How did a 1920's boarding school create the C64's defining text adventures?
Today you’ve a mystery to solve. Last night you arrived at St. Bride’s. The mistresses and girls really believe they are in an old style boarding school. You even wonder if you’re not a bit mad to think you’re from the 1980s. You want to find out what’s going on while you still can… Your adventure starts here…”
So begins The Secret Of St. Bride’s, the inaugural textadventure from the programming hotbed at St. Bride’s School: a very peculiar institution offering patrons a Twenties/Thirties-style boarding school immersion, operating out of a rackety old house in Burtonport, County Donegal. The set-up for the game echoed a carefully constructed and maintained aura of mystery around the place itself, advertised in the early Eighties broadsheets asa place where women could go to re-live a St. Trinians-style education they’d never actually experienced.
“St. Bride’s offers a standard classical curriculum,” ran the prospectus, “the cardinal subjects being Mathematics, Elementary Latin, Grammar and Literature. The day begins with the rising bell at half past seven… Our girls receive the healthy benefit of lively sea air and fresh open countryside, and in the matter of sunshine, so vital to the health of growing children, we are singularly well favoured.” The School also boasted facilities such as “a modern gramophone which may sometimes be used by an unsupervised group of girls providing that great care is taken to avoid overwinding”.
“We used, all the time, to see a lady around Burtonport wearing very old fashioned clothes and a little white bonnet,” recalls Catherine McGlynn of Irish tourism website Holiday Donegal when gamesTM enquires about the history of the estate. “She drove a very old style black car. I wonder if she was the maid of the house?” She was not. Two such women were in fact running the whole show at St. Bride’s: using pseudonyms, never seen out of Victorian costume, and advocating a return to the values of that era. Among their many side-projects was a campaign to abolish the metric system – with the motto “Don’t Give an Inch” – of which Sir Patrick Moore was a patron. Anachronistically, they published computer games, but this, says Clem Chambers, former head of their occasional publishers CRL (now a financial pundit and author), was some way from being the weirdest thing about it. “It was certainly a strange set-up,” he chuckles, “but these were the days when you could go on holiday to Colditz and play at escaping and all that wish-fulfilment kind of stuff. That they operated a holiday school and published games was comparatively not odd…”
Trying to investigate St. Bride’s is both an intriguing and frustrating experience. The people that know the answers remain determinedly secretive, while the people that are willing to talk tend to be fascinated but mystified. Each step along the timeline simply yields further questions. Even the journalists that visited the school during its 8-bit heyday were none the wiser when they left.
The facts, as far as they can be ascertained, start with the house itself, still standing and commonly known in Burtonport as the Atlantis House, after the Atlantis Foundation, who inhabited
it before St. Bride’s. Initially a hippy-ish commune of “free thinkers”, they became infamous for their use of primal scream therapy: roaring out one’s inner turmoil to attain a purer state of consciousness. They were quickly dubbed the “Screamers” by the Burtonport locals, and subsequently relocated offshore to the island of Inishfree to escape increasing press intrusion. Legend had it, with the right weather conditions, you could stand on the Burtonport harbour and hear their banshee wailing coming across the water.
This was during the Seventies, and sometime in the early Eighties, the vacant house was taken over by a small all-female community inspired by a student club founded at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall. The club’s founding members had gradually created a complex philosophy and fantasy world called ‘Aristasia’, which posited two contrasting female ‘sexes’ and encouraged retreat from the modern world. They referred to the swinging Sixties, deemed to be the beginning of civilisation’s end, as ‘The Eclipse’, while the real world outside Aristasia was designated ‘The Pit’.
With the Atlantis Commune departed, the Aristasian women rechristened the house St. Bride’s (after the 5th-Century Irish abbess and miracle-worker). Candida Crewe, who visited for the Telegraph magazine, described it as like stepping into a Gothic novel where “a single candle flickered behind a lace curtain, guests were invited into a parlour heated only by a feeble coal fire, and the mistress of the house greeted her guests wearing a long black dress and white lace collar”.
They were called Priscilla and Scarlett, as I recall,” says Chambers of the two matriarchs running St. Bride’s. “They ran a school for adults, dressing up like the Famous Five, and it was a bloody great house in Ireland – although I never visited it – in the days when bloody great houses in Ireland cost threepence. As a piece of real estate, by the end of the Nineties or whatever, after the Celtic tiger roared, it was probably worth millions. But at that time you could probably buy a huge ancestral pile, school-sized building over there for practically nothing.”
The property itself was rented. The most prominent of the two mistresses, Scarlett, is now best known by the name Marianne Martindale, and has also at various times gone by the monikers Miss Partridge, Miss Traill, Mari De Colwyn, Brighe Dachcolwyn and Clare Tyrell. “One’s real name is the name one is using at the time,” was the explanation given to Sinclair User’s Bill Scolding. Scolding and Crash’s John Minson (both of whom recently spoke to gamesTM on the subject, but not on the record), along with three cohorts from the Eighties computing press, took the opportunity for a visit to the school when they were called to Ireland for a junket publicising the gimmicky Surf Champ (the game that came with a plastic surfboard that fitted over the Spectrum’s rubber keys). Minson wrote it up for Crash as a kind of Hunter S. Thompson road trip: “We were just outside Rossnowlagh on the Atlantic coast when the Guinness began to take hold…”
No amount of Guinness, it seemed, was enough to cushion the culture shock. After a tortuous journey that hadn’t looked tricky on the map, he wondered if he hadn’t fallen through a time warp, arriving at a place that didn’t even have electric lights. Incumbent computer programmers seemed unlikely, but the anachronism is explained somewhat by Priscilla Langridge’s arrival as a “pupil”, who heretically brought a Commodore 64 with her.
“They had one plug in one room, I recall being the story,” Chambers tells us. Langridge herself had responded to one of the newspaper advertisements offering idiosyncratic escape from normality for £120 a week and stayed on. Martindale was initially sceptical about the computer, but Langridge told Minson “she realised that unlike television, which she thinks is passive and mind-rotting, computer games call for concentration and commitment.”
“I didn’t have any knowledge of computers,” Martindale elaborated to Scolding. “My experience was in thinking backwards. But I found they were wonderful, they were magical. I’m a great fan of racing car games.” A wheeze enjoyed by the St. Bride’s girls on their afternoon rambles, in which they “noticed odd things, pretended they were clues, and worked out the connections between them” became the basis of The Secret of St. Bride’s.
Langridge wrote it using the adventure programming software Quill, beginning on her C64 and later migrating to the Speccy. Already apparently a writer before she came to St. Bride’s, she told Minson she had found the economical two- word inputs of the text adventure format creatively liberating. “People make a fetish of excess sophistication,” she mused.
Ultimately, St. Bride’s was responsible for eight completed games, but the release history is chequered, and a handful written in the Eighties seem not to have surfaced until the early Nineties when they were picked up by re-release houses GI Games and Zenobi. The Secret Of St. Bride’s introduced both the school and heroine Trixie Trinian, and was a mail- order affair from the school itself: advertised with images of
a stockinged and high-heeled St. Trinian’s-type schoolgirl. Its most visible follow-ups, due to proper distribution by CRL, were The Very Big Cave Adventure, Bugsy, and the infamous Jack The Ripper.
Less well known and sparsely reviewed were The Snow Queen, Silverwolf, Dogboy and White Feather Cloak: the latter three only finally surfacing together in 1992. All were written with Quill and its successor The Professional Adventure Writer. “The original game was The Secret Of St. Bride’s, which was, I suppose, perhaps inspired by Pimania, thatMel Croucher did,” muses Chambers. “I’m sure they thought, ‘Ooh, adventure games, that’s not technically very demanding, Pimania seems to have made a fair amount of money, we could use it to publicise our wonderful school idea…’ Then – ta-da! – here it is!”
The Secret Of St. Bride’s was a success in its own right. The title sees the player (as Trixie Trinian) waking one morning in 1985 (in “a holiday centre in Ireland where you experience old-fashioned storybook schoolgirl life”) to discover that all evidence points to the year actually being 1927.
Initial escapades include donning a gown to get past the some stern mistresses; and of course, judiciously using a mouse to frighten off a charging elephant. Outside the school you encounter both village life (the local “peeler” will arrest you at the drop of a gymslip) and some fantasy creatures, before you head for town, marry a maharaja, and track down the mysterious authoress Ms. Merlin who has the power to send you back to your own time. There’s also an epilogue with a magic amulet, should you choose to indulge.
It is, obviously, all a jolly silly lark, but it sows the seeds of most of the subsequent St. Bride’s adventures: humour, fantasy, and independent female characters. Trixie reappeared in The Very Big Cave Adventure (obviously spoofing the original text epic Colossal Caves), this time as your guide and narrator. She was, like many programmers and developers at the time, fond of terrible puns – the bull that believes your outrageous lie is a “gully bull”; when you blow it up it’s “a bomb in a bull” – and of commenting on the proceedings themselves. “The description of this room is very misleading,” she apologises at one point. “I’d complain if I were you.”
Also strikingly independent – to the extent that she sometimes takes control of the game away from the player – is Gerda, heroine of The Snow Queen: based, obviously, on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale and intended as the first in a series of “interactive books” (games based on Alice In Wonderland and Raffles were also mooted but never materialised). And there was another modern-day schoolgirl – Petra Stone – at the centre of Silverwolf, in which the player can switch between four female characters.
An accompanying comic was proposed and designed, but seems never to have been published, and may have contributed to Silverwolf’s much-belated appearance. Another game tying into a proposed St. Bride’s comic, the superheroine adventure Wondergirl, never materialised at all.
What did appear on game shop shelves was Bugsy: the strange tale of a gangster rabbit rising through the Chicago mob via protection rackets and booze-running until he’s
big enough to take down Al Capone. Like Trixie, Bugsy is grudgingly respectful if you do well at the game, but basically has little patience with “keyboard bashers”. “If you ain’t figured dat dis street leads east/west by now, I ain’t gonna tell ya,” he growls.
And of course, there was Jack The Ripper: a gruesome literary horror game, the solution to which involved wielding the soul essence of one of Jack’s female victims to end his reign of terror. Interestingly, solving the mystery of the Ripper’s identity is irrelevant, and after the first two-thirds around the streets and houses of Victorian London, the final, utterly bizarre stretch has you wrestling with baffling Masonic puzzles in a subterranean underverse.
“They were great games,” remembers Chambers. “They were anachronistic to their supposed ethos, but I think, basically, St. Bride’s were in business: they were doing it on a commercial basis, however un-commercial they may have looked! In those days, once you got past a certain level of complexity, you didn’t need incredibly specialised skills to write computer games. I think they realised the games were a brilliant idea to publicise their school, and obviously they were right: they got buckets of press.”
The games, as Chambers rightly suspects, turn out to have been part of a wider business portfolio that also included handmade costumes (“silk, satin and lace dresses, styles from 1800 to 1940, also maidservants’ uniforms” ran a small ad) and a publishing house, The Wildfire Club, through which the school published female- focused periodicals (Artemis, The Romantic and others) and books by Martindale such as The District Governess and The Female Disciplinary Manual.
It’s here that we come to the crux of what was going on behind the coding at St. Bride’s. Were these videogames the by-product of an innocuous institution for role-playing eccentrics, or was there something more fetishistic and deliberate at its core? The answer appears to be both. On the one hand, it was a sort of “romantic retreat where 19th century values, politeness and dressmaking were preferred to the tawdry modern world”, but in investigating St. Bride’s and its subsequent iterations, the word ‘discipline’ comes up frequently. In the early Nineties, before the school eventually closed, Martindale was convicted of caning a pupil rather more enthusiastically than the recipient would have liked. “Whenever I have a maid, she receives corporal punishment,” she told The Independent’s Rosie Millard in 1995. “I have always beaten my maids.”
St. Bride’s itself moved to Oxford in 1993 after an alleged disagreement with the landlord (Chambers once bumped into them in Oxford, “still fully garbed out in all their crinolines”), before eventually ending up in London. Yet it’s more the principle of the house as a development outlet that makes St. Bride’s so fascinating. Several high-profile developers have their own eccentricities, like Jeff Minter’s llamas or Hideo Kojima’s constant photos of food on Twitter, but a roleplaying business with such varied alternative philosophies becoming a full-fledged developer of notable text adventures remains a fascinatingly odd part of a considerably deeper story, much more so than tweeting pictures or living on a farm.
The concept of the school itself even extended into the digital space after Aristasia gradually became a sprawling online community (perpetuating the dichotomy of using technology to maintain a community supporting a pre- Sixties way of life) and eventually factionalised and broke apart. An Aristasian embassy still stands in Second Life. It once promised “groups of girls to be found chatting at all hours of night and day”, but it’s eerily quiet there now.
The Burtonport St. Bride’s house too stands empty, vaguely known still as the home of The Screamers and the women that came after them. Tracing the fate of its former inhabitants may lead in unexpected directions, but its principal legacy, though modest, perhaps remains those eight simple games from the Eighties. Easily available at the click of an emulator, they allow a glimpse into a world where fantasies could be indulged: whether they be of schoolgirl adventures, fairytale quests or gothic sleuthing.
Three decades on, while the games industry still struggles to incorporate female protagonists in any meaningful way, it’s worth remembering that St. Bride’s was among the first, creating worlds where the likes of Trixie Trinian and Petra Stone could take decisive action. Despite all the peripheral weirdness, it’s those characters that remain the greatest testament to the dwindled spirit of the fascinating establishment that was St. Bride’s.