I’ve Been Playing Homebrew Video Games Made By Soviet Teens In The 1980s
How Czechoslovak students smuggled dissident ideas in amongst the pixels
How do I get into this bathroom?
I’m playing “P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A.”, a text-adventure game from 1988 that has me crawling around inside a dingy abandoned warehouse somewhere in Czechoslovakia. I’m trying to get into a bathroom, which is locked with a four-digit code. I eventually guess the number — it’s a reference to the original Soviet invasion of the country.
I open the door and find a filthy, stinking toilet … and a bowl.
What’s inside the bowl? A copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
“Ať žije Vítězný únor!” the game jeers. That translates as, roughly, “Long live Victorious February!” — a faux-patriotic cheer about the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948.
This game is not patriotic. On the contrary, it’s a black, mordant attack on Soviet-era life and Communist icons. Before I’m finished with it, the game will require me to burn the copy of Das Kapital with a lighter — the fire of which “emits the light of progress”, as the game quips. I’ll also have to deface other symbols of the USSR, and in the final scene, destroy a statue of Lenin with dynamite.
Our history of the USSR is filled with stories about Soviet dissidents — essayists, poets and novelists who criticized the regime and paid the price. But it turns out there were also some very young dissidents behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia who spoke out using the playful art form they found most thrilling: The video game. This one was made by Miroslav Fídler, who in 1988 was only 17 years old.
Czechoslovak-teen homebrew games from the 80s come back to life
I’ve spent the last few days playing those old Czechoslovak games, thanks to some amazing recent archival work.
In the last few years, the Slovak Game Developers Association and the Slovak Design Museum have hunted down the code to a…