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.