A personal tribute to the one true Lord of Midnight, Mike Singleton (1951 – 2012)

Night has fallen. Matt stands on the Plains of Despair looking North to the Tower of Doom. The Ice Fear is cold. He thinks again...

One evening back in March of 1992 I was hunched over a chunky black plastic ZX Spectrum hooked up to a tape recorder and a small television. Beside me rested a copy of Sinclair User issue 121 and the free cover tape that came with it, titled “The Great 8” and proudly boasting “the first demo of Robocop 3” for 128k Spectrum users only. Since my Spectrum only had 48k of RAM I couldn’t play it but I didn’t particularly care. It was a rolling demo anyway so I wasn’t really missing much and I could still play one of the other full games on that tape. One in particular had caught my attention with its rather cryptic title. Ten minutes later I began playing the first game that ever genuinely immersed me in its world, and from that day on was the only game on the tape as far as my young pre-teen self was concerned.

The Lords of Midnight by Mike Singleton was a sprawling fantasy epic heavily inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien in which your ultimate goal was to defeat the evil witch king Doomdark, who had plunged the fantasy realm of Midnight in the grip of an eternal winter before Westeros was a frosty twinkle in George R.R. Martin’s eye. To achieve this you could either marshal the remaining lords of the Free under the banner of Luxor the Moonprince and seize Doomdark’s citadel by force, or send Luxor’s son Morkin north into Doomdark’s kingdom to find and destroy the Ice Crown, the source of his evil power. To achieve the game’s most satisfying victory you had to do both, coordinating the war effort against Doomdark while simultaneously guiding Morkin ever deeper into enemy territory on his quest for to destroy the Ice Crown.

I do not use the word “epic” here lightly. A modern game trying to come anywhere close to the breadth of gameplay The Lords of Midnight provided, and by today’s demanding standards, would have to combine the vast open world of Skyrim with the military strategy of Total War and Civilisation’s diplomacy, while still allowing for the sort of emergent narratives that arise so naturally in games like XCOM and FTL. Such a game would be insanely ambitious, require hundreds if not thousands of people to create, and cost more money than even the most risk-taking publisher would be comfortable with. Mike Singleton, a former English teacher who taught himself programming, created Lords of Midnight entirely by himself. He designed the maps, created the characters and wrote every line of code himself. He was the bedroom programmer of bedroom programmers in the early UK development scene.

Mike Singleton passed away in Switzerland last week at the age of 61 after a long battle with cancer. Before he died he had been working with his friend and colleague Chris Wild on an iPhone version of Lords of Midnight and The Eye of the Moon, Mike’s planned official final instalment to what would have been a Lords of Midnight trilogy. Chris Wild has posted a moving tribute to Mike on his blog and another fantastic tribute to “Singo” can be found here on the giantbomb.com forums from forum member wibby, who also knew Mike personally. Many people working in the games industry today were inspired by him and he was still involved in the industry as recently as 2008 doing work for Codemasters and LucasArts. Others have taken to twitter to share their memories of Mike and the other games he created such as Throne of Fire, Dark Sceptre, Starlord and Midwinter.

My own profound sadness and sense of loss at Mike Singleton’s death is on a deeply personal level for uniquely personal reasons. Despite only having 8 colours to work with Mike was able to genuinely immerse me in the world he had created, painting just enough of its bleak wintry landscapes to let my pre-teen imagination fill in the rest. You might look at these screenshots and see only a primitive landscape populated with gaudy characters. I can’t. I still see one of 33,000 gorgeous panoramic vistas of a living, breathing world, feeling the chill in my bones and the crunch of thick virgin snow beneath my feet. A world where rampaging armies roamed the plains, packs of wolves and trolls prowled the forests, bands of vile Skullkrin lurked in crumbling ruins to ambush lone travellers and cruel dragons squatted atop ancient monoliths. A place where good Lords died alone on a battlefield at the hands of a ally-turned-traitor. Yet despite these virtual dangers, when I was 11 years-old Midnight was the safest place I knew.

My childhood wasn’t quite what you could call a happy one, and although it wasn’t as bad as some people’s there were more than a few dark moments I’d choose to forget if possible. Like a lot of kids who were fat and nerdy I was bullied at school a fair bit, something I’ve long since come to terms with. I also had the misfortune however of being bullied at home by my mother’s then-boyfriend; a toxic specimen of humanoid pondscum who specialised in mental abuse because it doesn’t leave tell-tale physical bruises. A “man” who once made me stare at myself in a mirror for ten whole minutes while he told me how fat and worthless I was, how much my mother supposedly hated me and that I should just run away or kill myself. Pretty heavy stuff to lay on an 11 year-old, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course he never did any of this while mum was around so that was when I’d read books or boot up my Speccy and play games, presumably to some confusion and despair on her part. Some of my favourites were Rebelstar 1 & 2, Fantasy World Dizzy, Back to Skool and Sabre Wulf, but the one I played the most was The Lords of Midnight. As soon as the game loaded straight into Luxor the Moonprince’s view of the Tower of the Moon I was there, feeling the chill of winter on my skin and savouring the crisp clear air in my mind’s eye. Forests were genuinely dark, dangerous and foreboding places full of wolves, trolls and god-knows-what. When I approached one of the many keeps and citadels dotting the landscape I imagined the worried faces of nervous soldiers peering down at me from the battlements. Armies on the distant horizon marched to the beat of war drums only I could hear, their banners billowing in the wind too fast to see if they were a threat or a potential ally. Few games since have been able to elicit that same feeling of being in a whole other world as those eight colour low-res landscapes did. Ultima VII and Morrowind are two of them.

Games are often unfairly dismissed or ridiculed by some joyless people as mindless escapism as though escapism is something inherently wicked. An over-reliance on escapism is unhealthy of course but everyone needs a safe haven of sorts to retreat to sometimes. Kids in similar positions to mine probably found their own escapes in Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom or the Green Hill Zone, places as comforting to them as Midnight was to me. Sometimes you need to be able to lose yourself for a while, somewhere real or imagined, so you can then find yourself again. For me that place is still a snow-covered land of mountains, plains and forests surrounded by endless frozen wastes beneath a cold blue sky, created by a former English teacher from Liverpool.

Thank you Mike Singleton for giving a frightened 11 year-old boy a place where he could feel safe, secure and utterly bold.

PC compatible versions of The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge are available to download and play for free at Icemark.com. I sincerely encourage you to do so.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.