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The story so far: Hunter S Minson, in Ireland courtesy of New Concepts Software, to cover the launch of their sport simulation, SURF CHAMP, has realised that a swell of four inches does not make good surfing, so has leapt into a passing hire car in search of diversion. Now read on...
We were just outside Rossnowlagh on the Atlantic coast when the Guinness began to take hold. Sitting in the middle of the back seat and surrounded by journalists from competing publications I felt like the Mafia were taking me for a long drive to a concrete surfboard. All I could rely on was that they seemed friendly and nobody had tried to throw me out as we reached speed along the coast road.
Somehow the idea had hit all five of us simultaneously. Timmy the Dog had pricked up his ears at the first mention of a ripping yarn. Here we were in County Donegal, not a sparrow's spit from that fabled seat of learning, St Brides. Now St Brides boasts a secret. Were we not the hard bitten investigative journalists to uncover that conundrum?
There is something about Irish geography that defies all known concepts of distance. Burtonport, home of the Games Mistresses, may have looked close on the map but the journey was tortuous in the extremes. A trek through towns where there seemed to be at least one cleric for every lay person: But at last we rolled into the tiny fishing village and drew up outside a house which recalled strange memories. If Tony Perkins had appeared at the door brandishing a knife and dressed as his mother, I wouldn't have been Psycho-ed out!
Our welcome was decidedly un-scary but no less weird. Perhaps those winding Irish lanes had worked their leprechaun magic and we'd slipped back through time. There were no electric lights in the place, the maid who answered the door was surely not of this decade. Could this really be the place where some of the more inventive Quilled adventures were being programmed? Perhaps my name was Trixie Trinian after all. No steady on - it was either too much Guinness, or too little.
Then, as we sat in the gift shop with its crafts from many nations, the door opened and in swept the headmistress herself, Marianne Scarlett, dressed in a pink twin set. As she told us later, she'd resisted the temptation to get dressed up, by which she meant the gown she wears in her educational role. But this was hardly London street clothes, so spill the beans Marianne - what is St Brides?
First there was the building, and that has had its past, providing a safe house for IRA men more than 50 years ago. Then, more recently there were the Screamers, a group who believed in the efficacy of letting all go in a Primal Scream, and who were virtually banished from the tiny village by local talk and sensational press interest. After which St Brides moved in, establishing the school in April '84.
This is probably not the sort of school that you'd go to though, because the young ladies of St B's are past the age of compulsory education, from their 20s upwards. And they go there for a week at a time, maybe more, to wear a uniform, sleep in a dorm, to take lessons and obey the rules, all without the creature comforts of 1985.
"They spend 24 hours a day living in a different time, living a different life. We give people a different experience of living as themselves." Marianne's background is both teaching and humanistic psychology and this is far more than a theme holiday hotel; as an experiment in human behaviour it's "fascinating". St Brides works because the pupils are never given the chance to do anvthing but live the imaginary 1920/30s era.
Select advertisments bring in each fresh intake of eight, who pay around £120 a week for the privilege of indulging in things most of us are only too happy to escape. Marianne greets each new girl and pretty soon one will be chosen who shows a desire to be leader, and she will become the prefect. But according to Marianne most are only too glad to give up the responsibilities of their adult world and are delighted at "having an excuse not to be grown up." Remember this next time you laugh at somebody who tells you that your schooldays are the happiest days of your life.
This world of lessons - and the 'pupils' do have to study the basics of maths and languages - may seem rather crazy, but some people get their jollies dressing in chain mail made from coat hangers and killing orcs with cardboard axes. Once you've sat in that slightly damp room, listening to scratchy records played on a wind-up gramophone under the stern gaze of Marianne Scarlett, you can understand how easy it is to get lost in the game. One who did just that is Priscilla Langridge. She committed the unthinkable sin of introducing a micro into this time warp.
Marianne was at first rather taken aback by the anachronistic intrusion. "My experience has always been looking back in time." But it didn't take long before she realised that unlike television, which she thinks is passive and mind rotting, computers "call for 100% concen- tration and commitment. They're not just playing with a joystick." So, about a year and a half ago part of St Brides entered the modern world, though they've been known to do their computing by candle light.
Priscilla was a writer long before fate, or more probably an advertisment, brought her to the west coast of Ireland. Hardly a computer expert at that stage, she looked upon the micro as another medium, like books or comics, to be exploited as a rich experience - rather like the school. In fact the Secret of St Brides, their first adventure, set in the corridors and dormitories of the house, then out onto the cliffs, came from a game that they would play as they took the pupils on rambles. A mystery would be created from a few bare facts found as they walked along the shore.
Selling at first by mail order only, via a suggestive show of stocking tops and school uniform, Secret sold well enough to gather some good reviews and cement a proper distribution deal. It's very much a standard Quilled product in form, though Priscilla claims to "like the economy of the two word input. People make a fetish of excess sophistication." Its main strength lies in Priscilla's writing skills, which are both witty and atmospheric.
Secret is also refreshingly different - there's not an orc or an elf in sight. And it casts you in the role of a female character, though neither woman sees herself as carrying out a crusade for women in computing. "We're not setting out with a market in mind," Marianne tells me. Priscilla adds "We want the games to be open and accessible, to appeal to adventurers of both sexes."
Spurred on by their success, the Games Mistresses, as they styled themselves, set to work on The Snow Queen, intended to be the first of a series of tie-ins with books in which it's hoped that facsimilie editions will accompany the game. Snow Queen is based on a classic, dark fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen in which a girl seeks to save her brother whose view of life has been corrupted by a fragment of a mirror made by the devil. With it, the programming has become more sophisticated, so that Gerda appears to have a will of her own when it comes to obeying instructions.
The next project takes the mixing of media a stage further as St Brides originate their own comic books which will tie in with games. Wonder Girl is a super heroine in the classic mode, with lots of in jokes for comic fans. Silverwolf is a more traditional adventure, and from the sample pages that Priscilla handed round it's obvious that both are being done with an eye to comics being adult and arty. Once again, there are scantily clad females and subtexts of sexuality. "Computers and comics are both unusual media for presenting fantasies."
So we are given a tour of the studies, the classrooms, and the spartan, though bright dormitories of this place where fantasies can be realised. But questions remain unanswered, the programming room remains unshown, and a whole area of the house, the old servants quarters joining the school by just one door, stays a mystery.
My head is clearing and all I feel is that I'd like another drink. It comes as a surprise that if we didn't have to charge back to the surf, Marianne and Priscilia would happily take us down to their local. And what do the villagers make of the latest inhabitants of a house with an odd history? "The Irish like anybody who is enterprising," Marianne says, adding that coverall for a good scheme, plan or wheeze, "a bit of a crack."
So now I know that the place does exist, and it isn't some clever hype. I know that Marianne and Priscilla are most charming hostesses and I know that they are fully capable of playing a seductive game of the imagination. But should I be surprised? All good fiction draws us in so that we live it to some degree.
Marianne and Priscilla and presumably the programmers we were told about but never saw, they are all busy realising the philosophy of St Brides as a centre for fantasy and fun. Let Priscilla have the last word. "We do things that are fun. If it stops being fun we stop it."