Imagine this scenario: it’s the mid 1980s, and your massive, chunky BT telephone suddenly rings. It’s the boss of Ocean Software, and he has a project for you: design a game based on the pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
What sort of game would you come up with? A platform game, perhaps? A Space Invaders shooter with a bleepy, 8-bit rendition of Relax playing in the background? Most game designers, I reckon, would have knocked out something quick and unimaginative – after all, it’s only being sold on the licence, isn’t it?
Instead, Denton Designs made one of the most unusual and innovative games of the 8-bit era.
Forming in the early 80s, Liverpool’s Frankie Goes To Hollywood played the northern club circuit for a couple of years before they struck gold with their first (and biggest) hit, “Relax.” Released in late 1983, the single leapt to the public’s attention early the following year when Radio One DJ Mike Read famously refused to play it on his show – the lyrics, he said, were simply too explicit.
Predictably, sales of “Relax” went nuclear. Follow-up singles “Two Tribes” and “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” made a similar impact, and suddenly, everybody seemed to be wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Frankie Say War” on them.
As Frankie-mania briefly set in, the group’s record label made a deal with Ocean Software (also based in Liverpool) to create a tie-in game for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. According to news stories published in games magazines from the time, the tie-in was a three-way venture between Frankie, the band’s label, Island Records, and its creative producers, ZTT (which stood for Zang Tumb Tuum).
The deal would see all three parties take a share of the game’s profits. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time anybody had thought of making a videogame based on a pop band; Michael Jackson and The Spice Girls would have their own games years later, but it took Frankie Goes to Hollywood to blaze a trail.
At the time, there was some curiosity as to what the game would be like. An Island Records boss said, in the early months of 1985, that it was still “in its embryonic stages.” Ocean boss David Ward was even more enigmatic:
“The game interprets the Frankie Goes to Hollywood concept of life imitating art,” Ward told Sinclair User magazine. “The impact of the name and the concept of Frankie Goes To Hollywood translates into a game – you could describe it as an animated strategy adventure played on several levels.”
Some also wondered whether Frankie: the game would be as controversial as the band itself. “Oh no,” someone from Ocean’s PR team told Personal Computer Games, “it won’t be rude. We have to sell the game through WHSmith.”
As news spread of the deal, Ocean contacted Denton Designs, a team formed from former programmers at Imagine Software. Studio co-founder Steve Cain recalled the moment when Ocean’s David Ward told him about the Frankie deal.
“David walked in and said he wanted a game with no Frankies walking about in it,” Cain said. And with that, Denton Designs got to work.
Ocean spared little expense on the game’s presentation. It came in a large cardboard box, handsomely illustrated with an airbrushed picture of the band (courtesy of game art supremo Bob Wakelin), and inside you’d find a separate audio tape of Relax – just in case you didn’t have a copy already.
I still remember the first time I played the Frankie game. I had no particular interest in the band – I’d simply found a copy of the game in a box of second-hand tapes I’d acquired from the small ads in a local paper.
Unsure of what to expect, but mildly intrigued by the marketing blurb on the back of the box (“…you will need the skills of arcade king, adventurer, super sleuth, mastermind and more!”), I loaded the game up. It was the first time I’d been genuinely taken aback and surprised by a game’s design and atmosphere. Then – as now, to a certain extent – it was fairly easy to predict what a game would be like from a look at the cover or even its title. Frankie was an arcade adventure, but not quite like any that had come before it.
The game’s a detective story of sorts, with two separate goals. One is to discover the identity of a killer, and the other is to complete a series of mini-games and make yourself into “a 100% complete person worthy of escaping Mundanesville and entering the Pleasure Dome. Guiding an anonymous yet smoothly animated humanoid figure – based on the band’s logo of a man clutching a star – around a network of almost identical-looking terraced houses, you search for clues among kitchens and living rooms full of kitsch wall ornaments. One house has the murder victim lying awkwardly on the floor.
Frankie introduced an unusual control scheme where your character could reach out and touch objects with one hand to pick them up; for the time, it was refreshingly different. You could reach up and open kitchen cupboards, or crouch down and fraternise with a dog bowl. This way, you’d gradually amass a variety of objects which may or may not help you complete your mission.
Occasionally, cryptic clues would flash up on the screen. “The killer is an early riser”. “Mr Average likes to sleep in till noon”. On even equally unpredictable occasions, a portal would open up which, when walked into, would whisk you off to a place called the Pleasuredome. In essence, these were triggers for a series of mini-games, the completion of which would fill a quartet of gauges at the bottom of the screen. In a normal RPG, these would probably be called magic, experience or the like, but because this is Frankie, they’re replaced by symbols representing things like sex, love and religion. At any rate, these gauges have to be filled before you can become a complete person and thus finish the game.
The mini-games are pretty strange in themselves. There’s one that involves walking into moving, circular portals which transport you (a bit like Valve’s Portal, oddly enough) to an exit at the top of the screen. Another one sees the disembodied heads of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher shoot at each other (a nod to the Welcome To The Pleasure Dome music video), while still another strands you in a maze.
Describing Frankie’s goals and mechanics doesn’t really get across just how unusual it is. The game has an uneasy, Lynchian atmosphere, with its British, kitchen sink drama clashing evocatively with its alternate dimensions and unseen murderers. The eerie emptiness of its houses also made Frankie feel like an interactive Magritte painting.
Some of the game’s more outlandish concepts appeared to come from the mind of Paul Morley. Perhaps best known for his work as a music journalist, Morley had set up ZTT in 1983, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood was one of the company’s earliest signings. According to an article in a 1985 issue of Your Computer magazine, it was Morley who came up with the contrast between the terraced houses of Mundanesville and the alternate realm of the Pleasuredome.
“He wanted us to emphasise the essential mundaneness of life – but contrast that with the fact that there are many ways of escaping it,” said the game’s programmer John Gibson.
Unfortunately, I never managed to make it to the Pleasuredome for myself. As fascinating as I found the game, I struggled to crack all of its mysteries; I’d even heard a rumour at school that Frankie couldn’t even be completed. This frustrated me, because for months, I’d wondered what lay within the Pleasuredrome. Had the game’s programmers hidden something fittingly headline-grabbing at the adventure’s end?
Thanks to the power of the internet, I now know that Frankie really can be finished – and it has to be said, the ending isn’t exactly worth the 30 years it’s taken to finally see it. But as an example of how unusual a game can be if it’s approached with enough imagination, Frankie Goes to Hollywood deserves its small yet important place in video game history.