The one-hour life of a 1980s video game auteur

How one of early gaming's most creative individuals turned his back on the medium for 25 years, and why he's returning.

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hat sad day, Mel Croucher sat drinking a can of cheap bitter on a cracked sofa that had once belonged to his mother. The beer tasted metallic.

He was in the offices of his company, Automata, the most innovative, adventurous, plumb crazy British game developer of the era.

Croucher had brought together the small group of people who were Automata, the first games company in the U.K.

They were known as the team which had effectively launched gaming in Britain in the 1970s, via a series of radio broadcasts that transmitted code for early computers like the Commodore PET. The company had bloomed in the early 1980s with a series of zany, nonviolent games for Sinclair home computers that had captured the public's attention, topped off by a highly ambitious art-house game called Deus Ex Machina, an early attempt to address the human experience through the medium of gaming.

But in June 1985, it was all coming to an end. Today, he was going to sell his company. He was going to end a period of his life that had yielded some of the most unusual, memorable games that had ever been created.

It was mid-morning, too early for beer and too hot for the pinstriped suit that Croucher had worn as "a kind of daft statement." The last time he'd worn it was to a funeral.

His old friend Christian Penfold signed some papers, officially transferring the company away from Croucher. Penfold worked on the games, but was best known for wearing a pink, fluffy jumpsuit to promotional events, dressing up as a floppy-nosed character called "Piman."

Anyone who read British computer games magazines in the mid-1980s, like Crash or Sinclair User — each of which sold more than 100,000 copies every month — knew Piman and they knew Mel Croucher. Piman and Croucher were the anti-establishment of gaming, before gaming even knew it was an establishment.

Croucher sold the company for 10 pence (about 15 cents). Penfold handed over the silver coin. There were no speeches, just some tears and hugs. They left the office behind, exited down the steps into the street, past a pub and a chip shop. Automata's office had been bought by a dentist. The sofa stayed behind.

Croucher looked at the 10-pence piece, put it in his pocket and walked away from video games. He would not return for a quarter of a century.

Deus Ex Machina: 1984

Croucher was a disappointed man. He'd "had enough" of making games. Deus Ex Machina, one of early digital entertainment's most striking achievements, was his creation. It was well-loved by its players, lauded by the games magazines of the time and a Game of the Year recipient. It was not a commercial hit.

For Croucher, Deus Ex Machina was a symbol of his own disappointment with video games, a medium he had already spent eight years fostering. It was a symbol of failure.

"I was fucking disappointed," says Croucher. "After Deus Ex Machina."

Following a string of idiosyncratic hits on the Sinclair Spectrum, he had created a game that cost him dearly. "I put everything into it," he says. "All my savings, my heart and my soul, everything was in there."

Deus Ex Machina is really a soundtrack on a tape, attached to an electronic story delivered via the "Speccy," the home computer that raised a generation of Brits. It tells the story of a life, the seven ages of man, as told by Shakespeare in As You Like It.

Croucher had rewritten Shakespeare, played around with the motifs and familiarities, indulged in his trademark literary surrealism.

It was something, back then, to be able to say that a game had been "written" in English, rather than merely in code.

Croucher's trippy orchestral music is overlaid with portentous, rich narrations from some of the most notable voices of the era, Frankie Howerd, Ian Dury and Jon Pertwee — a damaged stand-up comedian, a raging "spasticus, autisticus" punk rocker and a Time Lord — all somehow perfectly representative of the best that England had to offer in the cheerful gloom of the early 1980s.

At a time when Spectrum games were jaunty platformers or weak ghosts of arcade hits, Deus Ex Machina was art.

In 1984, Spectrum games sold for between five and eight pounds. Deus Ex Machina cost 15 pounds (about $22). It came on two cassettes — one for the code and one for the music, to be played simultaneously — with a gatefold package and a poster. Games packaging at the time was uniform, primary-colored, bubble-headed, quasi-Star Wars toshery. Deus Ex Machina's artwork took its lead from 1920s expressionism.

"It was my idiocy, as usual," laughs Croucher. "I should have sold the game at a sensible price. But I wanted to put a lovely poster in it and nice packaging and a double vinyl gatefold ... blah blah ... and I'd paid for all these famous actors, so the profit was not huge. I think we broke even. But I thought, 'OK, I'm not going to go through this again. Fuck that.'"

Almost 30 years later, Croucher is still a disappointed man, but he's also a lot of other things too; phlegmatic, amused and optimistic because, while he patently loathes the commercial "parasites" who he views as natural corrupters of creativity and originality, he believes in the strength of people collectively, to demand and effect change when they are given half a chance.

For Croucher, that half a chance comes in the form of something that did not exist in 1985, the digitally connected super-organism that thrums around us all, here in 2013.


Deus Ex Machina: 2013


In July, Croucher ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to help in his remake of Deus Ex Machina as a modern PC and Mac game. Much has altered in the world and in the game these past few decades, but there is one thing that hasn't changed: Deus Ex Machina defies labels.

"If you want to categorize it, you're going to find it very difficult," says Croucher. "Yes, surreal is right. Dystopian is right. It's an interactive movie, is about as close as I can get."

The player travels through a one-hundred-year life in exactly one hour. It begins in the rush to be the successful wriggling sperm that fertilizes the egg, and ends in the ignominy of decrepitude. In between, there are choices: goodness, badness, selfishness, kindness. Onwards and downwards, nothing less than the trudging journey from womb to grave.

The game begins on Nov. 19, 1948 (Croucher's birthday) and ends on Nov. 19, 2048. "You start just before you're born and you finish just after you die. It's a life on rails," says Croucher. "The only thing you can change is how you play your life. You've got options all the way, of course."

Croucher's work is always about music and, just as in the 1984 original, the soundtrack is the star. If placing music as a centerpiece to a game was weird in 1984, it seems timely in the age of Journey, Fez and Sound Shapes. This is one reason why Croucher's work is so often tagged as being "before its time."

Graphics and animation adhere to the modern age's standards, rather than the dots and crude splashes of yesteryear.

But visual strangeness is more important in this game than plain old fidelity. While the game takes a familiar topic as its plot, and a well-known Shakespearean motif as its theme, everything is infused with weirdness and humor. Croucher is a man who laughs a lot — giggles actually.

He is very much of that well-educated, post-war Monty Python generation that is constantly alive to every opportunity to chortle at the world's nonsense; all ludicrous puns, mocking asides and juvenile snickers.

"The whole sperm sequence is a hoot," says Croucher. "There's a great adolescence sequence where you squeeze zits and pluck pubes and stuff. It will appeal to all those overgrown idiots like me who want to see a game taking the piss. It's funny. I can crack many more jokes this time around.

"One of Shakespeare's tricks was to get you laughing and then kick you in the crotch with the tragedy. But he always got you laughing first. Or if something terrible had happened, he'd cut to the next scene and a couple of clowns came in. Life. Isn't it just like that? I think it is."

But Croucher isn't just about short-trousered, cherry-cheeked jokes. The game pursues the immorality of absolute capitalism, of weapons manufacturing and warmongering. It asks players to make choices, to make a stand one way or the other and to live with the consequences. Ultimately, its moral point is that getting through life without making errors of judgement is not only difficult, it's impossible. But you can at least try.

"How many of us live perfectly all our lives? The answer is, none of us," Croucher says. "We're all tempted to do something a bit naughty, do something downright evil. Investing in armaments or exploiting children or buying oil shares. Maybe next time around you're going to make a different decision. Would it make any difference to the final score? Absolutely not."

The game ends in a wretched old folks' home. There's an orchestra and the unforgiving spectre of the choices you made in the previous hour. The voice-over, your judgment, is delivered by actor Sir Christopher Lee, best known for playing Dracula in the Hammer horror movies, and for his appearances as powerful villains in both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

"You're going to end up in that old people's home no matter what you do. But your memories are going to be different," says Croucher.


Sir Christopher Lee put a line through it

How a bootstrapped indie game project came to snag one of the leading actors of the age is another facet of Croucher's indefinable knack of connecting with people.

He did not spend the years after the end of Automata sulking or moaning from the sidelines. He went off and wrote a widely admired political column in a top-selling computer magazine, co-created a cartoon strip lampooning the history of technology, recorded various albums and founded an internet music company that counted Pink Floyd, Eminem and Frank Zappa among its clients.

Croucher is surrounded by a loyal cadre of artistic types located in the bustling southern English city of Portsmouth, home to many students, bohemians and creatives. He used his contacts to reach out to a list of 10 actors he wanted to voice the main characters in the remake of Deus Ex Machina, to take over from those three original voice actors, who are all long since dead.

"Graphics are graphics. Anyone can do graphics these days," says Croucher. "We had a little bit of [pre-Kickstarter] funding so I decided to spend every penny I could on getting the best voices on the planet."

Christopher Lee was number one on Croucher's nutty, unlikely wish list that included Alice Cooper, Anthony Hopkins and Pogues lead singer Shane McGowan.

"I couldn't get near anyone," he says. "Then one day I got a bell [phone call] from a very nice lady, and she said, 'Can you send me the script?' I said, 'Who am I sending it to?' She said, 'Well, he's an established actor who wants to read the script.'"

Croucher hoped it might be Lee, who he knew to be a classicist and one who liked to take on weird projects. He went back to the script and focused on the lines that riff on Shakespeare.

"To cut a long story short, Christopher Lee eventually got in touch and said, 'When do you want this recorded?' I practically shit myself. I couldn't fucking believe it. Christopher Lee was saying yes. So I thought, 'Please don't die, Sir Christopher.' [laughs]

"So we go in the studio and he's fantastic. OK, he's old. He's frail. But he's still commanding. The other people in the studio were just gobsmacked. He's very funny and charming. The women were wetting themselves. He sat down and he looked at the script and got a pen out, started putting lines through it. He was correcting my Latin."

Croucher says, in that final scene, when death arrives for the game's character, Lee comes into his own. "Yeah, it's dark and Christopher Lee makes it darker. When he delivered the lines in the studio, what I hoped would happen, happened. People cried."

Reaching people

For Croucher, Kickstarter is a super-efficient way to promote his work and win feedback from the audience, something he was doing when many of today's game developers were yet to be born.

Back when he was running a radio show in the 1970s, participants called in and were given trifling prizes. In the 1980s, Croucher and Piman would show up at computer fairs in Birmingham and Preston and Swansea, giving away tchotchkes and connecting with their fans.

"We tried to give back as much as we could in the past, with prizes and stuff," he says. "With crowd funding, the reward structure is fantastic. Cutting out all the parasites, cutting out the agencies, the publicists, the banks, the distributors, the wholesalers, the retailers; everybody gets cut out. It's absolutely fantastic. If I fuck up this time, it's all down to me, which again I think is fantastic. There's no one to blame."

What he really loves is the notion of people playing the game before it's finished, something unimaginable in the 1980s.

This allows him to test out his most barmy ideas on people who like the kind of work that he does. "I have loads of feedback about the scoring and the graphics and the music but I can also find out if I'm offending anyone. There's full frontal nudity in this. There's senile dementia. There's children being given a really hard time. There's a swastika. In the old days you were lucky if you got a room full of people to say, 'Oh, yeah, that's good, but change that bit.' It took a long time. Now it's almost instant."

Video games via radio

Automata_6Piman (left) at a British computer fair in the early 1980s1980_5
Croucher (seated) with the original Automata team1980_5
Croucher in 2013

Croucher is often credited with founding the British video game industry. Certainly, he founded the first company dedicated to releasing computer games and he was distributing homemade games in the U.K. before anyone else.

In the mid-1970s, Croucher worked as a successful architect who had created, among other things, homes for Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, and a museum for Henry VIII's doomed warship, the Mary Rose. But in his heart, he was a musician who, in an era of experimentation, liked to try new things. He quit architecture.

He also liked computers and began to create games distributed across the musician's medium of choice, radio. The games were really just puzzles, broadcast late at night as beeps and bloops that, when taped by computer users, were understood by machines like the Commodore PET. There were prizes for the first people to solve the puzzles. The audiences for these late night shows were in the dozens.

When home computers like the Sinclair ZX81 arrived in the early 1980s, his company Automata was ready, selling cheap games on cassettes, advertised in burgeoning magazines and distributed in video stores.

Within a few years, Automata was at the forefront of British computer gaming and a familiar sight in the media. The company had a mascot, the Piman, who also starred in his own game Pimania, that gained widespread media coverage because of the novelty of a game sparking a nationwide treasure hunt, for a sundial.

Pimania's tagline was "There's no blood in our games, it's Automata sauce." That was something else about Croucher's work that was unusual. He refused to countenance any form of violence in his games. Even then, games were about destroying things. But Croucher wanted them to be about discovery. He wanted people to find, not just sundials, but truths and feelings.

For Croucher, this was also a depressing truth about gaming in 1985. It wasn't working out the way he had expected. While Baer had wanted to make machines and Bushnell had wanted to make money, Croucher wanted to make people laugh and cry.

"Back in the '70s and certainly by the time we hit the '80s, I thought I'd be making interactive movies and doing full stories," says Croucher. "I thought I'd be generating emotion."

Video games did not often do that in the 1980s, and only now are they breaking free of their technical and self-imposed marketing limitations. "I'm amazed that big studios haven't invested in this," he says. "I can't believe it's still people shooting each other and jumping up and down. It's crap."

There was another reason for Croucher's disappointment, apart from the financial slog of making games and the lack of its progress as a valid art form, and that was piracy. It wasn't so much the thought that precious revenues were being siphoned off, but the realization that people all over Europe were receiving the game without the soundtrack.

They were just getting the code cassette, not the music one and were left staring at this baffling screen, with no audio accompaniment, rendering the experience meaningless.

News drifted back to Croucher of people in France, Portugal, Greece and as far away as India, loading up the data cassette and thinking it was somehow faulty. But there were also letters from fans abroad who did get to enjoy the full game, with its audio soundtrack.

One of these letters came more than 20 years later which was, as it turned out, just in time.

Letters from Europe

"A guy from Lisbon, Mário Valente, contacted me," says Croucher. "He was a naughty boy when he was in his teens. He was a pirate, then he left all that behind and made his money as an entrepreneur. But he loved Deus Ex Machina. He reckons it was the greatest game ever made, which means he's crazy as well. But he wanted to make amends."

"One of the pirate software houses that I worked for when I was a teenager, cracking speed-loads and whatnot, had actually bought the original Deus Ex Machina," says Valente. "I enjoyed the whole package, even if just for the small period of time it took me to make a master copy of both data and audio cassettes and send them for duplication."

Valente became, and remains, a fan. He played the game obsessively, in the way 15-year-old boys do. He can still quote, word-for-word, the entire soundtrack.

"I always wondered, why didn't anyone remake Deus, and take advantage of the graphics and sound capabilities that became available?" With a successful career behind him, Valente decided to get in touch with Croucher, and ask him that exact question.

"I was amazed that Mr. Mel Croucher actually replied to me," he says. "So I met one of my teen-years idols on a cold morning in London. When we signed the contract and Mel trusted me with a huge amount of memorabilia and the audio master reels, I couldn't believe that we would actually be remaking the game. I spent one full week in a state of disbelief."

Croucher was happy too. The money was enough for him to reform Automata as Automata Source, and even to bring back some of the programming and musical talent from the original game. As news of the venture leaked out, more Speccy nuts from back in the day came forward with offers of donations.

The team also turned toward Kickstarter to raise funding for the game's completion. An initial attempt to raise $100,000 fell well short, but a second try, this time to raise $15,000, flew through its target.

"This whole crowd-funding stuff, I just think it's fantastic," says Croucher. "This is just the start, as far as I'm concerned. If I live long enough, this has changed my life."


Personal experience

Judging by the Kickstarter comments, many of his backers are old fans of the original, but also those who have heard of Croucher's reputation or are looking for new experiences in gaming.

His work is surreal and affecting, and it's the sort of stuff that grinds the "is it really a game?" brigade of pedants. He clearly doesn't care if you call it a game or you call it a lollipop. Deus Ex Machina is not about mechanics or the psychology of reward structures; it's about the artist's life, the stuff that happened to him and that he thinks is universal and therefore worth retelling.

"Most people my age have been responsible for something bloody awful," he says. "Either in their work or in human relationships. Hopefully most people have done something good. Everyone who's going to play this game has been to school. Everyone has been mocked or has mocked others. Everyone will die. Everyone has had sex, hopefully. Everyone has betrayed somebody. Everyone has done something unethical. Everyone has done something good without being asked to, without being praised. So it's a normal life.

"If I'm to sum it up in one sentence, it is: Embrace the good stuff and reject the bad stuff. That's the game."

The past and the present are intertwined in Croucher's game, just as in his life.

He still has that 10-pence piece. It's blu-tacked to a whiteboard, where he jots down his ideas.

"A 10p coin was quite bulky and heavy back then, a legacy of pre-decimalization, the same size of an old florin. It's dull now. The new coinage doesn't go dull. It reminds me what past glories are worth. Not a lot." Babykayak

Images: Mel Croucher
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan