Your Spectrum
Issue 10, December 1984 - Deus Ex Machina
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Deus Ex Machina may be an innovation - bringing a touch ot Hollywood to your screens - but what of the game itself? Is it a game anyway? Ross Holman auditions Automata's rising star, providing out-takes from its screen test.

Deus Ex Machina is not just a game, it's a visual and aural experience. The idea is not unlike that of the 'concept' LP, where you're supposed to follow a theme from beginning to end. The theme in this case is the growth, birth, ageing and death of a mutant generated by an all-powerful computer. The initial process of creation is in fact brought about via a lump of mouse dropping; you as the player have to nurture and guide this freak organic accident through its life cycle.
For only (?) £15 you'll lay your hands on a very large plastic box containing two cassettes and a large poster. Cassette one provides the computer games, while the other has the accompanying soundtrack. On the reverse of the poster is a brief description of how to load the game and the control options. The game is Kempston and Interface 2 compatible but so easy to control that just using the keyboard alone is not difficult. The poster also offers a complete transcript of the songs and narrative, along with an explanation of each game and pictures of all the celebrities who appear on the tape.
Automata describe the game as 'an animated televised fantasy' and as the union of computer game, film, book and LP is perhaps stretching it a bit. Still, the company is obviously proud of its latest release, and justly so. It's produced maybe 70K of machine code games, all synchronised to a music and narrative cassette, featuring the likes of Frankie Howard, Jon Pertwee, Mel Croucher, Donna Bailey and Ian Dury. All in all it's a slickly produced and presented piece of software which has clearly had a lot of time and effort spent on it. The question is, does it make for an appealing game?


Automata certainly seems keen to get across the idea of genetics and dangers inherent in experimenting in this field; any other ideas or messages that may appear to lie within the game are strictly up to the individual to find. As for games content, well, the games are not too difficult to play and getting to the end is easy. On the other hand, I'm sure that this is deliberate. The idea of synchronising game and soundtrack is new and works well, but the appeal soon wears off; eventually, I found myself playing the game without any audio assistance at all!
If Deus Ex Machina appeals to you then maybe it's worth the £15 price tag to own what's potentially an interesting chunk of computer history. But don't expect it to knock your socks off.
Once side one of the computer tape has loaded, you're told when to start playing the first side of the soundtrack cassette. Ex-Dr Who star, John Pertwee counts down to zero to indicate when you should hit the 'pause' button. The computer now counts down to zero and you must re-ignite the audio tape. Eureka! Game and cassette are now synchronised. This is one of Deus' best features; the audio soundtrack makes this program more like a night at the movies than an arcade game!
This is where the animation starts. John Pertwee takes you through a potted history of how the 'accident' occurred and why you're now playing the game. All you have to do is to control a mutant through its weird 'life'. No small task! Apparently. it all began with a mouse leaving a small organic present just before it died. The lump of mouse dropping began to mutate and your protection is required if it's to be kept secret from the all-thinking, all-knowing machine in which it lives.
Game one, The DNA Welder, begins by confronting you with some spinning double helixes (representing DNA). The first problem is to prevent them from slowing down and stopping; if this happens, your score (which starts at 99 per cent normality) will start to decrease. To speed up the spinning helixes, you have to guide a green cursor on to them and wait until it regains speed. The only other inhabitant of the screen is the blue cursor, which cycles down line by line, from top left to bottom right; this is the scanner of the Defect Police.
More blue cursor stuff here. On this screen you have to keep the cells pulsating by - yes, you've guessed it - touching them with your green cursor while avoiding the blue DP cursor. As the soundtrack and computer game have to go hand-in-hand. all the games play to a specific time limit. I found that, especially on the first few levels where the variation in play is not all that spectacular, the games tended to be just that little bit too long.
On this level - which is pretty much the same as the one before - you have to keep the rocking memory banks moving. The graphics are up to the standard Deus has set for itself - large characters, with very smooth animation - and once again. you have to use your green cursor to warm the banks up while avoiding the blue Defect Police probe. This is perhaps the biggest criticism of Deus - for the first few games, you do get the impression each level is going to be a simple variation on a theme.

In the Beau Bank (game five) a single egg has been taken by the machine and now needs fertilising. At this point, Ian Dury makes his entrance singing "I'm a fertilising agent" - which is good news indeed for all the eggs. You have to guide the sperm by bouncing it off your cursor; this turned out to be the most entertaining of all the screens - for a start, it was the only one on which I could actually accumulate points! This game is one of the 'avoid the Defect Police cursor' series.
Your task inside the Incubator involves keeping the lifeform's cocoon intact; you do this by guarding and preserving its constituent parts. Yet another 'Defect Police cursor' game, this one has a slightly different twist from the first three games. This time you keep the cocoon warm and in its sea of pulsating cells, and avoid the Defect Police yet again (Who'd have guessed! Ed.). At least the lifeform looks a bit different (even if it does look more like a human being).
Once the infant's born, it's thrown into the world at the deep end ... literally. You have to guide the spinning foetus through the probing eyes of the Defect Police and along a psychedelic pathway to safety. Each time your babe hits an 'eye', your normality score decreases; the graphics in this part of the game are quite striking, mainly due to the colours used for the background. Although I experimented with various techniques, there was no way I could get through this level without hitting at least one of the Defect Police's eyes!
The last two games on side one show the young, very human, lifeform spinning in the centre of the screen. Surrounding him (or her!) are probing eyes that emit psychic rays. For protection, you have to manoeuvre a small shield around the babe - thus nullifying the effects of the probes. I found that no matter how good your reactions were you couldn't achieve 100 percent success and, as ever, the score decreases. (No sooner are you born than you begin to die!)
Your score is carried over into side two - so don't reset your computer; this is a slightly annoying feature as I'm sure many users would have preferred to have a 'save-game' option at this stage. The first two games on side two involve the now adult man running, jumping and avoiding the pitfalls of life. The action on-screen shows the figure under attack both from above and either side, It's time to whip out three shields, to block the path of the advancing nasties.
The next game is perhaps the most impressive, showing the middle-age creature lumbering towards the player - that is, out of the screen. At its feet are a number of words representing good and evil; the idea is to jump over the 'good' words like 'love' and 'peace', while stamping on words like 'evil' and 'war'. It's not all that easy to judge when to jump and the creature seems to jump on its own at times(?). Each mistake causes some of your empire (which you see in the background) to collapse.
Deus ex Machina face Once you've guided the scanner along the old creature's pulse you're thrown in the second part of the final section in which you have to stop the creature's blood clotting. You do this by hitting the clotting cells with your cursor. Once this game's over, you die. The game ends just like a movie with the credits scrolling up the screen in the usual Hollywood fashion. As the soundtrack quietly fades into the background, the computer resets with the Sinclair Research copyright message and it's all over. Deus ex Machina face

Seasoned hacker, Dave Nicholls shuttles through Deus' code - and comes up trumps!

There have been many instances of companies claiming their games use programming techniques that are 'new' or which have 'never been used before' - but going by the ones I've seen, I can only assume that those concerned have never heard of Knuth's Fundamental Algorithms or any other classic programming books!


I've always maintained that, although innovation is a wonderful thing, there's no substitute for good, solid 'standard' programming when it comes to getting things done. This is where Deus Ex Machina really stands out. The concept of the music cassette is obviously new, but Andrew Stagg's coding for the games is virtually an object lesson in good programming. Any of you who've read my words of wisdom before (Shame on you if you've missed them! Ed.) will know that there are several coding faults in games programming that really get up my nose - the two major ones being self-modifying code (of
which there's none in Deus), and large 'gaps' in between subroutines. On the latter score, Deus is amazing - it's so densely packed that when I needed to insert a small routine of my own, it took me about half an hour to find room for it!
One thing Deus does seem to have pretty much sussed is its use of interrupts. For those of you not in the know, this is the method of stopping the CPU periodically, making it jump to another program in a different location in memory. This is a relatively easy way to make a computer run more than one program at once (multi-tasking to you, John!). Spectrum interrupts occur 50 times a second and are normally used to scan the keyboard and update the FRAMES system variable ... but they can be re-directed to do other things, such as to provide a continuous tune throughout the game. This is obviously redundant in Deus (as it comes with its own soundtrack), so Andrew Stagg has used them to make the games stay in sync with the words/music tape. To this end, each game has a set of timing values used by the interrupt handler to inform the main code when things are due to occur; this is done by modifying a particular memory location which is checked repeatedly by the main program and used to work out which routine to run next. This is also used the other way round, so that the handler can run routines needed for a particular game; these routines are all of a fixed length so that
they can be allowed for in the timing constants for the game. So, remember, next time you play Deus you're actually running two independent, but interacting, programs.


My final comments on Deus Ex Machina concern the scoring system. While hacking a game, I tend to play it quite a lot to get a 'feel' for what's going on. My efforts were rewarded with a consistent score of zero per cent. OK, so this isn't unusual for me, but I knew that Ross 'Magic Fingers' Holman was having the same problem ... so I decided to investigate. After much rooting around in the code, I soon found the answer.
For each game, you're given a percentage mark (however, this isn't the mark you see on-screen!) which is then used to reduce your current score - for example, if you score 60 per cent on a game then you'll lose 40 per cent of your overall score. Geddit? So that you don't lose points too quickly, each game has a limit below which your score cannot fall (for instance, all the games on side two of the cassette have a 50 per cent limit). However, as your maximum score is 99 per cent and an integer divide routine is used, you'll lose at least one per cent on each game (except for the Beau Bank where you get one per cent added for each fertilised egg). I can only think that Automata are trying to tell us that nobody's perfect!
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