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British Surrealism: the best games you never played in your life

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Art by Mia Walker

Initially, the United States and Japan were the powerhouses of the video game industry, and had lots of large production companies. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, had a slower start.

When home computers were widely available in other places, Britain lagged behind a bit, and most video game consumption was through home consoles. This changed with the release of the ZX80, created by inventor Clive Sinclair. This was the first time that home computers in Britain were affordable, and the ZX80 made it possible for any person to create their own games at home. Sinclair followed it up with another popular release, the ZX Spectrum.

Becase the barriers to entry were so low, the slew of games that came about during this time period were representative of the people and times who made them: They were experimental, surreal, political, and completely ignored traditional ideas of marketability and what would be popular. Although US and Japanese companies still dominated the global market, in Britain a local scene emerged of independent teenagers and college students coding games in their bedrooms. This era is generally referred to as the "bedroom coder" movement.

There were a few well-known developers who experienced a lot of success during this era. Under his company Llamasoft, Jeff Minter created a slew of games with psychedelic aesthetics, most of which featured camels or llamas in some way or another, for some reason. Matthew Smith created hit platformers with Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy. Many consider the game Elite, in which you travel the galaxy and trade with different planets, as being the first open-world game, and it inspired the original Grand Theft Auto as well. Although it came from the UK around the same time as these others, I am a bit reluctant to mention it in the same stroke as these others, because it doesn’t have the same colorful psychedelic aesthetics or wacky visuals. However, its impact can not be denied, which is why I bring it up.

One unfortunate thing is that a lot of these games aren’t super easy to play nowadays. Many haven’t been rereleased, and some have been ported or recreated for PC but if you’re hardcore like me you’ll want to play the original. I’ve found web remakes and not-working free downloads of some, the legitimacy of which I’m not completely sure of. An emulator for Elite can be downloaded for free from the website of the company that now owns it and its subsequent franchise. It’s a bit of a hassle, but if you’re somewhat computer-savvy you should be able to figure it out. For me, the biggest problem was navigating the long manual which is necessary to understanding how it works. It requires a decent commitment to really get into, which you might not be willing to do if you’re just checking it out because of some random article you read. I haven’t found the time to do so yet either, so when I talk about how great it was, I’m taking everybody else’s word for it.

For most of the games, I find that it’s best to just find videos of the gameplay on Youtube if you really want, rather than try to find a good emulation or other way to play them online. For me, the attitudes and aesthetics, and overall history of the world in which they were made are more interesting than the actual gameplay, so you’re not missing much by watching someone else play them instead.

The massive exception to this is Mel Croucher’s 1984 game Deus Ex Machina. Brought to life by his company Automata, it was everything that the games of this movement were: quirky, surreal, and experimental, but also meaningful. To many, it’s barely a game at all, rather, a multimedia experience. And I’m inclined to agree with that statement, as the gameplay is mostly secondary to the experience. The game plays out over a fixed amount of time, to a synchronized soundtrack (which originally came packaged on a separate cassette and had to be synced up manually), and nothing you can do will alter what happens throughout. It was completely unlike anything seen before, and to an extent, remains completely unlike anything seen since. It has you supervise the full life, from birth to death, of an accidentally created human being in a vaguely dystopian society. Anything more I could say would end up giving you the wrong idea of what it will be like, so I encourage you to just experience it for yourself.

To me, it completely blows the rest of the games I’ve mentioned so far out of the water. The gameplay is equally simple, but unlike the others, there’s something else to focus on. The soundtrack, which could stand on its own as a concept album, provides a story through which to interpret what’s happening, which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” monologue. It explores the nature of life, death, and war, but never in a way that’s too in-your-face or pretentious or anything.

If there’s a single doubt in your mind that video games can be art, or if you are reluctant to think of them as anything other than mindless entertainment, I encourage you to check this game out. Or if you play video games a lot, or play them sometimes, or don’t know what they are, I encourage you to play through Deus Ex Machina. If you do like other art, but don’t play video games, but are eager to see what artistic merit they can have, play Deus Ex Machina. You know what, no matter what your stance on anything in the world is, play Deus Ex Machina right now.

Unlike many other British surrealist games, it has been conveniently re-released on Steam for only five dollars. It takes only fifty minutes to play (and this length is hard set - no matter what you do it will take the same amount of time to finish). Had I known about it when I wrote an article about short but meaningful video games, I would have absolutely thrown it in. Most of the games of this era are snapshots of a different time, with interesting aesthetics but gameplay that doesn’t really hold up to modern expectations. Deus Ex Machina stands as a timeless masterpiece, a work of art unconfined by time period or movement.

In addition to all of this, Mel Croucher basically invented crowdfunding, as well as ARGs (his other games open a whole other can of worms I don’t want to get into right now), as well as having voice actors play the characters in your game. He also did things that stand unique to this day: How many other game soundtracks are rock concept albums with lyrics? The only other video game song with lyrics I can think of is “Still Alive” from Portal, and that just plays during the credits.

I’m really reluctant to call anything underrated, but if one thing can achieve such a status, it’s this game. It doesn’t even really have a particularly strong cult following. Except for me, I guess. However, I should say that it did get lots of critical acclaim when it came out; one reviewer stated that it was “the computer equivalent to Pink Floyd’s The Wall.” It even won game of the year its year, yet despite all this, is not well-known at all today. It only broke even financially, due to a few reasons: Automata’s sales manager had grown increasingly hostile towards companies which offered to stock the game on their shelves, as well as piracy, which Croucher failed to notice because of a blinding hubris from all the positive reviews. So again, I urge you to help rectify this by playing it right now.

For as long as modern capitalism has existed, there has been an observable tension between the independent and the corporate; the underground and the mainstream; the self-expressive and the profit-driven. The fact that, even with the odds stacked against them, independent artists are often favored clearly shows that people want to interact with art and media that is personal and does take risks, and that they don’t just want what a corporate focus group says they do. Many critics, or other people who enjoy independent art, have this conception that the majority of people are mindless zombies who only want to consume media that is bland and unchallenging. I find that this conception is harder to defend when you look at the success of all of these independent games. When independent, creativity-driven art is allowed to be made unimpeded, it becomes just as popular as anything that is corporate and profit-driven. Minecraft, the best-selling video game of all time, was originally an independent game, and managed to garner much success prior to its aquisition by Microsoft.

Deus Ex Machina, and the rest of its experimental British counterparts, are just one of many examples of such a phenomenon which can be seen across so many genres and mediums. When there are no barriers between the artist and the player (or reader, or listener, or whatever the medium may be), and creators are able to take risks freely, the end results are so much more meaningful than anything made by massive corporations which are driven primarily by profit (okay fine AAA games can be good too or whatever, people seem to love a lot of them and they can have great stories and characters as well). This is the second article I’ve concluded by asserting my belief in the supremacy of independent games, so to avoid repeating myself and sounding too much like a complete nerd (which I failed at by making this article two thousand words long), I think I’m going to end things here.

If you want to learn more about anything I mentioned in this article, here’s a list of things that helped me a lot with my research, which is significantly more than that I do for a normal article, 1) because it’s historical, and 2) because I’m writing about basically this for my DP Extended Essay.

This video by Game Maker’s Toolkit is a great overview of the period and one of the things that originally got me into this era. He mentions a few games that I didn’t, and since it’s a video, he provides way more visuals than I did. If you want a nice history of these British bedroom coders that isn’t disproportionately focused on a game which I seem to like way more than anyone else, watch it.

Polygon has a good article about one of Jeff Minter’s most recent games, which also includes an interview and more information about the man himself. He seems like a pretty interesting dude.

Tristan Donovan’s book Replay: The History of Video Games has a chapter about the British surrealist era, as well as a thorough history of the rest of video game history up to 2010. It’s a big book but not hard to read.

Finally, Mel Croucher’s own memoir about what it was like creating Deus Ex Machina is entitled Deus Ex Machina: The Best Game you Never Played in Your Life. I had to buy this one off of Amazon, which hurt a bit, because it wasn’t available at the library and I couldn’t find a used copy either. But if you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend reading it. It’s a fun read, cynically but entertainingly written, and again, the fact that this guy and his games aren’t more celebrated or well-known becomes increasingly more frustrating the more I learn about him.

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