Deus Ex Machina

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.

Bezier

As videogames go, I think we can safely say Bezier is a videogame. I mean, just look at that, right?

In some ways it is, visually, to arena shooters what Minter’s tour-de-force GAME FROM THE SPACE FUTURE Space Giraffe is to the tube shooter. A slightly raw, incredibly digital affair where you’re always uncertain what it’s going to land on you next. But of course, there’s only one Space Giraffe and Bezier whilst not pulling its punches in the visual department, well, it’s certainly a far more controlled affair. But then again, what isn’t a far more controlled affair compared to Space Giraffe, right?

It’s also some sort of slightly unhinged science fiction synth-prog-opera made videogame. In other words, the sort of thing that I’m going to fall in love with terribly easily. I’ve been banging my head against a table and trying to think precisely what it reminds me of and I’m kinda glad to be drawing a blank in many ways. It’s a little bit Buggles, a little bit Jeff Wayne, the videogame equivalent of an eighties Jean Michel Jarre concert and frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that Philip Bak (the author of the game) wasn’t really Philip Bak at all but in fact The Phantom Of The Paradise come back to haunt us but this time with videogames.

It could happen. I asked a policeman and everything and he totally said it could.

Phantom of the Paradise - 4

{pic source}

Thankfully, unlike Phantom Of The Paradise, Bezier isn’t a deeply cynical thing. It is however marvellously committed to its conceits. Chris Donlan covered the “Why Bezier?” stuff in his Eurogamer write up and that’s worth a quick scan over as always. Yet it’s a game where infusing Bezier curves in as many aspects as the game as possible is the least batshit thing about it. It wears the skin of a brutal arena shooter yet at the very same time the game remains remarkably accommodating to anyone who’s fairly not used to a twin stick set up. It’s a game that manages to feel comfy and conventional whilst not really being either. It’s quite a thing.

If I were to sit you down and describe the game mechanically, I doubt I’d be able to get much further than “well, you move around an arena and you shoot some things” which may well show an incredible lack of imagination on my part but it’s also a very very accurate description of what Bezier is. Of course, not all arena shooters are created equally or push players in the same direction. Whereas something like Geometry Wars is all about chasing the high score, Bezier sort of has that but nudges it to one side in favour of making just playing the game being a thing you’d want to do. It’s certainly in no particular rush to kill you most of the time unlike most arena shooters that build on arcade templates. A game of Bezier can go on for quite a while because Bezier wants you to see the game. And more so, I suspect Bezier really wants you to hear the game.

Which I guess brings us back round to Bezier being the videogame as eighties Jean Michel Jarre concert. Seriously, listen to the soundtrack and you’ll see what I mean. Bezier is a game that demands to be heard. It’s not Jarre (I can listen to it as a grown man without cringing for starters, something I recently discovered I can’t do anymore with Jarre stuff), it’s very much its own thing but once it’s thrown into the game it shares the same deep love of bombast, lasers and robot voices that defined Jarre concerts in the eighties. Except it’s married to a batshit science fiction plot and there’s a giant smiley face that taunts you at the end of each round and you’re a floaty thing with lasers and there’s all the colours. I don’t know, maybe that’s acid house turning up to sign the death warrant of eighties synth pop or something. Maybe. I haven’t checked with a policeman on this one, sorry.

Regardless, it’s all makes for a captivating, unique and slightly unhinged experience. And I love it so very much.

Bezier is available from NiineGames right now for yer Windows PC.

Gridrunner Revolution

We don’t talk about Gridrunner Revolution much.

I kinda understand why. It’s a fairly easy game to play but it’s a difficult game to get into. It’s a difficult game to see the beauty in too. It’s awkward.

It was a rough time, really. Space Giraffe, despite being THE best game ever made no arguments no backsies, hadn’t done too well in the old cash stakes, NeonPC had hit a wall. Gridrunner Revolution is a game born of a kind of desperation. It was a teeth grindingly stressful time for everyone involved and there’s fewer works where it shows quite so plainly. It’s a game that aims for elegance and beauty but if you squint you can see the dark clouds hanging over it. It’s in stark contrast to the later mobile Gridrunner, a game that’s at peace with its heritage and bold as all fuck.

Released after Space Giraffe and there’s none a game made with more intent to fuck with you than Space Giraffe, none a game so fucking bold and SPACE FUTURE. How do you even follow that up? But oh, if it were even that simple. How do you follow up a game that’s both widely praised for its inaccessibility, its visual noise, its sheer unadulterated COME WITH ME ON THIS TRIP OR FUCK OFF game design but equally, a game that’s not selling well precisely because of all those things and something’s got to pay the bills? Where do you go next?

In retrospect, probably not here, y’know?

Not because Gridrunner Revolution is a bad game. It really isn’t. It gets itself off to a slow and awkward start but once it settles into a groove, it’s quite an incredible piece of work. It’s a game based around making pretty shapes with your bullets to score higher, that alone is a pretty special thing and worth treasuring. Thrusty mode, hidden behind an unlock, is a great game all in and of itself, never mind the rest of the stuff.

But because it’s a game where the cracks are at their most public. It’s a game that’s caught between a confidence in mechanical design and the need to make money, to appeal to more people, to be something it isn’t. It’s the videogame as compromise when it should have been the videogame that sang. And I get it, I get that the time, the place, the pressure meant it could never really be anything else but still.

It’s got its rough edges with somewhere in the region of 500 different fonts, a bizarre-o world unlock system and the SHUT UP AND LEAVE ME ALONE of the tutorial designed to teach the mechanics by someone who’d clearly prefer it if you’d just learn the mechanics instead and why am I doing this stop making me do this. It’s also a game that lets you fly a giant cock around the screen spunking multicolour bullets and COME ON, you don’t get many games that let you do that now, right? (It’s also got what looks like a giant sperm spunking bullets and I’m not sure how that works other than it’s spunk all the way down). Its concessions to accessibility make it tougher to love and perversely, it ends up less accessible because it takes a whole lot more time and effort to find the game. The cutting edge of techno-shooty-things is a weird place to be at the best of times.

I like the game, I really do. Here’s me playing it earlier and I still really enjoy it, even if I am a bit on the old rusty side with it these days.

After Gridrunner Revolution tanked, Jeff skulked off to iOS to make a series of absolutely brilliant (-David Darling) little arcade games that AGAIN didn’t sell anywhere near where they should of which leaves me in the curious position of looking at the human race with a “what exactly is wrong with you?” expression. And no secrets were made of how little the games were selling, of how few Gridrunner Revolution sold too. Wherever the complaints arose, the response was often the same.

Picture the scene. Jeff Minter’s landed on an alien planet, he’s gone exploring and got into a bit of a pickle and got a bit of the old poisoning and only had enough of the antidote to give to a passing sheepy. It’s time for Jeff to regenerate and as he lies there clutching a fluffy sheepy, the process about to begin, a bunch of curious disembodied heads start floating into view.

“Lose the animal noises, Jeff”

“You don’t fit with the times”

“You need to polish your games more”

“Stop making them look like old arcade games”

“No, really, stop the fucking animal noises, Jeff”

The heads keep spinning round, muttering away to themselves. “Make a game like other people make games and everything will be fine”, they whisper. It all goes a bit blurry and Jeff’s played by Colin Baker now.

Or something like that anyway. The point being that since Space Giraffe, it’s been a fairly constant refrain and one I’m fairly sure I’ve joined in with myself at points in time which I feel a bit of a noddy for, to be fair.

Five years on and it’s hard not to look at Gridrunner Revolution as a sort of reactionary game, a game struggling to find its place in a world where what you do is maybe not considered A ThingTM anymore and it’s a step in working out how to address that. There’s many pushes towards that-what-other-games-do often at the expense of that-what-Yak-games-do and in so many cases, they’re the bits where the game falls flat on its face. What makes Gridrunner Revolution appear less special is that it exists in some sort of weird halfway house between a definite Yak game and everyone else’s game and that’s clearly not a comfortable place.

A few years back, someone popped a question over my way and said words to the effect of “Rob, what do you think Jeff would need to make the best game ever?” and I paused. For a moment, I remembered Gridrunner Revolution, the stress of its development, the noise and the clatter. I remembered what came after, so much asking Jeff to not be himself in his games. For the market.

“To be comfortable and left the fuck alone to do what he does best”, I thought. I politely rephrased it because I can be polite sometimes for reals. OK, I used a slightly milder swear. Same thing.

These days, when I think of Gridrunner Rev, I think of it as a warning for what happens when you go reaching out for a market that your heart isn’t into serving because it’s not you, it’s just not who you are or what you want to do with your life. I find it helps me understand that not everyone is built to fit in with what everyone else does and that’s OK and trying to make some things fit is an exercise in futility.

I accept that we don’t talk about Gridrunner Revolution because not many people play Gridrunner Revolution and yeah, I’m actually fine with this although I honestly believe it’s worth gritting your teeth through the slow first half hour for the rest. Just maybe if we can’t talk about the game much, we can remember that when making anything, videogames, doodles, music, whatever, our biggest asset is we are who we are and that is what makes our work special, not the polish, not fitting in with the market or anything like that.

We’re the important part of what we make and that’s oh so easy to forget sometimes but worth clinging onto, always.