Deus Ex Machina [1984]

Three off-the-beaten path early 1980s Art Game picks in, and a typology is beginning to emerge. Deus Ex Machina [1984] is largely, through probably not intentionally, a different spin on Lifespan [1983]. What both share in common with The Prisoner [1980], besides the obvious self-identification as art, is that their reflections on the medium has led them to a mixed-mode form, where the different scenes are different mini-games. The vignette-scene idiom would be reinvented by Sid Meier (eg Pirates [1987]) and artsy CD-ROM Multimedia games headed by digital dilettantes (eg Puppet Motel [1995]), to which Deus Ex Machina sorta serves as a bridge, and then as far as I yet know the idiom would go no further. Mini-game collections, of course, already existed by 1980, but they would use the conceptual organizing principle of say, the Olympics or a game show or traveling the world, a thin but perfectly serviceable theme for a tour around the arcade on your home computer. Soon, if not already by 1984, you’d see those 25-in-1 games that don’t even pretend to be anything but a menu.

The life of a human being from conception to death is another one of these conceptual organizing principles, but the difference in these Art Games is that the overarching concept is the clear top priority. They’re thinking about the way to tell a story about ideas through the medium of a video game, and coming to the conclusion that, because the formal elements of a game are expressive, clearly every different part of the story should be represented by different mechanics so as to best express the underlying ideas. I think this is a great idea! It reminds me a lot of various strains of thought on art that go under the umbrella “Modernism,” particularly Soviet film and film theory: it’s breaking the medium down almost atomically, into its most necessary and most distinctive-of-the-medium features, and then playing with how you can use those features, context, and juxtaposition to create not just meaning but a language. It’s much the shame that it is a dead language.

Anne Clark – Sleeper In Metropolis [1984]

Actually, let’s not overstate the case for Deus Ex Machina’s game mechanics. It just barely integrates gameplay into its overall rhetorical ediface, but generally, interactivity is minimal, to the point that watching a playthrough is enough to “get it.” The opening segment in particular harkens all the way back to the Magnavox Odyssey [1971] (which is appropriate at least since it means to depict the origins of things.) You control only a square of light that you can move around on the X and Y axis on the screen, and other than that it is simply not clear until whether you are having any effect on anything at all beyond pointing a flashlight at the screen, until you’re almost done with that part of the game.

This on-rails nature is part of its ethos and interesting in its own right, but it’s also due to the technical implications of its big idea: because ZX Spectrum games already come on cassette, why not sell a game tape and an accompanying soundtrack tape? Sound being interchangeable with data is a thought-provoking running theme in early computing, from tapes and CDs being natural home to both, to the modem, to ZX Spectrum programs you could record off the radio. The principle is akin to the pre-optical-sound talkies where the projectionist would have to synchronize a Vitaphone record to the moving picture, like Don Juan [1926] or The Jazz Singer [1927] (which I mention only to mention that it was not the technological first at anything and we do not, in fact, gotta hand it to the blackface movie.)

Deus Ex Machina proudly goes by the moniker “Interactive Movie” and inaugurates the Interactive Movie tradition of B-List Star Power by proudly trumpeting its big gets Ian Dury, a fringe rock star with a smattering of popular success in the late 70s, Jon Pertwee, a solid decade removed from his role as The Third Doctor, and Frankie Howerd, a comedian who first had his own TV show in the Fifties, none of whom were really struggling but none of whom were burning bright. (Trivia: Pertwee and Howerd both played in various movies in the Carry On series, but never co-starred with each other other than this.) But it’s not very interactive, and other than in that respect, it’s also not like a conventional Hollywood movie. Well… it is like The Wall [1982] specifically. The accompanying soundtrack is of narration and of music, with the narration often fluidly becoming and unbecoming lyrics, though the music isn’t any kind of Rock Opera but rather some quite well-done enveloping downtempo Electronic. The way it shifts between visual regimes is also reminiscent, as is its general vibe, and its anti-war, anti-conformity, and anti-fascist ideas. However, Deus Ex Machina is not an autobiographical raw nerve or non-linear like The Wall, nor is it as specific in its pointed and allegorical social commentary. Where The Wall depicts its off-brand Nazis enacting and advocating bigotries and violence, Deus Ex Machina shies away from any allegation so specific, preferring instead to phrase it as “Hate” and “War” versus “Love” and “Peace”, in those exact words. Maybe anti-fascist is giving it a bit too much credit, and it’s really just anti-jerk.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, we should start back at the beginning. After the opening credits and the countdown to help the player synchronize the tapes, the story begins with: “Tuesday evening, after tea and compulsory prayers. The last mouse on Earth tried to hide from mankind… inside the machine.” First, a particularly curt declaration of the particularly quotidian time of day that establishes a baseline reality that’s specifically British. Then, an unsettling note that this is not the world as we know it, but a place that goes against our modern liberal consensus of religious freedom, while ironically placing the ritual of teatime on the same level as prayer ritual. It’s going for the clock striking thirteen in the opening line of 1984 [1949], except it’s broken into two thoughts instead of one, like it’s an earlier, rougher draft. By the time we hit “the last mouse on Earth,” we know we’re in the genre of Science-Fiction Dystopia and can begin decoding what we hear from that orientation. This mouse is the last on Earth, and it could be due to an environmental catastrophe, but the fact that it’s hiding away from mankind, the entire species, suggests that mankind is an even more direct collective threat to it than that. This is foreshadowing: key to this bleak future is how mankind seeks to exterminate all of its pests. The mouse is ultimately shortly killed with nerve gas, a bloodless but horrifying method of execution.

It takes refuge in the Machine, which is a phrase deployed with an enormously portentous pause, because it’s a very important recurring symbol in Deus Ex Machina, something like the wall in The Wall, except The Machine is a non-animate character who gets to narrate. This whole “first act” of the game, the one harkening back to the Magnavox Odyssey, shows different parts of the inner workings of The Machine, which is an incubator of test-tube babies — though it quickly establishes that it does much more than that too. This is a bit of a lift from Brave New World [1932], though it doesn’t really directly cast any aspersions on The DNA Welder and Cell Producer as a method of conception directly, which is good, because test-tube-baby-panic plays a lot different 6 years after human in-vitro fertilization was first successful. My first instinct was to read The Machine as society’s ways of producing its citizens, but the story confounds this line of thought, simply by showing societal indoctrination along more familiar and non-symbolic lines (like an actual Drill Sergeant) and having the machine placed in opposition to this. No, its role in creating human beings seems to be entirely biological. Combined with the voice actress being a woman, Donna Bailey, this makes it unmistakably a mother figure, though also a kind of Goddess figure; after all, Deus Ex Machina. It announces itself by bragging about its omniscience, saying it has Always Been, and that “In the beginning was the word, and the word was know.”

When the mouse dies inside The Machine, it takes its one final death shit. The turd drops into the test-tube babymaker. For the whole first act, and arguably the whole game, you play as this mouse turd.

Yes, that is how Deus Ex Machina positions the player character. It’s audacious, it’s funny, I dig it! It needn’t be considered an insult to the player, even: I think Deus Ex Machina has a pretty high opinion of this mouse shit. The mouse shit is the irrepressible remnant of the willfully forgotten, the dispossessed, the cleansed-away, but it becomes a spanner in the works. The story is setting up a meek-shall-inherit-the-Earth kinda story on a reap-what-you-sow basis — that’s not what it will ultimately deliver, but until the twist, that’s how it’s trending.

Pertwee, our reliable and omniscient narrator and thus pretty much the direct voice of the game itself, steps a bit out of the fourth wall to tell us that “you may control this accident [the rat turd] on my behalf and with my permission.” This is a fascinating, cheeky assertion about how not just this game but implicitly all games work. You have control, but it’s contingent on the video game giving you permission, which means it has control over your control. The game circumscribes the boundaries of behavior and can theoretically revoke your permission to play it. That seems to me like a fairly reasonable working theory on the nature of playing video games for one sentence. What’s interesting is the “on my behalf” part: I’m not playing Deus Ex Machina, but acting on its behalf? Or maybe as Jon Pertwee’s representative? It’s positing that the game is perfectly capable of playing itself if you don’t… this is accurate. You can get to the end of the game simply by waiting for it to end and not interacting with it at all. It has a score counter seemingly just to be a video game, to give some way of measuring performance, but gameplay is completely optional. It’s all pantomime. Hey, after all, who’s ever heard of an album or a movie that stops partway through to tell you you’re a failure?

The fact that by this light some people would call this a non-game doesn’t stop it from continuing to theorize more about games. Ian Dury, playing a wise fool in opposition to the bloodthirsty and cartoonishly-wrong-about-everything Frankie Howerd, voices the opinion that “killing is wrong, even pretend killing on little screens. People who sell violent games to children should be put away somewhere safe ’til they get well again.” At every other part of the game, this gentle character is confused, introduced with a long stretch of word salad’s syllabic delights. Yet, they’re worldly: they were born “not in a test-tube, but in a pint mug.” They speak for the understanding of life and death held by cellular life in their role as “The Fertilizing Agent”, a triple-entendre for cum, shit, and our inevitable return to the dirt. Here though, in the face of a warmonger, they speak with absolute moral certainty in the axiomatic, noble, high value of life. Commendable! The rest I do not agree with, but it’s a little tongue-in-cheek and comes from an earnest place of concern.

I also don’t think it’s possible to parse out Deus Ex Machina and/or The Fertilizing Agent’s argument against pretend killing as anything but another axiom without referring to the framing device of the whole enterprise. Pertwee recites Shakespeare’s entire “Seven Ages Of Man” speech from As You Like It [c. 1599] and then we proceed to revisit all of them in greater depth. It’s not done straight, though, but instead updated with sci-fi and digital-age jargon in much the clumsy style of a Mad Lib: school becomes a databank, the soldier now is “seeking high score even in the laser’s mouth,” et cetera. It was bad enough when they were subtly revising George Orwell, and I think he’s a hack! Updating Shakespeare is self-defeating, since the classic reason you’d quote him at length on probably the most general of subjects is because you’re positing that he wrote timeless and universal truth. (This notion itself is ironically a contingent product of Romanticism and nationalism. You hear Boris Johnson is writing a book on Shakespeare’s genius?)

The germane part of all this to how Deus Ex Machina thinks about gaming is the revised first line: “All the screen’s a stage.” This ropes games in general into not just a theatrical understanding, pantomime and actor-as-player and all that, but a specifically Early 1600s understanding of theatre. It also invokes “all the world’s a screen” as a natural corollary without actually saying it, because the reference is so common, which is a neat trick. (I even think it foreshadows Hamlet On The Holodeck [1997].) There’s an irony to the original deployment of “all the world’s a stage” if you take the centuries-long view, in that the idea of the stage as a separate demarcated area from the world attempting to be inverted was a relatively-novel one. The Medieval stage could bleed out onto the street and provide fictional context for a real parade, as an easy counterexample. But there’s also the metaphysical understanding, under which it’s inaccurate to call a passion play a “re-enactment” of Biblical scenes — it was an enactment, partaking transubstantiatively in the immaterial and eternal reality of the past in the present. Transferring this cultural understanding of theatre to the new style with fourth walls more sharply dividing fiction from reality and less emphasis on morality was rocky, and in part gave rise to the “anti-theatricalists,” who frequently get brought up as historical antecedent for all kind of moral-hazard arguments in a medium. (I got all this information out of a PhD dissertation I found online.)

All this to say, I don’t think the moral hazard argument Deus Ex Machina is gesturing at about video game violence fully relies on the Jack Thompson mimetic logic that pretend killing will lead to real killing, even as it is leaning on it by placing its argument in the context of military training that tells you “war crimes are easy,” which absolutely is training to kill. Rather, I believe it turns on the logic of enactment, that whether it’s for pretend or not, it’s still a decision to kill and that that decision’s real. It’s deontological. It simply doesn’t matter that the fourth wall is a big thick pane of glass now, or how the graphics can not possibly be mistaken for reality. But I feel like I’m stretching my three quotes from the game past the load they can bear now, and that this wasn’t one of the big ideas about tech Deus Ex Machina wanted me to work myself up into words like “metaphysical” and “deontology” into.

Anyway, once you’ve bounced some sperm off your rat turd into an egg, the entire User Interface you’d been using suddenly disappears all at once forever, and you go tumbling as an infant through a rainbow zone covered in eyes on towards The Defect Police, while a children’s choir infantilises the act of protest by chanting “What do we want? LOVE! When do we want it? NOW!” Over 2000 words in, and I’m only just now getting to the second part of four. Christ. Actually, yeah: Christ! This section contains the first of two references to crucifixion. The Defect Police want your “carcass nailed.” No bones about it, the rat turd has made you unique, and so they very seriously mean to kill you as an infant. They see a “defective” baby as equal to the mouse, a pest, an infection to be remorselessly eliminated. The plot logic of how exactly you avoid getting killed as an infant is entirely unstated, but it might have something to do with your telepathic powers that allow you to float, communicate with machinery, possess the sum of all human knowledge, and read minds.

It’s all extremely allegorical. Your time spent with The Defect Police is a mirror of the institutional enforcement of conformity on children, so, school and such. It’s interested in the mechanisms of social norms on the self, and uses the sci-fi trappings as license to melodramatically exaggerate them to the level of an industrial scale completely without humanity, the persecution of Jesus, and genocide. It illustrates this with the figure of a man rotating in the center of the screen as if on a rotisserie, surrounded on all side by eye icons that, like in Elite [1984], fire damaging lasers. You control a little Pong [1972] paddle that goes around the perimeter of the rotating man to protect them from incoming eyesight, but it is blatantly impossible to not take any damage. The metaphor is immediately clear: the act of observation is an act of violence, at least coming as it does attached to a promise to hurt you if they don’t like what they see. To Deus Ex Machina, like fellow Interactive Movie Dragon’s Lair [1983] before it, observation is power. Unlike Dragon’s Lair, it is openly preoccupied with this, utterly anxious, terrified. Tapping phone lines is something The Machine says in her introduction to bolster her claim to omniscience, and is a concept then returned to again and again as the idiomatic and axiomatic illustration of the tyrannical surveillance state. All the same, being under observation is the circumstance under which our protagonist creates their entire sense of self.

This doesn’t not leave its scars. The protagonist enters the “Lover” phase of their Seven Ages in teendom, and the eyes that surround them are replaced by lips that pull in while rotating for a kiss. But almost every player is sure to notice that the lips take the exact places of the eyes, and sure enough, they hurt you just like any flying rotating object in Jet Set Willy [1984]. Soon, the lips change appearance back into eyes, and The Machine’s motherly urging to go out and love and touch your fellow human, to touch their scars and try to heal them, becomes one to take and hurt, to take their scars for your own. You have been treated like social poison for so long, you’ve become it. When The Prisoner played games with our perception of things, it was contextualized as media that lies to you. Here, it’s subjectivity of an interior perspective, deployed with symbolic substitution in a manner so traditional that by 1984 I feel like calling it, firstly, “classical,” and secondly, the most cinematic moment of this supposedly cinematic game. This is fascinatingly ambiguous! It could be that the Defect Police really were adopting a disguise to get at you, in true Secret Police fashion, OR it could be that an upbringing in such an abusive system where one must be constantly on-guard has left the protagonist once-burnt twice-shy, a paranoid wreck irrecoverably incapable of processing human attention as anything positive. Or both! “Reading minds can hurt you badly,” sings The Machine, and it seems like the danger is emotional more than anything else.

The meaning of the protagonist’s telepathy is also hard to pin down to just one exact thing. (As Lifespan demonstrates, this is a good thing.) It might be something in the category of “neurological differences as superpower,” where the only thing that constructs neurological difference as an arguable disability is that you live in a society that punishes you. (As an autistic person who had a miserable time of it in elementary school, big mood.) Or perhaps just “difference” flat-out, something for anyone who ever grew up feeling the aggrieved misfit, but also something to feel special and cool. It is in any case disquieting that, even in championing difference, has already traced a biologically essential cause of difference to a rat turd’s interference in the fetal stage! Basically stopping just shy of calling you shit-for-brains. There’s also a religious dimension. If The Machine is an omniscient Goddess, then a direct line of communication makes you a holy person, and your telepathy is either holy powers (as healing others’ scars would indicate) or when wielding machines, perhaps the privilege and control of a church. But I think the most important aspect of telepathy for the game is the ability to communicate with machines. Again, it’s a theme I also found in Elite but more blatant: you play as the special elect that is proficient with and has access to computers, and this gives the protagonist solace in their youth, which blossoms into an edge over the common people.

That manifests at the end of the following “Soldier” section, which I’ve touched on already, but will go over again now. It begins with the sound of a group of children laughing at you, looping as to suggest the traumatic memories of ostracization. This boot camp can’t make the theme of social conformity as imposed by observation and violence any more intense, since it was already dialed to 11, so instead it pivots into a more direct and pan-smackingly obvious depiction of indoctrination. Frankie Howerd as a drill sergeant tells you to follow his orders, to “march on empty spaces, fill them with your mind”, frequently declaring “war crimes are easy,” sometimes even breaking character and saying dead giveaways like “I am a liar” and “don’t follow me.” This is contrasted with Ian Dury’s pacifism, outlined earlier. The gameplay is broken into two segments, and I’ll address the second one first: it’s another ring-around-the-rosie segment like before, except as it goes on your paddles split into two on opposite sides and then three, bringing the mini-game from “impossible to perfect” to “quite manageable.” That’s a little interesting, it’s making the game easier to demonstrate your protagonist’s growing proficiency, but when you put it that way it becomes apparent that such an “inverted difficulty curve” in a game is actually so common as to undermine the normative assumptions of modifying it with the word “inverted,” what with stats and upgrades and the like.

The other segment is jumping over short gaps in a tread underneath your feet. Gravity is extant now, which typically (as it does here) encourages you to see the character you control on screen as not simply an extension of you. It quickly capitalizes on this. The drill sergeant spends much of his time bellowing for you to jump when he says to jump, and at the end when he counts down to tell you to jump… the jump button ceases to work. Your permission to control the character has been revoked. They buck off the influence of the rat turd and declare “I am no longer working for you. The defect police are now working for me. Machines? Rearrange his personality.” Beethoven’s Ode To Joy [1824] plays, which is semantically flexible (already in 84 it had been adopted as the anthem of the European Union,) but here seems to be shorthand for freedom.

This ushers us into the climax and the big twist: The meek inheriting the Earth might not be a good thing. Having spent so much time garnering sympathy for our developing and persecuted protagonist, they grow up into a big fat villain stomping down the city streets. Once again, the player is given the power to jump on command (using their military training) over things like helmets and skulls, and later, words like “Love,” “Hate,” “War,” “Peace,” and such. Contrary to the game’s clear affinities, you get points by avoiding the good words and collecting the bad ones, though because the score updates only after each level this is not clear until after at least two playthroughs, so instead it uses barbed wire that prevents you from jumping to make clear the correct interpretation. While indistinct real estate chatter reels away, the skyline crumbles behind them, representing moral rot and tyranny with the rotting of architecture. (And it is coincidentally but likely purposefully reminiscent of one from the developer’s first title, the Riddle Game Pimania [1982], which makes me start to think there’s a link between the Riddle Game and the Art Game.) By the same principle of visual shorthand, it’s regrettably very important in Deus Ex Machina’s careless opinion that when our protagonist becomes unambiguously evil, they instantly become obese. The Machine coos “you can move mountains,” “you make the laws,” “you’re an asshole, I wish I never made you” and that “you’re more machine than I am.” Telepathy has gone from something that marks you out as the outsider, to something that facilitates your being the ultimate insider with their hands on power and privilege. This story locates evil in the psychoanalytic, in the trauma endured by the villain and how they reproduce the structures that hurt them upon others. Though the notion that evil is society’s delayed revenge on itself for mistreating the socially invisible has something to it, this is insufficient. It takes the classic fascist whine of aggrievement on good faith, and even implicitly suggests that trauma and neurological difference might consistently breed evil. We’ll see this logic of sympathetic understanding of evil again after the Columbine shootings, when popular understanding converges on the shooters as bullied outcasts and not as committed white supremacists.

This part also has a musical quote, this of the Peter Gunn Theme [1959], which carries no semantic meaning I can understand and seems just thrown in there for menacing swagger. Likewise hard to connect with the rest of the scene is a long monologue, rattled off in a casual manner and mic’d from a distance so as to create the impression of an off-the-cuff lecture. It starts from unspecified politicians imposing unspecified increasingly-unpopular decisions because they’re threatened by the unstable masses, then goes into “you know, the only real growth industry is telephone tapping” and policing, but then swerves abruptly into talking about catching up with the New Music Express [1952-2021], specifically an article published about British bands going off to the German Democratic Republic and Poland that gets called “rock across the Bloc.” This phrase gets echoed over and over again, and it’s hard to connect with what’s going on on the screen, or indeed to anything across the game, especially since it’s clearly present tense for 1984 while everything else is vaugely in the future. Is it a paean to peace and bridge-building? Yes. But by being deployed now, in this scene, does it mean to draw our villain as a communist, and thus draw the society that brought them up so mechanically as fever-dream communism, turning the whole game into an anti-communist screed, or does it mean to draw our villain as the type of bully in capitalist growth-industries-and-real-estate Britain who keeps the Cold War going and ready to boil over? It’s hard to tell, which is odd of two such drastically different interpretations, but this is a danger of making an openly political work that nevertheless doesn’t get very specific.

The whole condemnation disappears in an instant when the scene changes and our protagonist is now senile and dying. This unglued scene, compared to the this-therefore-this logic that brought us from rat shit to King Shit, isn’t totally out of character for a game that loves its sudden unexpected ruptures. It’s kinda a memento mori rebuke. You can be a tyrant for your entire adult life, but in the end, we all have a death sentence. The music is a bluesy dirge, in a break from the musical genre it’s been in the whole time. If the last song was an ode to power, this is an ode to weakness, emphasizing the brittleness of bones and “nylon teeth.” Real sad-sack stuff. Like Lifespan, and like some other later games I can think of, there’s a pattern where youthful game developers conceptualize “protagonist growing elderly” entirely in terms of a horrible curse of physical and mental decay, as a source of maudlin horror looming in the future.

Taking after Shakespeare’s naming of this age of Man as “second childishness” (you die crying for mama,) and also to the idea that one wraps up a story and imposes unity by returning to the start, narration from the very beginning is recycled. The game also seeks to depict memory loss at the same time, as though we lose our earliest memories last. The protagonist whose fatness was used as shorthand for dominance and decadent corruption is now emaciated. Above them is an image of a setting sun on a mountain range (very obvious,) beneath them a mountain-range esque jagged green line crosses the screen, which evokes an EKG without resembling the regularity of an EKG. In the most novel gameplay concept in Deus Ex Machina, this line threads through a gap that the player controls and keeps from getting hung up. If it was faster and a little bit more complicated, it could easily have been its own game. Probably is. This alternates with a return to the green square you controlled at the start of the game, the rat turd’s continued adventures in microbiology. This one isn’t novel at all, though the twist is clever. It’s just Asteroids [1979], except the caption above it changes its context, say from breaking up cholesterol to deteriorating white blood cells, which you might opt not to do if you catch on.

It gets a little meta, not just from recycling early instructions, but from lines like “don’t you ever get weary when your whole life is expressed as a percentage score?” The score has been running this whole game, but it hasn’t been given a consistent function. Rather,it serves as often the only feedback the game gives you on whether you’re understanding the goals of the scene (and even then, it only updates after the scene in question.) For instance, in the scene where you have to jump to avoid words, I initially and incorrectly figured I had to avoid the negative words and grab the positive ones because of the game’s clear viewpoint against things like “Hate.” So here at the end, trying to posit the score as a judgement on how you’ve spent your life just doesn’t work. It clearly does not speak to Deus Ex Machina’s moral viewpoint on how to spend one’s life, but to how well it thinks you have embodied the role it gave you as a performer. Nevertheless, at the very end its calling-back for unity makes the leap to an invitation to replay as The Fertilizing Agent wonders if perhaps, maybe, they could do a better job if they tried again… Cut with the bitter dramatic irony that we know this game is linear, and our only choice is to be better at being awful.

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