Losing The Plot: A Historical Game That History Forgot

Video games and history have a somewhat strained relationship.

Historical periods have always proved a worthy source of inspiration for developers, but sometimes it’s just not exciting enough.

Developers often take liberties when dealing with historical figures like Dante Alighieri for example. We’re pretty sure Leonardo Da Vinci and Charles Darwin were never involved with a clandestine brotherhood of assassins – at least we don’t recall ever being taught that in history class at school.

But the bigger issue lies when developers take on controversial historical figures such as Guy Fawkes – which is exactly what Odin Computer Graphics did in their 1988 ZX Spectrum title ‘The Plot’. Whilst the game wasn’t commercially successful it did create quite a stir in the media. In the spirit of Guy Fawkes Night this weekend, we take a look at The Plot and what exactly made it so controversial.

History 101

First off: a very brief history lesson for anyone who may be unaware of Guy Fawkes and the ‘Gunpowder Plot’. Guy Fawkes was a key conspirator in the plot to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords. The plot failed, with all involved tried and executed. Britain has since celebrated the failed attempt on November 5th with fireworks and burning effigies.

He is often mistaken as the mastermind of the plot and has been martyred as a revolutionist in recent times. He has become a symbol for the disestablishment of governance, glorified by the hacking group Anonymous and in popular media such as V for Vendetta.

Forming ‘The Plot’

With Fawkes’ likeness becoming a popular medium, Odin Computer Graphics decided this would be a good basis for their game. Players took control of a Guy Fawkes avatar with the aim being to blow up the British government.

It was a 2D flip screen platformer – as was the popular style at the time. Players had to navigate a series of levels to collect explosives. Once all the explosives were collected a player would return to the start screen and detonate their device. The game design was typical of the time, featuring ladders, elevators, and an endless stream of catacombs.

The game was unsuccessful, with few copies sold, but it did manage to catch the attention of some eagle-eyed reviewers. Concerns emerged over the narrative of The Plot as the protagonist was guilty of one of the most infamous acts of treason in British history.

The aim of exploding the Houses of parliament and dismantling British government was deemed inappropriate material. Some publishers took harshly to The Plot, labeling it a ‘terrorist computer game’ and accusing it of encouraging terrorism in young players.

Innocent or Guilty?

The argument of violent video games corrupting a younger generation has been around almost as long as games themselves. The Plot is really another chapter in that story. Let’s be honest here, just because GTA’s Trevor goes out and abducts some innocent people doesn’t mean the player is going to mindlessly replicate it.

The graphical limitations of the ZX Spectrum also meant the overall look of the game was pretty inoffensive. The character was nothing more than a pixelated imposter, awkwardly leaping from platform to platform.

While it’s hard to be radicalized by such a mediocre platformer, there is a danger in glorifying murders. It’s all contextual: whilst the Gunpowder Plot occurred over 500 years ago, it would have been devastating at the time.

We wouldn’t like to think there’d be a 9/11 game in 100 years time. The sensitive subject matter was a terrible basis for a video game which no doubt resulted in its commercial failure.

History Loses The Plot

There was a lot that contributed to the downfall of the ill-fated title and one won’t hear many people mention it today. Aside from the controversy, it was a poorly constructed platformer which was in an already over-flooded market at the time. Even if for some reason Guy Fawkes is your hero, it’s probably not worth the fuss of digging this one up.

The Plot has all but been erased from history, not many people hung on to unsuccessful ZX Spectrum games. In truth, the real life story of the game is far superior than anything you’ll find on the cartridge. The Plot doesn’t amount to much more than an interesting footnote on the history of gaming, but in the spirit of Bonfire Night: let it burn.