Deus Ex Machina

Art games are easy?

Source // Motherboard, Vice

No, it's not that Deus Ex, but a much, much weirder one. You might even argue that nothing can prepare you for it, because Deus Ex Machina plays out so differently to what you might imagine when you're tasked to picture a conceptual interactive art piece on the ZX Spectrum.

It's hard to even conceive that home computers back in the 1980s even bothered with art, being content with offering funny characters dodging brightly coloured blobs to the 'tune' of mostly noisy sound effects, yet here stands Deus Ex Machina, and it is a journey, I can say that much...


Before we start, screenshots of Deus Ex Machina aren't really good enough. You can get some incredible looking screens from it, especially when compared against other ZX Spectrum titles, but they aren't good enough to get the gist of things.

Video is better, and it's what I had to use, but even that isn't quite good enough. To really know what's going on with this game, you'd probably have to dust off a ZX Spectrum, find a cassette player, unbox your mail order copy of Deus Ex Machina and dive in.

Why a cassette player? How else are you going to hear a fully narrated, synchronised soundtrack which includes Jon Pertwee (of Doctor Who fame), Ian Dury (of The Blockheads) and Frankie Howerd (of British comedy). The home computer hardware certainly isn't good enough to give you all of that and a game in the 1980s, so a cassette player it is.

Or, as I said, a video.

What's that? A walking simulator? A mini-game collection? Pretentious twaddle? We've just followed the life of a being created - literally - from the arse end of a mouse, as narrated by The Doctor, complete with musical accompaniments. Name another game to do that. I can wait.

Fun Times

The little challenges look rather simple in terms of gameplay, almost to the point of wondering why you should even bother doing them. Dodging single targets, blocking incoming threats, jumping over gaps in an autoscroller... I'm not even aware of any fail states, though given a synchronised soundtrack I doubt they exist. If that's the case, is this a game or a movie?

That is a particularly lengthy discussion, and it can be quite heated. In my opinion, it's not a game, but nor is it a movie. It's not somewhere in the middle, it's not an interactive movie, it's not a cinematic game. If anything, it is a showcase: This is what computers can do. There are more ways to think about them than you might realise.

It's also a bit too arty farty. The soundtrack is a little too try hard, but then it really is necessary. Deus Ex Machina without it isn't worth loading up at all. Except for when you want to admire some of the screens. Sometimes it's hard to believe they came from a ZX Spectrum. I'm about as far from an expert of the system as you can get, but I can see that Deus Ex Machina took a bit of work to say the least...

It may suck as a game, but as something so out there and different from the norm, it can't be ignored.

Final Word

This'll be a title that I probably won't forget in terms of what it was trying to be, but I imagine myself forgetting the details because I simply didn't play it, and arguably it plays itself. It managed to get a sequel/re-imagining in 2010, but is it the same? Does it provoke the same amount of 'wtf' in this day and age as Deus Ex Machina did in the mid 80s? I don't know, but they got Sir Christopher Lee on board for the narration, so they're certainly aiming high.

I can't give a definitive review on this, but I like what I see - though perhaps not in terms of gameplay. Which is a problem in a video game...

Fun Facts

Critical acclaim couldn't stop the rampant piracy of Deus Ex Machina that came because of difficulties in distributing and selling a game that was like no other game at the time.

Deus Ex Machina, developed by Automata UK, first released in 1984.
Version watched: ZX Spectrum (RZX Archive)