Matt Westcott (Spectrum Supremo) – Interview

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We don’t use the term “supremo” lightly at Arcade Attack. Well, that’s not quite true but this man certainly deserves that accolade. There’s not much Matt Westcott can’t do with a Spectrum (apart from scramble an egg maybe) and he’s been lighting up the Speccy demo scene for years. We’ve most recently enjoyed his work in the epic Bandersnatch and are thankful he spared us some of his time to answer Adrian’s questions. And yes there are Bandersnatch SPOILERS, beware!

 

What are your earliest memories of video games and which games did you most love while growing up?

My family got a Spectrum at Christmas 1985 – before that we had a ZX81 and a Binatone Pong game that both got limited use. I was actually quite late to come around to the appeal of video games – the demo tape that came with our Spectrum had a Pac Man variant called Maze Chase, and instead of ghosts it had sinister tadpole-like creatures. I was four and a half years old at the time, and to my active imagination this was pretty intense monsters-under-the-bed stuff – I decided I could do without that! I remember Fast Food Dizzy being one of the first titles that finally got me to love video games. I enjoyed games that had an element of exploring and discovering new rooms, too – Rapscallion is one lesser-known game that got played a lot in our house.

 

You are well known for your development and work in the ZX Spectrum scene. Do you remember the first time you laid eyes on a Spectrum and do you have any personal favourite Spectrum titles?

I don’t really remember getting the Spectrum itself, but I must have been pretty excited about it because I have a clear memory of coming back to school after Christmas, doing a “what I did in the holidays” type exercise, and yammering to my bewildered teacher about it… who probably thought this “Zeddex Spectrum” thing was a Transformers action figure or something (ha ha! – Ed).

 

How did you start programming on the Spectrum and do you remember the first ever game you worked on?

While I was in my “not really into games” period, I was totally engrossed in the Spectrum BASIC manual – I loved the idea of being able to create pretty much anything given the right sequence of instructions, like infinite Lego.

Growing up, I must have worked on dozens of game ideas in BASIC, most of which didn’t get much further than a title screen, but one that did get off the ground (and even to the point of multi-level gameplay) was Mow Business, where you played a gardener mowing a lawn while avoiding hazards like weeds and dog poo. At the time, I was unaware that Your Sinclair had already released Advanced Lawnmower Simulator as an April Fool’s joke and turned “lawnmower sim” into a watchword for unimaginably rubbish games. At least mine was an actual playable game, but yeah, it was pretty terrible – so when comp.sys.sinclair, one of the early internet Speccy communities, hosted an annual “Crap Games Competition”, I dug out the old tape, finished it off and submitted it. So, I guess in a way that counts as my first ever completed game.

 

 

How many games have you programmed for the ZX Spectrum and do you have a personal favourite game?

I haven’t actually made that many games as such – most of my activity is on the demo scene, where I make animated video-like things that run on the Spectrum and involve some combination of technical show-offs, art and storytelling.

Out of those, the ones I’m most proud of are Losing Victoria (a poetic, melancholy piece I made at a time when demos were dominated by thumping Russian techno music…) and Ultraviolet (a technical showcase where I used all the code and music I’d been hoarding for a decade or more waiting for the right moment, thinking “if I don’t release this stuff now, I never will”).

I’ve made maybe half a dozen or so games as a spin-off from that activity, usually as a technical challenge like “can I recreate the Nibbles game from Microsoft QBasic in 1K of code”. Nohzdyve is the only one I’d count as a ‘real’ game in the sense that it could pass as something released commercially back in the day, so that would have to be my favourite.

 

Do you personally publish your titles and how much demand is there for your games and other homebrew Spectrum games?

One of the nice things about the demo scene is that there’s no expectation to deal with promotion, or adjusting the product to make it more marketable or anything like that – it’s just creating for the sake of creating – so for me publishing something is just a case of putting it up on the internet and telling people about it on Twitter, and demand isn’t something I worry about. Obviously, it’s always nice to have more eyeballs looking at the things I’ve made, so it’s a good feeling when something gets traction beyond the core Spectrum/demo audience – and working on Bandersnatch certainly qualified for that! – but it’s not something I actively seek out.

 

How long does it typically take to start and complete a game and what programming skills are essential?

Nohzdyve took about 3-4 weeks, working evenings and weekends. The demo projects I’ve worked on vary massively in scope, and can be anything from a single day to 6 months. Probably the most important skill in Spectrum programming is being able to break problems down into progressively smaller chunks, and keep track of all those levels at once – so that while you’re figuring out the most efficient way to shift individual bytes around, you’re still keeping sight of the overall goal.

 

We have had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Cauldwell in the past. Why do you think there is such a vibrant and lively homebrew scene for the Spectrum?

I think one place where the Spectrum really stood out was the quality and immediate accessibility of BASIC. Having the keywords printed on the keys had the (probably) unintended consequence of drawing people in further – “sure, I know I can type in LOAD “, ” but what are these other things?” It meant that people who might not have had any interest in programming would easily progress to, say, moving an X around the screen, and who knows how many programming careers have developed off the back of that… So I think a lot of people have plenty of affection for that time, as their first experience of programming, and it’s inspired them to come back and revisit Spectrum programming.

 

Please explain to our readers how you got the opportunity to work on the recent Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch?

It came through Danny Page, a friend of a friend on Facebook – apparently he’d been contacted out of the blue by the producers looking for someone to do some ZX Spectrum development, and he passed the request on to Chris “C-Trix” Mylrae, a fellow 8-bit fan and awesome Chiptune artist. I guess I’m quite fortunate that a lot of people through the demo scene know me as “that Spectrum guy” – so he dropped me a message about some possible work for a TV show “that you’ve definitely heard of”. From the initial description it sounded right up my street – so through him and Danny I was put in touch with Russell McLean, the producer – a short round of signing NDAs and conference calls later, and I was in business!

 

 

How does it feel to be involved in one of the most ambitious and innovative films of all time, and what was your initial reaction when you heard about the choose your worn adventure concept?

I actually only found out about the choose-your-own-adventure element at the same time as everyone else – evidently the information about the episode was being given out on a strictly “need to know” basis, so all I really knew was the names Bandersnatch and Tuckersoft, and the fact that it was about games programmers in the 1980s.

It was really exciting to discover that it wasn’t going to be just a regular episode, but a whole media event in its own right.

 

How much freedom were you given when assigned the job of creating Nohzdyve – the game featured within Bandersnatch?

The production team had already created Nohzdyve as a video mockup before I got involved – that’s the version seen on screen in the show itself – so I didn’t get a whole lot of creative control. My task was really to stay as close as possible to the video clip, which was made a fair bit easier by the fact that they’d clearly gone to a lot of effort to make it look like a plausible Spectrum game, right down to the colour clash! In addition, I only had the bare minimum of knowledge about the storyline and the context where the game would fit in, so I couldn’t really go freestyle with my own ideas, for fear that it would contradict some detail in the episode. In retrospect it might have been fun to throw in some reference to “the eyeball sprites corrupting screen memory”, if I’d been in on that…

One place I did get a bit of creative freedom was the control system – I thought I’d take a leaf out of Flappy Bird’s book and introduce some quirky controls to add some novelty to what would otherwise be some pretty basic gameplay, so I came up with the idea of having the player always ‘drifting’ one direction or the other even when no key was pressed.

All in all, I reckon that working to an unusually tight specification worked very well for the kind of project it was – I can imagine there would have been a lot more in back-and-forth “can you just change this one thing…” emailing with the producers otherwise.

 

Nohzdyve is a fully playable easter egg game within the Bandersnatch universe. Can you explain to our readers how they can access your fine game?

When you reach the end credits – or one version of them, at least – there’s an extra scene where Stefan is on the bus to the Tuckersoft offices again, but this time, rather than listening to a music tape on his Walkman, he puts in his Bandersnatch demo tape. We then hear a snippet of Spectrum loading noise – if you take this and load it into a Spectrum (or an emulator), you get a program that displays a QR code. (Originally they just asked for it to display the code as a static image, but I suggested adding in some VHS-like glitch effects for extra Black Mirror ambience.)

Scanning this code takes you to the “secret” Tuckersoft website at https://tuckersoft.net/ealing20541, which includes a download link of Nohzdyve in .TAP format, to play on an emulator or real Spectrum. (woah there readers!! Lots more Speccy goodness to read before you go get Nohzdyve! – Ed)

 

Do you know how many people have successfully accessed your game and what has the reaction been like?

I really enjoyed following the initial reaction on places like Reddit – the show was released at midnight in the US, while most of Europe was asleep, so the first people to discover the credits scene were the American audience, who were perhaps less likely to recognise Spectrum loading noise – there was all sorts of speculation about it being modem dialup tones, or Morse code, or slow scan TV. Once the European crowd woke up, the whole thing was figured out in a matter of hours. Over the next couple of days the discovery was picked up by tech and entertainment news sites around the world, so there must have been thousands of people who’ve played it by now – although I’m sure only a tiny fraction of them went through the QR code route. Most of the news coverage said something along the lines of “the sound can be decoded into a QR code”, glossing over the fact that the QR code was a Spectrum program in its own right too…

 

Is there any chance Nohzdyve could get an actual physical release?

I’ve not heard of any plans for that, and I guess if they were going to do it at all it would have happened a couple of months ago to coincide with the Tuckersoft pop-up shops in London and Birmingham.

 

Bandersnatch gained an amazing reception from the gaming community, yet it seemed to split a number of critics. What are your personal views on the episode and do you have a personal favourite ending?

I get the feeling that the writers were more interested in using the choose-your-own-adventure mechanic to explore concepts of free will, breaking the fourth wall and so on, rather than actually telling a story with it. I liked it a lot, but I can see how people might have felt short-changed if they were hoping for an in-depth storyline that used the choose-your-own-adventure feature “straight”, as a way to progress the plot.

I haven’t had chance to play through all the endings exhaustively, so (to my shame) I’ve been relying on online spoilers to fill me in. The ending with young Stefan getting on the train seems like the most complete and definitive one, so I’d have to go with that.

 

Did you work closely with Charlie Brooker and the actors of Bandersnatch while working on Nohzdyve?

Unfortunately not – I worked on it entirely remotely, and my sole point of contact with the producers was Russell McLean. As far as I’m aware, the actual filming had already wrapped up by the time I got involved – I started in early September and had to have the QR code program delivered by the end of the month, so that the loading noise could make it into the final audio mix for the episode.

Still, just getting the second-hand feedback like “Charlie thinks we should use this QR code instead…” was enough to set off those pangs of hero worship, from knowing that he’d seen my work.

 

Are you a fan of the Black Mirror series and if so, do you have a personal favourite episode?

I have to admit, I’d never watched an episode until Bandersnatch! I’m not much of a TV watcher in general…

 

 

Are you working on any new ZX Spectrum games?

My major Speccy project right now is a Chiptune album. For a good few years now I’ve been playing occasional gigs combining my Spectrum compositions with live keyboards and vocals, and I figured it was about time I put some of that into recorded form. Hopefully that’ll be ready some time later in 2019.

 

Where is the best place for our readers to keep up to date with your latest games and projects?

The one place I manage to keep up to date on is Twitter, where you can find me at https://twitter.com/gasmanic . My Chiptune website at http://gasman.zxdemo.org/ might get updated one of these days too.

 

If you could share a few pints with a video game character, who would you choose and why?

It’s tempting to say Colin Ritman (yes, the character in Nohzdyve is him – or at least, the graphic was sent to me with the filename colin.png…), although a night out with him probably won’t end well. So I’ll go with Brian Bloodaxe – those vikings know how to party.

 

Adrian

 

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