Gaming

The story of Captain Blood, the Atari ST classic in which you track down and murder your clones, five times


The galaxy is a big place. Within several of its planets lay your remaining clones, beings ripped from your body, causing a gradual cellular degeneration should you not locate and extract the vital fluid from each before it’s too late. There are just five left, but you don’t know where they are, and there are thousands of planets to explore. The outstanding clones, or numbers, can only be found by interrogating many of the alien species that populate the galaxy. There’s just one problem: you have no idea what they are saying.

It sounds like the premise of that weird indie game you’ve got on your Steam wishlist. But it isn’t. This is the plot of Captain Blood, the huge hit of 1988 from French publisher ERE Informatique. And like many games of the time, it began life as a tech demo. “One day, I met Didier Bouchon at an exhibition,” begins Philippe Ulrich, lead designer on Captain Blood. “We quickly came to like each other, so when I got an Atari ST before anyone else, I gave it to Didier to explore the innards of this new beast.” Neither had much commercial computer game design or programming experience, but when Ulrich returned to his friend a few weeks later, the seed of their first game together was sown. “I visited him in his den, and he had started programming a map generated by a fractal seed on the ST. After a few glasses of Brouilly and some drawings on a restaurant tablecloth, we imagined putting this map on a sphere.” From this seed, the pair could store a whole galaxy’s worth of planets within the ST’s 512K floppy disk, using a procedural terrain generator to create each unique world.

These worlds are represented by a scrolling landscape and canyon. And, at the end of some – rather conveniently – sits an alien, ready to converse with Captain Blood. Remember, Blood is trying to locate the five remaining clones and obtain their vital fluid so he may live. “The idea of a hero who accidentally clones himself and must find his clones came naturally,” explains Ulrich. “We’d been fed comics, novels and cyberpunk cinema to the rhythm of Kraftwerk’s impeccable beat.”


Captain Blood's 2001-inspired Hyperspace jump, with ship controls at the bottom of the screen and a spatial kaleidoscope at the top.
Hyperspace in Captain Blood, inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. | Image credit: Phillipe Ulrich/Didier Bouchon

Captain Blood’s 11-page short story begins not in outer space but on Earth, at the home of unkempt computer programmer and master games player Bob Morlok. A chance encounter with Charles Darwin (stay with me) inspires Morlok to create, within his game, the Ark, a spaceship fitted with an organic onboard computer and his own digital double, Captain Blood. Finally, months later, Morlok is ready to test his new game. He types out the momentous instruction – RUN – and instantly winks out of existence, transported into his game. Then, following a nasty hyperspace accident, 30 clones are extricated from the Captain, an army of fakes spread over the galaxy. Blood has one choice: track them all down, launch a probe to the planet’s surface, teleport them in turn into his cryonisation container, the Fridgitorium, and extract the vital fluid, disintegrating the clone in the process. But first he has to find them, and here, away from the fancy fractal graphics, is the core of Captain Blood.

“Captain Blood’s constraint was to make a universal text adventure game, playable by every player on the planet and transcending languages,” notes Ulrich. “I liked the icon-based language, such as ‘Me love you’ and ‘You beautiful you strong’. It worked in every language, and I realised that by combining a hundred words/icons, you could express a real scenario with humour.” This means of communication, dubbed the Universal Protocol of Communication – UPCOM – became the main gameplay of Captain Blood. “We simulated intelligence using big data – I wrote hundreds of sentences with icons representing the characters’ knowledge, history, secrets and, of course, the precious coordinates of inhabited planets.”


An alien landscape of icy mountains in Captain Blood.


A fractal alien landscape in Captain Blood.

Fractal and picture modes of a planet in Captain Blood. | Image credit: Phillipe Ulrich/Didier Bouchon

In Captain Blood, there are 16 sentient alien races. Each species has overarching traits: for example, the long-tongued Izwal are cultured, peaceful and intelligent; the insectoid Yukas are aggressive and not to be trusted; the dreamy, beautiful Ondoyantes are highly attractive to those they admire, horrific monstrosities to those they detest.

Within each race, individuals often have their own characteristics. Handling the conversation so that Blood gets information on further coordinates is imperative. “If you don’t know the coordinates of inhabited planets, you’re doomed to wander the galaxy,” explains Ulrich. “To find them out, you have to talk to the characters, be polite, negotiate and do them favours.” However, the aliens don’t always give the same answer – frustrating, maybe, but realistic. “You had to tame them, show your humanity or aggressiveness, and replies would depend on the psychology of the character you were dealing with.”


A planet floating in space in Captain Blood.


An alien is on the screen in Captain Blood, with pictorgrams underneath to decode its language.

Aliens and a planet in Captain Blood. | Image credit: Phillipe Ulrich/Didier Bouchon

For Atari ST owners, the evocative journey is preceded by a suitably haunting theme created in conjunction with the world-renowned composer, Jean-Michel Jarre. “Jarre was preparing for a concert in Japan, where he wanted to project pixel art onto the sides of buildings. One evening, we showed him Captain Blood in his recording studio in Chatou. He loved it.” says Ulrich proudly. Jarre had just released his seventh studio album, Zoolook, an electronic record full of samples and – suitably – 25 different languages, and Ulrich asked for permission to use four bars from the album for Captain Blood’s music. Music samples, even in disk-based games, were rare at the time due to the memory they occupied. Ulrich and Bouchon devised a utility to compress and process samples, making several minutes of music with just a few seconds of their sample. Continues Ulrich, “When I played the results back to Jean-Michel Jarre, he was astonished, telling us that ‘with all the equipment I have in the studio, I can’t do what you’ve done.'” Ulrich and Bouchon shortly received a telex from Jarre’s publisher, confirming the rights.

Aesthetically, Captain Blood has two stark cinematic influences. The mesmerising hyperspace sequence, complete with a steady and monolithic tone, is clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there’s Blood’s spaceship, the Ark, informed by an altogether different type of sci-fi. “H. R. Giger inseminated a generation with the seed of an extraterrestrial monster,” smiles Ulrich. “No one came away from Alien unscathed, and, of course, Giger’s biomechanical art inspired us.” The accompanying story booklet cements this association further, referencing the ‘Nostromo affair’ and ‘old Rippley dame’.


The story of Captain Blood on two closely-typed pieces of paper.


Text from a review of Captain Blood, titled


The cover for Captain Blood, showing a galaxy

Captain Blood’s story, an early review, and the box art for the Atari ST. | Image credit: Phillipe Ulrich/Didier Bouchon/Graeme Mason

Captain Blood enveloped the lives of those behind it, taking almost two years to develop. “We were in perpetual creation – the sky was not the limit,” says Ulrich. “Development had no end, and neither did the game. But Christmas was coming, and we were tired. Didier was at the end of his tether, working day and night. We had to say stop.” Ultimately, Captain Blood debuted in the Spring of 1988 to high praise from all quarters. “Every once in a while a new game arrives on the ST that leaves everything else drifting in its wake. Without doubt, Captain Blood is one of those,” proclaimed Mark Smiddy inside Atari ST User magazine. “The graphics are breathtaking, and the digitised music superlative. Even the scenario sounds like a plot from a Larry Niven science fiction bestseller.” An incredible 10/10 score was the result, a tally echoed by the English language version two months later.

The wait had been worth it, despite the abandonment of many elements, such as the player hallucinating while talking to certain species. No matter: notwithstanding its relative lack of action and abstruse gameplay, Captain Blood was a hit with Atari ST fans, too. “After its release, people called me up and spoke to me in Bluddian,” laughs Ulrich. “And I’ve even seen players use the sounds of icons to express themselves. My idea went even further: I dreamed of giving icons sounds and notes so you could sing a tune to express a phrase or message.”

Towards the end of Captain Blood’s development, French mega-publisher Infogrames purchased ERE Informatique, leading to Ulrich’s creation of the Exxos label and relegating ERE and Infogrames to the position of publishers, keen to maximise the profit from the game: conversions to the Commodore Amiga, PC, Commodore 64 and even ZX Spectrum subsequently appeared. For Philippe Ulrich, it’s a journey that began with the Sinclair ZX80 and Rodney Zaks’s famous book, Programming The Z80, and endures today. “My career, since 1980, has seen a global shift towards digital,” he muses as our conversation concludes. “It’s been mind-boggling. Wonderful. Beautiful. Terrifying!” That seems, I suggest, an apt set of words to sum up Captain Blood, the uniquely odd space quest to essentially find – and kill – yourself. Five times.





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