(For a more recent appraisal, see Knightmare: the 25th Anniversary.)
I find no peace, and all my war is done;
I fear, and hope. I burn, and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise.
And naught I have, and all the World I seize on…
This passage from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous sonnet recently brought to mind one of Knightmare’s most enigmatic in-game mysteries – a firestone cased in ice.
Knightmare was a groundbreaking virtual-reality television gameshow that aired in the UK between 1987 and 1994. Groups of four aged 11-16 underwent a ‘quest’ in a fantasy dungeon with the aim (in almost all cases) of retrieving a historical object.
One player took the role of ‘dungeoneer’. Blindfolded by a helmet, he or she entered an fantasy dungeon environment (generated by chromakey and other visual effects), while three companions remained in an antechamber to provide guidance and directions.
One of the attractions of the game was its graphic nature and its notorious degree of difficulty – features that carried political forbearance.
Created in the uncompromising Thatcherite era of the 1980s, the show was fantasy escapism that, paradoxically, found no escapism. Most dungeoneers ‘died’ when their game was over. This was achieved in a variety of creative ways, including falls, bombs, spikes, and blades.
There is a glint in the eye of Tim Child, the show’s creator, when he states in a 2007 interview:
Some of the gameplay was really quite complex. It was always challenging, and also, it was quite scary. A dungeon is a dark, dank, dangerous place. It’s not the sort of place you would send six-year-olds in. Even in fantasy terms, with drawn environments, it’s pretty convincing. We scared an awful lot of children, but it made for great gameplay once they had been scared.
Refreshingly, Knightmare did not suffer fools, and often displayed exacting standards. Failure to answer a single riddle in the third and final level would end a team’s heroic attempt. Several weak teams, on the other hand, did not escape the first level.
As Knightmare’s audience swelled and the fiendish fantasy world built its reputation, the gameplay evolved from a series of single-room challenges to broader background narratives.
Autopsy and Fragments
This evolution of the gameplay added an autopsic value to its legacy. Half the discussion centres around the cause of death! Did certain teams get a better or worse rub of the green? How was this or that puzzle meant to work?
Many fans agree that elements of the show were intrinsically unfair at times – and that’s all in the name of good television. But even 20 years on, we still attempt to decipher some of the mysteries behind failed quests that continue to baffle us.
To my regret, I have only been able to offer two small contributions towards Knightmare knowledge.
The first, endearingly enough, relates to my hometown. The shortest quest (in terms of airtime), I discovered to be the first team of Series 2, and not, as commonly thought, a later team of that same year.
The second is conjecture, and relates to the quest below from Series 5 (1991). This interpretation, to the best of my knowledge, has not been registered elsewhere.
Change or Switch?
The team in play (Christopher, guided by Paul, Keith, and Kieran) arrive in Level 2.
Chris swiftly learns that passage to the final level will require a firestone. One is frozen away in the level, he is told, but he’ll need magic to release it.
The hint they receive in the clue room is ‘Fair Trade is No Robbery‘.
Next, they encounter trickster Julius Scaramonger, who offers to sell them a potion of impurity.
Mindful of the need for ‘magic’, they ask him about spells. Scaramonger becomes evasive, which makes them assume they are on the right track.
They persist until he relents and offers a choice of spells: CHANGE or SWITCH. With little on which to base their choice, the team opt for CHANGE.
Soon after, they find the firestone and attempt to release it with their new spell. Oh dear.
It turns out to be a trick. The dungeoneer turns into a goblin. With nothing to release the firestone, they must proceed without it and are inevitably doomed.
Their unique death is being swallowed by a Blocker. Goblin flavour…
The discussion, understandably, has centred around the choice of spells. What might SWITCH have done? What subtle clues might have indicated which to choose?
To me, both are a misnomer. The close synonyms offered by Scaramonger immediately ring alarm bells. Rather, the clue ‘Fair Trade is No Robbery’ indicates that Scaramonger’s initial offering is (for once!) the correct option. Thinking logically, an impurity solution would melt ice in the same way as rock salt does.
However, even this does not solve all the mysteries. In a later scene, the team encounter the monk, Brother Mace, for the second time.
Mace hints, rather uniquely, at the possibility of a second chance saloon. He says they could use a folderol (available as a clue, but not chosen) to summon the dungeon jester, Motley. As Motley takes nothing seriously, he can reverse the cast-locked spell.
We learn after the team’s demise that Motley would have provided the password they needed for the Blocker. So, despite failing to retrieve the firestone, the synopsis still (apparently) provided a route for the team to give themselves a chance at the end of the level.
This compounds both the mystery and, arguably, the unfairness. Even if the team are able to work out the tough ‘Fair Trade’ hint, there was absolutely no clue to take a folderol. Was their quest bound to end in the same manner – firestone in hand or not?
It’s little wonder that one of the most seasoned fans was left to consider: ‘This has got to be one of the best teams as far as wild speculation is concerned, since there are so many possibilities about what could have happened’.
It’s a hazy image of how the level could be cracked, but not enough to be conclusive. And if a dozen conscientious fans cannot decipher the fact, goodness knows how 12-year-olds are expected to. But that, in a nutshell, was Knightmare.
[The docile Series 5 does not come close to demonstrating Knightmare at its fiery best. With a young team, it’s produced a mystery, not a thriller. However, it shows how the gameplay works and can be shaped by unpredictable decisions.]
The Fire That Burns Within
To apply a recent literary thesis to this show, an amendment would read thus:
Why is Knightmare brilliant? Precisely because it perplexes the viewer, perhaps perplexed itself, and often tacitly makes perplexity its subject.
The same paradoxes in Wyatt’s sonnet strike a curious parallel with Knightmare, and the wonderful antithesis of fire and ice makes another telling contribution in the series finale.
The fire that freezes rather than burns.