20 years ago Lance E. McDonald rescued an Amstrad CPC-464 at a market in country Victoria. He was six
years old. Now, married with two young children, Lance is on a mission. He wants
to make a video game like the ones he used to play, using the tools he first
learned when he was in primary school. The video game is called Black Annex and
he’s building it by himself. He’s building it using QBASIC. Lance E. McDonald is
In country Victoria
a six year old Lance E. McDonald sits in front of a computer. He types the
following words onto his Amstrad:
10: INPUT “What is
your name”; name$
20: PRINT “Hello “; name$
He types “RUN”.
His small jaw gapes
in amazement. His life will never be the same again.
20 years later
Lance E. McDonald types something different into a computer; into a digital
thesaurus. First word: “Hostile”. Response: a stream of synonyms, among them the
‘acquisition’, ‘invasion’. None of them are quite right. Annexation? Too clumsy.
How about we shorten it. Annex… that’s good. That’ll do.
Lance E. McDonald
likes the sound of that.
Customer Service department of an Australian ISP. Lance McDonald shuts down his
computer. He leaves the office and walks home. He looks after his children. At
8pm his kids go to sleep.
From that point,
until the early hours of the morning, Lance is Man Fight Dragon. And he is
working on his brand new video game Black Annex.
You may have heard
of Black Annex. It’s not like other video games. Black Annex fits the definition
but it’s also a literal challenge; a testament to the stubborn lengths one man
will go to in the name of nostalgia. With all the software available to
independent developers, Lance E McDonald could make life easy for himself.
But no, Lance wants
to make Black Annex completely from scratch. In QBASIC.
Black Annex is a
game about subterfuge. It’s a game about corporate espionage and sabotage. But
it’s also the story of one man building a video game like the ones he used to
play, using the tools he once used when he was six years old and his jaw gaped
in wide-eyed amazement.
guess it’s that whole nostalgia thing. When I refer to “toys” I used to play
with as a kid, I literally mean that BASIC was one of my favorite toys from my
Lance E. McDonald
has a room littered with relics; a house drenched in a once-hidden dimension of
video game history that barely existed. He has a floppy drive atop a Super
Nintendo that plays bootleg games. He has three different 3DOs. He has six
different PlayStation 2s, including one of the old-as-hell external HDDs. He has
every version of the PlayStation ever made including the ultra rare Net Yaroze
that lets you create homebrew games.
just shelves and shelves of bizarre stuff like this,” he says.
He once built a
telephone exchange emulator from a Linksys PAP2 for his Dreamcast, just so he
could play games online using an ADSL connection connected to the Dial-up Modem
in the Dreamcast.
“I just get an idea
in my head like, ‘I’m gonna buy every modem that was ever released for home
consoles and try them out’ and I just go on a binge like that.”
On a cold Sunday
morning in 1992 a six year old Lance and his stepfather saw a sign next to an
object lying on the ground and the sign said ‘computer’. Next to the sign lay an
Amstrad CPC-464 and a sack of cassette tapes. The family had spent the last few
years getting accustomed to video games, playing the Atari 2600 (“I really liked
Lazer Gates and Demon Attack,” says Lance. “The rest of my family liked River
Raid”). The rusty machine gathering dust on the market place floor had an air of
intrigue to it. His stepfather bought the Amstrad and Lance brought it home.
“It was dumb,
though,” remembers Lance. “No matter what you typed in, it would just say
Days later a friend
of his brother came round. He dusted off one of the tapes, he typed “LOAD”. The
machine emitted a high pitched screech and then stopped.
in the library inside the primary school where Lance E. McDonald learned to read
and write was a series of books called “UNDERSTANDING THE MICRO” and the
librarian looked confused when a young boy tried to check it out. This was just
cousin had magazines with pages and pages of code you could try out,” says
Lance. “I spent hours and hours entering other peoples’ code and writing my
Years later Lance’s
brother had a Super Nintendo. One of the games he used to play religiously was
Killer Instinct. Killer Instinct was cool, but Lance wanted to make his own
games. He stole the instructions, and made a text adventure in BASIC featuring
the characters he read about it in the biography pages of the manual.
Lance E. McDonald
had fallen in love with BASIC. Later his family upgraded to a 486. Cutting edge.
It had a CD-ROM, a sound card, the works. But when another friend of his brother
introduced him to QuickBASIC 4.5, a form of QBASIC that allowed him to write in
BASIC and then compile his work into an exe. file, his eyes widened with the
heightened excitement of endless possibility. Lance would go on to learn dozens
of other, more powerful languages — and his job requires programming in PHP and
his first love, the language he learned as a child, “HOW TO UNDERSTAND YOUR
MICRO” weighing down his school bag, magazines scattered across his bedroom
floor. A Killer Instinct instruction manual open at the biography pages.
“I still like to
play with the toys I had when I was a kid,” explains Lance. “So I still use
BASIC when I have a choice.”
What is Black
Annex? Black Annex is a game much like the games you used to play, built in the
way games used to be built, by a man who used to play these games as a young
boy. Black Annex is an excuse; to do something insane in a modern age where
modern tools are easily attainable and stupidly accessible. Black Annex is a
self-inflicted wound; a borderline insane challenge; a labour of love.
“I guess it’s that
whole nostalgia thing,” says Lance.
Black Annex is an
isometric game in the vein of Syndicate, built entirely in QBASIC. So in that
sense it’s a game about replicating those same feelings, that same experience,
in the most authentic way possible. But for Lance E. McDonald those feelings run
deeper; there’s an extra layer to his nostalgia.
“I guess it’s that whole nostalgia thing,” says Lance.
“It’s obvious that
Black Annex is meant to refer back to games that people played a long time ago,
but the entire development process, for me, has had that same appeal. Not just
playing, but building Black Annex is a nostalgic experience for me.”
It’s one thing to
build a game that looks and plays like the games you once played; another to
build that game with the tools and language you once cherished. Black Annex
plays into the nostalgia we all share for a certain type of game, but the guts
of it are soaked in the efforts of one man grasping backwards towards a very
personal and unique history.
“I hope the entire
heart and soul of the game being built on my own personal nostalgic feelings
will always be there in spirit,” says Lance. “It’s one thing to make a “retro”
game, but to emulate the entire way you used to play around with building games
when you were a kid really gives the whole product a different feeling deep down
“Or maybe I’m just
imagining the whole thing.”
began life as a design document called “Corporate Firefight Game”.
Then it was a tech
demo. A man walking around an office environment decked out with desks and
chairs; faceless drones in the periphery. It was designed as an exercise. What
was possible with BASIC, how far could Lance push it?
animation tech existed, the main character could destroy the furniture as a
distraction to the drones; a ‘vision cone’ system was developed to add a layer
of drama to the proceedings. At one point Lance asked himself a question: if I
were to dedicate a serious amount of time to this project, what would be
possible? What could I achieve?
“I opened up the
design doc and started thinking about what I would created if I worked on this a
lot longer than I’d initially planned.”
“I’ve always wanted
to make an isometric game,” admits Lance. “It’s just a style that I love.”
Black Annex is the
end result of an obsession that ekes through decades. It’s an interactive
memory; one human being’s personal history collated into a single video game.
Video games can be the end result of millions of man hours accumulated by
hundreds of human beings bashing at code, fiddling with state of the art
software at the behest of a publisher, and that’s fine but Black Annex sits
static at the other end of that spectrum: a personal video game; every line of
code written by one man huddled in a corner surrounded by old consoles and the
library books he never returned.
“Black Annex is
turning into a great example of a game I wanted to exist,” says Lance.
The next time we
speak to Lance E. McDonald he’s just come back from E3 after winning an Industry
pass; receiving what he described as “the wonderful chance to fork out a few
thousand dollars and talk to people about Black Annex”. He hopes the media
contacts he made over in Los Angeles can help transform his own enthusiasm for
his very personal video game into something global in scale..
Next up is PAX
Australia, Black Annex was selected among five other games to be displayed at
the Indie Showcase, and it’s a far shorter trip than the one he just made to Los
I gotta see if it holds up without any pretext like that.
Lance asks me a
question. He’s been given a media list, most of the journalists who have
expressed interest in attending PAX are on this list. When would be the best
time to send those emails out? Maybe in the morning, I suggest. But not too
early, around 9.30 in the middle of the week?
I’ll do that, he
Make sure you
mention that the game is written in BASIC, I add.
Nah, he says. I
gotta see if it holds up without any pretext like that.
The last thing
Lance sends me is an image: a screencap of a hundred emails in draft.
Every morning I
wake up to press releases, sometimes dozens of them. They all say the same
thing, my name clearly inserted into a template, mailed off to hundreds, maybe
thousands of journalists. “My new mobile game featuring some sort of animal has
just been released on iOS, please thank you to review.” Comes with the
Lance’s email is
personalised emails, maybe more. Every subject line is different. I can see the
opening line to every email, clearly manually written without a trace of copy
and paste, every single keystroke made by a human hand.
“Hey Logan, Mark
said you’d be at PAX, want to check out my game…”
“Hey, it’s Lance
here, Aussie Indie video game dev person…”
“Heyo Matt, just
wanted to shoot you a quick email…”
Lance could have
written one single email. He could have bcc’d it to every single person on that
list. He didn’t have to type it all out manually.
Lance could have
built a video game using the same technology everyone else uses, but why would
he want to do a thing like that?
You can check
out Lance E. McDonald’s game Black Annex at PAX Australia as part of the Indie
Showcase, or head to its Steam Greenlight page here.
originally appeared on Kotaku