At 30: Hampstead, the computer game


Camden New Journal 29 May, 2014
Independent 6 June, 2014

IT was a cult classic among the early home computer games of the 1980s, an adventure that turned heads for swapping dragon-slaying with joysticks for the art of social climbing.

Now the makers of Hampstead, the computer game named the best to be released in 1984 by one British magazine, are set to mark its 30th anniversary, with its writers explaining how they had set out to mock people who treated living in Hampstead as a way of life that needed to be “attained”.

For the uninitiated – the game will be unknown to a generation that was brought up on Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog, Lara Croft and the rest – Hampstead was a text-based adventure game in which players navigated London with commands such as: “Enter room, examine, pick up keys.”

What followed was a roasting parody of life in Hampstead as players searched to find a wife called “Pippa” and a City job capable of bringing in a fast car and cottage next to the Heath. In the game, the price of a listed cottage in Hampstead – remember this was 30 years ago – is billed at £100,000.

“Why do dustbins have no lids in Hampstead?” read the box. “In order that passers-by may see the week’s completed Guardian crosswords stacked neatly within.”

The game’s writers Trevor Lever and Peter Jones, and the cover of Hampstead

Peter Jones, one of its writers, told the New Journal: “1984 was the high water mark of Thatcherism and the social aspiration that came with it. This, we felt, deserved to be mocked: hence the idea that you could ‘attain’ Hampstead as a sort of quasi-religious goal, a social and cultural nirvana.”

The tape-loading game was largely played on the popular Spectrum or Commodore 64  home computers. Sparse on graphics, but high on wit, reviewers noted how the writers had dispensed with elves, goblins, dragons and other stalwarts of 1980s adventure games. Copies still change hands on the eBay auction site.

Mr Jones added: “We were fans of Mike Leigh films like Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party, in which flawed and desperate people blunder about making a mess of their lives. So we wrote this ridiculous story in which the player blunders about and accidentally attains Hampstead. In other words, it was the least commercial idea you could possibly come up with. But for some reason, all the publishers wanted it. We were even voted Game of the Year by a magazine called The Listener.”

The game has recently been made available for retro gamers to play on iPhones and iPads for free.

Mr Jones said: “Looking back, I wish we’d stuck with it. Computer games are now created with feature-film budgets and earn more money than Hollywood movies. Ironically, what we had in mind when we did Hampstead was something filmic, but Tomb Raider was still 12 years away, and the technology just wasn’t available to us. That’s why we’re still poor.”


Blogging on the game for the Guardian, tech journalist Aleks Krotoski said: “The Sims is an obvious direct descendent, where success means winning a spouse, buying a big house and furnishing it with stuff that’ll make the neighbours consider breaking at least one, maybe more, of the Ten Commandments. But even its take on capitalism isn’t as systematic as Hampstead, which offers a guidebook for life.”

Asked what had sparked the idea for the game, co-writer Trevor Lever said: “Peter read JP Donleavy’s The Unexpurgated Code at Oxford, which is a humorous book regarding social manners and behaviour. I think a conversation about this might have been the spark. Or it may have been Peter starting dating someone who came from a higher social sphere and had to pull his socks up.”

He added: “I didn’t know anyone in Hampstead – we would have been shunned and despised if we did try and visit and gate crash any fondue parties. We started writing it with only the idea that the player had to ‘attain’ Hampstead rather than just physically get to Hampstead. We saw (and still see) Hampstead as more a state of mind and demeanour that just a location in north London. I think we sold around 70,000 units overall and it was £10, which was high for a game at the time.”

Mr Lever said a lavish, 3D version of the game could theoretically be made by today’s programmers, but would “probably need a team of 40-50 to pull it off and three years development time”.

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