Gaming

How Indiana Jones, Rambo, and others ended up in 1980s Czechoslovak text-adventures

The loading screen of the browser-friendly version of ‘Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square’ converted by Jaroslav Švelch and 8-bit veteran Martin Kouba.
Enlarge / The loading screen of the browser-friendly version of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square, converted by Jaroslav Švelch and 8-bit veteran Martin Kouba. (Let’s officially consider this canon over Crystal Skull.)

Indiana Jones is caught behind the Iron Curtain. Specifically, the globe-trotting archeologist is in the former Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite state, and he’s fighting violent Communists, dodging water cannons, balancing on the edge of a crater, and running away from exploding bombs—the usual Indiana Jones stuff. But there’s no artifact this time. Instead, like many of the citizens toiling under the discredited regime, Dr. Jones simply wants to escape Czechoslovakia and return to the United States.

If you’re familiar with the Indiana Jones tetralogy trilogy, you know the situation above doesn’t come from the movie canon. Instead, this Jones adventure takes place in a clandestine video game that was released anonymously, then copied from one audio cassette to another. In 1989, students and dissidents had flocked to the center of Prague to protest Communism, only to be beaten and arrested by the riot police—an incident that took place during the lead up to the country’s historic Velvet Revolution. These individuals could not fight back in real life, so they’d later use their computers to get a fictional revenge. A Western hero, Indiana Jones, came to their rescue to teach their oppressors a text-based lesson.

The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989 puts the famous archeologist when and where the protests took place, video game historian Jaroslav Švelch, assistant professor at Charles University in Prague, Czechia, tells me. This title and others created by Czechoslovak teenagers in the late 1980s became part of the “chorus of activist media” that included student papers, rock songs, and samizdat—handwritten or typewritten versions of banned books and publications that circulated illegally.

This Indiana Jones game, however, stands apart as a cultural curiosity. And Švelch, a zealous academic interested in the social aspects of gaming, has recently translated it into English. After 30 years, people from all over the world could finally play and learn about this unique moment of early activism in video game history.

This year, Švelch worked with a fellow 8-bit veteran, programmer Martin Kouba, to bring Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square to life again in 2020. The original foreign-language version was a typical 1980s text-adventure that only had words, no drawings. Švelch and Kouba wanted to immerse today’s young players into the universe of the 1980s, so they accurately converted the game, only adding a colorful opening screen featuring the fedora-toting archeologist. The result awaits eager players right now in a simple Web browser.

If translating a decades-old text-based adventure then converting it into a playable browser game sounds complicated, the story of how this game (and its 1980s Czechoslovak text-adventure peers) came to exist may seem as improbable as finding The Ark of the Covenant.

How Indiana Jones fascinated the Czechoslovaks

Czech and Slovak teenagers first heard about Indiana Jones in July 1985, when Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered in local cinemas four years after its official release in the US. František Fuka, a 16-year-old boy sporting a Beatles haircut, loved American movies. Capitalist productions were only shown a few times a year amid the glut of Soviet and local titles, and for the high schooler, they were a breath of fresh air.

“I wanted to see them all,” he tells me.

Before the premiere, he knew nothing about Indiana Jones, but the professor with a bullwhip quickly made an impression. Regardless of how terrifying a situation could be, Indy was in control of it. His wit and the fast pace of his actions while trying to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant were astonishing. None of the Soviet Bloc productions Fuka previously saw could match Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. To him, Indiana Jones, portrayed by Harrison Ford, was more than a hero. He was an exponent of the promised land: the West.

“I was blown away,” he says.

By that time, Fuka already had four years of coding experience. He learned BASIC with his friends at the Union for Cooperation with the Army (Svazarm). Officially, this was a paramilitary organization tasked with training young people for potential roles in the military, but it acted more as a Boy Scouts club that gathered kids interested in motorsports, ham radio, model planes, electronics, and computers.

There, Fuka learned that building video games was cooler than just playing them. So as soon as he left that movie theater in Prague, dazzled by the stunts and the theatrics of Indy’s battle with the Nazis, he knew he had to create an adventure around this hero. Copyright and intellectual property were elusive concepts in the Eastern Bloc, so the teenager saw no problem in designing something that would fall into the fan fiction category.

Fuka knew many young people in his country had seen or would watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, so retelling the story would be redundant. He decided instead to focus on the second movie of the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film had been released in the West, but nobody knew when it would reach Czechoslovakia.

In the movie, Harrison Ford’s hero goes to India to chase a mystical stone, smash a death cult, and bust a child slavery ring. But Fuka couldn’t watch the movie, so instead he looked for clues about the plot in magazines.

“I read very short summaries,” he tells me. “I mixed what I thought the second movie was about with elements from the first. I got it completely wrong!” (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom would only be released in Czechoslovakia a year later, in 1986.)

The game the teenager built was rather simple. Its opening screen featured an attempted drawing of Indiana Jones, a snake, a spider, and the Fuxoft logo (a name that combined his name “Fuka” and “soft” for software). With the exception of that loading screen, everything is text. Players see sentences that tell a story, and they have to type commands, instructing the hero in what to do. It’s a typical text-adventure, known locally in Czechoslovakia as textovka, and it unfolds just like an interactive story.

In this game, Indy finds himself in the Amazon rainforest, in front of a large underground complex called the Temple of Doom. He has to retrieve the golden mask of the God of Sun while shaking off his pet hate—venomous snakes. The player types predefined commands such as “take box” or “jump truck” to guide the hero.

Fuka began designing the game with pen and paper, drawing a map of all the locations the character would go through. Then, he wrote the code in BASIC on a British Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a small 8-bit personal computer that connects to a TV set, which it uses as a screen. The PC has a rainbow band on the right and gray rubber keys with BASIC commands written on them. For instance, pressing “W” would insert the command “DRAW.” The ZX Spectrum was fairly affordable for a computer in the 1980s, which made it immensely popular in the UK and throughout Western Europe, where it was seen as a rival to the American Commodore 64.

But behind the Iron Curtain, in Czechoslovakia, owning a Speccy or even a local clone intended for schools, known as the Didaktik, was challenging. These computers were seldom sold in stores; Fuka and most of his mates instead acquired them from the West. Fuka recalls that his friend’s parents smuggled the teenager’s Spectrum into the country inside a diplomatic suitcase to avoid border control. Others might cloak their PCs in chocolate boxes or wrap them in sandwich paper and conceal them in the trunk of their Trabant or Skoda cars while entering the country.

This whole process made the experience of using a ZX Spectrum more thrilling, and teenagers would swap audio cassettes with software, happy to share everything they had with friends. Since most of the games available in Czechoslovakia were in English and few people could speak the language, Fuka’s Indiana Jones, which was localized, became an instant hit.

“I put my real phone number in the game and I got a lot of calls from totally unknown people who wanted to know how to finish specific puzzles, because it was an unforgiving adventure,” he tells me.

This also meant his mother had to field calls from anguished players, unable to save Dr. Jones and needing tips. But she was openminded and even enjoyed talking to her son’s fans.

“Next to the phone, I had some basic questions and answers prepared on paper,” Fuka says. “So when I wasn’t at home, my mother could answer for me.”

Shortly, the teenager established his reputation as a leading game developer in Czechoslovakia, and he capitalized on that years later. He wrote two more Indiana Jones text-adventures and several others, he authored books, became a movie reviewer, and even dubbed American movies smuggled into the country, which people clandestinely watched at home on VCRs.

Fuka was “in a unique position to become a trendsetter for the community,” computer games historian Jaroslav Švelch writes in his award-winning book, Gaming the Iron Curtain. The teen’s uncle fled Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s for the US and subscribed his nephew to American and British computer magazines such as Creative Computing and Your Sinclair.

“I learned a lot of English just by constantly reading them again and again, even if I didn’t understand them at first,” Fuka tells me.

His work inspired other teens to write text-adventures and, by the late 1980s, more than half of local games were part of this genre. As for Indiana Jones titles, there were at least seven of them, all unlicensed, including one featuring a so-called “Indiana Joe.”

I asked Fuka if he knows who the author of the subversive Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square might be. He tells me he has no clue.

“It’s not me,” he adds.

This activist title is credited to a Zuzan Znovuzrozený, which translates to “Susan Reborn.” The address listed is Zero Unpleasant Street, Zilch City, Nowhereland. Švelch suspects that the author was probably afraid of repercussions, and that’s why they remained anonymous. It was probably someone who had a personal stake in the actual demonstration in January 1989. Maybe they were beaten by the police, or they had to escape Wenceslas Square and run away, just like Indiana Jones in the game.

Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square, on January 16, 1989

When I load the game in my browser, I see Dr. Henry Walton, aka “Indiana” Jones Jr., pulling the reins of a pixellated steed and cracking his whip, a cloud of blue dust rising behind him. Indy radiates familiar confidence as he embarks on the most bizarre adventure of his life. And the 8-bit horse he rides in the opening screen shares striking similarities with the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas that looms large over Prague’s central square. The Good King Wenceslas, a Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century, is the patron saint of the Czech state.

The square named after him is where history was made. After the end of World War I, people gathered there to mark the birth of the independent Czechoslovak Republic. Five decades later, in 1968, when the country was under Communist rule but tentatively moved toward reforms, the locals stood helpless in the same square as Soviet tanks invaded. The USSR tightened its grip on Czechoslovakia, in an intervention that became a defining moment of the Cold War.

A few months later, on January 16, 1969, a young student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to encourage people to resist the Soviets. He feared that Czechoslovaks would become accustomed to the occupation and start accepting it. Palach died a few days later, but his action was a wakeup call for those who gave up the fight. His funeral was attended by 200,000 people and turned into a silent protest.

This moment reverberated 20 years later, on the eve of January 16, 1989, when thousands of Czechoslovaks flocked to Wenceslas Square to commemorate the martyred student. This event also turned into a protest. Inspired by Palach’s sacrifice, people gathered day after day, raising their voices against Communism and pressuring a regime that was already suffering a crisis of legitimacy. The police were mobilized to silence the crowds, eventually beating people and putting them into jail.

That brutality triggered the creation of The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square, on January 16, 1989. The game likely appeared in the weeks or months that followed, Švelch tells me.

With that in mind, I accept my in-game mission:

You are Indiana Jones and your goal is to get to your homeland, America. You find yourself in Wenceslas Square under the statue of St. Wenceslas. The date is January 16, 1989.

This game is designed for advanced adventure game players.

I press Enter.

“O.K. You’re under the statue of St. Wenceslas. The entrance into the subway is blocked. The National Museum is above you, but the entryway is also blocked. You can go left, right and down. You see a tail.”

I type: “examine tail”

“It’s the tail of St. Wenceslas’ horse. You’ve found an axe in a little crevice below the tail.

You see a tail and an axe.”

I type: “take axe”

“You’ve picked up the axe.”

Computer games historian Jaroslav Švelch guides me as I play. “The game takes you to the different parts of Wenceslas Square, and you find objects that help you fight the police,” he says. “There’s a lot of danger, there are a lot of game overs.”

A bullet swooshes past my ear. There’s tear gas everywhere; there are road blocks, too. I have to seize a shield to protect myself. I take the ID of a cop that resembles me, and I have to find diamonds, which I can use to bribe another officer.

“There are many situations in which you cannot win,” Švelch tells me. “And only by playing the game many times do you find out how to properly play it to the end.”

He advises me to grab a pen and paper and draw a map of the square, jotting down the locations as I zigzag through them.

As Indiana Jones, in order to survive, I have to attack and sometimes kill members of the Communist Police. Švelch says the text-adventure creates an alternate universe in which protesters can fight back, unlike the real-world demonstrators who were unable to respond.

O.K. You’re standing in front of the Grocery Store building. The subway entrance is fortunately clear. An unpleasant man (probably a Communist) is looking from a balcony, watching in amusement the good work of the Public Security.

Hint: You will have to chop your way through.

I type: “use axe

You drove your axe so deep inside his skull that it cannot be pulled out. You see a dead cop.

In The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square, Indy doesn’t have a real gun. He relies on an axe, a few stones, and an iron rod—all improvised weapons made of objects found on the street, which suggest an initially peaceful protest.

While playing the English version of the game that includes hints Švelch added (“Bribery is the enemy of socialism—but it works!”), I still often make the wrong moves. I get beaten up, suffocated, and assaulted by bombs and machetes. Regardless of how my character dies, the message I receive is always the same: a newspaper excerpt that shows a blatant coverup in pure Soviet style.

“INDIANA JONES IS DEAD!

BREAKING NEWS FROM THE AMERICAN PRESS: The Czechoslovak government has announced that our beloved hero – INDIANA JONES – died in a traffic accident with no signs of foul play. Continue reading on page 54.”

Although the relic hunter professor often dies, Czechoslovak players kept trying, hoping to help him escape Communism. They wanted the same thing in real life, and they were willing to do what it takes to help smash the hammer and sickle.

“We were asking for trouble”

Czech and Slovak teenagers were among the first in the world to figure out that video games can carry political statements. They were annoyed with the Communist Party, because it made it difficult for them to get computers and software. They believed the oppressive regime was snatching away their future, so they felt entitled to mock it and bend the rules.

In some of Czechoslovakia’s largest cities, including Prague and Bratislava, these kids established informal homebrew collectives, where everybody learned from everybody else and experimented freely. František Fuka, the creator of the first Indiana Jones game, often worked with Miroslav Fídler, a developer known for the thoroughness of his work (Miroslav still writes code these days). The two often walked along Prague’s Vltava River and talked about software.

“We were pure amateurs with little 8-bit computers, but we were trying to create games that matched the technical quality of professional games built in the West,” Fídler tells me.

He, too, disliked the Communists, and, in 1988, he took the big risk of building an activist text-adventure called RECONSTRUCTION (PŘESTAVBA), which suggested that the much-discussed reconstruction of socialism was futile.

Fídler released the game anonymously, fearing he would get expelled from high school or be denied a university place had he been caught. He went to great lengths to conceal authorship.

“I was so proud of my technical abilities that I thought: there are five people in this country who can do things at my level, so I must produce bad code so that the State Police does not catch me,” Fídler says.

Luckily for him and his friends, the Communist authorities never thought about censoring or monitoring computer games. Games were considered to be of little importance, so the teenagers got away with everything they did. Still, Fídler only admitted to having written RECONSTRUCTION after the fall of the regime.

The text-adventure starts in a decrepit building, and the player has to destroy the symbols of Communism to advance. One of those is a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital, which must burn to provide light while passing through a dark tunnel. Yet igniting it is not that easy. To commit this act, the player must use a Soviet lighter, which, like many products built in the Eastern Bloc, only works 30 percent of the time.

When the book burns like a torch, it “emits the light of progress.” In fact, many Soviet catchphrases are included in the game, such as “Forever with the Soviet Union,” and “Glory to the Leninist Politics of the Party.”

Fídler tells me why he chose them: “I was fed up with those socialist slogans, so I tried to make fun of them.”

The text-adventure ends with a statue of Lenin exploding in a public park, a scene that was “complete heresy” at that time, Fídler says. While there were a number of books and movies that made fun of the system, he proudly tells me that “none had a Lenin statue exploding.”

Fídler’s games were played all across the country, but his courage and skills were particularly celebrated in the Slovak city of Bratislava, where a group of younger boys, aged 10 to 15, looked up to him. They called themselves Sybilasoft, taking inspiration from the sybils, the oracles of Ancient Greece.

One of those kids was Stanislav “Stanley” Hrda, who still works in technology but is also involved in Bratislava’s political life, “building the city on the freedom we gained after Communism collapsed,” he says.

Hrda was annoyed by the technological limitations he and his friends had to overcome behind the Iron Curtain.

“We wanted to learn computer science in school, not Marxism-Leninism,” he tells me.

Just like Fuka, he loved American action movies, which he watched on a VCR at a friend’s house. He idolized the actor Sylvester Stallone, so he decided to build a game around Rambo, a Vietnam veteran and mercenary Stallone played in three movies in the 1980s. Rambo could attack multiple enemies simultaneously with his bare hands.

“For a teenager, it was super cool to see him fighting everybody,” Hrda tells me.

But around that time, Bratislava’s theaters were showing a Soviet box office hit, The Detached Mission, an anti-American propaganda movie suspiciously reminiscent of the Rambo series. In this, the heroic Major Shatokhin infiltrates a US military base and disrupts a CIA operation. The agents wanted to sabotage disarmament talks between the two Cold War rivals, America and the USSR.

The parallel between the two movies was striking, so Hrda thought it would be interesting to build a game in which Stallone’s capitalist hero would face his Soviet Doppelganger. At first, he thought Rambo would make an excellent lead character, but he felt that casting the Major as a villain might be too risky political-wise, so he adjusted the plan.

He eventually named the game Shatokhin (1988), building it around the Soviet military officer who was tasked with killing Rambo. Yet, that choice of central character didn’t mean that Hrda gave up on his idea of mocking the Soviets.

“The game was very hard to win,” he tells me. “Whenever you made a small mistake, you would die. So before you win, you are killed ten times by Rambo.”

Shatokhin’s death scenes are dramatic. The Major is, for instance, “charred to bits” in a burning helicopter, crushed against a coral reef, simultaneously poisoned by crude oil and eaten by sharks, drowned in a sewer, or killed by a beer bottle. Hrda and his friends at Sybilasoft challenged each other to create the most gruesome descriptions of the Major’s demise.

And they didn’t settle with just attacking a prominent figure of the Red Army. They also went for the most notorious Soviet symbols. The game starts with a full-screen image of the hammer and sickle designed by Michal Hlaváč, who was 14 at that time, and worked with his younger brother, Juraj, who was only 10.

The excess of Communist motifs that appeared in this game was an absurd joke to the player, Michal Hlaváč, who is now a product designer at Facebook in Seattle, tells me.

“Did Shatokhin mock the Soviets? Absolutely,” he says. “We were teenagers and we were asking for trouble. We didn’t really realize the potential consequences.”

Back then, people in Czechoslovakia were used to looking for hidden anti-Communist messages when reading a book or watching a play. So when the kids built Shatokhin, they decided to hide a mini game inside it. It would start if the player would redefine the control keys to K, G, B, the English acronym for the Soviet Union’s security agency. By doing that, the player is finally controlling Rambo, like Hrda wanted to do in the beginning.

This mini text-adventure takes place in an institution for disabled veterans where the two arch-enemies meet. The user has to help Rambo get his revenge by killing the Major with a fork from lunch. If mistakes are made, the Soviet officer will suffocate the American hero with his socks.

Hlaváč tells me that mocking Major Shatokhin was their way of protesting against a system that gave their families little hope for tomorrow.

“We were not going to pick up a gun and go out into the streets, so we wrote a game about a major of the Red Army, and we made it difficult for him to win,” he says. “Games allowed us, through humor and satire, to exert some kind of control over something we didn’t have power over.”

Searching for Indy

Although Hlaváč, Hrda, and Fídler were some of the leading 8-bit programmers in Czechoslovakia, they all tell me they had no involvement in Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square. They also say they don’t know who the author, the so-called Zuzan Znovuzrozený (“Susan Reborn”), might be.

This question also eludes video game historian Jaroslav Švelch, who has spent more than a decade investigating the 1980s by talking to every BASIC programmer in Czechia and Slovakia he could find. His research has been extensive—he gathered about 200 games mostly created by teens and pre-teens, a handful of which have an obvious anti-Communist message.

Still, Švelch says he doesn’t want to overestimate the impact of these activist titles as change-makers to the consciousness of the young. Only about two percent of Czechoslovaks owned a computer in the late 1980s, so video games had a smaller audience compared to the samizdat, the rock songs, or the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe, which people listened to illegally. However, he says the fact that tech-savvy kids decided to make a political statement is telling.

“It’s really interesting that these games exist, and that they were ahead of their time,” Švelch says.

Not many international titles from that period can match this level of boldness. The historian was only able to find a few. One such example is the British adventure Monty on the Run (1985) that features a mole that runs away from the UK to France, fleeing from the authorities after being involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Back then, the right-wing Government of Margaret Thatcher launched a tough crackdown on coal miners, who feared losing their jobs.

Yet this British game is different, Švelch says. It was essentially a commercial release that used current events to spark audience interest. By contrast, the Czechoslovak titles were not following an economic rationale. They were built ad-hoc, they were immediate, even impulsive, he says. Oftentimes, they were released just a few days after a protest unfolded, so they carried a sense of urgency.

It is that urgency, not the violence, that struck me the most while playing Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square. The raw energy of the streets, the desperate feeling of “now or never,” the hopelessness of people who lost their freedoms and couldn’t get them back.

Under Švelch’s guidance, eventually I managed to help Indy get out of Communism and return to the US. The game’s victory sequence frames your achievement plainly:

“O.K. YOU HAVE OUTSMARTED EVEN THE WORST OF THE POLICE SCUM. YOU SAFELY ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT AND TOOK A PLANE HOME. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!!!!”

Just like Indiana Jones, the Czechoslovak teens won their freedom eventually. On November 17, 1989, and in the weeks that followed, massive anti-Communist protests swept across the nation. In Bratislava’s main square, Michal Hlaváč and his friends rattled their keys making loud noises against the regime, while Stanley Hrda carried messages between groups, contributing to what became known as the Velvet Revolution. In Prague, František Fuka and Miroslav Fídler were among the people who asked the Communist leaders to step down; those leaders ultimately did.

In those turbulent days, the game developers stepped out from behind their digitized Western heroes. For the first time, they expressed their political views out in the open, away from computer screens. They even drew posters, which they hung in the Prague Subway for all to see. The message was more powerful than any game they’d ever written: ZX Spectrum programmers support the Revolution.

Andrada Fiscutean is a freelance technology journalist and radio news editor. She often writes about hackers, nation-state malware, surveillance, and privacy but is also passionate about the history of technology in Eastern Europe. She has previously written for Ars about an infamous computer lab in Romania and illicit PCs in that country. You can follow her on Twitter @AFiscutean.

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