1985, Hewson Consultants
originally played on Commodore 64
Don’t let Apple’s Siri fool you into complacency about artificial intelligence. Automatons have been a worry for a while now, and not just in our home appliances and digital devices. Humans being overcome and ultimately destroyed by the robots who serve them has been a longstanding trope of science fiction literature since its inception, and earlier literary examples include E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann and Johann Richter’s satires. Indeed, primitive mechanical automata were often darling court entertainments for the aristocrats of the European enlightenment. More pragmatically, automatons and the automation of human endeavour they represent remain the playthings of the wealthy elite. Anxiety toward robots manifests real fears of human obsolescence, as technological developments within modern capitalism tend to displace workers from their jobs by making their work obsolete and the workers hopelessly uncompetitive. Such exploitation is really only one articulation of the possibilities enabled by the automation of human labour, and not the inevitable outcome of technology. This anxiety – which famously and somewhat apocryphally brought the word ‘sabotage’ into the English language after French and Dutch labourers halted the machines which were intended to replace them – is really directed toward the ontology of the human experience, as since the mastery of fire our existence has been predicated on our technological capacity. If the human is defined primarily by the non-human tools which displace our previous sense of ourselves, then is the purpose of the human experience to transcend itself? Robots stand in the place of our worry that we will not live up to ourselves.
As the UK scene was centred primarily on
cassette tapes as storage media for software, game developers could readily
replicate and distribute their own software outside of any corporate (read:
committee) control of their product. Significantly, the average price point for
games in the UK was considerably lower than in the US, allowing people to
purchase games on a whim rather than save up for them. Games purchased for £2-5
could be short diversions which presented one or two gameplay ideas and didn’t
even need to be fully developed in terms of graphics or sound, rather than the
long investments of playtime and elaborate art budgets expected from a game purchased
for $50-60. While my research into game pricing is currently not complete
enough to provide the statistical rigour requisite to a causal analysis, it is
likely that for a variety of reasons the UK market can be described as
situating its products in accordance with what could be described in terms of the
North American market as ‘low-budget’ and ‘casual’ demographics.
Paradroid is a strategic action game in which players act as both robot and (offscreen) human. Released for the Commodore 64 in 1985 by the English developer Hewson Consultants and programmed by Andrew Braybrook (whose previous game Gribbly’s Day Out had received favourable attention from the British gaming press, and who would go on to develop the equally well-regarded shooter Uridium), the game situates players as being in remote control of an ‘Influence Device’ on board a derelict space craft, tasked with destroying a ship full of robots which killed the human crew after their circuits were damaged when the ship passed through a spatial anomaly. These derelict spaceships are now travelling into enemy territory, with grave consequences for humanity should the ships fall under control of enemy forces.
The Influence Device earns its name by
allowing players to take control of any other robot on the ship, thus opening
access to a variety of different capabilities according to the type of robot
captured. Robots are depicted with a number identifying their rank, with higher
numbers in general being more powerful robots than lower numbers. But of
course, power is a relative thing. While most of the robots are equipped with
weapons which increase in destructive power according to rank, some high-ranking
robots have other useful capabilities but no weapons. Capturing robots involves
a strategic gameplay sequence in which players have a limited amount of time to
dominate a circuit board by routing electricity through logic gates in favour
of an opponent’s routes, respectively identified as purple or yellow in colour.
Different robots have different capabilities for capturing other robots,
reflected in the number of electricity nodes each player is able to deploy on
the circuit. Generally speaking, higher-ranked robots can more easily dominate
lower-ranked ones, but this is not always the case, and players are often
provided opportunities to punch outside of their weight class, as it were.
Players use these robots to destroy the other robots and access other parts of
the ship. Robots are destroyed either by ramming (given sufficient armour on
the host robot), capturing, or shooting them.
|you play as the 'hat', not the 'head'|
|capturing robots through power electronics|
Of course, like most games of the period almost nothing of this narrative or atmosphere is found in the game itself, but rather in the manuals and box art, with differences extant between the British and North American releases (the box description of the NA version suggests that the crew of the ship is still alive, and renames the Influence Device to an “anti-Droid weapon”). The game itself focuses on presenting the core mechanics of the game – exploring large, contiguous maze-like levels to capture and destroying or capturing fast-moving robots while avoiding being shot – using a responsive and efficient game engine which effectively convinces players of the vastly different capabilities each robot the player inhabits (the reviewer in Zzap!64 praises the varying movement patterns for effectively depicting each robot’s personality).
smooth scrolling of the game engine was rightly praised by critics at the time
of the game’s release, as only basic hardware scrolling had been implemented on
game or computer platforms (Nintendo’s Famicom, which implemented a useful hardware
scroll, had only just arrived in North America; in any case, early Famicom
games did not extensively use the scrolling feature). Shooting elements can get
quite challenging when multiple high-ranking robots are involved, and the
varied environments of the ship levels (varied in terms of layout, not
graphical elements) allow for a variety of tactical situations. Elevators allow
access to other levels on the ship, which players may explore whenever they
like, a fact which often gets less patient players in trouble. Computer
terminals located throughout the ship provide maps and information about other
robots, and each level has at least one device to heal and restore a player’s
Damage is aggregated but not visually rendered until a robot is close
to destruction, at which point it begins to flash and the player has a limited
amount of time to transfer to another robot before the Influence Device is
destroyed. Furthermore, some of the higher-ranked robots are unstable when
captured by the Influence Device and only allow players to inhabit them for a
short period. After destroying all robots on a level, the level darkens with a
‘powering down’ sound, with the player expected to continue clearing levels
until the entire ship is free of hostile robots. Like many action games of the
time, there is no real ending, as once a ship is fully cleared the player is simply transported into a new one full of robots at a higher difficulty setting. Although it is oddly fulfilling to
clear a ship of homicidal robots and attain the loneliness of a powerdown, the
goal is to master the skills required for a high score, not fulfill a narrative
agenda. Indeed, the reclamation of the ship by the humans who transported the
Influence Device there (a theme which might have made interesting subject
matter for a sequel) is left unexplored.
|one of 24 different droids encountered|
|ranks are important; 139 is a loser|
While the game’s graphics, sound, gameplay, and atmosphere were universally praised – most contemporary magazine reviewers were highly effusive about the game’s merits while publications such as Amiga Power and Retrogamer have listed the game as among the best computer games of the 8-bit era, and the game's popularity proved sufficient to allow a 16-bit remake of the game on the Amiga in 1990 – in retrospect it is the minimalist aesthetic of the game which allows it to stand out when viewed against its contemporaries.
Indeed, much like the survival horror games which began to emerge in the 1990s,
the atmosphere of the game is nearly entirely dependent on its minimalist audio
presentation. Avoiding the wildly creative use of the Commodore 64’s SID chip for music common to the
British game dev scene of the 1980s, Paradroid is soundtracked by the low continuous pulse of the ship’s engines as well as the synthesized noises of the various robots, punctuated by the sounds of doors opening and weapon fire from the robots. While pulsing music is often appreciated in action games, and was certainly a staple of the English coding scene, such enthusiastic soundtracks tend to undermine the atmosphere of the stalk-and-be-stalked gameplay found in Paradroid. This tension is further emphasized with the implementation of a basic fog-of-war mechanic which hides enemies from view when they are around corners and behind objects and doors. Rarely do players feel safe on a level, as even the powered-down levels clear of robots invoke the dread and isolation of deep space.
|good level design, great 8-bit graphics|
Like most games on the Commodore, Paradroid was heavily pirated, finding its way into the libraries of almost everyone who owned the machine. I remember discovering the game during a rain-filled weekend in the summer 1987 on a floppy disk full of other arcade-style games including Jumpman, Hunchback, and Miner 2049er, which had been copied onto the back of the game Impossible Mission, which was the only game I knew about when I copied the disk from a friend. Most of my experiences with Commodore games were similarly exploratory, with hidden treasures emerging with each directory listing. LOAD “$”,8 >> LIST was a holy mantra opening the digital cave of the forty thieves. Before my father started bringing home lists of pirated software available from an emergency room doctor he worked with, friends and I would exchange games with each other by copying whole disks at school. Disks labelled with only one or two games often contained many more, and it did not take long to discover that what was once a collection of dozens of games was in fact a library of many hundreds. It was usually the strange titles which captured interest. British games such as Monty on the Run, Blood and Guts, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Jet Set Willy were not only cheekily titled but also wildly subversive and unpredictable, with odd art and sound effects and surreal characters and gameplay. Nothing like these games was available on consoles. Indeed, after having access to so many games at once there was no way that I could ever go back to gaming on consoles, whose expensive cartridges limit consumptive excess to the rich. Commodore gaming – whether on the Vic 20, the 64, or the Amiga – was often a continual stream of new experiences, a flow of content unmatched until the internet democratized software distribution.
|clear robots from each deck of the ship|
Goat Simulator, Pony Island, Dropsy, and The Stanley Parable have found a commercially-viable home (and sometimes become a commercial hit). While large publishers have been known to release interesting titles, the general trend for commercial game development is akin the Hollywood production model: exceptionally large capital investments are deployed to continually shift audience expectations for games toward a dependency on large capital investment. When executed well, corporate production strategies beget money printing machines, as old gameplay ideas are exhaustively recycled with new art assets and franchise expansions (witness any EA sports title, or DICE’s Call of Duty series). However, such successes (or need for such success) often compromise and even stifle interesting ideas which lie outside of the commercial mainstream. Worryingly, Steam’s competitor in computer game distribution has started to close its platform to better enforce strict control over games and game developers. With Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform, Microsoft is taking cues from Apple, Sony, and Nintendo’s strict control policies for their platforms. No longer will independent studios and developers be able to release games at their own discretion, but must comply with Microsoft’s policies for the platform. Obviously, such service will not be freely given, so developers can expect to pay licensing and developer fees, much like they do to Nintendo or Sony for being able to release on their platforms. As of the end of April 2016, the games released on UWP have been relative disasters, likely souring developers who have not yet adopted Windows 10 exclusivity. It is likely that the contemporary computer game scene will soon be defined by open versus closed platforms, with the mainstream market likely following Microsoft into the walled garden. If such control represents the automation of game development relative to the corporate strategy of a handful of companies, then perhaps we must admit that the robots are winning the influence war.