Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DEUS EX VIENNA. 16-color lifetime achievement

I am back from Vienna, from the amazingly friendly Future and Reality of Gaming conference. I will try to sum up my impressions of the conference later, now I'd like to share the topic of my talk.

First, some personal history. Last fall, while living in Willow Street in Cambridge, MA, I rediscovered the weirdest game of the 1980's - Automata UK's Deus Ex Machina. I thought it would be a nice fun event to do a real-time playthrough of the game in the Gambit Game Lab, where I was a visiting researcher at the time. Each playthrough of the game takes exactly 45 minutes, as it is to be synchronized with the audio soundtrack. The invitation for the event read:

A Bizarre Multimedia Experience straight from 1984
50 minutes of awe!
Projected on a moderately big screen!

Somewhere between Shakespeare and The Wall, between Breakout and the Holodeck, there is Deus Ex Machina.

Designed by the repeatedly failed visionary Mel Croucher, who not only wrote the game, but also played banjo, Korg Vocoder and a zillion of other instruments on the game's soundtrack, this is probably the first commercial art house game. It came on two cassette tapes, one with the game, the other with the soundtrack, which was to be synced with the computer program.
In many ways, it was a total failure, which brought its publisher Automata UK Ltd. to bankruptcy; in many ways it's an amazingly non-conformist take on computer entertainment, which left the reviewers baffled, disoriented and strangely pleased.

The game, whose treads the thin line between artsy and campy, takes the player through the Seven stages of man, each one a different minigame, hinting at comparisons with both Will Wright's Spore and Jason Roher's Passage. The soundtrack features compositions such as "I'm the Fertilizing Agent" and "War Crimes Are Easy" and bears eerie resemblance to trip hop, which was to arrive many years later. Also, it features John Pertwee of the Doctor Who fame and some other British actors who used to be famous in 1984.

A playthrough of Deus Ex Machina takes exactly the duration of the soundtrack to finish, which is why it is such a great game to play and screen with curious friends and colleagues. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum version of the game running on a emulator will be synced with an MP3 of the audio track, the keyboard will be passed around (you cannot win or lose the game, anyways) to anybody who wants to play and the rest will get carried away by the immersive 256x192 attribute-clashing visuals and insane soundtrack.

For the talk, I did an interview with the author/auteur Mr. Mel Croucher (he's still a witty, sarcastic and eccentric guy) and did a detailed analysis of the game. I will post the whole paper when it's done, but for now, you should at least try Deus Ex Machina yourselves (if you haven't seen it yet). Download a ZX Spectrum emulator for your system, the game and the audio. I'm always surprised by how positive people's reactions to the game are and how much they love the music. Initial distrust and condescending smile always gives way to involvement, immersion and singing along.

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