At their best, computer and video games allow you to become someone other than your everyday, humdrum self. Today, that someone is a middle-aged British man named Clive. If you're already a middle-aged British man named Clive, don't worry - I think this will still be interestingly different from your usual day-to-day life. Created by Stephen Redman and published by Micromega, it's the 1984 ZX Spectrum loving-tribute-em-up A Day in the Life!
Specifically, a day in the life of Sir Clive Sinclair: inventor, Knight Bachelor of the British Empire and probably the most unlikely non-fictional protagonist of a game I've played since former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in Gonbee no I'm Sorry. There's Clive of the title screen, riding in his famed - famed for being a colossal flop, mostly - futuristic electric bicycle, the Sinclair C5. Sir Clive's company, Sinclair Research, was behind the creation of the very machine on which A Day in the Life appears, and without the mighty ZX Spectrum I would have been unable to play such incredible games as Soft and Cuddly and Demonslair. For this Sir Clive has my eternal gratitude, gratitude that is only partly sarcastic, and I will do my very best to guide him through this adventure.
The day begins, as days so often do, with getting out of bed. Clive must travel to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood, but there are many obstacles standing between him and a gentle sword-tap on the shoulder from Lizzy 2.
Obstacles such as a roaming television set with an expression of pure malice displayed across its screen, a weird cat-dog hybrid guarding the front door and whatever the hell that thing in the attic is supposed to be. The previous bit of text mentioned a bug, but that's not just some common-or-garden insect, is it? Perhaps it's one of Sir Clive's failed experiments, condemned to a lifetime in the attic because Clive cannot bring himself to destroy that which he has wrought.
That's Sir Clive on the bed, by the way. He's depicted as a floating head, which makes sense to me. The head is, after all, the window to the soul. That's why potential actors give out headshots, why the great and good are immortalised in marble busts, why traitor's heads are impaled on spikes to cow those who would oppose your rule.
A Day in the Life is made up of several one-screen areas, and in each of them with goal is the same: guide Sir Clive's head up, down, left and right to collect an item or two before leaving the area. In this first screen, Clive has to get dressed by picking up his suit, and then get the front door key before leaving. The front door key is in the attic, presumably hidden up there by the bug-monster in order to facilitate a later escape attempt.
It all sounds very straightforward, but as this GIF shows things are complicated by the enemies flying around at high speed, pinning Clive in his bedroom until the precise moment that the monsters' paths align in such a way that he can nip between them as quickly as possible. Does Clive die at the slightest contact with any enemy in the game? Of course he does, this is on the ZX Spectrum, a computer too rugged and manly for things like health bars and fairness.
Screen two, and Clive's hungry because he dashed out of the house without eating breakfast. That means before he can catch the train to London, he must nip into the two shops and grab some sustenance, all while avoiding the clutches of of the roaming park warden and the bloodthirsty gangs of beach balls that loiter outside the shop like delinquent teenager. The beach balls have a evolved a crude form of speech, modifying the flow of air through their valves until they can produce a crude approximation of a spotty thirteen-year-old saying "buy a packet of fags for us, mate".
Nipping into the shops - or through any gap in the games labyrinth of corridors and doorways - would be much easier if it wasn't for A Day in the Life demanding a level of precision usually only required by brain surgeons or amoeba tattooists. This is illustrated by the picture above. In the left-hand image, Clive will not fit through the doorway if he moves downwards. In the right-hand image, he will. There is only one pixel's worth of difference between the two. The term "pixel perfect" gets thrown around a lot (not least by me) to describe retro games' tendency to require extreme accuracy, but in this case one pixel is often literally all that separates life from death. I would say that this lack of leeway in your movements is A Day in the Life's most unpleasant and frustrating flaw. It would have been the game's brutally punishing difficulty, but I don't think that's an error and the game is supposed to be this hard.
Now Clive is at the train station, and I get the feeling that he's is being portrayed as a heroic outsider, and man above the ordinary whose goals are hampered by those who do not understand his specialness. The killer heads of the railways staff are representations of the Establishment, who want to bring Clive down because they are mentally crippled by jealousy or a lack of understanding of his great works, while the tiny, faceless commuters symbolise the ignorant masses - powerless to hurt Sir Clive, but forever getting is his way as they bumble aimlessly through life. All mythic figures must struggle against these things, rise above the bitterness and narrow-minded outlook of those not possessed of such singular talents, and Clive is no different. Okay, a little different. Most mythic heroes did not fail in their goal because they spent so long avoiding ticket inspectors that they missed their train and had to wait for the next one.
Okay, now you're just making things more difficult for yourself, Clive. Without the cutting-edge aesthetic stylings and efficient yet powerful propulsion system of the Sinclair C5 at your command, getting off the train just to buy a copy of the Financial Times is madness!
It seems especially ill-considered to get off the train when the station you're at is on fire, but concerns as minor as an agonising death through immolation are no hurdle to Sir Clive Sinclair, action hero and unfortunate hairstyle owner!
Here we are in London town. It's been a while since I visited my nation's fair capital, but this is pretty much how I remember it looking - the "Go To Jail" illustration from Monopoly patrolling the pristine white streets, the fine dining experience of Carlo's restaurant, the novel use of housebricks as a roofing material. "It'll never work," they said, "the housebricks are too heavy to use in place of tiles," and they were right. Many innocents were killed, and in their rage we blamed the Three Little Pigs for misleading us about the structural integrity of an all-brick building. Yes, the city of London has a fascinating and storied history, but none of that is of interest to Clive. He needs to take the Underground to his next destination, but before that he's got some time to kill. This means you, the player, have to visit the pub, the bank and Carlo's before you can move on. Naturally, I chose to go to the pub first.
Hey, it's always a party when Sir Clive "the Jive" Sinclair is around.
That's not a party. It looks like an alcoholic Morris Dance, the depressing men with bells tied to their legs replaced by pints of Guinness. Still, the glowing pint of beer on the bar is enough of a motivation for Clive weave his way through this strange whirligig of fatal-to-the-touch booze. Not even the floating head with the Mao Tse-tung haircut - possibly the landlord, possibly a damned soul trapped in his own version of Tantalus' punishment where the booze is forever just too fast for him to catch - can stop him.
Once Clive has quenched his thirst, I should probably get some food down him to soak up the alcohol, so on to Carlo's it is.
Things are no less dangerous in the restaurant. I don't want to tell you how to run your business, Carlo, but having three waiters for one table seems like an unnecessary overspend on staff. Also, your roast chicken main is both mobile and deadly and a lone Space Invader has become terribly lost and is loitering around the wine cellar. On the plus side, the starter was good and at least I know the chicken was definitely fresh, so overall five out of ten.
The wine cellar is where I need to go, because it turns out Clive only came in here for the wine and there's none in the restaurant. Bear in mind that Clive has had a lot to drink, it may help to explain some of his later actions.
Are you threatening me, A Day in the Life? Because this feels like a threat. It's also making me ponder the philosophical implications of free will in a universe governed by quantum forces. Maybe I truly didn't have any choice about coming down here, and the fact that I'm writing about this particular game at this particular moment is simply a result of happenstance, a vast number of particle interactions leading me inexorably to this moment... but if that's the case, then morality, logic and any decisions I make are ultimately meaningless. That's getting a bit deep for a thirty-year-old novelty game.
Something that isn't deep is A Day in the Life's gameplay. It's essentially Pac-Man, but without the carefully balanced structure and ability to turn on your opponents that made Pac-Man so compelling. It mostly revolves around waiting around for a chance to move as the enemies blither about randomly, but you can't wait for too long or you'll run out of time. Combine that with the difficulty of moving Clive's head through the gaps without getting stuck and you end up with a game with the major defining feature of being sort of annoying.
Then Clive completely loses the plot and robs a bank. There's no cashier at the window, you see, so he decides his life is now a sequel to Falling Down. If the Queen hears about this you'll lose your knighthood for sure, Clive. This is not behaviour befitting a British citizen. A true British citizen would have waited around for a cashier to arrive, maybe tutted under their breath a few times, and then gone home and complained to their partner about it.
With those three tasks completed - those three tasks being drinking beer, drinking wine and robbing a bank - Clive can head into the London Underground and catch the tube to Buckingham Palace. Transport for London are vehemently opposed to Clive using their service, and they have drafted in extra staff to capture Clive before he can board the train, but he is a wily foe and has soon slipped out of their reach and will eventually reach the surface world, where the powers of the tube staff hold no dominion.
I find that most tube stations are quite nasty. Indeed, any structure designed around transporting humans from place to place is generally quite nasty. Tube stations, bus stations, multi-storey car parks - unless you like sitting on extremely uncomfortable benches or have an unbridled affection for the scent of piss, they're all nasty.
This one isn't even so bad! It looks clean, anyway. Admittedly death does lurk around every corner but again, that's hardly outside the norm for a public transport station.
It is not often that I see a game apologise directly to the player for how shitty it is, but there you have it. I'm oddly charmed by this message - it kinda feels like the game's author is genuinely sorry for putting you through this - and that feeling carries over to the rest of the game. It isn't a good game, by any stretch, and this is not a genre short of other, better entries, but there's something rather winning about the atmosphere of A Day in the Life, a joviality behind the whole thing that mostly comes through via these between-stage messages. It feels aware of its own stupidity, that's the thing.
Again, this tube station isn't even that nasty either in grottiness or challenge, although that "burger" in the fast food kiosk sets a new record for the worst-looking item of food I have sever seen in a computer game.
This is central London, apparently, and again there are three places to visit. First, off to the barbers to make Clive presentable - and to give him some time to sober up - before he meets the Queen.
The barber appears to be Clive's twin brother. A sense of resentment at the success of his famous, knighted, millionaire sibling may be the reason that he goes hog wild on Clive's 'do and cuts all of our hero's hair off.
In a touch that I thought was pretty neat, Clive's sprite even changes to reflect his new baldness. I say "new" baldness, he hardly had a lush thatch before his trip to the barbers.
Unable to face the shame of attending an audience with Her Highness looking like a hard-boiled egg, Clive resolves to get his hair back. The screenshot above might imply that he does this by attending a Satanic ritual, where by the flickering light of a blood-red candle he beseeches the Lord Satan to grant him virility, body and bounce whilst vials of strange unguents bubble around him, but according to the sign outside this is supposed to be a chemists. I mean, there's nothing to say that a pharmacist can't believe in both evidence-based and rigorously-tested medicines and the infernal power of Lucifer, but I think this is just meant to be a branch of Boots or something. I have no idea about the candles. Maybe there's a power cut.
Hair restored thanks to the, erm, hair restorer, Clive need only collect some shoes from this department store. He doesn't even pay for them. Why did you even rob that bank, Clive? Was it just for the rush, so that you could feel alive even if it was only for a fleeting moment? You can also make Clive hide by moving him into the racks of clothes, which brought back some fond memories of me and my brothers annoying my mother on trips to British Home Stores.
The most interesting thing about this screen, however, is that it's viewed from a side-on perspective and it plays that way, too. Usually you can move Clive in whatever direction you like, but here you can only travel upwards by pressing "up" when you're at the bottom of a staircase. I went back to check, and it's the same on the first screen, too - I didn't realise that these altered rules applied in Clive's house, because I just assumed the controls were bad, but now I know better.
The end is in sight now, with only a contingent of the Queen's Guard standing between Clive and Buckingham Palace. Don't call them Beefeaters, they hate that. Beefeaters are a separate group who guard the Tower of London, perform raven maintenance and dress in a uniform that is somehow even more ridiculous than that of the Queen's Guard.
This screen doesn't say much for the for the Queen's Guard's queen-guarding capabilities, because it's probably the easiest screen in the game. Maybe I'd finally become accustomed to A Day in the Life's mechanics, but I managed to slip through on my first attempt. You might have thought that Clive would have had an invitation or a Royal Summons or something and he could have entered the palace without all this fuss, but no such luck. I'm going to assume Clive left it in the bar.
The final screen is something of a disappointment, because you don't get to see Elizabeth the Second herself. She's away training corgis to chase peasants or whatever it is she gets up to in her spare time, so the actual knighting duties are carried out by a sword that hovers up and down behind a curtain. It's a self-service knighting booth, then, and once you've entered the booth - after first collecting a bow tie, because Clive forgot to bring his - the game is over. An extremely bleepy version of "Land of Hope and Glory" plays, you're given the chance to input your name on the high score table and that's it, back to the title screen for another tilt at this madcap adventure.
With it's fiddly controls, basic gameplay and high (yet also uneven) difficulty level, A Day in the Life isn't a good game and you'll get little enjoyment out of controlling Clive... but there's also something endearing about the experience. Perhaps it's the sheer daftness of the concept, one that reminds us of the "anything goes" attitude of computer game developers in the mid-Eighties. It's difficult to imagine a similarly-themed game being made today: a mobile game where you control Angela Lansbury as she parkours her way across the rooftops of London in order to reach the palace and be made a Dame? It's possible, I suppose, but sadly unlikely. A Day in the Life fits the Spectrum to a tee because it's weird, very British and not that much fun to play nowadays, so as a heartfelt tribute to Sir Clive Sinclair it could not be more appropriate.