A caller was one turn away from reaching an evil witch’s lair. Just one stretch left when a snowman jumped on the lane, barring their path forward. Trying to fight him off with snowballs, the caller was frantically accounting for an enormous leg plaguing his game. We were rooted in our seats with anticipation, eyes glued to the TV screen. Will the caller fight off the evil snowman and reach their destination, or will they be thwarted and their character’s family lost to the witch?
But wait, what on Earth am I talking about? What do callers, TV screens, witches and snowmen have to do with one another? Brace yourselves: you’re in for something truly special.
Let’s travel back in time to the beginning of the 1990s. It was a time when tech enthusiasts held high hopes for interactive television, a media convergence between television and data services. By that time interactive TV wasn’t a new idea, but it wasn’t a very popular one either. Well, at least until a new form of entertainment emerged: a curious blend of game shows and video games, an idea that was as innovative as it was captivating. They were called interactive TV shows.
For the sake of simplicity, from now on I will be referring to them as ITV games.
At that time, the Danish TV2 channel was already airing the first documented ITV game called OsWALD of the Ice Floes. It ran on a Friday night special called Eleva2ren. OsWALD was designed back in 1988, and it was a success. The concept of ITV games was simple. Like any other phone-in show, callers were put through to the studio where they spoke to a host who would start the game for them. Callers/players were then monitoring their progress via TV screens at home and moved through the game by pushing the buttons on push-button telephones (in some games they were navigating via vocal orders).
The company behind OsWALD Silverrock Productions and its founder Ivan Sølvason were soon commissioned to design a new game for the same program. Sølvason joined hands with animator Niels Krogh Mortensen and, what they gave us next, transformed the childhoods of millions of children around the world.
They created- “Hugo the Troll”.
And the children and adults alike went absolutely mad about it. “Hugo” was an enormous success. The ITV game aired in 43 countries, ran for all-together almost 20 years, and entertained over 400 million fans. It was about a young troll, about 200 years old (hey, that’s young for a troll), called Hugo. Hugo had a wife Hugolina and three adorable children Rut, Rat and Rit. But, at the same time, Hugo was quite incompetent in taking care of his family, because they constantly fell captives to an evil witch and his arch-nemesis Scylla.
Scylla is the evil witches’ international name, although it was translated differently in every country. She was Afskylia in Denmark, Maldícia in Brazil, Mordana in Croatia, Hexana in Germany and so on. In this article I will be referring to her as Scylla, not only because it’s her international name, but also because Scylla was a monster in Greek mythology. The monster Scylla (along with her counterpart Charybdis) was a symbol of unsurpassed danger for ancient Greek sailors. And just like sailors had to navigate through seemingly impossible waters, so too did Hugo, in an entertaining attempt to rescue his family.
Their capture prompted Hugo to seek the player’s aid in navigating many different scenarios. The scenarios were divided in two parts: a lane and an end-game choice. But Scylla was smart and sneaky. She anticipated Hugo’s coming and placed numerous obstacles on each lane. If he managed to successfully tread the lane, Hugo found himself in the cave, the evil witches’ lair, where Hugolina and the kiddies were held in a cage.
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There, Scylla presented him with three options in form of three ropes. One rope was a failure, and it resulted in Hugo being literally thrown out of the lair. Another rope was a success, turning Scylla into a bat. The last rope was a critical success, capturing Scylla herself. The problem was that there was no way to know which is which. There was no clever solution, no puzzle to solve, no room for cunning, just pure luck-based chance. Just like the ancient sailors who had half a chance to be eaten by Scylla and half by Charybdis, Hugo and the player had a chance to fail on the obstacle lane or on a pure RNG turn.
The Hugo phenomenon was massive. And while it wasn’t the only ITV game at the time, it was probably the most well-known. Following Hugo’s immense success, Silverrock Productions changed its name to Interactive Television Entertainment (ITE) in 1992. It transformed “Hugo” into a brand, produced merchandise like T-shirts and toys, and expanded its medium to conventional video game platforms, such as Commodore 64, Windows and PlayStation.
There was something bewildering and captivating about watching “Hugo” shows. About being able to press the buttons on your landline phone and get action from your beloved character on the TV screen. I guess there was something special about being able to share the experience of playing a video game with the entire TV audience.
Personally, I’ve never played “Hugo”. If I did, I’d probably become so addicted that the phone bills would be massive. But, everyone in the household knew that when it was Hugo time the TV was mine. When I was researching for this article, I reached out to some of my old friends to see what they remember. They were delighted to be reminded of Hugo, and we shared a trip down memory lane, to a time when he was a huge part of our lives and we couldn’t get enough of him. At the time it was a shared experience of hundreds of millions of people, it united children and adults alike in rooting for a complete stranger, the one attempting to fight off a snowman, make that final turn and reach the evil cave.
We didn’t burden ourselves with who this caller/player was. All that mattered was our united love for video games and reaching that final destination together. Player’s fans, hosts, live audiences, remote audiences, all were rooting for that one person sitting in front of their TV screen, pushing the buttons on their landline and guiding Hugo through his many hilarious happenstances.
We spent almost two decades in Hugo-trans when, all of a sudden, it was gone. ITE was sold, “Hugo” stopped airing and the shared global gaming experience was brought to an end. And it wasn’t just “Hugo”: it seems all ITV games simply vanished.
So, what happened there? In the scarcity of information, I’m left with educated guesses.
“Hugo” was exported to private platforms where people didn’t have to queue in lines over the phone, suffer a horrible leg, and attempt to win the game in some specific aired time. Helping Hugo defeat Scylla and free his family became more accessible to everyone, and in their own time. Maybe people simply grew tired of the entire concept. Or maybe it was the slow decline of the popularity of the TV as a medium, while the popularity of conventional video games continued growing rapidly. In any case, attempting to answer this question would pose for an interesting study.
While ITV games became obsolete in the form they once had, the magic of bringing all of these people to their TV screens to share one gaming experience is awfully missed. At the time when video games were mostly viewed as just frivolous entertainment, it was freeing to have a defined slot of time reserved only for that, and without any grown-ups nagging about it. Because then, only then, was the gap between generations filled, and they truly understood what it means to be a gamer.
Although “Hugo” survives in conventional video games, today very little is known about the phenomenon of ITV games. It feels like hundreds of millions of us share a secret past, a beautiful time in our childhoods hidden from the rest of the world. It fascinates me how something so large can be so easily forgotten.
Well, for the rest of the world, yes, maybe. But for us, the time of Hugo, Hugolina, their kiddies and Scylla still lives fondly in our memories.