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Keith Campbell - musings of an adventure guru

Update: Sadly, Keith has passed away. His ex-colleague, Simon Marsh, has written a brief tribute here.

From its humble one-page beginnings in the very first issue of Computer and Video Games (November 1981), Keith Campbell's monthly column soon grew to be Europe's dominant source of information for all things adventure games. Under Keith's auspices, hundreds of games were put to the test, and thousands of readers all over the world benefited from his ever growing knowledge of the genre. Join us, as we take a trip down adventure history lane.

Please tell us a bit about your background!

Keith Campbell, 2005

I was born in Brighton in England, and was educated at Varndean Grammar School for Boys. For the last few years I have been the Hon Secretary of the Old Varndeanian Association. Although I have lived at various addresses in Sussex and Kent, I now live within half a mile of my old school!

After school I went to College as a Student Apprentice with the local Electricity Board, and became a qualified Electrical Engineer. From 1961 to 1981 I worked in a number of areas in south east England, designing electricity distribution networks up to 33,000 volts, operating them, and supervised the construction and maintenance of them from the technical point of view. I spent many years on a 'standby' rota, during which I could be called out at any time, day or night, to restore failed electricity supplies, and attend emergencies. In 1981 I moved to Engineering Computer Applications, where I began knowing nothing, and gained experience working for some years on an IBM mainframe on TSO systems running under MVS. In the late 80's my work included design and development of Oracle applications on the mainframe, and eventually diversified into Oracle applications on Vax and Sun platforms. My final work was in a project team working on a hi-res graphics intelligent HV network diagram, from which remote switching operations could be performed. I was deeply saddened when the Electricity Supply Industry was privatised, and the IT staff were 'hived off' to Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Although working with Electricity Board colleagues on the same project, I hated every minute of working for this American firm. I disliked their culture, their attitude towards trade unions, the arrogance of their yuppy 'non-outsourced' staff, who thought themselves too clever by half. I had always seen myself as working until 'normal' retirement age, but under Andersen I couldn't wait to escape, and went as soon as I could do so and take my pension.

On the personal front, I am married to Ruth, and have three children (Bruce, Neil, and Veronica) who were aged 10-14 when I first bought a computer (a TRS-80) and introduced them to computer games. I now have three grandchildren, Oliver, Sabrina, and Betsy, two more on the way, plus a lovely step-granddaughter Charlotte who I love every bit as much as the others.

How did you originally get into adventure games?

I bought a TRS-80 back in 1980. I was working in Kent, and had an all day meeting with some HQ colleagues from Engineering Computer Applications (before I worked in that section) to thrash out details of a circuits database. In those days very few people had a 'microcomputer' (as they were called at the time) so I took mine in to show them. Another colleague who also had a TRS-80 saw me carrying mine in, and thrust a tape in my hand."You might like to try this!" he said.

I showed my ECA colleagues the micro, and then tried the tape. It was Scott Adams' Adventureland. None of us had heard of it before, and had no idea how to play it. However, we were all so intrigued at the apparent intelligence of the game, that I ordered a copy almost immediately. It arrived the next day (a Saturday) and the whole family sat down and played it.

How did your C&VG column come about in the first place?

At that time, three colleagues owned a TRS-80 or the compatible Video Genie, and the idea struck two of us that we could hold an 'adventure competition' one evening in our works' Social Club. So I bought Scott Adams' Ghost Town, played it through to the end, and then held a competition evening, four teams of four or five people playing it simultaneously. We provided aids like a large sheet of paper to draw the map, stick on stars to mark where treasure was to be found, and I walked around half answering questions, and giving cryptic clues to those who were lagging. A forerunner of the Helpline! The result was that three people who were playing went out and bought a TRS-80 the very next week, just on the basis of playing that game!

So more competition games were needed, but they cost money. I decided to try my hand at writing one myself in BASIC. In fact, I ended up writing a trilogy: Fairytale, Wonderland, and Dreamworld. It was while the first of these was being played during a competition evening, and bugs were being thrown up, that I suddenly realised I had an excellent play testing system here, and decided to see if I could get the game published.

I sent it in to Molimerx, who had already published a strategy game I had written, Creole Lobstercatcher, and they snapped it up, followed by the other two, some few months later. The games didn't sell in huge numbers, but although I didn't get rich, I was getting a little cash back to help me towards something I coveted - a line printer.

The Helpline logo, heralding assistance for many a lost adventurer.

Then, out of the blue I had a phone call from someone called Terry Pratt, who said he was putting together a magazine called Computer & Video Games, and was looking for someone to write about Adventure Games. Was I interested? I had always enjoyed writing, and agreed on the spot, although I was a bit dubious about the magazine, which I had never heard of. However, I wrote a couple of one-page columns, and soon I was invited to attend the launch of the magazine, held one evening at the London Planetarium.

The rest, as they say, is history.

How did you manage reviewing games on all those different computer formats?

Simple! By buying them!

Not all at once, of course. A few months before the second Christmas edition I was sent a whole sackful of Spectrum adventures, and was asked to review them for a Christmas special supplement. The bundle included such titles as Pimania, and Inca Curse. I panicked, as I didn't own a Spectrum. But I calculated that the extra cash from the extra writing would almost pay for a Spectrum, so I went out and bought one. Over time, my range included BBC B, C-64, Amstrad CPC, and MSX (my worst buy in terms of payback - it never took off as predicted). By now I had upgraded to a TRS-80 Model 4 (via a Model 3) and soon added an Atari ST (bought specifically to review The Pawn!) and an Amiga. I never owned a Dragon - I borrowed my son's for Dragon games!

I had a long worktop installed in the computer room, which had space for two 14inch TV sets, and I just dragged out the appropriate micro off a shelf and connected it up to one of them when I had a review to do. By running two simultaneously, I could chop and change easily, and even compare the same game on different platforms.

The TRS-80 was always available on a separate desk. It was on this that I wrote my Helpline Database as well as hand writing replies to readers' letters. I typed up extracts from them into a TRS-80 Model 100 (precursor of a laptop) These notes I uploaded into the Model 3 or 4, and edited them using Scripsit, (the leading TRS-80 word processor) into a readable Helpline column.

Eventually I rewrote my Helpline Database on an Atari ST, using Fast Basic. About this time, instead of sending my column as hardcopy each month, the editor requested it on disk in PC format. I didn't have a PC, and didn't really want one at that time, as there weren't many games for it and I had enough computers anyway! But I discovered it was possible to write a disk in PC format with an Atari ST. So finally the ST took over from the TRS-80, and became my main machine.

In the beginning of 1984, Keith was joined by two
youngsters, Paul Coppins (right) and Simon Marsh (left).
The former supposedly always solved an Infocom game
before breakfast. In 1985 Jim Douglas
(2nd from right) entered the team, whilst
"Granddad" Campbell kept watch over the proceedings.

Your mailbox was very popular. How much mail did you receive in an average month?

Over the years it varied. But during the heyday of my column, I guess the mail was running at about 250 a month, give or take fifty. Every letter was answered, either by myself, or by one of my 'helpers', notably Paul Coppins and Simon Marsh, but at various times Jim Douglas and Matthew Woodley, to whom I sent batches of letters based on my knowledge of the games they had played and the computers they owned. The Editor had special postcards printed for us to reply on, with the same artwork as the column.

I remember reading that you received a letter from a boy who was bored to death and would rather read a roll of wallpaper if he didn't have an adventure game. You then replied to him on a piece of wallpaper. Nice gesture! Do you remember any other fun incidents or letters?

Some of the most amusing letters were from a teenage reader, John Yeates, who lived in Jersey.
But the letters that became legendary were those from one calling himself 'The Faringdon Fiend'. He wouldn't divulge his name. He was always sarcastic and critical, and produced his letters using a Spectrum printer - they consisted of narrow strips of shiny paper off a roll. I used to reply in the same vein as he wrote, and we used to continually insult each other. Then, one year when I was manning the Helpline stand at the PCW Show, I returned from lunch one day and found a small package had been left on the counter with my name on it. It was from the Fiend. This happened two or three years running. On the third occasion I made sure there was always someone manning the stand and keeping watch for this mysterious reader, but still a package 'appeared' as if from nowhere! I recruited him to write insulting bits for the column, and his trademark was a photo of himself with a brown paper bag over his head - still anonymous! Then, at another PCW Show, I was standing at the counter helping adventure players with their problems, and the next one in the queue was wearing the distinctive brown paper bag! It was him! He unmasked himself, and turned out to be a man in his forties, not much different in age from myself. We went for a drink and a chat. A few months later, he was visiting Brighton on business, and insisted on taking me out for a meal. But he still wouldn't tell me his name!

A lot of readers were convinced that The Fiend was a character I had dreamed up to liven up the column. I wish I had been so inventive - it was all completely genuine!

Famed for plugging
the consumption of
Perrier on every possible
occasion, this turns out not
to be Keith's drink of choice.

Do you still drink Perrier?

I never really did! It was just a joke! Why drink water when there is plenty of good beer and wine available?

Do you have one or more favourite games?

Yes. Among my favourites are Adventureland (the one that started it all for me!) and Lurking Horror and Stationfall. I left the latter game late one evening fretting over the alien markings on the wall of the spaceship in the docking bay. I suddenly woke in the night - Eureka! I had it! What a brilliant and totally bizarre puzzle!

Are you still playing computer games (adventure or other genres)?

Yes, but not so much these days. I've played a few old favourites that I have been able to download from the Internet. And I have played quite a few of the entries in last years Interactive Fiction Competition, which I reviewed for a magazine called Retro Gamer. It was enough to make me want to write adventure/IF games again myself, but more of that later.

On to part two...