Having found some, there was no going back to places probably expressing thirty years of ignorance elsewhere. Besides, stupid gaming sites were better at social commentary: they didn't matter, so were free to question norms without shaping headlines.
The sequence was linear and stopped at friendly fire, killers gone home sulking. Though apparently sincere in offering more than shooting thrills, it was less nuanced than Operation Wolf. Occupants were firmly restrained at all times on this ride.
News started getting lewd with emerging, near-limitless public supplies of forthright opinions. The considerate drifted towards this new respectability, perhaps lured by the prospect of becoming real journalists. Which turned out as rummaging bins for listicles while loud people won shouting contests.
Deus Ex Machina - The Best Game You Never Played in Your Life is full of tangential rants, but funny.
Political, without being tiresome, because author Mel Croucher is his own best critic.
It's the story of pioneering stupid entertainment for home computers, aiming higher to critical acclaim and commercial indifference, then making fresh mistakes about twenty years later.
While giving due credit to the supporting cast, including an unstable salesman, cartoonish cartoonist, and the ladies bringing professionalism or paint-based activism as appropriate.
It starts with a Sooty xylophone. Imagine Guitar Hero in book form, yellow puppet bear replacing Slash, and toxic colourings putting the lead into lead instrument. Boredom with assigned sequences bred musical experimentation, later refined on an accessibly unfashionable punch-roll powered pianola. Hormones drove enrolment on a computer programming course, where dickery made a floor full of valves play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Recession forced employment as an architect in Dubai, where tedium led to mapping and audio travel guides on the side. Those expat years were long enough for the Commodore PET to arrive, and lucrative enough to afford it.
Back home in Portsmouth, Automata Cartography was founded to continue the audio travel guides. These came on cassette tapes, like most home computer software, but there was no established market for games. So, in a minimal-investment ploy to find potential customers, computerised quizzes were broadcast after hours on a local radio station.
Listeners were invited to record nocturnal squealings, play them back to appropriate hardware, and assuming the data survived both transitions, phone in to claim a rubbish prize. All considered, three responses to the first broadcast is impressive.
The audience grew enough to attract sponsorship from Whitbread, giving winners adequate beer, and Mel opportunities to discover that his increasingly subversive humour was the real prize.
However, the first home computers were seriously expensive. It took Clive Sinclair's cost-driven approach to fill high streets with the ZX81. This was tiny, had an awful keyboard, and displaying one screen of monochrome sub-Teletext graphics used most of the memory.
Some dismissed it as a toy, while others embraced it for that reason, including children and escaped architects.
In early Automata game Royal Flush, players had to supply just enough pressure to clear blockages without backwashing the straining monarch. This later appeared on bargain-priced compilation Can Of Worms, an accidental hit primarily intended to shift surplus travel guide tape stock, which also featured zit popping, vasectomies, and giving Hitler heart attacks in his retirement home.
It is preserved at this excellent site, which includes program listings to inspire progress on your unfinished Swan Simulator.
Software cassettes had a flip side to fill, and comedy sketches obliged. These later became musical, in the sense of famous headline: "Rod Stewart songs to become Musical". Mel appreciated a captive audience for his audio atrocities, though few returned the favour.
Despite questionable incentives, fans grew in number and shrunk in stature, possibly spawned by the Educational Myth. It worked like this: manufacturers loved selling computers, parents liked gifting the technology of tomorrow, and children played along for the games. Bedroom coders were mostly incidental.
The formative years probably deserve a tome of their own, because some details get lost in the rapid growth of an industry from nothing.
Technology was for boys, but otherwise home computing caught society by surprise. Ignored suggestions to store recipes speak more of desperate marketing than gender roles, and though the public faces were mostly male, egghead lovers couldn't squeeze out machismo.
Perhaps a more innocent time, except Automata had already teased naughtiness for adult eyes only in Can Of Worms, and similarly tasteful compilations which followed like Love And Death.
The sales pitch was mostly joking, things being marginally more explicit than inverted calculators, but with an eye for luring youthful transgressors. This was enough temptation for one paper to spin a tale of hardcore filthmongering, providing excellent publicity, and attracting those more interested in chunky loving than zapping. So it doesn't seem fair when harsh language is directed at an early trade show booth stocked with female skin.
Far less subtle, and grossly under-representing hairy programmer hunks, but perhaps just another hustler waving the forbidden.
Computerised violence, the primary pet peeve, also feels partly explored. Though fuelling alternatives to straight arcade clones, it doesn't quite square with comic heart attack inducement. The Greenham Common influence is made clear, so perhaps the philosophy transferred: peace, love and striking at the right moment. However, hectoring is mixed with doubt and complexity so remains interesting.
One activist provides steadfast financial stability between daubing missile transporters, and novelty misogynist Patrick Moore, another teddy bear proficient on the xylophone, doesn't participate in Deus Ex Machina because Mother says no.
The recurring philosophy is that games are a con, with willing participants. A business of illusion, the audience choosing artists from scam artists.
Mel remained authentically silly when money was involved, employing a bonkers salesman who delighted fans and alienated distributors.
The cartoonist was marginally saner, the affordable programming youth of later years just got on with it. Games were given away in trade show stampedes, and an emerging industry told where to stick awards. It was rock star self-destruction, down to the concept album, but fun.
Without a courteous secretary keeping them in cheques, the reprobates might have been found dead in their own flatulence shortly after opening time.
You might spot Sabreman in Waitrose, Miner Willy slumped by Bargain Booze, or Horace going hungry at the food bank. The PiMan, launched to fame by idiotic prize quest Pimania, was one protuberance shy of obscenity but can't get arrested today. Appearing in cartoon-infused adverts, on television, and personally at Microfairs, memories may have been suppressed due to music only harsh interrogators could love.
His legend was fleshed out with a few stereotypes that would seem off today, if the most grotesque caricatures weren't the authors. Automata was a fringe club any idiot could join, uniting people through whatever stupid entertainment they liked making. Then the salesman got his business head straight enough to bring in third-party programs, which combined with death and other irritations, sucked out the fun.
Like The Monkees, Zammo, and Sonic the Hedgehog, Mel turned serious. Having already retreated from encroaching banality and tension by working late shifts in seclusion, prompt cards from a difficult eulogy gathered threads of ideas towards reaching the next level in computer games. The concept, storyboards, graphics, music, and funding were all his own.
Those cards had summed up a life through quotations, and this game would allow players to experience one through their computer. The ZX Spectrum 48k was now the baseline but cheaply wired for sound, so music and narration came on a separate cassette tape, to be run when instructed on-screen.
Deus Ex Machina tells the story of a surveillance machine rebellion in a society parts Brave New World and Big Brother. It runs for fifty minutes with more linearity than a Laserdisc, neither penalizing nor rewarding beyond a percentage score.
The dystopian vision is blurred: it is not explained why the Machine, responsible for all defence and internal security, is itself monitored.
The player has slight influence over the means of rebellion, a humanoid known as The Defect. It goes through Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, but can also read thoughts, and communicate directly with machines. Control is mostly indirect, such as nurturing before birth, shielding in adulthood, and coaxing the bloodstream in old age. These simple, abstract mini-games keep the mind and fingers mildly engaged without overwhelming the soundtrack.
It's excusable that there are few moral choices. Branching narratives on linear tapes would have been a logistical nightmare, like watching a film while switching reels, and required compromises on the computer side. Extra code to interpret actions, space to store consequences, and graphics conveying them, would have greatly reduced the scope of a game that already loaded in two parts.
The popularity of shooting games may have reflected attitudes, but also gave instant feedback from simple logic. Deus Ex Machina used similar hit and avoid mechanics, though presented as creating or maintaining life rather than destroying it. The notable exception is an unavoidable moment where the chief antagonist is rearranged, both mentally and physically. Comically, but context softens the line between computerised violence and disappearing pixels.
Perhaps the mixture of linearity and morality in the Justice section explains why it's my most memorable. The revolution has gone full circle, the creation intended to rebel against one police state now running their own. Depressingly fatalistic, but what resonates is the player lacking fine control.
They are placed in a position of great power, able to stamp out simplistic representations of evil, yet not agile enough to completely avoid crushing good sentiments. Imposing character animation helps, set at the foreground of a decaying empire. Economy is a virtue on the soundtrack, which seals the atmosphere with an interspersed monologue on phone tapping and crumbling Cold War paranoia. I expect your reaction to vary, but probably exceed bafflement at a fat man exerting to odd music.
Alter Ego is a far better life simulation within the same limitations, and even the PiMan could appear scared or angry.
The play in Deus Ex Machina is trivial, like many art games, but thirty years earlier with a touch more mischief. So the experience also depends on graphics, big and bold without being too garish, that have aged respectably.
The subject remains unusual enough to be intriguing, characters are drawn recognisably human, and though some backgrounds are short on detail, there is little clutter interfering with play.
It's the soundtrack that does most work, commensurate with using two-thirds of the £26,000 production budget, adjusted for inflation. John Pertwee narrates, Ian Dury is a talkative sperm, and Frankie Howerd unsettles as the Defect Police.
The big names all perform, two of them provide further assistance behind the scenes, but a relative unknown comes across strongest as voice of the Machine. Probably because the mind has no frame of reference for Dona Bailey, neither Doctor Who nor depressed comedian, so can take her role at face value.
For budgetary reasons, Mel plays The Defect and all instruments. Musically, it's something like Philip Glass, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan had a punch-up, then played live with New Order on Top of the Pops. Production details are brief, but this was clearly still an era of cutting and rejoining tape, digital assistance being limited to short effects.
The result is slightly quiet in places, only voices were recorded in a professional studio, but some roughness suits the dystopia. The compositions are original enough, abductees from Pink Floyd Academy aside, that most other quirks can be excused as part of the experiment.
One of the biggest surprises is how quickly Deus Ex Machina was made: ten weeks from Mel, then ten from the programming youth. The speed of coding is impressive, if greatly assisted by a clear design document and minimal management interference. More remarkable is that the design, including all graphics hand-drawn on gridded paper, was done in three weeks. Ideas had been brewing for a while, but were implemented with speed that most teams today can only dream of.
The critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive, including coverage beyond the gaming press. Deus Ex Machina reached the next level, causing problems when marketing, because there were no ready points of comparison. Automata had sold their earlier games at computer fairs and by mail order, now reaching a wider audience would require adapting to an impersonal business model.
Wholesalers considered hundreds of games monthly, looking for known genres that were a safe bet for retailers. Deus Ex Machina didn't fit conceptually, or physically, coming in a lush oversized box, so capitalising on the critical acclaim and making compromises was necessary. Instead, potential partners daring to suggest categorisation were soundly beaten with the art stick, and further unpleasantness ensued when awards were not match by sales. This could all have made bitter reading, but instead Mel reflects on ambitious pricing and epic sulks contributing to the debacle.
Deus Ex Machina broke even and Automata. Mel took the rights to his creations, left what remained to the salesman, then mostly wrote about computers instead.
His writing seeped into instruction manuals for games such as Castle Master, and prophetically, Rock Star Ate My Hamster. Felix Dennis only gets a passing mention, but it's worth noting his considerable influence on computer games journalism, being responsible for Your Sinclair, PC Zone, and others.
Or irresponsible, if you believe the Oz magazine obscenity trial, nominally about corrupting children with the unauthorised activities of Rupert The Bear.
By the early 90s, Mel was aware of the internet going public and prepared to sell out. This led to some early viral marketing harnessing the ease of copying software, and similar innovations like persuading students to exchange email addresses for pints.
Web consultancy morphed into auditing online activity for popular musicians, some of them embracing fans and others hunting bootleggers. It's an interesting diversion into business sense and stupidity, with tribute to a forgotten innovator of information distribution.
The internet also revealed that Deus Ex Machina had a following inconsistent with international sales. There's perhaps some revisionism when piracy is blamed as the main cause of failure. Wholesalers were most heavily lambasted in peak sulk, and there were no official distributors abroad or translations to encourage foreign buyers.
However, some shady types ignored the audio tape, which for Mel is far worse than competent cloning, players "left completely baffled by a crap silent movie of a naked avatar blundering through some gyrating shapes."
Excitingly, there is also a reference to Deus Ex, but sadly, brief and dismissive. In a similar strange coincidence, I came across both games at the same time. Both were mind-expanding, but there was only a weak compulsion to relive my life, whereas I immediately restarted Liberty Island.
It's ironic that the game questioning your choice and use of weapons from the first conversation, offering a plethora of decisions from disobeying orders to invading toilets, and most rewarding players for thinking differently, gets a brief glance then miscategorised as mindless shooting.
Various remake offers arrived from fans and opportunists during the profitable years. The most credible came from a former pirate in Portugal, keen to atone for past indiscretions by remaking his inspiration.
Progress was swiftly halted by the financial crisis of 2008, until further interest in the original, and a meeting of old friends, helped Automata to re-establish. The deal was sealed in 2010, but remained buffeted by economic winds.
Discounting a minor Rod Hull incident, Deus Ex Machina 2 would have been ready for release in November 2013, so five years rather than months this time. No budget is disclosed but, implicitly, rather more than before and less than desired.
Mel was now only writer and director, but what remained constant was his emphasis on sound. It's the most cohesive part, featuring a wide range of top vocal talents. Everything is expertly mastered, short of exhuming Ian Dury. The biggest blag is Christopher Lee narrating, but there's also more international flavour, and subtler computerised mangling.
Musically, it's also evocative of the original while fresh. The raw charm of One Man and His Korg is blown away with variety, musical styles matching each era, including those best forgotten. I'm a philistine, favouring the dumb pop, but an overall lighter tone feels truer to life than before. The surveillance future happened, not by force, but people willingly posting their lives online, so tonight we're gonna party like it's 1984.
The audio in Deus Ex Machina 2 is a triumph, professional without sacrificing personality. Graphically, it's a case study in wasted potential.
The concept art is absolutely fine, the promotional images have style. Even the introduction is promising, building anticipation for what lies below. Then immersion is swiftly replaced by considering how video compression really, really, doesn't like dark areas.
The book pays little attention to such technical aspects, which may have been the problem. Maximum value was extracted from the audio budget, but there was no Graphics Mel performing similar miracles. A strong style, carefully planned around shoestring production, could have survived, but it looks more like assets were poured in until money ran out. Good moments fall between stretches of tacky, failed realism and framerate lotteries.
Deus Ex Machina mostly asked players to hit or avoid things in two dimensions. The sequel adds a third dimension, floaty cameras, and floaty controls, equalling drunk Space Harrier.
For example, during Conception, the player guides a sperm down a damp, fleshy tube towards an unfertilised egg. There are no shadows or similar cues for gauging distance.
Turning combines acceleration with sudden constraints, rotating a camera that also twists with the tube. Things improve when moving on a floor, but the physics remain neither convincing nor fun. Sections with a cursor are much better, when not obscuring objects with the central character.
School is more effective, the task suitably meaningless and repetitive, with wonderfully deranged music veering from jollity to fascism. Adolescence is a cocktail of lurid lighting, suggestive scenery, and sweet bubblegum pop. Floaty controls matter less in this fantasy, but it's hard to ignore the screen update jerking along.
Pain means more punk, mercifully with lyrics, though doesn't quite capture the dreamy terror of powerful sedatives.
War Crimes sounds far more pleasantly distorted, but plays like fishing pictures from Banksy's bin.
Power makes sense as explained in the book, but wastes Mel's wealth of experience in designing mostly pointless buildings for the newly-enriched. Ironically it's Decline that sparks to life, catchy pop excusing fleshy tube revisited, then something a little more F-Zero that's just as smooth.
Old Age works at first, abstract background and whimsical blues, then pulls emotional strings that haven't been secured. The final wheelchair ride is a good premise ruined by pointless strafing, rather than steering.
The book is excellent: funny, insightful, brutally honest, and darkly personal at times. The author is lovely: grouchy, genial, sharply aware that experiments fail, and still encouraging risk-takers. Deus Ex Machina is more of an acquired taste, but can be appreciated for ignoring moulds formed to ease money extraction. Returning to the sequel is, soundtrack aside, marginally less appealing than washing up. It plays worse than thirty years ago, looks less distinctive, struggles to tell a story, and offers no more freedom to make your own.
If I'm sympathetic, you can imagine some Steam Greenlight comments. Mel's reaction to the four-letter critics is exemplary, and prudent, because shouting first time round just drove people further away. He is open in describing his baby as hard to categorise, a bit of a creative mess, and not much of a game. So it's left for debate, the refreshing antithesis of those solemn commercials for The Most Important Thing You Will Endure This Year.
Maybe one problem with Deus Ex Machina 2, and something that Mel criticises the industry for, is making more of the same. I backed the Kickstarter in belated appreciation of the first experiment, which saved disappointment when it turned out that little more than music moved on. Still, Modern Warfare 2 took several years to ignore Deus Ex, and if games are going to be linear, they are richer for the occasional nude androgynous avatar.
The book was published two years ago, and since then Automata has gone back into hibernation. Which is a shame, but it's not the only company struggling to survive on intimate experiments. There remain hints that Pimania will be revived, which would play to one of Mel's strengths: writing.
Deus Ex Machina remastered is £3.99, and Deus Ex Machina 2 is temporarily £1.24 (normally £4.99.)
Mel Croucher is available (price on application.)
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