Gaming in a pre-Google era was often impossible. So why do I miss it so much?

Hugo’s House of Horrors was asburd, with vast leaps in logic and an infuriating trivia round that made a relatively short game impossible to finish.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What was the name of Roy Roger’s dog? It was a question that dominated my childhood in the Nineties; an impossibly niche piece of trivia that I just didn’t know the answer to. And yet, I was expected to know it – if I was to ever to complete Hugo’s House of Horrors.

And then last Christmas, having fallen down a rabbit hole of video game playthroughs on YouTube, it hit me: the internet would know the answer.

Hugo’s House of Horrors was a shonky side-scrolling PC game released in 1990 that saw the titular Hugo search for his girlfriend, Penelope, in a haunted house. It was a point-and-click adventure with a text command box, and, although the YouTube playthrough revealed that it can be completed in eight minutes, my brother and I could spend hours and hours playing it.

In our defence, we were young, six and eight years old respectively, and the game’s command functions were messy at best. If you weren’t using exactly the right words to type in commands, Hugo wouldn’t do what you wanted. So if you thought the heavily pixelated candle was in fact a torch, more fool you.

In one part of the game you needed to steal a pork chop and feed it to a guard dog, which would otherwise maul you to death to a bleepy synth rendition of “How much is that doggy in the window?”. If you “dropped” the chop on the floor, the dog would kill you. If you tried to “give” it to the dog, he would kill you. “Offered”? “Fed”? “Enticed”? “Bribed”? Death, every time. But if you “threw” it, the dog would run the other way and allow you safe passage.

If its gameplay mechanics weren’t infuriating enough, Hugo’s House of Horrors looked awful: visually the game is as flat as a pancake and rendered in an art style that could be described as “MS paint spray can tool”. Characters’ eyeballs were a single pixel, the music akin to someone repeatedly sitting on a church organ. Yet its dialogue was dry and acerbic, like the creators knew it was a bit weird but were in on the joke.

Eventually we made it to the basement of the mansion, which obviously led to a cave complex with a lake in the middle. A man sat on the edge of the lake (who is he? Why is he here? We never learn, this is a world where men sit on docks by lakes under mansions and you just have to run with it) would only let you past if you correctly answered some trivia. Which is where we got stuck; there was no multiple choice, you just had to know.

What was the name of Roy Roger’s dog?

I would think about the question in the car on the way to school, and I would think about it whenever I got taken to the library. What was the name of Roy Roger’s dog? While watching The Weakest Link I’d expect it to come up. I used to wonder how many questions there were in the world, and assume that eventually this one would jump out in my day to day life. What was the name of Roy Roger’s dog? At a friend’s seventh birthday party I saw a stack of books in his living room and briefly wondered if Roy Rogers, and by association, his dog, were hiding in the pages.

You need to know who Roy Rogers is to deduce what his dog was called, I pointed out to my brother. Was he an actor? A historian? Is it a trick question? Wait, what was the name of the dog the Russians sent to space?

I would much later learn that Roy Rogers was in fact a country singer born in 1911, who went on to be a successful film star and licensed his name to a chain of roast beef sandwich restaurants across Maryland and West Virginia; but alas, this was before we had the internet.

So we wrote down as many names for dogs as we could and we tried and tried and tried. We’d save our progress and go to bed, and then the next day we’d try some more. We asked our parents. I asked a teacher. Nobody seemed to know. Eventually, we stopped caring, and stopped playing, and moved on to something else.

Video games now have endless scope and potential; I can lose an entire day of any given weekend playing Breath of the Wild, where I shrug off the dungeon exploring that’s typical of a Zelda game and instead spend hours traversing scorched plains on horseback. But when I get lost or stuck or frustrated, the internet is there to guide me in a way that it wasn’t when an odd-looking man was demanding the name of Roy Roger’s dog. Zelda’s world is ginormous, but every nook and cranny has been meticulously detailed online, usually by a peppy vlogger who insists on reading out the character dialogue in funny voices.

Sometimes it’s hard not to crack and Google the answers; all the information is there if you know where to look – but it’s for this reason, the internetification of gaming, that video games feel completely different to when I was younger. Hugo House of Horrors will always hold a special place in my heart, because I played it in a time when the answers were nowhere to be found. Just watching footage of the game online fills me with nostalgia; it makes me think of the Olivetti computer we played it on, and of how learnt to type with furious precision to hammer out inane commands to our protagonist.

My brother and I never finished the game, nor its sequels, which take place in a British country pile and a tropical island respectively, with each game in the franchise getting increasingly nightmarish. I had to find out what happened online. The dog? He was called Bullet.

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.