The Game: Does it ever seem like your computer has a mind of its own? Maybe it does! Activision’s Little Computer People provides computer owners with a virtual three-story house, designed to lure the computer people out of your wiring and into a hospitable habitat. Once a little person has moved into his new home he can be studied and observed, but this is no hands-off experiment. You’ll need to keep your new friend happy and fed to maintain a healthy relationship. (Activision, 1985)
Memories: When Little Computer People first came out, it was difficult to explain just what kind of program it was to your friends. These days, it’s much easier – I’d simply say the game was like The Sims, but with only one sim and one location. To anyone familiar with the SimCity/SimAnt/SimEarth series of games, I’d describe it as a “SimHouse”. I might even compare the game to one of those popular “virtual pet” programs. But Little Computer People came out in 1985, prior to any of those games. Back then we lacked the vocabulary to describe (much less categorize) the game. Little Computer People was first released for the Commodore 64, quickly ported to the Apple II, and eventually found its way to Atari, Amiga, Amstrad and Sinclair computers. The game was never ported to the PC.
In Activision’s groundbreaking title, you serve as a researcher for the Little Computer People Research Project. Each copy of the program comes with a virtual three-story home. The home, loaded with ammenities, is designed to “lure” a little computer person (LCP) out of your machine and onto your screen. Within a couple of minutes of loading the program, a LCP should arrive and, assuming he likes what he sees, will move right in. Activision used what they called “Digital DNA” to randomly assign your LCPs unique features, including hair color, clothing colors, and names. It’s said that no two LCP are exactly identical. Mine was named Ogden.
The virtual home included on your disk has several rooms for your LCP to explore. There’s a kitchen and dining room, a living room, a computer room, a restroom, a bedroom, and a large upstairs den. Each of these rooms contain different items for both your new friend and yourself to interact with. Little Computer People is a combination of direct interaction, exchanges and observation.
There are several keystrokes that will allow you to directly interact with your LCP’s environment. For example, CTRL-F delivers food, CTRL-W refills his water cooler, CTRL-D drops off cans of dog food (even LCPs need pets!) and so on. There are also “entertainment” related commands as well. CTRL-C calls your LCP on the phone, CTRL-P pets your LCP, and CTRL-R and CTRL-B deliver records and books to his front door. (Note that in the Commodore 64 emulator VICE, “Tab” is used instead of “CTRL”.)
Even more interesting are the things your LCP will do when you’re simply observing him. As you watch your LCP throughout the day there’s a chance he’ll put on a record and start exercising, watch television, take a nap, go to the restroom/wash his hands/brush his teeth, cook a meal, type on the computer, or any number of other random things.
Little Computer People also included a two-line text parser, which allowed you to talk directly to your LCP! As a young child, this was THE most amazing thing I had ever seen. “Ogden,” I would type, “would you please play me a song on the piano?” Ogden would look at the screen, nod in agreement, and head over to the piano. Requesting actions wasn’t always successful, but throwing in “please” and “thank you” seemed to increase your odds.
The only downside to Little Computer People is that it doesn’t take that long to see everything your LCP is capable of doing. There are only so many trips up the stairs, word games and exercise routines you can watch before you feel like you’ve seen it all. Within a couple of one hour sessions, I’d venture that gamers will have seen the majority of what their LCP is capable of. Despite that, the game retains a certain amount of magic. I was thrilled every time Ogden would go to his typewriter and type me a letter, or go down to the kitchen table and challenge me to a game of poker. Little Computer People was probably the first computer program I ever “bonded” with.