Whether you’ve been a gamer for 3 or 3o years there’s a good chance you’ve played a life simulator at some point. Whether you’ve raised a digital pet in Nintendogs, influenced villagers in Populous or starved a family to death in the Sims, you’ve wielded the power to control and interact with the lives of seemingly autonomous characters.
It was Activison’s groundbreaking 1985 title, Little Computer People started the genre. The game had an outstanding pedigree, developed by David Crane, author of the massive hits, Pitfall and Ghostbusters.
Today’s gamers are used to micro-managing every aspect of their online avatars’ daily routine in the Sims and are likely to find the gameplay in Little Computer People a bit simplistic and unrewarding. There is no character creation, no potential to lose yourself in a consumerist paradise, no chance to buy every conceivable gadget for your Sims to fulfil their needs and no substantial social interaction between virtual characters.
Developed 15 years prior to The Sims, Little Computer People is from a simpler time and is a much simpler life simulator. However, it is one that managed to suspend players’ disbelief at the time, to the point that you really felt that you were interacting with an artificial person inside your computer.
The game takes place entirely in a cut-away sideways-on view of a three-story house. At the beginning of the game you type in your name, the date and time. Your Little Computer Person (LCP) then moves into the house, which the manual tells you is actually inside your computer. After spending the first few minutes of the game wandering around, just exploring his new surroundings and fetching his dog from outside, you are ready to interact with your LCP.
As an LCP researcher you are responsible for providing your character with food, water and attention. The first command most people used to give their LCP, after simply typing “Hello” is “please write me a letter”. Your character would look at you blankly, nod and then sit down and write a letter to you on his typewriter, telling you about himself, signing the letter to let you know his name.
These letters were the only rich form of communication that you could have with your LCP. You could learn about how they were feeling, what they were thinking and also get a sense of their current wants and needs. They were simply written but really did convey a sense of existence of your character, in a time when digitized speech in games wasn’t really a viable option.
Without commands or communication from you, your LCP would still go about their daily routine, cooking, watching television and pottering around the house. This in itself was fascinating to watch, although it did eventually become repetitive due to the single location and character in the game. Left to his own devices the LCP would eventually get bored and tap on the screen at you, to get your attention. You could even gauge the mood of your LCP by his facial expression, giving you an indication if he was likely to comply with your requests or not.
The researcher’s basic role is to keep the LCP fed and watered. If you didn’t do this, the LCP would turn green and retire to bed, eventually dying if neglected for too long. Just tending to the LCPs basic needs doesn’t keep the LCP happy, however and didn’t make for a very interesting game. In addition to this you needed to keep your LCP occupied giving him presents, new records to play on his record player and new books for him to read. You could also pet your Sim using a disembodied hand on the screen. Keeping the LCP busy improves their mood and makes them more likely to comply with any requests you might have like “play the piano” or “dance”. You could also challenge your LCP to a card or word game, again adding to illusion of your character possessing intelligence. Their occasional refusal to comply with your requests also gave them an illusion of autonomy and free thinking.
The game was deceptively well programmed, with its attention to detail creating a believable artificial reality, even if it does seem a bit crude by today’s standards. I’d even go as far as saying that this is the first game where I felt a real sense of connection to the character I was observing on screen, actually feeling a bit guilty when I turned off the computer.
C64 emulators are everywhere these days, so I’d recommend downloading the C64 disk image of the game. Even if you just spend a half hour with the game you’ll see how ground breaking it was for the time; even 27 years later there’s still a sense of magic interacting with the character on-screen. I’d advise reading the guide here as it can get a bit frustrating applying trial and error to get your LCP to do things.
As an aside, the game received a Famicom Disk System conversion, called Apple Town Monogatari. Published by none other than Square in 1987, the game replaces the main character with a girl and their dog with a cat. You can read more about the Japanese localisation here and look at some great box art. Happy researching!
NB The main box art featured in the article above is hosted by the excellent GameBox 64, here.