Virtual Worlds: Ant Attack’s Antchester

Sandy White’s a really nice bloke. When I interviewed him back in 2004 when I was writing for RetroGamer he was an absolute delight to talk to and a thoroughly helpful guy who not only assisted me with my articles for the magazine but also went out of his way to get me everything I needed for my first published work.  As it turns out, despite Sandy only really making one game that I could actually describe as legendary, that game would mark the start of a personal desire to explore virtual worlds from the safety of my living room as often as possible.  Humble beginnings, perhaps, but the 8-bit title was rather special.

Ant Attack, Sandy’s first game, arrived on the scene when I was just seven years old, and changed videogame graphics forever.  Before Ant Attack games were in two dimensions, and although games like Q*Bert pretended to offer the third dimension it was the Quicksilva published ZX Spectrum game that would properly define 3D visuals and give a true sense of verticality.  If you’re not familiar with Ant Attack, please look it up – you’ll obviously not be able to truly comprehend the leap in technology that the game offered back then, but you won’t feel quite as ignorant reading on knowing at least what the game looks like.

It wasn’t just the techy stuff that impressed me back then, though, because although I was dabbling in BASIC myself creating all kinds of rudimentary games with Sinclair’s absolutely massive 48 kilobytes of RAM (technically only 32K,but you know what I mean) to me videogames have always been about immersion and character, something many current titles completely omit in the desperate pursuit of style over substance.  Ant Attack had both immersion and character in spades, from the tense encounters with the giant ants to the almost mythological schoolyard discussions me and my pals had about the various buildings dotted around the map.

“The structure and the design nearly all of the buildings was done by myself,” Sandy told me, “since they all had to be functional in a gameplay sense.  Things like spaced out columns, steps, corners all had to be designed hand in hand with the code that drove the characters in order that the gameplay would actually work. There was a continual trade between simplifying the shapes of things and increasing the versatility of the characters. The result was that the city grew like a kind of coral, but was not nicely laid out. Eventually these hand coded buildings, a big pile of squared paper diagrams, were laid out on a giant sheet of squared paper.”

The important aspect of why I liked Ant Attack so much is the exploration of the unknown.  Sure, the city of Antchester isn’t anything like the scale of the world in Oblivion (which we’ll come to in a later article) but it does offer similar sort of qualities – there’re various buildings of unknown origin and purpose, there are closed off sections and there’s even a graveyard (which Sandy told me was created whilst listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller).  Finally, and most enticing for a seven year old boy, there are hidden messages.  Sandy’s gone on record more than once about the stuff hidden in Ant Attack, but the SW in the far corner is the most obvious.

Exploring the walled city was tricky with the omnipresent threat of man-eating ants, but that didn’t seem to stop me – and even though there were no secret weapons or collectables to find that didn’t ever seem to bother me – here was a coherent (albeit rather blocky) world, with a feeling of solidarity never seen before, just ripe for discovery.  Antchester might have only offered a brief sprint in terms of distance but it kickstarted this desire for virtual worlds and a love for architecture.  It might look simple now, but who knows where we’d be without Sandy White’s technological breakthrough in creating the first 3D game world.

There are hundreds of virtual worlds out there, and I’ll be blogging about my favourites over the coming weeks.  Now, where did I put my map?