THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Spring 1985, and Tim Child, a journalist, reporter and occasional development producer for Anglia TV in Norwich, had a silly idea.

As a journalist, he’d taken to producing a regular weekly review of the fledgling UK 8-bit home computer games industry. The justification for Anglia was that much of this industry seemed to be originating from within its regional boundaries. Sinclair and Acorn were both in Cambridge; Commodore had its UK HQ in Northamptonshire.

Everywhere, people seemed to be coding computer games and spotty boys were becoming adolescent millionaires.

At the time, Tim's elder sister was working as a middle manager for Clive Sinclair on the Spectrum computer range, and this contact gave him his first brush with home computers.

First, Ultimate's Atic Atac, and then Hewson's 48k interactive movie, Dragontorc, convinced the Anglia producer that if adventure gaming was possible in a machine as limited as a Spectrum, then the graphic power of modern television could capitalise on the idea and revolutionise the genre.

The idea for Knightmare was born.

Next, a number of key problems had to be solved. How to create a complex artificial world? How to populate it? How to experience it? How to explore it? How to make it work as television?

From the outset Tim Child wanted to use computer graphics to create his first dungeon, but the trouble was that in 1985, computer graphic imaging (CGI) was in its infancy. The Quantel paintbox had only just been developed (Anglia was yet to purchase one), and most computerised images were sadly disappointing compared to the real thing.

Tim knew what was needed, and it wasn't the gaudy, crude 4-8 colour illustrations which current computer games were offering. What he actually needed, were the fabulous, atmospheric fantasy illustrations that decorated the outside packaging of said crude computer games. He found some examples, and called the publishers in a bid to identify the artist. The answer was soon forthcoming.

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Most of the front covers Tim admired were the work of David Rowe. On contact, the artist was intrigued by the journalist and his ideas, and soon both were pouring over plans and sketches for a Rowe-painted dungeon. Tim particularly admired David's skill with an airbrush, which he used to create the most realistic of dank, stony surfaces.

The next problem was how to introduce real people into David's air-brushed world.

Here, the former news journalist borrowed from the TV technology, which allowed weathermen to appear nightly in front of a changing graphic representation of the weather forecast. No problem: for weather map, read dungeon. This practice involved pointing a camera at a saturated blue screen or flat; placing a person between the camera and the flat; de-selecting the colour blue in the television picture spectrum, and replacing it with another image. Bingo! - or more appropriately - background!

The technique is called Chromakeying in commercial TV, and Colour Separation Overlay, or CSO by the BBC. Auntie always liked to be different, even then!

The next hurdle was a far greater obstacle. Weathermen or women do not have to wander around weather maps, exploring the isobars, but adventurers need to move about. The immediate answer was quite obvious. Build a Chromakey blue dungeon and you can go where you will.

The trouble was, although the theory should work well, Tim Child knew that the practice amounted to a very difficult and very painstaking way of acquiring television scenes.

The harsh lesson was close at hand. Tim was preparing to construct his first dungeon in Anglia TV’s Studio A, whilst half a mile away in Norwich, a team of programme-makers in the company’s other large production unit, Studio E, were just recovering from nearly a year spent trying to shoot Alice in Wonderland in CSO.

Once again the solution was being offered up by the spotty youths that programmed the 8 bit computer games. Because RAM was at a premium, Tim had noticed how Spectrum graphics were designed to take up minimum space in the program. To achieve this many scenes or rooms in early spectrum dungeons, were actually close to identical, even if they were different colours (well, a choice of four), and boasted different contents. Geometrically, they were identical!

To exploit this factor, Tim commissioned a template, in the form of a standardised grid pattern, to which all scenes in the dungeon would conform. A copy was sent to David Rowe, and the artist commenced drawing a dungeon, in which each of many diversely differing chambers could be played in the same simple chromakey blue chamber which was now under construction in the Anglia TV studio.

For the first experimental dungeon, David produced 5 rooms. They included the first of many Wall Monster Rooms, and a Wellway.Atic Atac had used wellways to transfer the players between levels, and Tim stole the idea for his pilot programme.

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But with each solution, came a new problem.

The fantasy dungeon now existed; a human player could explore it, but that player could not see the CSO creation!

Solution: why not blindfold the explorer and get his/her teammates to guide him/her remotely? How many teammates? Well, three seemed a good number.

The first of Tim Child’s chromakey experiments took place in the autumn of 1985. A group of Anglia TV scenic technicians were recorded, walking around in one of David Rowe’s dungeon scenes. Unlike their colleagues on the Alice shoot, their feet were placed firmly on the ground.

Next came a much bigger step. Child wanted to make a full 15 minute pilot to show to Children’s ITV. The pilot would need to illustrate gameplay and programme presentation.

By now it was called Dungeon Doom, and it needed a Dungeon Master.

hugomyatt

During this period, Tim Child was still acting as line producer on Anglia's regional news magazine programme, About Anglia. About Anglia's presenter was a former singer, Christine Webber, and Christine was married to an actor called Hugo Myatt. Tim had met the bearded Hugo and thought he might make a fair Dungeon Master. Even better, he knew that Hugo (like many actors) was between jobs and would take the trial role for very little money, in the hope that it might lead to something bigger.

Dungeon Doom was recorded in early 1986. Hugo Myatt introduced the show and the guinea-pig team consisted of Tim Child’s nephew, the two daughters of an Anglia colleague, and one of their school chums.

The finished results were edited together but ‘something’ was missing. Tim decided to change the show's name and improve on the crude opening titles. The name Knightmare seemed to say it all about a scary dungeon game, which used a knight’s helmet as a blindfold.

The game had borrowed shamelessly from the computerised adventures marketed for the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and BBC B computers, yet lacked some of the authentic technology they boasted. Atic Atac had an on-screen life-force clock which indicated the health status of the player by representing the carcass of a chicken. If you got down to bare bones you died!

Tim wanted something like it for Knightmare, but Anglia TV had no graphics computers.

But the designer of the rival BBC East News Magazine, a certain Robert Harris had acquired an early 8-bit broadcast-quality Spaceward Computer, and with it he was persuaded to produce the first (and only) computer graphics sequence which the Knightmare pilot was to show.

The finished pilot was viewed by the ITV Childrens’ committee a month later. Nothing like it had been seen before, but the committee was searching for something fresh, and decided to risk a short series of 8 half-hour programmes.

A year later and much had changed. With a second series promised, Tim Child was preparing to quit Anglia TV and form an independent production company called Broadsword. David Rowe had little time for painting video game covers; he was hard at work creating dungeons. Robert Harris had quit BBC East and was setting up his computers under the banner of The Travelling Matte Company, with the promise of a contract from Broadsword.


Knightmare was as almost immediate success, but the programmes proved painstakingly difficult to make. Despite the quick interchangeability of dungeon scenes (remember the grid pattern overlay), gameplay was slow, and the players were spending several days in the dungeon, even on an unsuccessful quest.

At first, Tim Child wrote and planned each adventure, together with all its options, various paths, and clues as a single unbroken interactive narrative. But this approach proved extremely wasteful and finally, impractical. The dungeon was already divided into three layers; Level One, easy/introductory; Two, tricky/eliminatory; Three hard/final proving ground.

The problem being experienced in studio was that Knightmare’s interactive dungeon cast had to learn each adventure from top to bottom, and so, when a team failed in Level One, the entire adventure (script) was immediately jettisoned. This proved quite disruptive to older cast members such as John Woodnutt (Merlin), because it was unclear which speeches they should be learning next. Tim solved this problem by plotting each new game on a level-by-level basis. A new team in the game started with the next (unused) Level One game. When they completed it, the games masters picked up the next available Level Two game, etc. No Clues or Objects were carried over from Level to Level, and the gameplay improved accordingly.

The cast were a lot happier too!

altMeanwhile, Robert Harris, whose Travelling Matte company had hitherto played a minor role in proceedings (remember David Rowe was hand-painting all the scenes), made a breakthrough.

Harris had recently taken delivery of a 16-bit Spaceward Computer and found that if you placed a (black) colour overlay across the frame-grabbed dungeon picture, you could airbrush through the black to progressively reveal the scene beneath. In much the same fashion picture restorers delve beneath relatively modern paintings to see if the canvas has been previously used for an Old Master.

altRobert Harris, who had trained as a conventional theatre and TV set designer, found that he could use this technique to 're-light' the computer-hosted scenes. The results were moody and atmospheric and just what Knightmare needed. The technique was also one of many 'World-Firsts' that Knightmare was to be credited with.

 

From that point onwards, David Rowe produced all his new dungeon scenes with deliberately 'bland and even' lighting plots, allowing the new computer technique to fully exploit the graphics. Cyclic colour animation routines were also used by The Travelling Matte to add animated content to the scenes, but the dungeons themselves remained, frustratingly static.

altGameplay and programme making flourished, and a young British audience was getting used to the only game on television, where losing was counted as more natural than winning!

By now, Knightmare had enjoyed its third series, and the first French version, Le Chevalier du Labyrinth had been commissioned and recorded, but Tim Child was becoming increasingly frustrated with the room-by-room format.

The Knightmare adventures demanded movement, danger, atmosphere and a complex variety of scenes in which to stage the game. The Greater Game was becoming ever more hungry - ever more demanding of scenic complexity, and Harris and Rowe were at the limit of what could be achieved either with computer or paintbrush.

Virtual Reality offered a possible solution, but when Tim Child tried VR in his Sci-Fi adventure show (The Satellite Game) for British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB), the results from the early runtime images were so poor, that they were never even considered for integration into Knightmare. No, Knightmare had started as Hi-Fidelity imaging, and had to remain that way.

So - if Virtual Reality wouldn't do the trick, how about plain Reality? Britain was rich in real castles with real crumbling dungeons. Harris's relighting techniques could be used with any images, real or painted, so why not acquire a huge dungeon database by looting history?

The famed Knightmare studio grid pattern was duly reverse-engineered as an acquisition method, and the team went on location, equipped with video cameras, in search of castles.

And what a rich treasure they discovered......


Knightmare series 3 had explored the limits to be achieved by a solitary dungeoneer being guided around a double-garage sized dungeon chamber, blindfolded by a bucket-shaped helmet.

And these limits weren’t just imposed by the number of chambers David Rowe could paint, or the number of scenes which Robert Harris and his computer graphic artists could animate.

The Greater Game demanded a greater fantasy world and the current graphic sources could not deliver it.

altSo it was to Britain’s own rich history of medieval castles and ruined abbeys that we turned. From Kent to Wales, the Knightmare team plundered, filmed and photographed. And it wasn’t just fortifications. A rich treasure of ancient dwellings was discovered at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, and then there caves and lakes and great barns.

On screen, the results, however, were mixed. Try though we might to ‘treat’ the real material with digital effects, and thereby blend them into the graphic treasures that had so far sustained Knightmare, we could not prevent the style clash which followed. The result, in terms of production design, was a disaster, but by improving the programme and game dynamics we saved Knightmare from the axe, and bought ourselves the opportunity for a further development cycle.

It is hard to explain to those who merely consume the adventure game by playing or viewing, but the biggest opposition we faced as programme-makers, was not from TV execs who thought the game too hard, but from those who thought the game too slow!

A lot of TV is about pace, much of it deliberately and cynically artificial, whereas a good adventure game is almost always slow, and must compensate for this by atmospherics.

Knightmare was accused of being ‘pedestrian’, and how could we deny it: you walked into one room; stood about for a bit, and then walked off into another.

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By using TV cameras to acquire new scenery, we had also acquired walkways, journeys, and of course, movement. Soon we were to commission our first dragon and Helifilms were to create the flights of Smirkenorff.

OK, so you could argue (and many have) that such location acquired journeys (we call them ‘passive paths’) offer less in terms of interactive choice, than the prospect of exploring one of DR’s painted patios, and of course, you would be right.

To compensate for this I became determined to sustain, and even improve those interactive elements that we could deliver. If it was not so important which destination you chose, then what must be critical, is how you conduct yourself when you get there. This also translated into: ‘its not where you go its who you meet.’

In adventure gaming, every new solution tends to expose a new problem. If we needed higher levels of interactive drama, then we needed stronger interactors, with powerful personalities and sub-plots to justify their activities.

That spring I auditioned in London for the new Knightmare dungeon cast. The Merlin/Mogdred scenario was exhausted (in any case I had always found it annoyingly derivative) and I was convinced that the drama game engine of Knightmare must be driven by a really solid baddy.

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When Mark Knight walked into the audition room, he certainly didn’t look the part. He was slightly plump, far from muscular, and of medium height. Within 10 minutes however, I became convinced that Mark was our missing weapon.

It is not just those crows-wing eyebrows, or the natural mocking, sneering tones. There is a genuine competitiveness in Mark which dictates that no scene or role is too difficult, no character part too demanding, nothing beyond him.

As a great natural competitor, the adventure game is made for Mark, and no-one, not even Hugo Myatt, attacked the tasks with such zeal. I was to discover later that this was a very genuine addiction to the interactive genre, because Mark is otherwise quite a lazy person. There was another unlooked-for bonus: Mark demanded access to and contact with, the games-players in order to engage with the production. Obviously he could not do this as Lord Fear (save for Final Encounters), so together we created a variety of other dungeon characters for him to exploit. Although comedy was not our prime ambition, the player encounters with Mark opened a rich comedic vein. Only the antics of Paul Valentine as the scurrilous Sly Hands, could compete.

And so to gaming.

Naltow we had a dungeon with narrative, conflict, and a rich cast of characters capable of delivering help, threats, larceny, mayhem and a rich colourful cocktail of comedy and corruption. Mix in a selection of bright, committed teams, and the results could get a bit interesting.

What is more we were now driving the gameplay with drama-based clues. The Spy-Glasses allowed this, and I therefore contest with anyone over the necessity for introducing them. By the way, I also hated the Eye-Shield.

Knightmare itself was a fearful taskmaster, and while it gave its creator enormous pleasure, it never provided me with satisfaction. Many of the directions which Knightmare took, were driven by a needs-must principle that was in conflict with my own ambitions for a consistent, integrated design, and a ‘no limits’ attitude towards interactive options. Writers like Phil Colvin have made some very intuitive observations about the game, remarkably so, considering they were not provided, as now, with these background details. If only they could have known the political tightropes we tip-toed across and the broken glass we walked through.

Because of the success of Knightmare, Broadsword was much in demand as a production company, to repeat that success in other areas. Accordingly we were commissioned by the new satellite company, BSB to produce a new form of TV adventure game in 1990.

Altogether we produced 38 episodes of the Sci-Fi adventure THE SATELLITE GAME, which was transmitted throughout 1990 and watched thankfully, by a tiny audience.

SG was not completely awful, but it was fairly dreadful! It suffered badly from my own attempts to make it as unlike Knightmare as possible, and from the fact that early runtime Virtual Reality images, were just not up to the task.

VR may have been capable of delivering real choice, but it looked so disappointing that the exercise really wasn’t worth the candle.

However, just by learning that VR wasn’t ready to deliver atmosphere and high fidelity virtual scenes, we learned enough to save Knightmare from a disastrous early experiment with this emerging genre.

Shortly after we completed the first pilot for our BBC adventure game, TIMEBUSTERS (nicknamed TIM-BUSTERS by the Broadsword crew - because one series almost killed me) This was intended to do for location-based role-playing, what Knightmare had done for studio-based TV.

TIMEBUSTERS ran for 3 series on BBC and provided some of the worst (not counting SG) and best adventure-gaming we had ever conducted. The principle obstacle to its achievements was the fact that each game (and each featured team) had just one show (25 minutes) and 1.5 location game days, to complete their win-or-lose allotted task. There was no rolling gameplay as invented and allowed in Knightmare. We could however exploit our Knightmare experiences, and our experienced interactors. Players such as Sam Perkins (Gundrada), Mark Knight (Lord Fear) and Michael Cule (Brother Mace), all appeared in TIMEBUSTERS.

And, despite the experiences of SG, we had not deserted Virtual Reality, because it promised too much to be ignored. In 1993 Broadsword produced CYBERZONE for BBC 2 with Craig Charles in the presenter’s role. The world’s first true virtual reality TV show was not an adventure game (the graphics were still too crude), but it was a very creditable action gameshow, which would no doubt have survived, had its commissioner, Janet Street-Porter, stayed at the BBC.

We had now arrived at what was to prove a critical point.

Knightmare – the first genuine interactive adventure game on television was 7 years old.

One of the most radical shows in British TV history had proved it had legs, but no one in Children’s ITV believed in longevity.

I was summoned to ITV Centre in London and invited to devise and produce Knightmare’s successor.

The rest is not only history – it is also politics.


Because there has been much speculation on Knightmare’s demise, a proper explanation is long overdue. But before all the conspiracy theories are laid to rest, I can tell you that none of the stated reasons, or given explanations, carries the truth.

Instead, a number of circumstances conspired to halt the game. Some were contrived; others were merely cock-ups.

The first circumstance came earlier in 1992, when Knightmare narrowly failed to win the Royal Television’s Society’s award for best children’s programme. The award went to a BBC programme (as usual), in a decision the Sunday Times TV critic described as ‘a travesty’. It would have been a very rare win for the ITV system and Knightmare would have preserved for at least 3 seasons after such a triumph.

In the absence of such a win, the rest is down to history, the first page of which was turned later in 1992 with the appointment of a controller of ITV children’s programmes to replace the committee system used since the 1960s.

That first controller was Dawn Airey, a sharp young scheduler from Central TV, with almost no programme-making experience. As a producer, I viewed Dawn’s appointment with suspicion, but our first meeting was to change that. Even then, Dawn had precise views on which direction she needed to take and the sort of programmes she was looking for. She was a-brim with confidence, and subsequently had no fear about taking decisions.

Dawn’s scheduling background (a scheduler plans the best schedule and picks and places TV programmes accordingly), would place the emphasis on research-led decisions, and although Dawn was an admirer of Knightmare, and deemed it a quality childrens’ programme, current research into the demography of children's viewing, painted a dismal picture.

In 1985, when I devised Knightmare, current demography (breakdown by age and other factors) of childrens’ ITV viewing spread from 6-15. By 1994 (the last year of the Dungeon), it was predicted to be 6-10. Older children and of course, adolescents and adults could watch, but their viewing figure contributions were regarded as insignificant (even ignored).

Dawn believed (as did Anna Home at the BBC), that the games-playing audience (9 upwards) was migrating from TV to video games or niche market satellite, and that their departure represented a battle already lost. Thought-provoking interactive products like Knightmare might well win awards, but could not reverse that trend.

After two meetings, in which I fought the Knightmare corner as best I could, Dawn came to a decision which blended caution with risk. Knightmare would have its 8th season, albeit at a shorter programme run, and it would be transmit back-to-back in the autumn schedules against its new stable-mate (and potential successor), Broadsword’s new show, Virtually Impossible.

The latter was to be a VR-based action gameshow rather than an adventure game. It was a deliberate parody of the computer game genre, and was aimed at the new (lower age group) CITV audience. In my view however, it was never intended to rival or replace Knightmare, it merely addressed the demographic realities that Dawn was stressing. To have addressed them with Knightmare would have involved dumbing-down to the extent that the show would have been reduced to a travesty of its previous existence.

A few months after this decision, Dawn Airey left her post to take up promotion as Head of Entertainment Programmes at Channel 4. She was going places, and would not stay to see the results of her decision. Dawn’s surprise replacement could not have been more different.

Vanessa Chapman had been a regional childrens’ show producer at London Weekend TV. Now she was catapulted into the biggest job in UK Children’s TV (apart from Anna Home’s). Among her first tasks was to sit down and negotiate with the (then) head of MAI Broadcasting’s Chief of Children’s Programming, Janie Grace. MAI now owned Anglia TV, so Janie now represented Knightmare’s interests. Janie, an experienced senior producer in the children’s programming area, had been one of the favourites to replace Dawn Airey and it was therefore a strained situation for both ladies. It was not a situation likely to favour Knightmare or Virtually Impossible.

The two new series were duly transmitted that autumn: the results very much as I would have predicted. Knightmare held up well in the viewing figures, despite the migrating older audience, but Virtually Impossible made a shaky start. This was mainly because it disappointed the loyal Knightmare fans who balked at having their sixteen week dungeon-fest reduced down to ten and deserted CITV in protest. In ratings terms, the old adventure game beat the new gameshow.

There were also production problems with VI, which related to the late delivery of its state-of-art virtual games software. This meant that the points scoring system whereby you measured the progress and performance of teams had to be added in after the event, in post-production.

Early in 1995, I attended a series of meetings, sometimes with Vanessa Chapman; sometimes with Janie Grace, sometime with both. The climax of these negotiations is that I was asked to nominate which of the two programmes Broadsword would continue to produce in 1995. The caveat for this was that whatever happened, Knightmare would end after one more series (series 9).

Faced with this dilemma, I nominated Virtually Impossible as our choice. The reasons were not straight-forward. Virtually Impossible had launched weakly because circumstances had frustrated its high technical ambition. I was not fond of VI, but I was convinced that it was a potential winner in the new lower-aged group CITV environment.

Secondly, I was already aware that Knightmare needed to go full Virtual Reality if its status as a leading-edge adventure game system was to be carried forward. I also knew that affordable high fidelity VR was not ready to do the business for us in 1995, and so ‘resting’ the programme provided a realistic, if unattractive solution.

In the event, circumstances denied both programmes. The editorial negotiations needed to re-launch Virtually Impossible put a further strain on the already difficult relationships between Vanessa and Janie, and these negotiations eventually broke down. Neither programme was re-commissioned.

There was a brief flurry of meetings with Children’s BBC during 1995, that could have seen Knightmare cross to the public broadcast sector, but these fell down because of a variety of issues, including copyright problems.

To get around these a format re-write entitled The Sword and The Sorcerer was produced, but BBC programme research was also pointing at the prospect of less viewers and a younger audience. There was much negotiation; much enthusiasm, but no commission.

At Broadsword we had suffered a further blow. After three series, TimeBusters was brought to an end by Children's BBC. Suddenly, Broadsword had nothing in production, and no production income from television.

To buy time and to pay salaries, we turned our attention and our energies to our spin-off creation, Televirtual, which is today one of the UK’s most successful entertainment technology companies. It is because of that success that Broadsword survives as a potential force for production.

Today we all stand on the threshold of a new era for content creation. It’s going to be at the heart of a 21st century society dominated by smart information technology and dissolving boundaries between the computer game and the TV gameshow, and between 20th century-born broadband media such as television and compression-fed modern distributive media like the internet.

We will undoubtedly cross those boundaries as Virtual Humans or Avatars, and reach new heights of gaming in competition with each other or with intelligent agents.

Ironically, it is a time that is absolutely made for Knightmare, a gaming system that is now acknowledged as: ahead of its time.

So will that time come again?

Who can ever really tell?

I am certainly not ruling it out, and I would like to thank you all for caring about its prospects as much as I do. So remember: in life, as in the greater game, one rule stands pre-eminent:

The only way is onward

There is no turning back

 

[Knightmare.com adds: Tim Child put down his quill on this article in 1999 AD. Since then, life for Knightmare has continued with repeats, documentaries, the Knightmare VR pilot in 2004, Knightmare Live since 2014, the Knightmare Convention in 2014... and a brand new episode in 2013. Imagine if we had turned back...

You can find out more about all of those things by exploring the website - there is no correct path. It may be thirty years since Knightmare began, but the quest isn't over yet. Thank you for supporting it.]

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