Bandersnatch: the game that killed a company and inspired a Black Mirror episode

If you’re the sort of hip cat who’s ‘up’ on all things streaming video, you’ll probably be aware of Bandersnatch, the choose-your-own adventure style spin-off of Charlie Brooker’s fantastic Black Mirror series.

Bandersnatch tells the story of Stefan Butler, a young programmer who’s developing a game for the ZX Spectrum based on a fantasy novel (the author of which is portrayed in a cameo appearance by Jeff Minter, the creator of games like Tempest 2000 and Attack Of The Mutant Camels).

What you may not realise, though, is that Bandersnatch is loosely – very loosely – based on an actual ZX Spectrum game that ultimately never saw the light of day. Here, then, is the story of the original Bandersnatch: what it was, what happened to it, and what it eventually became.

The hype

Let’s start at the beginning. Around 13.8 billion years ago, a cosmic event called the Big Bang started and… um.

Actually, let’s move a bit further forward than that. The year was 1982, and three men – Mark Butler (hence Stefan Butler in the Black Mirror episode), David Lawson and Eugene Evans – had founded Imagine Software.

Imagine was a Liverpool-based studio which quickly gained a reputation for making quality games, including the likes of Arcadia, Zzoom and Alchemist. Other early games included the odd Ah Diddums (where you play as a teddy bear trying to get out of a toy box to comfort its crying child) and Molar Maul (a tooth-cleaning game).

A clever reference in the script, or a complete coincidence? YOU DECIDE. [10-second timer starts]
In early 1984, Imagine started placing teaser adverts in magazines like CVG, Crash and Sinclair User for two new games. One of them, Psyclapse, would be coming to the Commodore 64. Before that though, the other game – Bandersnatch – was headed to the ZX Spectrum.

The first ad, printed in the February 1984 issue of CVG, made a big deal about how Imagine was bringing together some of the UK games industry’s “master computer game writers” – Ian Weatherburn, Mike Glover, John Gibson and Eugene Evans – to make these games. Obviously, all four already worked at Imagine, but ssshhh.

Eugene Evans (far right) appeared in numerous newspaper stories reporting that he’d amassed over £35,000 in royalties making games for Imagine and owned a sports car: he’s the inspiration for Colin Ritman in the Black Mirror episode. Incidentally, Colin’s surname is based on Jon Ritman, the programmer of such well-loved Spectrum games as Head Over Heels, Match Day and Batman.

This was followed the next month by a “progress report” ad, which tried to build hype by implying the sheer stress of developing the most revolutionary games of all time was starting to have an effect.

“The tension is beginning to show,” it read. “Their once smiling faces are now drawn and haggard, their eyes are bloodshot, PSYCLAPSE and BANDERSNATCH are beginning to take their toll.”

It went on: “The atmosphere in Imagine House is electric: will they succeed? Can they maintain their sanity? Will they crack under the mental burden?

“Rumours abound they’re adventure games, they’re arcade games, they’re completely original concepts in computer entertainment. CAN YOU CONTAIN YOUR PATIENCE?”

While this ad was designed to get the reader excited – after all, if this game was driving these elite developers crazy, it was surely going to be something they’d never seen before – in reality it was (maybe unintentionally) hinting at troubles behind the scenes. But we’ll get to that.

Next came a third ad heralding the arrival of five new staff members: three graphic artists and two musicians.

Things were starting to get exciting: this was going to be massive.

Then, for the next few months, subtle teaser ads just showing logos. It’s safe to say the hype train was starting to build up momentum, but there was still nothing to show for it, and readers still didn’t even know what sort of game to expect.

The game

In reality, Bandersnatch was to be an adventure game set in a futuristic city made up of domed buildings. The player controlled Vell, a retired officer of the Intergalactic Police, and – according to an August CVG article offering the first vague details – involved a mysterious character called The Baron in some way.

The true details of Bandersnatch have been a mystery for decades, but in the middle of 2015 someone sold a bunch of concept materials on eBay. These were eventually scanned and uploaded to Twitter by former Ocean Software artist Mark Jones.

Among these materials was a much more detailed explanation of the plot:

As well as this was a selection of comic strips explaining who each of the game’s main characters were, including the mysterious Baron.

Turns out his real name was Richard Richards, but he gave himself the name Baron Hama because he “runs his company like a medieval fiefdom”.

He’s the owner of a mining company and rules his staff with an iron fist. He’s a bit of a dick, basically, which is why him being the main villain makes perfect sense.

Here’s a slideshow with the comics explaining more about the Baron, as well as a selection of other characters in the game:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As for the game itself? Well, Imagine’s devs told CVG – somewhat pretentiously – that calling Bandersnatch and Psyclapse computer games “would be an inadequate description”, and that instead they were “more a collection of concepts that add up to a total home leisure experience”.

What this meant was that rather than a standard action game, Bandersnatch had you wandering around its futuristic city, interacting with its various residents using a speech bubble system that was considered revolutionary at the time.

An article from the August 1984 issue of CVG: following a trip to Imagine’s studio, it’s clear the writer was still none the wiser

Not only would characters be able to talk to you in ‘real time’ via their speech bubbles, your character would also think about doing things: these thoughts would appear in bubbles and you could carry them out by pressing the Fire button. Think of it as a very early version of Ocarina Of Time’s contextual buttons (where different actions appear at the top of the screen depending on Link’s situation).

Among the materials obtained by the eBay buyer in 2015 are general overview of what this new genre – dubbed the ‘free format game concept’ – would be like, and how its speech bubble system worked.

The ‘mega game’ idea

A concept this detailed was going to be tricky to squeeze onto the ZX Spectrum, what with its measly 48KB of RAM. That’s why Bandersnatch’s biggest innovation wasn’t going to be the game itself, but another thing entirely.

The final teaser ad

You see, Bandersnatch and Psyclapse were going to be the first in Imagine’s line of ‘mega games’: games that wouldn’t usually be possible on the computers they were designed for.

To make this work, Bandersnatch was going to be bundled with a new piece of hardware that would attach to the ZX Spectrum and give it an extra 128K of RAM, increasing the available memory from 48K to 176K.

On top of this, the game was going to come in a bumper-sized box with a whole host of other goodies included to celebrate such a momentous release: a music tape, posters, toys and a t-shirt were all proposed at one point.

All this bumph, along with the extra hardware, meant the game was rumoured to cost around £40. Considering this was a time when even the average Spectrum game cost £6 and even the biggest triple-A titles rarely cost more than £9.99, that was a big deal.

In fact, according to programmer John Gibson in a 2001 interview, it was looking likely that even with 176K, “the game was around half finished and we’d already used up all the ROM so a major design rethink would have been necessary to get it finished.” As such, the final package was more likely to cost around £60 – ten times what a normal game would cost. Would you drop £450 on a Switch game?

The financial problems

With every passing week, Bandersnatch was growing more arms and legs and was turning into something much bigger than anyone could have anticipated. This was no longer a simple game release: it was suddenly part game, part hardware launch, part box full of merchandise and other tat.

By sheer coincidence, the confusion around the game’s development was actually caught on camera. In early 1984 the BBC started filming a documentary called Commercial Breaks: The Battle for Santa’s Software. As the name suggested, it was to follow a bunch of UK publishers as they prepared to fight for the Christmas number one spot.

Imagine was one of the companies the BBC chose to follow, and as such the broadcaster got first-hand experience of the growing confusion surrounding Bandersnatch.

In this clip from the documentary, Imagine’s sales manager Sylvia Jones is having a meeting with one of the company’s distributors. It’s clear here how much internal confusion there was surrounding the game: it’s a mess.

The game’s development was becoming a big ball of confusion, then, but Imagine had even bigger problems: it had no money left.

In fact, Imagine’s financial problems had started before Bandersnatch had even been announced. In late 1983 – a couple of months before that first advert appeared in CVG – ad agency Studio Sting went into liquidation, while claiming that Imagine had failed to pay over £50,000 of advertising bills.

Imagine’s debts mounted while work on Bandersnatch began. The company’s bosses were hedging all their bets on new investment, but it ultimately never came. According to Imagine artist Steve Cain in a 2009 interview with Edge magazine:

“The company was in the shit. Everybody knew that it was absolutely fucked, not to put too fine a point on it.

[co-founder] Dave Lawson firmly believed that they had some money coming in from the States. There was even talk of us working with Atari. The idea was that Atari would foot the bill for the people on the Mega Games team to go live and work in California.

Apparently, at the last minute, Warner Brothers (who owned Atari) sold it to the Tramiels, and the Tramiels were supposed to have said ‘no’. And that was the end of that.”

The collapse

With no money, Imagine continued to build a list of creditors. You know those ads I showed you earlier: the ones that appeared in a bunch of computer game magazines? None of them were actually paid for. Tape duplication firms – who actually manufactured Imagine’s games – went unpaid too.

The popular Spectrum magazine CRASH (which was also owed money for ads it printed) reported that Imagine had sent everyone a letter saying it was expecting to get £250,000 within 21 days and would settle all debts at that time. It never happened.

On 28 June 1984, the magazine Personal Computer Games issued a writ against Imagine, demanding that the £10,000 it was owed for printing its ads be paid in full.

This wasn’t possible, though. As Bruce Everiss, Imagine’s operations controller, explained it to CRASH magazine: “The company is up shit street. There has been no proper financial control. Not even a VAT return has been done.”

Personal Computer Games wasn’t paid its £10,000 and so Imagine Games was wound up at the High Court in London on 9 July 1984. Hmmm, that date’s familiar.

Ah, that’s right, it’s when the Black Mirror episode starts

In a bitter twist of irony, the ads Imagine had created to build hype for Bandersnatch were the same unpaid ads that contributed to the company’s demise. Imagine was dead, and it seemed that Bandersnatch had died with it.

The aftermath

There was still a chance for Bandersnatch, though. From the ashes of Imagine rose Finchspeed, a new company set up by Imagine co-founders Dave Lawson and Mark Butler, and financial manager Ian Hetherington.

CRASH magazine’s exposé, detailing the whole sorry affair at the time

Finchspeed was created to transfer over Imagine’s assets, with none of the debt. Around 20 ex-Imagine staff were employed, with the aim being to continue working on Bandersnatch and finally get it released.

This was easier said than done, though. Many of Bandersnatch’s core development team – Gibson, Noble, Cain, Watherburn – had formed their own studio, Denton Designs, and wanted nothing more to do with Bandersnatch.

Meanwhile, Finchspeed was met with a lot of hostility, especially from the gaming press who’d already been screwed out of ad revenue. It may have been a new company with a new name, but it was being run by the same people.

“A member of the advertisement department at Personal Computer Games,” a CVG article read, “has told us that should anyone having anything at all to do with Finchspeed or any of its directors approach them for advertising space they would be told where to go.”

Despite this, work continued on Bandersnatch, with Finchspeed agreeing to instead develop it for the Sinclair QL, the more advanced successor to the Spectrum.

Two apparent prototypes of this QL version of Bandersnatch have surfaced in recent years. The first is of unknown origin and crashes when the player tries to leave the first screen: it’s not known whether this was an actual prototype, or just a fan-made version.

The second, which was only discovered in 2017, was found in the US among a bunch of other QL microdrive cartridges. It’s another prototype – there are no enemies or collectibles and it crashes regularly – but the player can walk around and the doors and elevators work.

Progress was being made, then, but before the QL version of Bandersnatch was able to be released, Finchspeed also went under. So was that the end of the story for the game?

Not quite. Hetherington and Lawson decided to try once again and founded yet another company: Psygnosis. In time this studio would become a UK powerhouse, publishing the likes of Lemmings, Shadow Of The Beast and WipEout.

Brataccas, in all its glory

The first ever Psygnosis game, however, was called Brataccas. Set on a mining colony in space, you played as a man framed for treason who had to prove his innocence by talking to the locals and gaining evidence from them.

Brataccas included – wait for it – a speech bubble based control system, where players could read NPC’s dialogue and act on it with the fire button. That’s right: Bandersnatch may have technically died, but to all intents and purpose, it was finally here as Brataccas.

Brataccas launched in 1986, two years after work started on Bandersnatch, for the Amiga, Atari ST and Mac.

It was shit.


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15 comments

  1. Not yet played/watched the episode as I’ve not seen any of Black Mirror (something I’m trying to resolve). But the article was a genuine interesting read and as a fan of the ‘old’ days of British computing fantastic!

    Like

  2. One fact not mentioned was that John Gibson took the core Bandersnatch code and used it as the basis for Denton Design’s first game, Gift From The Gods.

    Like

  3. whoa i had no idea. thanks for this! especially for the clip from the BBC documentary. i have to admit at first i thought this whole article was part of a black-mirror-created ARG or something 😉

    Like

  4. To charge 10 times more for a game even if it was supposed to be the greatest of all time according to its developers was a terrible idea. That game project was doomed to fail anyway.
    I’d love to pay £6 for a game or no more than £10 for a triple-A title recently released on current gen platforms…

    Like

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