Bored out of his skull
(Sinclair User, Dec 1985)
By CHRIS BOURNE
FERGUS MCNEILL waves a can of Right Guard antiperspirant and suggests torching a few flies with it by igniting the spray and hoping his hand doesn't get blown off. Isn't that dangerous? Of course it is, says Fergus. But everybody does it. Don't they? Well, Fergus . . .
Dissuaded from courting suicide at the beginning of the interview, Fergus sits down on the end of his bed and puts a Marillion tape on his hi-fi. Dedicated fans of Delta 4 will know of Fergus' abiding love for Marillion, even if the rest of us think it sounds just like Genesis.
"You'd better not say that to Judith when she comes," warns Fergus, "or she'll pull her knife on you." Dedicated fans of Delta 4 will know of Fergus' abiding love (?) for Judith. He bought her the knife.
Fergus McNeill is the nutter behind Delta 4, which he formed while at school with a few friends. He's 16 now, studying A-levels in Psychology and Communications at Sixth Form College. Delta 4 specialises in Quilled adventure games of surreal and lunatic quality, satirising the software industry, and any other targets which present themselves, with dedicated venom and wonderfully imaginative humour.
"Years ago I bought a ZX-81 and outgrew it in ten minutes," says Fergus, "So I bought a Spectrum and a copy of Quill and wrote the Dragonstar trilogy. It was like Classic Adventure but without the interesting bits. You can still buy it, it costs £4.95 and it's much better now."
Fergus gazes longingly at the Right Guard, clearly bored with all the ancient history. He finally coughs up the story of how he came to write Quest for the Holy Joystick, a spoof of the software industry and ZX Microfairs.
"We were so naive we didn't realise we were supposed to send out review copies."
The tale is extremely boring, particularly as it features the monstrous Tony Bridge of Popular Computing Weekly, which magazine is strongly featured in the Joystick games. Unwittingly Fergus had hit on the ideal way of getting media coverage without spending money - feature the magazines in the games.
The follow-up was Return of the Joystick, designed "in between selling the odd game every forty minutes" at a Microfair. When Gilsoft released the Illustrator, to add pictures to the Quill adventure writing program, graphics were incorporated and the sequel released.
"A joystick finale is still in the pipeline," says Fergus. It's to be called Joystick III - The Search for Yaz, and you'll probably have to play Return of the Joystick to fully appreciate the point of it all.
Now we move on to the subject of Judith, Fergus' ex-girlfriend who's already been featured by the insensitive Gremlin last September. "Judith came to school with a book, Bored of the Rings. We wrote to the publishers, Harvard Lampoon, but nobody seemed to have heard of them. So we thought, we can't do the book, it's too obscene. Let's do our own. So we wrote the game, and took it round all the London mags the next day, and behold everyone loved it, and it even got a Sinclair User Classic. Reviews are life and death for a small company. On an arcade game a Crash Smash and a Sinclair User Classic are about the same, but on an adventure game a Sinclair User Classic is worth a lot more."
That leads Fergus into a long discussion of what adventure games ought to be like. Bored of the Rings is a three-part extravaganza now marketed by Silversoft, which has given Fergus the break he needed to sell games through a company with an advertising budget, and money to pay duplicators and the like.
For graphics, he rates Adventure International, but hates the plots and text interpreter. Level Nine he says are "odd" but have the best text. "Melbourne House has the best text interpreter, and it usually messes it up. But I do rate them very highly."
The atmosphere becomes tense, as Judith draws nearer to Fergus' office/ bedroom/den. The posters of the Thompson Twins, Eurythmics, Marillion, Great Space Race, Sinclair User, Porsche 928 and Bronski Beat begin to ooze blood in anticipation. One particular poster above his bed is an anti-pollution guide. The circle in the centre is now red, which means "Evacuate Immediately".
Meanwhile Fergus is explaining about his Scottish roots. "Everyone up there is obsessed by football," he says. "People ask me "Do you support Rangers or Celtic?" and I say "No, I'm an atheist." I used to like Queens Park, a minuscule team with the right to play at Hampden Park. There were only about 20 people watching."
Fergus doesn't even like arcade games, the heretic. "I hate them. I only play them very briefly. I like The Rocky Horror Show to be patriotic, and Dark Star and Alien 8. Don't Buy This was the best from Firebird in a long time. We had good fun with Way of the Exploding Fist at the PCW show, pretending to be very stupid and letting a Melbourne House official explain it to us."
Suddenly Judith erupts into the office like a boil whose time has come. Water pistol in fist, she sprays us in revenge for our unkind cut of a few months back. Let it go on record - if you ignore the leather jacket, studs, sharpened nails, knife, and Marillion T-shirt Judith Child is an otherwise demure, attractive and courteous young woman of obvious talent. Judith is working with Fergus on Robin of Sherlock, the next threepart mega-quest from Delta 4. It's a step forward for Quilled adventures because it allows you to move backwards and forwards between the three separate programs, and also features independent characters doing things to each other behind your back.
Apart from Robin Hood and Sherlock, other characters include Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, sequences from the Wizard of Oz, Smurfs, Wombles, laxatives, vaseline- "don't forget the candles," says Judith - an Exploding Friar Tuck, Hurn's (sic) Garden Shed - "there's a lot of those" - and an NCP car park which follows you wherever you go.
At the beginning of the game Watson is dead, but Fergus hasn't yet decided whether or not to have him sit up later and say suitably meaningless Melbourne House-type things. "Watson is an idiot. The sofa is an idiot. Things I can see . . ." observes Fergus.
Fergus has never sat down and written a machine code game and says he probably never will. "Bored of the Rings is the Quill and other people's routines hacked about a bit," he says.
Judith is looking around the bedroom, change-spotting. "Oh God," she says, with blood-curdling scorn, "he's personalised the number plates on the Porsche poster."
She requires a certain amount of persuasion to appear in the photosession, and brandishes the knife meaningfully. Eventually the lure of the lens overcomes her, and the interview continues as she poses with Fergus and Ian Willis, who has now joined the merry throng.
Ian programs on the BBC and QL - he's currently converting Bored of the Rings for the black beast. Other contributors, not present, include Jason Somerville, who works on the Amstrad and Jon Walker who does artwork and "general scribbling".
"Andrew Sprunt - we call him Spud - does photography and stuff," adds Fergus.
"Jason's a squirt," says Judith. "He's not very nice to me. Ask him how Jill is . . ."
"Jason is really small," explains Fergus. "He doesn't have any glaring features. Jon is more interesting than Spud. Spud tries to arrange million pound mergers with people. He's hilarious.
"My bullet-proof jerkin is like a shield of steel" he intones, apparently as an example of Spud humour. It's what Spam says in Bored if you shoot him with a Gatling gun.
The Delta 4 mob has left the old school and they are doing things at different sixth form colleges. Fergus waxes nostalgic about the good old days at school, and that warms up Judith, whose conversation has hitherto been limited to cutting observations dropped into the proceedings like a frozen burger into hot fat.
"Tell him about Nilrac," says Judith. Nilrac turns up as a character in Skeptical, the bonus "magazine" included with Bored of the Rings on side four.
"He's awful," says Fergus.
"He's a penguin", says Judith.
He's the man who took the computer studies course at their old school, that's who he is.
"He doesn't like Thatcher . . . he doesn't like anything," says Fergus. "He likes Bruce Springsteen," comments Judith. Is that a redeeming feature?
This takes us into the realm of how computing ought to be taught in schools. Fergus reckons what counts is hands-on experience, not just learning how to do it in theory. According to Fergus, if it was all theory, "there'd be no programmers."
Teachers have to cope with a lot of problems in teaching computers. In the first place, they may not know much themselves, and what's more they may get people like Delta 4 to teach. But that won't impress frustrated pupils.
It's much the same story with many young programmers, of course - though maybe not so vociferously expressed. Programming begins at home. Could a similar bunch of schoolkids make a go of it today,the way Delta 4 has?
"Not the way we did," says Fergus.
"Bored of the Rings was the first really excellent product we've done. People starting now would get eaten up."
He says he'd consider working for other companies "but only certain ones, and not on the basis of going into a room every day and writing stuff."
His aim is to set up a deal with Silversoft of the type Denton Designs has with Beyond and Ocean.
"I can see why they do it", he says. "Also it means you don't have to sit up until one in the morning putting horrible little cassette inlays in boxes.
But isn't it a bit sad to see Silversoft all over the game and not Delta 4 ?
"Yes, it is galling. I want me promoted, or Delta 4. They even spelled my name wrong on the insert."
Names will matter less in future, since Fergus and the rest of them are all due to die soon in Joystick III. Fergus commits suicide, and there's a tasteful picture of the event on his bedroom wall.
After that, the games will be written under pseudonyms. Fergus is calling himself the Jester, and Judith wants to be Desperado, though she's thought about Razzle.
Fergus finally gives into temptation and unleashes the full power of the blazing Right Guard. Gentle readers, do not try this yourselves. You are not manic programmers, and you are not about to commit suicide in a Quilled adventure game anyway.
It seems like a good time to make an exit. We'll have to leave the horror of the Delta 4 experience in the Stratford Pizza Chef to another episode - nor is there time to find out what happens if you type CHRIS BOURNE as an instruction in the third part of Bored of the Rings. If you get a diatribe against Home Computing Weekly you've typed HCW instead.
"If anybody says Marillion sounds just like Genesis," says Judith, fingering her blade, "I'll squirt them again."
Delta 4 Softography