I generally consider Mel Croucher’s Deus Ex Machina as a BitOfAnImportantWorkTM. One of the first games to deliberately try and cross the boundaries away from shoot-in-face to some sort of art, it’s a prog-rock-made-videogame thing with an oh so very British cast. You have Jon Pertwee, Ian Dury and Frankie Howerd all lending their voice talents (although it should be noted there isn’t a single OOH HELLO as far as I can remember. Up Pompeii, this isn’t). It’s a game and a soundtrack, then across two cassettes. You loaded the game on one, took the tape out and replaced it with the soundtrack cassette and off you went with the game and soundtrack syncing up fairly closely. At least, that was the theory anyway and it mainly worked.
And of course, the thing about BitOfAnImportantWorksTM is that you don’t necessarily realise it at the time. Yeah, yeah, I *was* fairly young when Deus Ex Machina came out and I have very vivid memories of my dad and me unpacking the box, loading the game then trying to work out whether we could sync up the tape whilst hoping that the shitty tape deck we were using wouldn’t actually chew up the soundtrack tape. An extra air of mystery provided by the black and white TV we were playing it on because black and white TVs were still very much a thing then y’know?
We fumbled our way through it. Got to the end 50 or so minutes later, agreed that it was an OK thing and off I went to bed. The next day it’d be back to jumping around platforms, racing things, shooting in the face. Thing is, the reason it felt slightly unremarkable (and this is, in retrospect, a weird thing to say) is that because we were still very much trying out what videogames could be, we hadn’t yet shifted to teams and a distinctive vision of the videogame as home arcade with a side order of some other things, it was just one of many possible futures. It’s only looking back and being able to see that it wasn’t the future that it seems like such an outlier. I mean we are talking about a time when the glorious pop band Frankie Goes To Hollywood got their own videogame and it was fucking OUT THERE. A terraced house that’s the gateway to all manner of fantastical things, doused in east vs west pop politics and with a sloppy dose of pop iconography to boot whilst charging the player with investigating a murder AND trying to assume a complete identity and yes, I did just type that out and yes, that is pretty much the game. As I say. Out there.
The idea that next month we’d all be syncing up soundtracks alongside our videogames didn’t seem especially weird in the slightest.
There’s an alternate universe out there where instead of drifting further down the road of film licenses, Deus Ex Machina entirely changed the games industry and Mel Croucher is seen, quite rightly, as a pioneer in all things videogame. I guess equally, there’s also one where Give My Regards To Broad Street never existed and we all lived happily ever after too and then that other one where everyone realised that Paul Woakes was doing so much more than Bell and Braben and no-one gives him the respect he truly deserves so we make amends for that. But I digress. If I carry on down this road, we’ll also be investigating the alternate reality where we crowned Crem of Design Design as a videogame king and that other one where Atari don’t… OK I’ll stop right there.
So yeah, playing Deus Ex Machina at the time was so mundane, so ordinary. I suspect that’s probably the way Mel wanted it to be too, for this to be seen as a normal kind of thing. And it could have been and maybe would have been if more people shared Croucher’s vision of no-violence subversive videogames. Well. We’re here in 2015 and we all know how this story ended and it’s only now we’re really sitting down and thinking that maybe this should really, really be a thing for realsies and putting in great work towards widening what videogames are and can be even further.
This morning I had a play through the entirety of the new 30th Anniversary Edition and recorded the playthrough and put it on YouTube. I’m not really interested in talking over videogames, especially one where the music is such an important part of things. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from hearing me muttering about stroking some DNA strands with my green cursor or whatever so it is just a playthrough and all that entails.
The new version is a few quid up on itch.io and well worth a look. Ideally, I recommend playing it through in its original 8 bit form now you have an easy way of doing that and with a nice remastered soundtrack to go along with it (last time I played it through on emulation I had to sync up a slightly crappy low quality mp3 rip which is no way to experience the game). I’m not convinced that the new visual stuff adds anything other than to confuse things even further BUT YMMV.
Anyway, here’s the play through in full and it’s with the new graphics and stuff switched on rather than its original guffage to encourage you to go and check it out proper for yourself.