He travelled 136.6 miles down the river, surviving 174 days before discovering the game-breaking bug that would halt his run in The Flame In The Flood. Where the river once coursed without break, settling into a familiar pattern of placid water followed by white rapids, now it bottomed out.
There was no more wilderness to pass, no more of the industrial edgelands and no more resources to scavenge. The river's computational limits were revealed, growing ever wider before ending in a lake. With nowhere else to go Stephen sat on his raft and starved to death.
A few days later, the studio behind the game, The Molasses Flood, told Stephen he possessed one of the highest scores they'd ever seen. But achieving this level of mastery hadn't come easily. He'd subjected himself to playthroughs lasting for whole days, sleepless nights replaying scenarios in his head, and the relentless relaying of information to his wife, Rachel, as he tried to pick apart the secrets and intricacies of the game . Nestled in the top floor of a Victorian townhouse in north London, Stephen would sit in solitude for hours at a time, save for his in-game companion, Aesop the dog.
With his beloved science fiction novels to the right of the desk and a view of the garden stretching from behind his computer screen, Stephen would become enveloped first in The Flame In The Flood and then in Firewatch. At the age of 63, Stephen, recently retired, rekindled a passion that had been with him since the early '80s.
I'm sitting in the kitchen with Stephen and wife Rachel (my girlfriend's parents), in their new house, a converted barn in rural Kent. Outside, dense, grey clouds hang low and the rain is just starting to break, pushed against the windows by the wind. It's reminiscent of moments from The Flame In The Flood, although our lives are significantly less perilous.
Partly, it's the game's representation of such natural beauty that initially drew Stephen in. "The graphics didn't pretend to be something else. They didn't want to be fancy or pretentious. They were just solid, good graphics that represented what was going on—this incontinent deluge by floods and rains and unprotectable climate change. If it weren't for the fact that you're on this raft trying to survive, you'd be quite happy just having it as a background on your computer. Sitting there for hours doing nothing else except watching the landscape go by. It's like people driving down the Norfolk Broads in a little motor-powered yacht."
But video games aren't a purely aesthetic pastime. They're defined by the principle of interaction, of player action determining the events on screen, which gives them their compulsive pull. The Flame In The Flood asked Stephen to survive, pitting him against the elements, the wild animals, and the river of its imaginary post-societal America. His challenge lay in juggling those threats while maintaining his own needs—food, water, body temperature, and treating any injuries he might incur along the way.
Beneath the lavish presentation of disaster and survival, it is undeniably a game of systems—vast, deep, interlocking systems that framed each decision and action Stephen took along the way. He's quick to pinpoint this as the reason why the game resonated with him so much. "I love the fact that it's strategy based. You really have to learn as you go along, you have to die and make all these mistakes in order to get better."
It's not until he starts discussing those systems, though, that the extent of the game's hold over Stephen is revealed. Foregoing any staid, academic discussion of how he bested them or the challenges they posed, he launches into account after account of what went down in the game world.
The realization that the cawing of crows alerted wolves to his presence. Or the time he managed to kill three wolves using tainted meat, a spear trap and his entire quiver of arrows. Or his encounters with the grizzly bears, far quicker and meaner than he'd anticipated. He also told me of the few times he'd seen the elusive white wolf, only for it to slink away into the wilds of the night. Hands clasped around a cup of warm tea, tightening with each account, Stephen morphs into a hyper-analytical master woodsman, discussing the intricacies of his survival as if my future, imaginary life in the wild of America depended on it. Suddenly he's a disseminator of arcane bushcraft.
From the biological simulacra to the digital fauna, Stephen describes these interconnected systems as if they were hewn directly from their real life counterparts. His obsession over failures in the game reflects this. Even when he quit, returned to the desktop and shut the computer down, the game maintained some gravitational pull, difficult to dislodge from his thoughts.
"I'd lie awake for hours trying to work out where did I go wrong. Why did it happen to me? I was reviewing in my mind exactly what I'd done and why I'd done it. I would die on a rapid, say, after having hit three rocks because I hadn't pulled in at a previous place where I could have got some remedial works done to the raft. I was a bit weak but I thought I'll just mosey on down to the next place because I want to get some food.
"And then the rapids came along and it started raining and I didn't control the raft as I should have done, and I didn't just hit one or two or three sets of rocks but at speed I hit a fourth one as well. That was one too many. No matter what I did, I couldn't avoid it." Stephen, though, remains remarkably level-headed about the challenges he faced. Delivered with a clean rationality, he's quick to stress the failure was his fault, not the games (if we can discount the river-ending bug). This was a world and a set of skills and rules that he had bought into, almost totally.
A few months on from The Flame In The Flood and Stephen's just finished playing Firewatch. Sat at the same desk in the attic of his home, he sends me an email with the subject line "Watch Tower" (he means Firewatch of course). He tells me how he loves the map and compass, and how it reminds him of Twin Peaks, signing off the email with "Thankfully just got my lift home..."
Firewatch may share a similar American wilderness setting with The Flame In The Flood, but it's a different beast, thrust forward by a complicated, messy narrative. But where The Flame In The Flood gave Stephen control of his destiny, Firewatch limits that control, events playing out that the player is unable to influence. I bring up the dialogue and ask Stephen whether he found it convincing. He leans in on the table, his face tightening, a frown descending. "I found it scary. I didn't want to confide in her. I didn't want to tell her things she could use against me. I deliberately refrained from talking about Julie but then she seemed to know something about it.
"So I didn't divulge and I think I asked her how she found out about it and she said, 'oh it was in your notes.' I tried to keep my personal life private from her but she knew about it anyway and I didn't like that. I found it sinister." Stephen might not have been in control of the situation but the game produced no less of a potent effect on him.
Games, though, haven't always been such a solitary affair for Stephen. Jump back close to 40 years and he's at a pub in west London with his mate, smoke hanging in the air and the dark wood of the bar sticky with the residue of stale beer. It's lunchtime and they're having a couple of pints as they run through the arcade machines tucked in the corner of the room. They'll play Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command and Bomb Jack while they wait for their roast dinner to arrive. Stephen recalls the time fondly, a smile widening, but not without remembering the pang of frustration—he wasn't able to play it on his own terms in his own space.
A Commodore 64 remedied this, but it also allowed Stephen to share more intimate moments. The Dambusters, released in 1984 for the Commodore 64, gave Stephen a window into not only his own past but that of his father's, too. We load up a 10 minute video of the game. As Stephen talks me through it, the engine hums with a distorted, single tone crackle, the rat-a-tat-tat of the guns piercing the screen with black and white.
And as we get closer to the bombing itself, the pitch of the engine rises before an explosion unfurls across the screen. "I introduced my father to that," Stephen tells me once it's finished. "He never played it but when he came round I would say 'look, you have to come and see this game'. He was a rear gunner in the war, not with the dambusters, but he felt the game so well. It just reminded him of all the experiences he'd been through."
Stephen would continue to experience games through the lens of family in the '90s. His and Rachel's son was born in 1988, followed by the arrival of their triplet daughters two years later. They'd play educational games like Zoombinis and Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? along with the original Worms, the game's bizarre sense of humour proving hugely popular with the young children.
For that game, Stephen set up a LAN (Local Area Network) connecting two computers across different rooms, the kids sat on one and Stephen sat on the other, the tension rising with every move. Far from Stephen's stoic recollections of his time playing The Flame In The Flood and Firewatch, his eyes widen and a grin emerges as he tells me of the fun they had—the chatter and laughter emanating from that second room.
There was one game, though, that called to Stephen "inexorably like a siren." Having put the kids to bed, he would creep to the attic, careful not to wake them, and sit down in his leather chair. He'd pick up his headphones, carefully placing them on his head and fire up Myst. "The beauty of Myst was that the graphics were stunning and the puzzles were really stimulating. There was very little else going on but it had great sound effects. So if you'd end up on the side of a mountain, you'd have the wind whistling around your ears. And you could actually just stand there for ages and just look at the images and listen." In that moment, he'd been transported to a different world, a space, escape and, yes, a fantasy of his own making, one that was surpassable, beatable, and controllable.
When Stephen talks about The Flame In The Flood, that potent concoction of fantasy and control is discernible. "It makes me think of the skills modern day humans have lost. How many of us, if were were put in that situation where we had to survive on our wits and knowledge of what we could farm or eat, or how to trap and kill a rabbit, how many of us could do it? It just paints a picture of a different world we could find ourselves living in one day."
Through the game's systems Stephen was able to partake in this different world, a fantasy grounded in the nightmarish potential of reality. In Firewatch, too, he was forced to rely on his map and compass, a cinch for a seasoned walker like himself, but a device that compounded the isolation and self-reliance in the game. "There were so many opportunities to get lost," he tells me smiling. "And that was a really, really enjoyable part of the whole game."
As our conversation draws to a close, and with the rain still beating down outside, I ask Stephen what those first games felt like. "Don't forget where we'd come from in terms of things like television. It hadn't been that long ago, certainly in my childhood, where first there was no television, second it was black and white, and third we finally got some kind of color television. Computing power compared to what we have nowadays was nothing but it provided this frame for illusion and dreaming.
"I think it was all about dreaming, what could be in the future." In that moment, I'm struck by the parity of our thoughts. Like Stephen back in the 1980s, I'm compelled by the potential of video games. But where potential for Stephen was a 4x6 pixel tree, now we're presented with entire worlds—digital cities bound by facsimiles of our social anxieties and the algorithmic flutterings of coded ecosystems. Like Myst for Stephen, their potential calls inexorably like a siren. Chasing that potential might be the biggest obsession of them all.