St. Bride’s immediately set to work making more.
One of these was a title called Silverwolf, which was to be released alongside an original comic by Langridge. It was based on a serialized fantasy story appearing in a lesbian periodical called Artemis, which the St. Bride’s crew were also distributing under yet different aliases. The stories were credited to “Laeretta Krenne-Genovene with illustrations by Michele Dennis”; one or both of these people may, or may not, have been Langridge. The stories tapped into the deep well of Aristasian mythology, and the recap at the start of one episode gives a sense of their flavor:
Modern English schoolgirl Petra Stone is a reincarnation of the matriarchal warrior princess Mayanna. The princess and the schoolgirl exist as two independent personalities. She has been taken back into ancient matriarchal Britain by an Amazon group: Rahiyana, the leader; Thunder, a seven-foot powerhouse; Whirlwind, the teen tornado and a shape-shifting imp called Uisce. But the evil patriarchal Lord Fear is determined to kill Petra and has sent in pursuit of the group a powerful and mysterious band known only as the Swarm.
A reviewer for another lesbian zine, WomanSpirit, praised the story’s writing and its fully feminine mythology, finding in its mythical storytelling a rich parable for the eternal fight against “the incipient ideology of patriarchy”; she noted that the villain’s name—Fear—is the Celtic word for “man.” She praised the layers of identity in the stories, such as in the central character, “actually three characters in one”: schoolgirl Petra, princess Mayanna, and alter-ego Silverwolf, whom Petra/Mayanna can transform into to become an avenging protector:
Her hair is silver. Her face is a silver mask of rage and beauty. She strains furiously against her chains. First one gives way, and then the other. Her hand flashes to her side to draw an imaginary sword, and it is no longer imaginary. ...Seven brothers converge on her from all sides. She leaps forward, cutting off the head of the first. Before the head hits the ground, the other six are dead.
For a moment she stands poised, like a wild animal preparing to spring. Her words are brief.
“Commend your souls, if butchers such as ye have gods. For now ye face the wrath of Silverwolf.”
In the text adventure based on the stories, you play as Petra’s four Amazon companions, switching between them on a quest to help the reincarnated princess gain the power to become Silverwolf. The game is split into two parts which can be played in either order: they may originally have come on two sides of the same cassette tape. In one part you play as Rahiyana and Whirlwind, trying to escort Petra to the Holy Mountain where she can complete the ritual to transform into Silverwolf; in the other, you play Thunder and Uisce trying to retrieve the enchanted sword that Silverwolf will wield. Each of the four Amazon women has their own special power, and you must switch between them using commands like BECOME WHIRLWIND to complete the game. Transformation is in fact a recurring motif: Uisce can turn into any creature she sees by typing TURN INTO, and this includes other people—in some sequences you’ll need to BECOME UISCE and then TURN INTO THUNDER to complete a puzzle. To activate Rahiyana’s archery skills, the player needs to summon the power of Diana into her body by typing the phrase HAYA DYANA. The game, like its creators, is obsessed with becoming other people, or allowing them to become you.
Silverwolf’s writing is lyrical, effectively evoking a mythic age. In the first scenes of Part One, you plunge into a lake only to discover a fantastical kingdom beneath the waves. The puzzles in this world follow a fairy-tale dream logic:
THE TREE In the centre stands a tree of ice with roots stretching down to the frozen lands below the earth. Silver bees buzz to and fro, gathering nectar from the snowy blossoms. NEXT EXAMINE TREE From the branches hangs a glass hive. NEXT EXAMINE HIVE I see a tiny spring door. NEXT OPEN DOOR I try, but my fingers are frozen.
To open the frozen door and claim the honeycomb inside, you’ll need to find an old woman to spin you a pair of mittens out of wool from undersea sheep. Evocative inventory items abound: a rosewood mazer brimming with silver moonshine, a ring of carved amber, a bone knife. Many puzzles take the form of magical rituals: you’ll find yourself typing commands like CHANT PAEAN OF THAME, or disturbing a room filled with fluttering moths until they part to reveal a secret niche, or ringing bells strewn through the branches of dead trees:
As the silver bells peal out, the clouds over the sun splinter into a host of silvery-white birds. The sky explodes into an unbearable brilliance as they drop shimmering towards the ground. The sight strikes terror into the light-hating Swarm, who, as one, shriek and cower and flee...
In one puzzle sequence, you must make use of Uisce’s shape-shifting to reach a series of progressively more unlikely areas. Spotting a bullfrog in the rushes of a lake, you can transform into it to leap to a lily pad. From the lily pad you can see a dragonfly, which you can in turn become to fly to a hidden beach. On the beach is a sand-castle, and the dragonfly is small enough to see that it’s a fortress home for a band of fairies. Becoming a fairy lets you enter the castle and recover a buried key. The game can be frustrating—there are riddles which only familiarity with the obscure lore will help you solve, and the simple parser has trouble with many commands—but it’s a memorable journey, ending with Petra merging her three identities to become at last “the living avatar of Silverwolf.”
Langridge created the game with a toolkit called PAW, the Professional Adventure Writer, a successor to the popular game-making program The Quill. Both programs by tiny UK company Gilsoft let users create text adventures purely through navigating a set of menus to define locations, objects, and interactions. The results were less flexible than what could be achieved with a traditional programming language, but vastly more accessible. The Quill and PAW opened up text adventure authoring to anyone with basic computer skills, which led to an explosion of British adventure games: at one point more than half of all text games sold in the country were Quilled. While the software cost money to buy, Gilsoft did not charge authors a licensing fee to release games created with it, a crucial part of its success and popularity.
While the release of Silverwolf was pushed back (perhaps waiting on completion of the comic that was meant to accompany it), St. Bride’s put out other games which continued doing well in both sales and reviews. By the end of 1985 they’d signed a distribution deal with a publisher, and for a while new titles kept coming on a regular basis. The Very Big Cave Adventure was a well-received parody of Adventure starring the snarky Trixie from Secret of St. Bride’s. “I’ve done Caves before, so I’ve got the job of showing new adventurers around,” she writes on the game’s opening screen: “Let’s have a look at you. Healthy enough, I suppose. Do with a bit more exercise. Still, you’ll soon get that.” In Bugsy, another parody riffing off popular game Mugsy from Melbourne House, you play a cartoon rabbit take on the original game’s hardboiled gangster, spouting wisecracks and trying to take over Chicago. The heroine of The Snow Queen, adapted from the Hans Christian Anderson story, is “wilfully independent—to the extent that she sometimes takes control of the game away from the player.” She “allows you to help her,” as one reviewer put it. The games were popular enough that the school announced they planned to put out a regular newsletter for fans, the St. Bride’s Swashbuckler. “If you like St. Bride’s you’ll love the Swashbuckler,” an ad explained; “and if you hate St. Bride’s it’ll give you ammunition for months.”
As with their other endeavors, the school’s turn into unlikely adventure game powerhouse was irresistible media bait. Scarlett and Langridge attended a few British game industry trade shows and other professional events in the late 1980s, dressed in prim crinolines with Langridge always behind her veil: “it would be fair to say that they were conspicuous,” one observer wrote. The school would delight in inviting reporters up to rural Ireland for tours of the Burtonport house, playing gramophone records for them by flickering candlelight and acting coy about the authorship of their games, which were generally credited simply to “St. Bride’s” on their title screens. One reporter teased out the names “Jenny Falconer” and “Maureen” as additional collaborators, who seem never to have been mentioned again; “some of the more shadowy contributors prefer not to be named,” he concluded feebly. (It’s possible Langridge wrote all the St. Bride’s games on her own.) “Questions remain unanswered,” another frustrated reporter wrote: “the programming room remains unshown, and a whole area of the house, the old servants quarters joining the school by just one door, stays a mystery”: the Secret of St. Bride’s game had also featured a locked door it was forbidden to pass through. Scarlett liked to regale visitors with stories of the building’s odd past: in the 1970s it had been home to a commune called Atlantis who practiced primal scream therapy, and in the 1920s a safe-house for IRA gunmen, who would disguise themselves as women to escape notice. The house, it would seem, had always been a place of transformations.
For a while the school seemed to have aspirations to become a serious player in the UK games scene. “The production of games software is a very undeveloped field in Ireland,” Scarlett wrote in 1985: “We intend to strike ahead and fill that gap.” Shortly thereafter she claimed: “Our aim is to build St Bride’s into one of the foremost software houses in the British Isles.” But the women were getting into text games as everyone else was getting out of them. They tried to capitalize on the rise of graphics in another head-scratching contradiction with their prim Victorian personas: at the end of 1987, they released a Jack the Ripper game with low-res but gory illustrations of murdered women, which became so controversial it spurred the British Board of Film Classification to give it an 18 certificate, the first ever for a video game. The school’s publisher at the time would later claim this had been engineered from the start as a publicity stunt.
But the group increasingly found itself snared in financial and legal troubles. Rent became overdue on the Burtonport house, and a coder hired to convert the still-unreleased Silverwolf to the Commodore 64 platform was never paid. In 1990, a woman named Mari De Colwyn (likely Scarlett) was convicted of “actual bodily harm” for caning an adult St. Bride’s student: “she had done a very naughty thing,” the former headmistress offered by way of explanation. The ladies eventually abandoned the house; its owners, seeking their unpaid rent, broke in one night and leaked a story to the media that the place had been filled with “material produced by neo-Nazi organizations and the sado-masochistic sex industry,” as well as correspondence with far-right organizations like Britain’s virulently racist National Front.
Whether these claims were valid or a vengeful smear is another open question. A spokesperson for the group calling herself Laetitia Linden Dorvf (likely also Scarlett) did not deny the materials were present but rejected any ideological affiliation, saying only that the school received mail from organizations around the world: “We do not endorse any of them as they are all collaborating with the degeneration of the late 20th century.” One historian of the school finds the claim credible: “it would have been very easy for an organisation like St Bride’s to get on some very dodgy mailing lists in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” It would also have been odd for the women to leave such material lying around after moving out, unless it had landed unclaimed under their mail slot. On the other hand, uncomfortable echoes of far-right thinking had been present in the St. Bride’s ethos from the start, from a focus on discipline and a “proper place” for everyone to a yearning for an earlier, “purer” time. Some of these notions had been inspired in part by readings in the Oxford days of anti-modernist philosopher Guenon, whose ideas would also resonate for people like Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon. Regardless of what the truth was, the school’s reputation had forever changed from strange to sinister, and tabloids would repeatedly characterize its members as Nazis and lesbian sex fiends through the rest of the 1990s.
Scarlett would continue to shapeshift through other increasingly improbable personas: the remainder of her life story, at least the parts of it that are known, involves Sir Patrick Moore, marriage to a Hollywood director, and more press-baiting tabloid scandals. But what of Priscilla Langridge? She mostly vanishes after the St. Bride’s era: she seems to have stayed with Scarlett for at least a few more years, but then the trail of the person, or at least the persona, goes cold. Silverwolf, while probably finished sometime in late 1987 or early 1988, would not be released until early 1992, when a small distributor bought the re-release rights to the St. Bride’s games and dumped them on the market at a cut-rate price, along with Silverwolf and two other unreleased titles. The game received only a handful of reviews, and while they were all positive—one called it an “absolute gem of a game”—the world had moved on from text adventures. Many gamers already thought them as old-fashioned as lace bonnets or gramophone records.
“The Ladies of St. Brides are difficult to understand,” a journalist wrote in 1987. “How much is hype is difficult to assess. ...They say Jack the Ripper is serious but are they ever serious about anything?” The group’s former publisher suspects their primary motive was always financial: “I think, basically, St Bride’s were in business: they were doing it on a commercial basis, however un-commercial they may have looked!” But some of the school’s pupils in later years would come to characterize the group as dangerously earnest, with one describing it as a cult. “There was something sinister at the heart of it,” she wrote: “The founder was a remarkable person but was leading a fantasy life—we were living in someone else’s fantasy.” While much about the Games Mistresses would shift across their decades of fronts and personas, disconnection from the everyday world was a constant theme. “We really, truly are not living in the same place as you,” one once wrote; “I don’t like the modern world, and I don’t live in it,” Scarlett has said. “We don’t concern ourselves with the present at all. We live in a little world inside our house... it’s a world apart, really, where we are.” Perhaps from this perspective, an interest in the transporting power of games, electronic or otherwise, becomes less difficult to understand.
The adventures St. Bride’s left behind are hard to evaluate apart from their complicated legacy. They are feminist games in many ways, yet grounded in nineteenth century ideals most feminists would find regressive. They are perhaps some of the earliest queer games, but are tarnished by alleged associations with repulsive ideologies. They are games about becoming someone else, even when that transformation is dangerous or destructive. They are beautiful, frustrating, and haunting. “My name is Silverwolf,” began one of the serialized stories from Artemis: “My power is like a song within me. ...I am more than human. My heart is a star.”
The mystery, perhaps, is still ongoing. In the 2010s, a reference to a Priscilla Langridge popped up as a credit on a new iOS game called The Snow Queen, adapted once again from Hans Christian Anderson. It’s possible this info was just mistakenly scraped from one of the many sites that credit her on the ’80s game of the same name.
Yet in a staff photo for the company that produced it, one of the employees pictured—and only one—is wearing a mask.
Next week: a grad student’s side project heralds a resurgence in interactive fiction, spawning a thousand new games and decades of innovation.
You can play Silverwolf Part One and Part Two on an online Spectrum emulator courtesy the Internet Archive, or download it for use with a local emulator like Fuse. Be careful going too far down the St. Bride’s rabbit hole: we did not even get to the Aristasian embassy in Second Life, the possible connection to Pinky & the Brain, or the still-active descendants of the Lux Madriana community: if you want to dig deeper, this piece by Owen Williams for GamesTM magazine is a good starting point. Some conclusions drawn in this piece may well be wrong and certain names have been omitted to preserve privacy: please dredge through old personal histories responsibly. Contemporary games journalism from CRASH, Sinclair User, and Your Computer was invaluable, and the source of most 1980s quotes from Scarlett and Langridge; also useful were scans of Artemis (thanks again to the Internet Archive) and the blog Madrian Deanic Resources for extensive investigations into the origins of the women of St. Bride’s.
A rather fascinating article! (The author may or may not have been Priscilla Langridge)
What a bizarre story! Downright Discordian.
Excellent storytelling. Meta-storytelling? Either way, great work 🎖