You couldn’t make it up. Mel Croucher, credited by many as the father of the British videogames industry, spends 25 years away from what he helped create after his magnum opus, Deus Ex Machina, is a commercial failure. A quarter of a century on, an opportunity to see his 1984 vision played out in the grandeur of today’s games sees Croucher return, reforming his Automata studio.

After a banking collapse nearly ruins the project, two Kickstarter campaigns see the game finally through to completion. On the 19th of November 2013, Croucher’s 65th birthday, he is all set to push the button that will make the game live to Automata customers and Kickstarter backers, before inviting GOG to distribute the game. First though, he takes a stroll with his dog, clambers up a verge to read the memorial plate on a local landmark, and falls to his near death.

Able to laugh things off now, ‘I’m full of titanium, and have a romantic limp,’ Croucher wryly reflects on the five year production cycle of a remake, when the original took all of a few weeks. ‘All of this stuff will be released, and then I will forget about it. It’s gone on much, much too long. I’ve been making this fucking remake for five years, man!’

The original Deus Ex Machina was a landmark title, pioneering trends that wouldn’t be seen in games until decades later, and spearheading the ‘indie art game’ movement comfortably before the movement actually moved. By the time of its late September 1984 release though, Automata had been going for nearly seven years, having been formed ‘again, on my birthday in 1977; I’m a big softie’. Croucher’s involvement in gaming stretches back further still though, to local radio in the mid seventies.

DEM's plus sized box didn't fit on WH Smith store shelves, leading to complaints from the retailer. Automata's response? 'Make your shelves wider'. They didn't.

DEM’s plus sized box didn’t fit on WH Smith store shelves, leading to complaints from the retailer. Automata’s response? ‘Make your shelves wider’. They didn’t.

‘It started totally by accident, out of enthusiasm. When we started out, there were literally a handful of people that had no concept of using this thing- that was designed to do maths for them- for entertainment. There were no magazines or anything like that, and the only way we could reach them was through radio. We broadcast binary data over the airwaves, and people would have to record it to tape, and then play that back to their computer to play these silly little text based games, that gave you latitude and longitude co-ordinaries to find some shitty prize. With geocaching now, it was kind of ahead of its time. But that’s us, ahead of our time, and broke. As always’.

A common theme in Croucher’s radio games (perhaps we can say these were ‘analogue downloads’, finally putting paid to the view that ‘digital download’ is a tautology) and Automata’s work from its 1977 inception was humour. Automata games, under Croucher’s rule of ‘Stalinism, pacifism and anarchy’ all had to abide by three commandments: violence was absolutely prohibited, audio and multimedia elements had to be incorporated (usually games would fill one side of a cassette, leaving the other free for Croucher’s anarchic synth prog), and there had to be an element of parody.

‘When we started, there were no games to parody, of course. We could only parody ourselves. But when the Spectrum came out, things went from a few dozen computer users to tens of thousands. In the apace of 12, 24 months from 1982, there were suddenly hundreds of games being developed and plenty to take the piss out of. You have to remember, I was old back then, even. I wasn’t a kid, and wasn’t in awe of it all. It was just another way to make people laugh; on the other hand if it made them angry, I had no problem with that’.

Olympimania is a great example of the light hearted comedy material Automata produced, along with a mini game collection based on The Bible.

Olympimania is a great example of the light hearted comedy material Automata produced, along with a mini game collection based on The Bible.

‘I remember when Daley Thompson was representing the UK in the Olympics, there was this Daley Thompson’s Decathlon game. We got it in, loaded it up, and Daley Thompson, the black athlete, was suddenly white! We just cracked up. So we brought out something called Olympimania that had jellyfish and all sorts of weird stuff in it. It was things like that; we never set out to offend individuals. Our targets were social morays, corporations, and of course politicians who are always valid targets’.

That anarchic humour wound its way into a pair of higher profile, and tape based versions of Croucher’s radio geocaching contests: the awkwardly titled My Name Is Uncle Groucho, You Win A Fat Cigar, and Pimania, which is set for a return on today’s platforms.

‘Today, we’ve got GPS, mobiles, tablets and smart watches. The opportunity for a global treasure hunt today is tremendous. Back in the day, I just hid one object, made of gold and diamond. I was playing off those great motivators, greed and fame. But I want things to be a bit different; rather than have me hide an object. We’re going to have the players hide their own treasures, so there’ll be as many treasures as you could want out there. The rest; the cartoon character, everything else, that’ll be the same. Oh, except I’ve got Sir Christopher Lee singing the theme song.’

No joke; the legendary actor does lend his pipes to the new Pimania, as well as providing the voice of Deus Ex Machina 2′s Narrator. The 92 year old is no gamer, and, it’s safe to say, has the right to pick and choose his projects. For Lee, his friendship with John Pertwee, the 1984 original’s Narrator was a deciding factor in signing up with Croucher.

dem pertweeFor all of Lee being a huge coup in 2014, having any voice acting at all was unheard of in 1984. Yet DEM filled an entire accompanying cassette, synced perfectly with the game’s fifty minute runtime, with the likes of John Pertwee, Ian Dury and Frankie Howerd guiding the player through a science fiction reimagining of the Shakespearean Ages of Man from As You Like It. ‘Its not unusual now for celebrities to be involved with games. We’ve heard about Paul McCartney doing the soundtrack for some violent shit, and all sorts of other celebrities and actors lending their talent to other violent shit, but we don’t hear much about mainstream huge celebrities acting in alternative shit,’ Croucher laments. ‘So we were just amazed that Sir Christopher Lee would help us with DEM2.’

‘(In 1984) it was all actually pretty straightforward. I had a shopping list of talent; I wanted the godfather of punk (Dury) of course, to bring in that audience, I wanted a well known comedian, and a very good female voice to fill the role of the Machine (from which DEM’s life is artificially born). I couldn’t get most of my targets because they were unavailable, or too expensive, or too out of their mind on heroin at the time, but I really wanted Pertwee. Doctor Who was the biggest thing in entertainment then, and when he came onto the show, it blew up. He was exciting, funny, unpredictable.. Anyway, basically I found John Pertwee in the telephone directory and called him. Answer phones hadn’t really kicked in yet, so everyone would pick up. I’d pitch them, and most would tell me to fuck off. I actually knew Tom Baker who was the next Doctor after Pertwee though, and he helped get in contact with Jon. I sent him the details and a script and he said “yeah, this is the kind of thing I’m interested in”. We actually became friends after that, and wrote and published together.’

Deus Ex Machina hit Spectrums in late September 1984 to rave reviews and commercial failure. A combination of some arrogant thinking saw the game release at 15 Pounds, (incredibly expensive for the time, at double the price of the average title) as well as incense retailers who were told to either find a way to display the game’s oversized two tape case on shelves without complaint or compromise, or not stock DEM at all.

Racing sperm in 1984...

Racing sperm in 1984…

Subsequently, it became a ripe target for pirates, most of whom copying the game, but not its soundtrack, leaving a meaningless experience. Still, its ambition and production values caused it to stick in memories, and become the subject of YouTube longplay videos. Its return to the public eye is validation long overdue, though Deus Ex Machina is not the kind of experience to find a mainstream audience, as Steam Greenlight reviews for the sequel suggested.

‘Oh, they were so sweet. I don’t know, I was… Not upset but intrigued (at the Greenlight reaction). But you know, if they’re not my audience, that’s fine. The pity is people not exposing themselves, or considering an alternative (… ) The next game I see with beautiful graphics and some guy sweating, a woman with big tits and a monster, I’ll punch my head through the screen. It’s so derivative, but costs millions to put out. And they make good money, for the corporates, and that’s fine, it’s just like the majority of people wanting to eat McDonalds, or drink Coca Cola. My game is for people that want to question the norm, and enjoy the process. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do’.

Deus Ex Machina 2 is finally complete now, with rewritten sections, 3D visuals and more involved gameplay. ‘(DEM1) is barely a game!’ Croucher laughs. ‘It’s a series of very banal activities, keeping the Chinese plates spinning on bamboo poles. But it was never meant to be a great “game”, it was meant to make you weep. And laugh, obviously. The sperms were meant to make you laugh, and the old man was meant to make you cry’.

...And 2014. Conception is one of the game's lighter moments, and the weirdest lyrically, containing gems like 'The satellites are shining/The acid rain is pretty/Fission shifts and psycho eclipse/ Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha'.

…And 2014. Conception is one of the game’s lighter moments, and the weirdest lyrically, containing gems like ‘The satellites are shining/The acid rain is pretty/Fission shifts and psycho eclipse/ Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha’.

DEM 2 will see a full release on November 19, a do-over from last year, hopefully sans dog walking accident. ‘Its already available to Kickstarter backers, and the pirates, so it’s gradually propagating,’ Croucher explains. In keeping with Automata’s traditional propensity for trans-media projects though, that’s not all players can expect. ‘Theres a book, there’s a rock album, there’s the game and a whole bunch of other stuff. There’s Deus Ex Machina for portables which is a bit different from the PC, Mac and Linux versions. I’m re-releasing the original C64 and Spectrum versions with retina visuals and remastered music, and there’ll also be Deus Ex Machina: 30th Anniversary, which uses the same soundtrack, but film and photography in place of the original graphics. It should make it more immediate to players than the 16-colour blobs on the screen.’

For all the effort and years in the making of Deus Ex Machina 2, Croucher’s long coming follow-up is still created with the indie mentality in mind; made because of a desire to, on his own terms, and with a dedicated audience in mind rather than the mass market.

‘Deus Ex Machina 2 was made, after 25, 30 years of experience and hindsight, by the original artist, the original programmer, me; basically three or four guys. And you know? It’s still easy to do. It’s still easy to bang out a game that you really believe in. People that spend millions on a game, good luck to them, but they need millions of people to play it.’

Mel Croucher’s book, Deus Ex Machina: The Best Game You Never Played In Your Life is a thorough history of Automata, and the making of Deus Ex Machina 1 and 2. You can pick it up from Amazon here.

Full audio of this interview can be streamed or downloaded below. Better yet, subscribe to our iTunes feed for more.

Our huge gratitude to Mel for chatting with us.

[Pocket Casts] | [iTunes] | [RSS] |


About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)