Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mike Singleton - RIP

The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge

I was very sad to learn of the untimely death of veteran games designer Mike Singleton on October 16th 2012. The Lords of Midnight and its sequel Doomdark’s revenge were true ground breaking classic video games and very much in my all-time top ten games list. 

The Lords of Midnight, first released on the ZX Spectrum in 1984, was the very first game that made me believe in a virtual world and that a humble video game could also work on a story telling level. Mike Singleton was a pioneer of game design and world building and this week the industry lost one of its great unsung heroes.

Every time I played this game I lived and breathed that world and its characters. The game felt alive with possibilities and a purpose and I obsessed about the open ended gameplay. The characters of Luxor the Moon Prince, Rorthron the Wise,  Morkin and Corleth the Fey became my first believable video game heroes. I even kept a diary whilst playing my game, my encounters, battles and losses became my own personal folk tales. The game had a sense of literature that made me want to read books that had similar themes, I discovered Tolkein through my love of playing The Lords of Midnight.

The first person view point gave the game a realistic edge over the simple crude graphics of other games of the time. Looking out across the frozen planes of Midnight and seeing mountains and forests as well as the distant banner of great armies that I could travel towards made for an intoxicating chilly atmosphere of discovery and danger. Aided by the fact I played the game in winter in a house with no central heating and on a tiny black and white telly all helped to make it feel as if I was traveling across a frozen world locked in perpetual winter. The world and its layout of snow covered open plains, forests, mountains and citadels is still indelibly etched on my mind, just as Tolkein’s Middle Earth was after reading the Lord of the Rings books (which this game owes much to).

 For those of you have never played Lords of Midnight it was one of the first games to combine strategy gameplay and AI with simple but beautiful first person graphics. The game could be played as either, a straight adventure game, a strategic warfare game or both. The aim of the game was to stop the forces of the evil WitchKing from over running Midnight with his own armies. The player started out by controlling a small group of characters that travel the world of Midnight recruiting other Lords, these Lords also controlled their own armies. Once a Lord is successfully recruited (which was not always a given), their armies could be moved and controlled by the player. For its time the graphics were ground breaking as was the details found within the game play. Each Lord had his, or her own, strengths and weaknesses and morale, as well as allegiances with other Lords. The game was turn based with the player moving his armies and then the computer moving its own. The turn based nature made for very gripping strategy game-play as you never knew what the next day/round would result in. This game made you think about your moves and each decision had an outcome in the field of battle.

Mr Singleton followed up the Lords of Midnight with Doomdark’s revenge. Doomdark's Revenge featured more detail, more complex characters, objects and even changing weather conditions! He really performed miracles on a tiny 48K of memory and simple 8 colour graphics. 

Mike Singleton had always intended for the Lords of Midnight series to be a trilogy but the third game was not forthcoming on the spectrum, I waited year after year for the third part, hoping. During that time I read an interview with Mike Singleton about his plans for the third game - The Eye of the Moon. He revealed the fate of some of the characters from the earlier games and that it would be set decades after the events of Doomdark's Revenge - I hung on every plot reveal, as if I was getting insights into some great novel or a film series. I was that enthralled by the series of Midnight games.
A third midnight game was eventually released on the PC many years later but it seemed a shadow of its former glory and I did not play in case I ruined the memory of those first two cherished games.

 Honestly, I loved these original games, I still do. The none linear narrative and the attention to detail in the elegant yet complex game design, the mix of strategy and adventure and even the striking packaging of the games were all very much ahead of their time - they were the Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim of their time.

When I eventually sold my Spectrum and all of my games, in order to upgrade to a Commodore 64, I still kept my copy of The Lords of Midnight. I still have this boxed copy somewhere in my house; a memento of more innocent times.

Even to this day I always hoped and dreamed that maybe Mike would make a new Midnight game in the style of the original two. I knew he was working on an update of the original game to play on the IPad and using touch controls with improved AI and graphics (though hopefully not too improved). It is a game that I still am still eager to play again, like visiting an old friend. I had hoped that if the remake had performed well enough Mike would have properly concluded the trilogy by making Eye of the Moon in the same style.

Rest in peace Mike Singleton and know that you made many gamers happy during those dark 8 bit winter months of 1984 onwards. You showed us that games  were capable of producing stories, characters and open ended game-play. You have influenced a generation of designers, coders and artists. Your legacy in the history of video games will live on.

You made two of my favourite games and for that, I thank you!

 Long live the Lords of Midnight!

Here are extracts from the original Crash Magazine review of The Lords of Midnight from 1984.


Beyond have produced a game of immense complexity that transcends the simple word-matching of the mainstream adventure and in many respects more resembles a strategy war game. Many features of the game are new or are developed to an elaborate degree setting new high standards in Spectrum software.

The cassette is accompanied by a lavish booklet giving thorough and very sound playing instructions. When I say you will need them, and you most certainly will need to read some of the hints given, I mean this as a compliment to the inventive depth which pervades the whole project.

Although this game is so complex it is difficult to review in the few days available there is one feature which impresses on the very first frame of the game. The graphics which show your journey through the land of Midnight are little short of stunning. The panoramic views are drawn in full perspective and consecutive moves see mountains, forests, hills, citadels, towers and fortresses rising in stature as you approach or fade to distant outlines as you leave. The screen as a whole is very well presented as if designed by a graphic artist. There is no crude split on the main screen but instead a pleasing mixture of superb views of the scene, tastefully redefined characters for the text, a heraldic shield depicting the crest under which your character fights, and highly decorative and detailed representations of the numbers and type of foe you might come across. These last are the best I’ve seen on the Spectrum.

Possibly the most pleasing aspect of the Lords of Midnight is its wonderfully coherent storyline.

You initially have control over four characters: Luxor, Morkin, Corleth the Fey and Rothron the Wise but as you progress such characters as the Lord of Shimeral and the Lord of Brith and their armies add support to the forces of the Free.

If I run through a typical game it may show you some of the great features it has and perhaps some tips if you’ve already got a copy.

My tactics, and remember you’ll need them as this is very much a strategy game, involved building up armies at the Citadel of Shimeril guarding the western route into the tranquil south-east and at the Keep of Athoril which overlooks a major route south.

At the end of the seventh day at nightfall, when looking throughout the eight compass directions, I could see the silhouettes of the towers, citadels and armies that surrounded me, my thoughts turned north to Morkin who I now knew had this very day penetrated deep into the dark Mountains of Ugrorn, into the Tower of Doom and at this very moment was wondering how he might get back with that precious object held tightly within his grasp. He had the Ice Crown.

Overall Value10

To read the full Crash review, go here: