Review: Little Computer People (Atari ST)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Keyboard

My Review

So we’re doing a few non-ST Format reviews as well as going back to some older reviews and redoing them with accompanying videos – we’ll also be looking at other formats rather than just the Atari ST. I expect these to come out on Mondays.

Testing the game out for Y2K compatibility

It’s likely you’ve never heard of Little Computer People. It was a game that came out in the crossover period between 8 and 16 bit machines, arriving on the ST in 1986 in the States and 1988 in Europe. Its main claim to fame is being the inspiration behind Will Wright’s The Sims games. Now obviously we’ve all had quite enough of The Sims and its endless expansions, but we shouldn’t forget that at the time it was a remarkably risky bet and an incredibly innovative concept. While I prefer Will Wright’s other visionary effort Sim City, The Sims is still a remarkable piece of gaming history and it did a lot to bring gaming into the mainstream for better or worse. Indulge me then this trip into the past to examine its inspiration.

He’s playing the piano. It’s actually ear-destroying chip music.

The central conceit of Little Computer People (LCP from here on – I can’t be arsed typing all that) is that little people live in your computer, and the disk has a house on it, which will attract the little computer person who will come to live there with his dog. So you first load the game and your first sight is an empty house. Nothing moving but the ticking clock. A ghostly and empty place, but soon you hear a knock at the door. A little guy pokes his head in and wanders around. He’ll be randomly generated with different hair, moustache, etc for each player, and this will be stored by saving to floppy disk (which happens when he enters the cupboard in the attic).

So they didn’t think anyone would play in 2020 but did think time travellers from 1920 might…

He’ll have a wander around and poke and prod everything until he’s happy with the house and then his dog will turn up. No dobermans or great Danes here, just a little yappy thing. It’ll wander around the house doing its thing and occasionally eating when your house guest decides to feed him. Meanwhile your chap will go out to get a few things and move in properly.

Look at the lazy little shit, living a life of luxury

Once he’s there, he can never leave. He’s trapped forever, alone in this house, with only you and the dog for company, which probably feels strikingly relevant for many people during this period of social isolation. Just as in the covid era the best he can hope for is a phone call, or a letter, and playing a game remotely. Even a hug is delivered by a mechanical arm. He has his shopping delivered because going out seems like a bad idea (he might escape).

Putting the little gimp to work, playing a game. But should we be teaching kids to play poker?

If all this sounds a bit dystopian that’s only because I’m mucking about a bit and putting a weird spin on things for comedic effect. In truth it’s a harmless little game which teaches kids to look after another creature, and to think about its needs. You must ensure that he and his dog are fed and watered, and provided with intellectual stimulation in the form of delivering records, playing games, phone calls and letters. Further, the game encourages politeness because if you don’t say please he won’t listen. Indeed he’s not obligated to do anything you ask him to do. He’s independent (or perhaps the ‘AI’ is a bit wonky but shhhh), and you’re not the boss, which is unusual in gaming.

And should we be teaching kids to gamble?

In a way this is one of the early examples of a game where you can’t win as such, just as Will Wright later popularised with Sim City and The Sims, but rather the experience through the game is the objective, and an element of creativity exists too. It is clearly very very simple – if you know how games work you’ll look at it and see what’s going on straight away, how the character navigates, how he responds to your actions, but for a kid who doesn’t have that knowledge it’s pretty magical.

Video

Verdict

Thankfully he’s not very good so you’ll usually win – wait that’s not a healthy message to send to kids…

You’re not going to be blown away by the graphics, you’re not going to be blown away by an amazing gameplay loop, it’s not that kind of game. What it is though is an important piece of the history of gaming and one which set the stage for one of the most important games of the 21st century. If you go in and try not to analyse it too much you’ll have fun, and if you can’t maybe you have a kid who can. You’d probably need to go younger in 2021 than you would in 1986 but I’m sure there’s still value there. Go on, fire it up, have some fun.

Resources

Manual: http://www.atarimania.com/st/files/little_computer_people_ricochet_manual.PDF

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