The Programmer Behind the Iron Curtain

How video game maestro Frantisek Fuka shaped the tech industry during, after Communism

By Jonathan Keshishoglou

František Fuka, seen here with his two chihuahuas, programmed indie video games behind the iron curtain. He has since moved on to blogging about movies.

František Fuka, seen here with his two chihuahuas, programmed indie video games behind the Iron Curtain. He has since moved on to blogging about movies. Photo courtesy František Fuka.

Frantisek Fuka, 46, wears a smartwatch on his wrist and shows off a large, colorful decal of a pixelated person on his backpack. These tributes to technology are a mixture of new and old, and Fuka uses modern gadgets while still referencing the 8-bit days when he began programming.

With a small brown beard, a mostly shaved head, and two Chihuahuas sitting quietly at his feet, Fuka is a longtime resident of Prague. He began as a computer programmer in the late 1970s and was most active during the final years of communism in Czechoslovakia, a rarity in a country where technology lagged decades behind the West and piracy was rampant. The Communist party would encourage programmers to steal from their richer competitors.

“We collected programs like other people collected stamps,” Fuka said. He estimated that in the mid 1980s he had 5,000 stolen computer programs on his hard drive.

“I’m still doing programming,” Fuka said. “But it’s tough for one person to make games. Hardware is developing rapidly, going quicker and quicker.”

Fuka first made a career for himself in programming early Czech video games such as Tetris 2 and a slew of popular yet unofficial Indiana Jones games, in a country that has recently built up a reputation for pushing out internationally successful games. As he moved from a simplistic Communist computer scene to the onslaught of video gaming that accompanied capitalism, Fuka reinvented himself to adjust to the reality of market demand.

A rare tech star when Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain, the programmer and video pirate transformed into a top film voiceover artist as Czechs could not get enough of previously banned films from the West.  His journey from toying with one of the country’s few modern calculators to cinema critic charts the morphing of entertainment options over the last 40 years in this small, central European country.

“Indiana Joe, or something like that”

In the early 1980s, Communist Czechoslovakia had little more than a handful of microcomputers — ones that would fit on an average desk as opposed filling an entire room in a federally-funded laboratory — many of them smuggled in from Western countries like the United States and Great Britain. The Apple II microcomputer was first sold in the West in 1977 while the first publicly available computer in the Czech Republic, the “Didaktik Gama,” ( Didactic Gamma) did not hit shelves for another decade.

“Czechoslovakia was incapable of manufacturing or importing computers en masse due to the sorry state of the economy and industry,” said Jaroslav Svelch, a new media researcher at Charles University. “This was caused by many factors: centrally planned economy, lack of convertible currency reserves, Western embargoes and others.”

Fuka was introduced to computers and programming through old video games like the 1978 hit Space Invaders.  A family member was also pivotal to Fuka’s career trajectory.

“My uncle at the time worked with computers and programmable calculators, which was very uncommon back then in communist Czechoslovakia,” Fuka said, “and he managed to borrow a programmable Texas Instruments calculator from work and let me experiment with that.”

Showing a knack for technology and wanting to work on some video games of his own, he joined a computer club for young programmers. It was run by Svazarm, “The Association for the Cooperation with the Army,” a proto-Communist organization, although Fuka never remembered any explicit military participation and the club had quite a bit of freedom to do what it pleased.

“They had two or three very basic computers that were basically smuggled in and one was built by them,” Fuka said with a certain fondness. “So it was very spartan, very do-it-yourself.”

His talent for game programming soon made him famous, as he began releasing his own “text adventure” games, a form of interactive fiction where players could influence the story by typing out commands.

He worked under the alias Fuxoft, a combination of “software” and his name. While text adventures were popular in other countries, he was the first to create ones written entirely in Czech, and Czech-speakers took notice. A fan of movies, he made multiple games about Indiana Jones, including a popular text-adventure in 1985 called Indiana Jones a Chram Zkazy (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), which differed significantly from the film’s plot as Fuka had only seen Raiders of the Lost Ark by the time he finished the game. The adventures were released over BBS, or “bulletin board system,” a very early precursor to the Internet, and many Czechs were introduced to Indiana Jones through the game.

“My games were so popular that some people played the games and didn’t even know that it’s based on a movie. So they didn’t know how to correctly spell Indiana Jones,” Fuka said, which could make a text-adventure game much more difficult. “They used ‘Indiana Joe’ or something like that.”

The loading screen (left) and the opening screen (right) of the first

The loading screen (left) and the opening screen (right) of the first “Indiana Jones” game, which Fuka coded. Photo courtesy František Fuka.

While the game itself clearly violated copyright laws, Fuka got in no trouble with the Communist government. In fact, while not a member of the party, he was featured in several Czechoslovak documentaries celebrating the success of the country’s programmers as part of “the new wave of young intelligent people,” and discussing the country’s need for more computers. Some of his games even came packaged with early Czech computers.

“I was like a celebrity and they were doing documentaries about me,” Fuka said. “In the ‘80s I appeared in at least a dozen film and TV specials.”

It was also extremely common for programmers to pirate video games from the West because they couldn’t be bought in Czechoslovakia.

“Not only was I programming the games, but me and my friends were pirating the games, the capitalist games,” Fuka said. “Never once in the interviews did it occur to anybody that it’s actually illegal.

“There was generally support for using computers in education and for hobby computing clubs,” said Svelch, referring to the government’s complicated stance on technology. “However, it often depended on the whims of the particular officials in particular cities.”

Narrating films in English gleaned from computer manuals

Eventually, Fuka moved away from making video games and into another area of technology that was falling behind the West — translating foreign films into Czech. With the surge of Western movies into the post-Communist the country, Fuka eventually found further use for his programming skills, although it was not immediate.

“Since I was very young, I loved going to movies,” Fuka said. “I think I saw all the movies that were ever released in our theaters, which wasn’t so hard because it was like one or two movies in a month during communism.”

After briefly working on Czech translations for pirated English films in the periods before and directly after the Velvet Revolution, he was recommended to official film distributors as a competent translator. This is how he began doing voice-overs for English movies.

“I was very lucky, because after the revolution in 1989, there was a very high demand for people who could both program and understood computers and understand English, which was not common,” Fuka said. He claims to be self-taught in English, learning from his uncle’s computer magazines and computer manuals.

But in the 1990s, Fuka was often hired to attend film screenings of English movies, where he would sit with a microphone and headphones and narrate the film for Czech critics. He would not be given a script beforehand and simply gave live translations as he watched the film. This was common practice in Eastern European countries following the end of the Cold War.

Nowadays, Czech translations rely on subtitles and dubbing as many other countries do, and Fuka still works in translating. He designed and programmed subtitling software that he uses in his work. Generally, he prefers to work on science fiction films and has been involved with translating all of the Star Wars films into Czech.

However, his career progressed even further as a result, and after attending so many premieres as a translator, he began attending as a professional film critic. Fuka posted film reviews online in a style similar to blogging, well before either the Internet or “blogging” had entered the world’s vocabulary. He used pre-Internet software which could wirelessly connect to servers and which functioned as a mailing list, and he was eventually found by a popular Czech magazine called “Cinema” who hired him for a full-time position. His first review was of the live-action Super Mario Bros. from 1993.

“Cinema” Magazine is no longer around, and after moving through several other magazines and some of the earliest Czech websites writing film columns, Fuka began his own blog, FFFILM. Fuka’s reviews are often of movies he professionally translated.

While he’s slowly moved away from video games, Fuka still periodically works as a programmer-for-hire. As Prague is now considered a hub for modern game development, he’s happy to pass on the torch to the new generation, most of whom work on computers they didn’t need to build themselves.

 

Jonathan Keshishoglou is in the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development Class of 2016. His hometown is Los Gatos, California.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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