Yesterday, I was saddened to learn of the death of Mike Singleton, who passed away last week at the age of 61. This was especially moving for me as the news came as I was putting the finishing touches to my Game Narrative presentation on Open Worlds, which opens on Mike’s classic The Lords of Midnight, and spends some time discussing his truly visionary contributions to digital gaming. Open Worlds are a truly British creation, and all the early manifestations were developed in the UK – David Braben and Ian Bell’s Elite (1984), Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid (1985) and Novagen’s Mercenary (1985), and of course Mike Singleton’s Midnight and Midwinter series. I wrote about these landmark titles several years ago under the title Early Playground Worlds, and this is the heritage that leads to DMA Design’s Grand Theft Auto (1997) and the creation of the contemporary Open World concept.
Of all the games released on the ZX Spectrum, The Lords of Midnight had the greatest impact, attracted the most dedicated fans, and truly pushed that little rubber-keyed black plastic brick to its limits. Mike had already made a name for himself in the nascent games industry as a visionary programmer who could squeeze impossibly ambitious content out of very limited hardware. With The Lords of Midnight, Mike took direct inspiration from (some might ungenerously say ‘ripped off’) The Lord of the Rings and found a way to do what no-one else thought possible: to make a game that offered both the adventure story and the strategic battles of Tolkien’s epic trilogy. Using a ground-breaking technique he called landscaping, Mike realized he could simulate thousands of locations from small component images that could be composited into first person views on the basis of situational data. The result was magical.
Although it is at it’s most impressive when measured against its contemporary games, The Lords of Midnight still has a following today. Within a week of discovering a Spectrum emulator, I had dug out my old maps of the land of Midnight and set to work trying to win it. I managed to overcome the nefarious Doomdark by melting the Ice Crown easily enough, thanks to recruiting the dragon Farflame as an ally, but never quite held the citadel of Xajorkith from the horde of armies that overrun it. Still, I had great fun trying, and the sense of scale provided both by the size of the world, and the number of allies that could potentially recruited kept me coming back for more. There’s always the sense that there was something different you could have tried, some different way to petition a neutral leader to join the fray, or some better place to ambush advancing forces. It showcases what makes strategic play fun at a time when most such play was confined to board games.
Originally intended as a trilogy, Mike did release a sequel the following year, entitled Doomdark’s Revenge, but the final instalment never emerged. The final game, Eye of the Moon, was foreshadowed in the manual of the second game, and much of the engine was apparently developed. However, a combination of circumstances, including the arrival of 16-bit home computers, contrived to prevent the trilogy from being completed. Mike did later release another game set in Midnight for the PC, but it suffered from a surplus of ambition and a deficit of resources, and arrived in an industry that had already moved off in other directions.
The 16-bit era saw Mike advance the roots of the Open World concept even further with the universally acclaimed Midwinter series. The first game, published in 1989, dabbled in rendered 3D years before the technology for doing so became commonplace (although Carrier Command, released the previous year, had slightly beaten him to the punch with its shaded polygonal vehicles). With a giant island produced by a fractal algorithm, Mike used the strategic team management elements of the Midnight games to present a futuristic battle for survival in a frozen wilderness. Characters could ski, fly delta wings and use other vehicles to wage guerrilla warfare against an invading foe, with the action occurring in real-time but the game divided into turns of two hours game time per character, adding strategy to action – and offering first person shooting years before the classic first person shooters began to emerge. The sequel, Midwinter II: Flames of Freedom (or just Flames of Freedom) increased the variety of vehicles that could be used to roam its vast sprawl of tropical islands, and enjoyed the same critical success as the original two years earlier.
An English school teacher turned programming ‘superstar’, Mike’s legendary games came too early in the history of the games industry to net him millions, and like his contemporary Andrew Braybrook, he lacked the business acumen that rocketed other 8-bit visionaries to fortune and fame many years down the line. Despite this, Mike’s legacy is a catalogue of exceptional games that are still beloved today, and which influenced generations of game designers to follow. On more than one occasion I designed a map module for a game that was inspired by Mike’s early designs, although sadly none were ever built. It took incredible genius to produce games within the savage constraints of early computers – The Lords of Midnight fitted into fewer than 48 kilobytes, smaller than the draft file of this obituary. Mike will be sadly missed by his fans, and remembered as a true pioneer who took games where no-one knew they could go, and from where they could never be the same again.