The Making Of: Bandersnatch

Before long, even the Mega Games team would be out of a job. “The company was in the shit. Everybody knew that it was absolutely fucked, not to put too fine a point on it,” says Cain. “Dave Lawson firmly believed that they had some money coming in from the States. There was even talk of us working with Atari. The idea was that Atari would foot the bill for the people on the Mega Games team to go live and work in California. Apparently, at the last minute, Warner Brothers – who owned Atari – sold it to the Tramiels, and the Tramiels were supposed to have said, ‘No.’ And that was the end of that.”

In Paul Anderson’s 1985 BBC documentary on Imagine and Ocean, there’s a poignant moment – just before the end, when the bailiffs arrived – where Bruce Everess talks to the camera about a practically deserted office. “As you can see, it’s fairly empty,” he says sotto voce. “A lot of people are going to the pub quite early these days. They’ve had the video cassette recorder playing this morning – they’ve all been watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’. You can see they’ve been making flags and decorating the place generally, instead of doing work, because… well, why bother? They know there’s no point.”

With Imagine’s demise, Gibson, Noble, Cain, Wetherburn and a few additional colleagues discussed forming their own development house. Despite a lack of early encouragement – “Dave Lawson was saying, ‘If you get two grand a game, you’re doing well, boys.’ When we went to approach Beyond, they said, ‘We’ll give you 20,’” recalls Cain – the Bandersnatch crew became the core of a new company: Denton Designs. Their individual reputations enhanced by work on Bandersnatch, David Ward of Ocean bought their old development kits from the Imagine receivers for Denton Designs in return for a game within a short timeframe – Gift From The Gods. They also had the contract with Beyond for an icon-driven strategy title, Shadowfire, and would become in time one of the UK’s most fondly-regarded (and now, well remembered) 8bit developers.

Meanwhile, work continued on Bandersnatch at Finchspeed, a company formed by Imagine directors Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson. It was widely reported that the ill-fated Mega Game was to become a launch title with Clive Sinclair’s QL, the add-on pack discarded in favour of using Sinclair’s Microdrive storage system. The QL reached store shelves, and stayed there. Bandersnatch was nowhere to be seen.

“Because it was such a big game, Bandersnatch, I wonder if it would have been any good if we’d finished it?” asks Cain. “We were working in the dark – we hadn’t done that kind of thing before, nobody had. Some of the environmental things were interesting, and the fact that the characters were going to interact with each other, but that wouldn’t have necessarily made it much of a game.”

The answer, in many ways, lies in a five-minute sitting with Brataccas, the first game published by the firm Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson founded after the short-lived Finchspeed: Psygnosis. In very many respects, it is Bandersnatch. It has the speech bubble system, large sprites, a flick-screen map, autonomous AI-controlled characters, a lack of ‘action’ and is based inside a facility on an asteroid. It also has one of the worst control systems ever coded, which is at least part of the reason for its low profile – magazine reviews were lukewarm or overtly critical, apparently. People liked its ambition, however. Even by 1985, it was quite unique, albeit poorly implemented.

The fact is, Bandersnatch means more to gamers and the industry alike as a high-profile cancellation than it ever would have as a release. Its demise, and that of Imagine, gave life to Denton Designs and Psygnosis: how different might the gaming world be without the Bandersnatch project? It might not have rendered every other Spectrum game obsolete, or even existed as a finished game, but its legacy is tangible to this day. How many games can boast that?

This article originally appeared in Edge 118. The screens are from Brataccas, since Bandersnatch was never released.

sssss