The Merry Pranksters of Automata

21 Jan

The Piman and Uncle Groucho

I closed my last article by noting that Ultimate Play the Game’s works can feel just a bit soulless to me with their slickness and unrelenting commercial focus — an opinion I’m sure many of you don’t share. Well, rest assured that I can’t attach any such complaint to my subject for today.

Automata UK was the creation of a pair of agitators named Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold who became the Merry Pranksters of the early British software industry, mixing absurdist humor with the DIY ethos of punk rock and more than a hint of an agitprop sensibility. Whatever else you care to say about them, you certainly can’t call them slick or commercial. Their works and their rhetoric harkened back to older utopian dreams for personal computing as a means to universal empowerment for all — dreams immersed in the ideals of the counterculture and promoted in the likes of the People’s Computer Company newsletter and the early issues of Creative Computing. With home computing taking off in Britain and the traditional forces of business and culture getting involved in a big way, those dreams were already beginning to sound quaint and anachronistic by the time Automata peaked in 1983 and 1984. Possessed as they were of about the level of business acumen you might expect from a pair of self-described “old hippies,” they were doomed from the start. Still, they had one hell of a lot of fun while they lasted.

Croucher was a disillusioned architect coming off a stint working under Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum to construct the modern Dubai. He’d also worked as a cartographer, played bass in rock bands, and briefly entertained the idea of becoming a painter. If Croucher was the would-be artist and visionary, Penfold was, relatively speaking, the more grounded; he’d sold everything from cars to plants to advertising space amidst various other jobs. Like many fruitful partnerships, they weren’t always sympatico with one another. Croucher declared that he was “to the left of Tony Benn” while Penfold was “to the right of Enoch Powell“: “That’s why it works — otherwise we’d come in in the morning and agree!”

Automata was founded circa 1977 on Croucher’s Dubai windfall. Like Melbourne House, it wasn’t initially conceived as a game or software developer, as is betrayed by the original full name: “Automata Cartography.” Capitalizing on Croucher’s background in cartography, they made tourist-friendly informational brochures and maps for the likes of the Sealink ferry service and British Airways. Those soon morphed into audio travel guides and promotions for foreign hotels as well as radio spots. Their guide to their home base of Portsmouth, narrated in the persona of, of all people, Charles Dickens, was heard by every tourist who booked a pleasure cruise around the harbor. They even produced some feature radio programming, such as a quiz program for Radio Victory that Penfold described as “rather like University Challenge without the brains.”

Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold, 1983

Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold, 1983

They were aboard a ferry on the English Channel, returning from working on a production for Sealink in the Channel Islands, when Croucher told Penfold about the Sinclair ZX81 computer he had just purchased, his first exposure to computing since the 1960s, when he’d struggled to teach the big machine at his university how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and flash its lights in rhythm. He’d seen advertisements for computer games in magazines for £4 or £5, a princely sum compared to what he and Penfold were used to getting paid for their work. And he recognized that the world stood on an artistic precipice.

I knew that computers were not for performing business functions at all, but would transform everything I was involved in. I was absolutely convinced that computers would facilitate the convergence of film, book, theatre and music, with the added miracle of interactivity.

Having learned from his struggles with ALGOL in earlier decades that he wasn’t much of a programmer, he asked Penfold if he’d like to take up the task, to implement his (Croucher’s) many ideas; Penfold seemed like he would have a better mind for the task. Penfold, as Croucher has delighted in telling interviewers ever since, promptly threw up — not in reaction to the idea, but because the crossing was rough and he was prone to seasickness. On that auspicious note, the new venture was born.

Options were of course decidedly limited on the ZX81 with its 1 K of memory. So Croucher and Penfold would put ten mini-games onto a cassette, each necessarily trivial in itself but building as a collection to address some overarching theme. Both reacted viscerally to violence in games even in this era when that meant no more than onscreen blobs knocking off other onscreen blobs. “If there is such a thing as an alien, it doesn’t want to come down to earth and get killed,” noted Croucher. “I have yet to find an arcade game where there is a full trial at the start,” rejoined Penfold. Croucher later put it even more strongly: “I think people who create violent games are lazy, ignorant, and have poodle shit for brains.” Thus Automata’s games from first to last would be resolutely nonviolent.

Yet that didn’t keep them from offending in other ways, as evidenced by their aptly named first tape, Can of Worms, with its “piss takes” (Croucher’s words) involving acne, vasectomies, Hitler, and Reagan, and featuring a Space Invaders satire along with Royal Flush, an anti-monarchy screed which, yes, does involve a toilet. It all seemed to Croucher the appropriate response to those combative early years of Thatcher’s reign, times of “repression, depression, recession, and political mayhem.” Some reviewers were predictably outraged, accusing Automata of “peddling pornography to kids” (exactly the sort of reaction, one senses, that Croucher and Penfold were hoping for). Others took it all more casually; Eric Deeson noted bemusedly in Your Computer that Can of Worms “must suffice for readers with bad taste until something more revolting appears.” Croucher and Penfold obligingly tried to up the ante with Love and Death, a progression from fertilization to death (a theme to which they would eventually return for their most famous work) and The Bible, always a subject guaranteed to enrage. All were storyboarded by Croucher and then programmed by Penfold in crude BASIC, which he bragged was like his poetry — “unstructured.”

When the Spectrum appeared and sold like crazy, Automata, like most software houses, quickly made the switch to the new machine with its color graphics and luxurious 48 K of memory. They came into their own with their first game for the Speccy, the most commercially successful they would ever release. Pimania is an illustrated text adventure involving the Piman, a pink fellow with a grotesquely huge nose whose relationship to the player lives on some uncertain ground between ally and antagonist. Croucher had based him on a neighbor, “a deadpan poet with a great Scottish accent and peculiar vocal delivery.” He quickly became Automata’s mascot. Children took to calling the office wanting to speak to him; Croucher or Penfold obligingly played the part. He starred in a comic strip drawn by Robin Evans which ran on the back cover of every issue of Popular Computing Weekly. And he became a beloved presence at shows and other events, with Penfold usually inside the costume. Penfold:

He is an escape — an extension of our own personalities — all the nice and nasty bits rolled into one. But now he no longer just exists in our minds. He is real. He has his own character.

As for the game itself, the first puzzle tells you just about everything you need to know about what you’re in for. The opening screen simply says, “A key turns the lock,” then refuses to do anything else until you figure out that it wants you to press the Spectrum’s PI key. After that you get to work out that navigation is based not on the usual compass directions but the hands of a clock. And then things start to get difficult. Depending on how you look at it and how charitable you’re feeling, Pimania is either a surrealistic but tough-as-nails old-school adventure game, a confused and confusing and essentially unsolvable effort all too typical of beginning designers and programmers writing their first adventure, or a piece of sadistic satire sending up the absurdities of early adventure games.

Whatever its virtues or flaws, Pimania sold quite well, largely on the back of the Piman’s inexplicable popularity and a brilliant promotional idea. This was inspired by Kit Williams’s 1979 children’s book Masquerade, which encoded within it the location of a hare made out of gold and jewels and buried in a secret location somewhere in England. Thousands scoured the book for clues to the golden hare’s whereabouts until an intrepid seeker finally recovered it almost three years after publication. The book itself became a bestseller.

The Golden Sundial of Pi

The Golden Sundial of Pi

Croucher and Penfold commissioned De Beers Diamond International Award winner Barbara Tipple to make a Golden Sundial of Pi out of gold, lapis lazuli, obsidian, and diamond, at a claimed price of an extraordinary £6000. Winning Pimania would provide the clues as to where and, crucially, when to show up to claim the prize; only one day of the year would suffice.

Contests were quickly becoming de rigueur for almost every major adventure-game release in Britain, but few attracted the attention and passion of this one. And yet the Pimania mystery went unsolved, even though Penfold’s BASIC was an accessible target for would-be code divers. As months stretched into years, some began darkly hinting that maybe there wasn’t actually a Golden Sundial at all, that the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke being played on the gaming public — which admittedly would fit right into Automata’s public persona, but would also be unspeakably cruel. One poor fellow, convinced he’d cracked the code, even made plans to jet off to Bethlehem for Christmas. When Penfold and Croucher got wind of that, they were kind enough to tell him through the press that he was on the wrong track; I don’t know whether he believed them or went off anyway. The rather more accessible Stonehenge was a favorite target of many others, while yet more, having worked out a connection to Pegasus, visited seemingly everything everywhere having anything to do with horses. All for naught.

Uncle Groucho (Croucher) and the Piman (Penfold)

Uncle Groucho (Croucher) and the Piman (Penfold)

Even as the Pimania mystery remained unsolved, Automata launched a new contest to go with their next adventure, which bore the intimidating title of My Name is Uncle Groucho… You Win a Fat Cigar. As trippy as its predecessor, it had players chasing Groucho Marx — who now became Croucher’s alter ego to join Penfold in his Piman suit — around the United States. It was all surreal enough that it led interviewer Tristan Donovan recently to ask Croucher whether “drugs were a factor.” Croucher insists that he and Penfold were running on nothing stronger than beer and cigarettes.

This time the contest at least was a bit more conventional. The first player to identify a celebrity from clues provided in the game would win a trip to Hollywood on the Concorde and passage back home on the QE2. This one had an actual winner in relatively short order, one Phil Daley of Stoke-on-Trent. The celebrity in question, it turned out, was Mickey Mouse.

Piman and Friends

In addition to their own games, Croucher and Penfold also published quite a number of titles which they received from outside programmers. Each would be retrofitted into Automata’s ever-growing lore, which soon included a cast of characters largely drawn from the comic strip, with names like Ooncle Arthur, Swettibitz, and (my favorite) Lady Clair Sinclive. Each outside submission got an appropriately Automatatized new name, usually an awful pun: Pi-Balled, Pi-Eyed, Pi in the Sky. And each also got a theme song on the other side of the cassette, recorded on a little studio setup in Croucher’s front room. On these Croucher, who was something of a frustrated rock star, could run wild. The results are some weird amalgamation of musique concrète, New Wave synth-pop, a Monty Python sketch, and Croucher’s personal hero Frank Zappa. Or, for another set of comparisons: Your Computer called the track below (included with the Groucho game) “a curious fusion of a Mark Knopfler vocal and Depeche Mode backing, with a Bonzo Dog Band playout.”


And then came 1984 and Croucher’s magnum opus, Deus Ex Machina. He largely retired from Merry Prankstering for some six months to pour his heart and soul into it. He described it not as an Automata project proper but a “personal indulgence.” He believed he was creating Art, as well as the future of computerized entertainment:

I thought that by the mid-1980s ALL cutting-edge computer games would be like interactive movies, with proper structures, real characters, half-decent original stories, an acceptable soundtrack, a variety of user-defined narratives and variable outcomes. So I thought I’d better get in first, and produce the computer-game equivalent to Metropolis and Citizen Kane before the bastards started churning out dross. I wanted individuals to become totally immersed in the piece.

Penfold recognized Deus Ex Machina as “the crescendo of an idea” for Croucher, “an emotional achievement.”

Croucher had the idea of synchronizing a soundtrack to a computer game, to create an integrated, multimedia experience well before that word was in common usage. Because the Spectrum’s sound capabilities were rudimentary at best, the soundtrack would come on a separate cassette which the player must play at the same time as the game. The theme would be worthy of a prog-rock concept album: the journey of an individual through Shakespeare’s Seven Stages of Man in a vaguely dystopian postmodern world of mechanization, media saturation, and “Defect Police.” Perhaps it didn’t make a whole lot of literal sense — you’re somehow born from a dropping left behind by the last mouse on earth “as the nerve gas eased its sphincter” — but that hadn’t stopped Tommy or The Wall, had it?

The soundtrack, some 45 minutes in length, was mostly recorded by Croucher at home; he would have loved to have put a “half-decent band” together, but finances wouldn’t allow. He was, however, determined to get some well-known voices to feature on it, and to record them properly. He therefore booked precious time in a big London studio.

He recruited Frankie Howerd, an old-school showman and perennial on the British comedic circuit known if not always loved by everyone in Britain in the same way as a Rodney Dangerfield or Gallagher in the United States, to play the role of the head of the Defect Police, a “terrifying idiot.” (“It turned out that the real thing would eventually appear in the form of George W. Bush, but let’s not get into that.”) Howerd showed little understanding or interest in the project. He did his job — no more, no less.

More enthusiastic was former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee as the master of ceremonies. He angered everyone by arriving two hours late for his session, but explained that he’d fallen off his motorcycle on the way over and literally limped in as quickly as he could, bruised and still in leathers. All was forgiven, especially when he did a brilliant job. He and Croucher became fast friends, so much so that they later wrote a book together full of absurdist ramblings.

Croucher first wanted Patrick Moore, an eccentric popularizer of astronomy who was sort of the British Carl Sagan, complete with unforgettable tics that made him a television natural, to play the part of a sperm — “that would have been utterly surreal.” But when that fell through, he lucked into pub rocker Ian Dury of “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” fame. Dury “hated what mainstream games were offering kids,” and was excited to work on an alternative.

For the female voice of the machine, Dury recommended Marianne Faithfull, but she “was buried in drugs and we couldn’t get a meeting together.” After a bid for pop diva Hazel O’Connor also fell through, Croucher settled on a local singer named Donna Bailey, who wound up contributing the best singing on the soundtrack by far. The choir from nearby Warblington School also popped in to provide some “Another Brick in the Wall”-style vocals.

The game that accompanied all this was programmed to Croucher’s specifications by Andrew Stagg, a “boy genius” assembly coder he had discovered. It consists of a series of simple action games synchronized to the soundtrack. Your goal, such as it is, is to keep your “degree of ideal entity” as high as possible; each mistake in the games costs you percentage points. However, play continues inexorably onward no matter how badly you screw up, an obvious limitation of syncing a non-interactive soundtrack to an allegedly interactive experience. Then again, maybe that’s for the best: the games are not only of rather limited interest but also brutally difficult. I’ve never seen anyone get to the end with anything other than the worst possible score of 0%. For Croucher, the score wasn’t the point anyway:

The metaphor of the score is incidental, and I hoped people would interpret it to suit themselves. Do nothing — you’ll never win. Do everything right — you’ll feel good for a while, you’ll be regarded well according to society’s rules, but you’ll still never win. However, as the man [on the soundtrack] says — Imagine if this was nothing more than a computer game and we could start our lives all over again, and do it better. That was the only meaning really.

I have some problems with Deus Ex Machina and the rhetoric deployed around it, which we’ll get to momentarily, but when it works it can approach the total immersion Croucher was striving for, gameplay and music blending into a seamless whole. “The Lover” is a particular favorite, a gentle ballad, well sung by Bailey, that morphs into something more disturbing along with the game on the screen.

Despite good reviews by writers who admittedly weren’t entirely sure what to make of a piece of unabashed multimedia art sandwiched into their usual diet of Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner, despite being released just in time for the big Christmas buying season, sales were about as close to nonexistent as they could conceivably be. By February, some five months on from release, just 700 copies had been sold on the Spectrum; a more recent port to the Commodore 64 had sold all of twelve. Still, Deus Ex Machina won “Program of the Year” from the Computer Trade Association that February. But it was now, as a profile in Sinclair User from this period put it, “an angry, bitter world” for Automata, the easygoing insanity of Groucho and the Piman replaced by uglier sentiments. Penfold dropped all of the jokey pretensions at his acceptance speech to voice his opinion of the state of a changed industry in no uncertain terms.

He and Croucher blamed Deus Ex Machina‘s failure entirely on new systems of software distribution. When they had gotten into the business back in 1981, software was sold mostly via mail-order advertisements in the hobbyist magazines, with the remainder being sold directly to the handful of computer shops scattered around the country. This approach became untenable, however, when computers came to the High Street and the big vanilla chains like Boots and W.H. Smith got into the game. As in virtually every other retail industry, distributors stepped in to act as the middle men between the publishers and the final points of sale. With far more software being produced by 1984 than they could possibly handle, these could afford to be selective; indeed, they would say their survival depended upon it. They carefully evaluated each game sent to them to establish not only whether it was a reasonably professional, bug-free effort but also whether it had enough mass appeal to be worthy of precious shelf space. There was an inevitable power imbalance at play: small publishers, desperate to get their games onto shelves in what was turning into a very uncertain year, needed distributors more than distributors needed them. Thus the distributors could afford to drive hard bargains, demanding a 40 to 60 percent discount off retail price and a grace period of up to two months after delivery to pay the bill. They also wanted games to fit into one of three price points: £2 for older “classics” and newer discount titles; £6 for typical new games; £10 for big prestige releases like The Lords of Midnight or anything from the demigods over at Ultimate Play the Game.

Automata bucked every one of these demands. Not only did they continue to demand high margins and cash on delivery, but they insisted that Deus Ex Machina retail at a grandiose £15. They weren’t entirely alone; others fought the new world order and sometimes, at least temporarily, won. The most famous among them is Acornsoft, who insisted on a similarly high price point for Elite. When a number of distributors refused to carry the game, Acornsoft simply shrugged and sold to those who would, until Elite became a transformative hit and the recalcitrant distributors came back begging for Acornsoft’s business. The artsy, avant-garde Deus Ex Machina, however, obviously lacked the mass appeal of an Elite. This time it was mostly the distributors who shrugged and moved on, with a predictable impact on the game’s commercial fortunes.

Given these circumstances, Croucher was and is eager to attribute Deus Ex Machina‘s fate to the age-old struggle between art and commerce:

The corporates had taken over as they always will when they spot a new lucrative market. They wanted standard product. Deus was designed as non-standard and I got the market completely wrong.

I suppose that’s fair enough as far as it goes, even given the odd fact that Automata was in a death struggle to charge their customers more than the going rate. The thing is, though, the suits were kind of right in this instance. Taken as a one- or two-time experience, Deus Ex Machina is intriguing, even inspiring. As a game, however, it’s not up to much at all. It took a retrospective review in ACE magazine to finally acknowledge the obvious: “the actual gameplay was strictly humdrum.” Now, Croucher and others might respond, and not without justification, that to evaluate it the same way one evaluates a more traditional game is rather missing the point; Deus Ex Machina is more multimedia experience than game. Fair enough. Except that it’s hard to overlook the fact that players were being asked to pay £15 for the privilege, one hell of a lot of money in 1984 Britain. For that price — or, for that matter, for £10 or £6 or even £2 — they deserved more than an hour or two of entertainment. Deus Ex Machina‘s failure to find a market was indeed a failure of distribution. Yet it’s not one that can really be blamed on the distributors; again, that’s just the way that the retail business works, whether you’re selling shoes, books, or computer software. It wasn’t their fault that there was no practical way to get shorter-form works to the public for a price that wouldn’t leave them feeling ripped off. The distributors just recognized, probably rightly, that there was no practical place for Deus Ex Machina in the software industry of 1984. Such is the curse of the visionary.

Automata never recovered commercially or psychologically from the failure of Deus Ex Machina. The old spirit of anarchic fun became one of passive-aggressive petulance. “Automata’s next product will be something truly wonderful, but we’re just not going to release it until everybody pulls their socks up,” Penfold declared. “Automata are too good for this industry.”

Croucher walked away in mid-1985. Penfold at first did the expected, declaring his intention to struggle on, but Croucher’s departure marked the effective end to Automata as a going concern. Penfold dropped out of sight, while Croucher continued his career as (in Jaroslav Švelch’s words) a “perpetually failed visionary.” He designed another avant-garde game or two for other publishers; tried and failed to launch a multimedia game console that would combine laser-disc video with traditional computer graphics; wrote a linked series of comic fantasy adventures of one Tamara Knight for Crash magazine; wrote a column for Computer Shopper; designed a game and a viral-marketing campaign for Duracell; did God knows what all inside and outside the computer industry.

Deus Ex Machina has become a minor cause célèbre of academics and advocates for games as art, who tend to overrate it somewhat; it’s certainly interesting, certainly visionary, but hardly a deathless masterpiece. It’s simply the best that could be done by these people with these resources at this time — and there’s no shame in that. Much the same could be said about the rest of Automata’s works. They’re great to talk about, but too crude to be all that engaging to play today. Automata embraced a punk-rock ethos of production, but failed to recognize that games have in some senses a higher bar to clear. A bit of hiss on a record may be discountable, even charming, but a game with similar technical flaws is simply excruciating to play; it’s right here that comparisons between independent games and independent music break down horribly. Appropriately enough for what often seemed more an exercise in performance art than a real software company, Automata’s crazy catalog of subversive games is most fascinating simply because it existed at all.

Mel Croucher, Sue Cooper, Christian Penfold (as the Piman), and Lizi Newman

Mel Croucher, Sue Cooper, Christian Penfold (as the Piman), and Lizi Newman

But before Automata leaves the stage and I end this article, there’s one more piece of the story to tell. On July 22, 1985, Sue Cooper and Lizi Newman, a schoolteacher and music-shop proprietor respectively from Yorkshire, arrived at an odd local landmark on the Sussex Downs: a gigantic horse cut into a chalk hill. They stood at the horse’s mouth in a driving rain, looking around nervously. Then the Piman clambered out from behind a clump of bushes. He presented the ladies with their prize while Croucher played his theme song one last time. Automata had played fair after all; the Golden Sundial of Pi was real. Perhaps due to the fact that Automata was winding down and they were tired of spending their July 22s crouching in the Sussex mud, they had even shown the women a bit of mercy: they really should have been standing at the horse’s arse.

Penfold and Croucher wave bye-bye

(If you’d like to experience Deus Ex Machina for yourself — and despite my reservations it’s well worth the effort — I’ve prepared a care package with the Spectrum tape image, the soundtrack as MP3 files, and the manual. Both sides of the tape are in the same tape image. The emulator should automatically load in the second side when the time comes, leaving you only to start the second soundtrack. That how it works under Fuse, anyway.

Information and art for this article were drawn from the following magazines: Your Spectrum of December 1984; Popular Computing Weekly of June 30 1983, January 12 1984, April 4 1985, November 28 1985; Home Computing Weekly of July 19 1983, December 13 1983, February 26 1985; Computer and Video Games of November 1982, December 1982, January 1984, October 1985, September 1986; Crash of February 1984, May 1985, April 1986; Big K of December 1984; Sinclair User of September 1984, February 1985, April 1985; Your Computer of February 1982, December 1983; ACE of May 1988; Computer Choice of January 1984. Also invaluable were ZX Golden Years, the new Automata website, the Deus Ex Machina 2 website, and the Piman Files. The last includes all of the Automata songs as MP3 files, including the one I’ve sampled here.)


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41 Responses to The Merry Pranksters of Automata

  1. Felix

    January 21, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Appropriately enough, the song you embedded makes for a nice background while reading the article. What a strange story, but at least it has a happy ending of sorts. Fun!

  2. X

    January 21, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    You mean “sympatico” not “in sympicato”?

    Re the puzzle: Approximate Pi Day, I get; but what was the reason for this particular horse? Did the ladies figure it out or were they using the random-horse-location shotgun approach?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 21, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      It seems I do. :) Thanks!

      From the article in Computer and Video Games magazine:

      The horse clue comes from the Pimania map, in the shape of Pegasus, the horse. So Sue and Lizi visited public libraries, and consulted books such as Collins Field Guide and Hill Figures, to try to decide on the correct ‘horse’ location. They visited quite a few, including one at Westbury, and this was their second attempt at a claim, the first being at Uffington.

      The clue that pointed them to the correct geographical location was the fact that Pegasus is near the Seven Sisters of the Plough. Their search, after a misleading pointer to Cambridgeshire in the Field Guide, finally put them on to the Seven Sisters Cliffs between Seaford Head and Over.

      However, they were not convinced that they had the right spot until they made a pre-visit the day before. They saw the large compass mounted on a pillar, close to the car park entrance at this beauty spot. They also noticed the inscription of Psalm 33 on a metal plate set in stone (and adjacent to Psalm 34 in the game) nearby. But it wasn’t until they saw the view down into the Cuckmere Valley, where the river meanders to its outlet at Cuckmere Heaven, that they became convinced that this was indeed the view shown in the Pimania graphic when looking through the telescope.

      • X

        January 21, 2014 at 7:15 pm

        Wow, I looked up the rest of the story, and it’s amazing anybody figured this out without the Internet. Now I wonder… whatever happend to the sundial. Surely it’s worth more than 6000£ today, just as a collectors’ item.

        Also, it strikes me how uniquely British the puzzle is (gee-gee? really?). An American would doubtless wind up standing forlornly in the rain on March 14.

        • Jimmy Maher

          January 21, 2014 at 7:40 pm

          Good question. I do kind of wonder whether it REALLY cost £6000. It doesn’t look like much in the picture, and Croucher and Penfold didn’t strike as flush enough to have £6000 just lying around. But who knows? They did come through on the trip to America, and Concorde plus QE2 fare plus accommodations in Hollywood couldn’t have been cheap.

          Only thing to do would be to track down one of the women — a treasure hunt in itself, especially considering neither’s name is terribly uncommon.

  3. David Boddie

    January 21, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    The use of music to augment a computer game reminded me of something vaguely similar that came up on the stardot forums. A new member mentioned a record with a program track that contained a music video for another track. One of the other members did the hard work of putting the two together to complete the experience.

    It’s not a game, but it seems like the time was right for experimentation with computers and music.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 22, 2014 at 10:19 am

      There was actually a fair amount of that sort of thing going on in the early 1980s, albeit most were for the Speccy because that was the most common platform. I believe Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks fame had one like it among others. And once Thorn EMI got involved with software it became a natural cross-promotional strategy.

      • David Boddie

        January 22, 2014 at 11:02 am

        I wonder how much of this stuff has survived. Promotional items are often throwaway items: cover disks, tapes, records…

        • Jimmy Maher

          January 22, 2014 at 11:36 am

          Many were B-sides of singles and the like. I’m sure any done by “name” artists like Shelley at least are still around somewhere, albeit probably more likely to be found in music collections than software collections…

          • Jimmy Maher

            January 24, 2014 at 2:50 pm

            Stumbled across the Pete Shelley thing in the course of other research today. It was actually his album XL-1 which had a special track with a program to display the lyrics to the songs on a Spectrum.

  4. Anthony

    January 30, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Jimmy, another brilliant read. I’m delighted to see that you’re covering the UK scene in such detail. There’s so much I missed out on at the time (through a combination of youth and stupidity).

    Although your forthcoming book will do much to redress the balance, I still think there really ought to be more interest in these 8-bit tales in the mainstream media too. For example, the BBC eventually made a documentary about Kit Williams and the Masquerade treasure hunt, which inspired Pimania, but seems to have generally ignored Pimania itself, even though, as you’ve ably demonstrated here, it’s a story that sheds light on society, the economy, and the politics of the 1980s in a unique and fascinating way.

    Btw, there was an 8-bit connection to Masquerade too. The controversial (and probably cheating) “winner” of the golden hare prize exploited the publicity of Masquerade to set up Haresoft, which made and sold the hare-based Hareraiser puzzle games for 8-bit machines, with a reported prize of £30,000 for the first correct solution! The prize was never claimed and Haresoft went bust. The golden hare was auctioned off by creditors.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 31, 2014 at 7:28 am

      I wasn’t aware at all of Masquerade’s other connections to computer gaming. Thanks for this!

      For the benefit of others: the BBC documentary Anthony mentions is currently available on YouTube, albeit in chopped-up form:

      • Anthony

        February 2, 2014 at 8:49 pm

        You’re welcome, Jimmy. I didn’t know any of this stuff about Haresoft either — your Pimania post inspired me to start looking into the matter, and I quickly found myself disappearing down a rabbit-hole* of fact, myth, and rumour.

        Several days later, I emerged, bleary-eyed and confused, with a mere handful of links.

        Still, here they are.

        News (to be taken with a pinch of salt) about Haresoft and the golden hare, plus reviews of Hareraiser, from The Micro User magazine, 1984-5:

        Screenshots of the Hareraiser games:

        N.B. The first part of that documentary you linked to seems to have had its audio removed.

        * “Hare-hole” sounded a bit dodgy.

        • Piers Sutton

          September 24, 2014 at 11:00 pm

          Loving the coverage of the UK, and this article in particular is a fascinating read. Apparently that gentleman did go to Israel, and there were a few other strange treasure seekers involved; including a man who tried to book passage on the Space Shuttle (or so the article says). Though you reference the root site I didn’t see the path into this page, so here it is anyway.

  5. Dehumanizer

    January 18, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I know this is a relatively old post, but…

    “which bore the intimidating title of My Name is Uncle Groucho… You Win a Big Fat Cigar” – according to World of Spectrum, it’s just “a Fat Cigar”, without the “Big”

    “Despite good reviewers by writers” – should be “reviews”

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 18, 2015 at 11:11 am


  6. Kaitain

    March 3, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    > Their guide to their home base of Portsmouth, narrated in the persona of of all people Charles Dickens

    “Of all people” because Dickens was born in Portsmouth (Landport) and the city is understandably proud of the fact. There is an electoral ward and a school named after him, and the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum is in Old Commercial Road.

  7. Kaitain

    March 3, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    By the way, I’m loving this series. Having grown up in the UK but lived in North America for most of my adult life, it’s been brought home to me very clearly how bifurcated the games markets of those two geographic arenas were in the 80s. Americans and Canadians generally have very little knowledge of British games. What’s interesting is that Brits often have greater knowledge of North American games than the North Americans do, because the North Americans were of course mainly playing Japanese games after the early 80s, whereas the Brits progressed (in part) to the ST and Amiga for the tail end of that decade before the consoles and the PC market took over.

    Looking back on the two markets now, there is a very clear split. The Japanese games tend to be better polished, slicker, honed, refined…fine-tuned mechanics and level design. But they are usually variations on an existing theme. By contrast, some of the British (and US) games are incredibly innovative…always trying something new, pushing boundaries, but quite frequently failing to entertain as reliably as the Japanese games. And British games are frequently whimsical and comedic.

    The UK was a hotbed of genre innovation in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, even if (as usual) the Brits didn’t quite have the wherewithal to parlay that innovation into commercial dominance.

  8. Carl Read

    July 14, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Good to be reminded of Deus Ex Machina. I can’t remember if I bought it, (I used to hire games and just buy the ones I really liked), but I did recognize it for what it was, and that ‘winning’ wasn’t the point. I have hazy memories of it being a bit like entering “Brave New World”.

    If it’s true the chain stores in the UK didn’t make it available though, then I’d disagree with you and say Croucher and Penfold were right to feel miffed. They’d already had gaming hits and it came with the added attraction of Frankie Howerd and Jon Pertwee. The packaging alone could’ve sold it.

    Which is not to say that makes it worth the money, but distributors should be judging something on whether it will sell, not on some other value of their own devising. Saying games shouldn’t be more than £10 set a limit to how much effort could be put into a game. Or whatever genre Deus Ex Machina was. :)

    The classic modern indie game is Dwarf Fortress. And it earns its keep even when wholly free. It couldn’t sell on its packaging though.

  9. Chin San

    July 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Fantastic article, thank you. In the early ’80’s I was still at school but worked occasionally for a very small software distribution company, it was great fun as I got to play a lot of the latest Spectrum games in the office. I remember clearly calling the offices of Ultimate and asking if we could distribute their games and the woman on the end of the phone was about as snooty and patronising as it is possible to be. She snarled at me about them not needing any distribution because they were the most successful software house in the known universe, and to never call again. I was twelve years old, I loved the Ultimate games, I was crushed.

    The next day I was playing Automata’s quirky Qbert clone Piman and I called their offices to tell them know how much I liked it, can’t remember if it was Mel or Christian who answered the phone but we chatted at length about the game and their other titles, and the wonderful comic strip on the back of PCW. He was really grateful for the call and that I was so enthusiastic about their games. He sent me some promotional stuff as a thank you.

    The difference between those two companies was like night and day. I’ve never forgotten the kind, funny folks at Automata.

    • Chin San

      July 30, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      *Pi-Balled not Piman! D’oh :D

  10. Ed Dorosh

    January 15, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    The differences between North America and the UK in gaming extend also to magazine publications.

    I lived in Iceland from 1980 to 1986. During our last year’s stay there, I bought a BBC Micro. The affect the gaming and software ability of that machine have ‘encouraged’ me to buy via eBay 5 Beebs a Master 128, and an A3010, all of which are restored and working well.

    Now the reference to magazines. The British magazines have always been well written and informative whereas the North American publications, even the very best ones have shown to be shallow and often not nearly as informative or well written. When they are well written, they tend to read like manuals and have little life. There is something to be said for the ‘mother tongue’ of English.

    As far as games go, innovation began when the UK realized they were starting to lag behind in the computing world. I’m a very fortunate Canadian who had for one year had his views changed simply by purchasing and using a machine I might otherwise not have seen. Now when I talk with people and I know they are British or even Europeian, I get to talk with them about their experiences with the Beeb and the software that runs on it and what they did with it. For me it wasn’t all about games, though I love the challenges. The Beeb allowed me to explore 6502 machine code, Pascal and to a smaller extent, Fortran.
    This was a truly amazing time period for computers….. oh, btw, my first personal computer was the chicklet PET and that got upgraded to a full keyboard, external cassette deck and printer when we moved to Iceland.

    The UK has forever changed my way of thought on computing and software in a way I would not have thought possible and now my history of UK computer is far more varied and known than my North American roots of computing.

    Thanks so much for such an interesting article and keep them coming.

    Ed…… :-)

  11. Jonny on Hold

    February 25, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    Great article that really deserves a link to the tune that was, I think, on the reverse side of the Pimania data cassette. It really was not that bad, if fairly surreal, and the lyrics are voiced by Ian Dury (one of the artists mentioned in this article). Perfect teenage fodder, including the heavy breathing. Come on and meet de Pi-man!

  12. Peter

    July 1, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    I remember Pimania and how devilishly difficult it was for my then, thirteen year old brain. The hope of gold within my grasp slowly slipping away like my fingers on the rubbery zx spectrum keyboard.

  13. R. Jenkins

    November 5, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    One more little connection regarding these little “treasure hunts” that came up in Pimania and, earlier, Masquerade.

    Byron Preiss, who made an appearance elsewhere on the blog as part of his Bookware efforts, also ran a Masquerade-esque hunt here in the US, as part of his book “The Secret.” Twelve gems were hidden across the country, with their locations alluded to in the book’s dozen poems and illustrations.

    And although it wasn’t quite an adventure game, The Secret shared one aspect with some of the early-80s non-Infocom efforts: the solutions were so obscure and relied on your guessing what the author meant that they were all but impossible. Only two of the gems were ever recovered in the 30 years since, and given the changes in the landscape since then and Preiss’s death in 2005, it’s unlikely that more will be found.

    Still, it must’ve been an interesting little diversion. Everyone likes their treasure hunts, and to this day there are still people trying to track down those missing ten gems.

  14. Destroyer34

    August 29, 2018 at 6:14 am

    Expedition Unknown did a episode on The Secret and the gems last year

  15. My name is Ed

    September 26, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    Food for thought: just read Mel’s ideas about the future of gaming and the Internet generally speaking ( itw with Emmanuel Legeard) It’s astounding

  16. Mark T

    June 4, 2019 at 12:32 am

    I’ve been reading thru the archives of your wonderful blog for a while, and this post was especially valuable for the context it adds to one of the stranger game experiences I’ve had. A couple years after your post was written, Deus Ex Machina was re-released in a $5 “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” for Windows/Mac/Linux, as a port without the need to fiddle with emulators or synchronizing the soundtrack. I stumbled onto it on Steam knowing little more than what the marketing copy says, and it was such a treat for my sci-fi and prog-loving soul.

    You also mention a crowd-funded Deus Ex Machina 2. That sequel came out, and it’s interesting in its own right. It’s functionally a remake, with 3D run-and-dodge games replacing the more varied games of the original. Christopher Lee’s performance is something of a highlight, hamming it up as the narrator. As with the original it’s more worthwhile for its ideas than as a game, and most of those ideas are from the original game, but I found it worth playing as a companion piece.

  17. Ben

    September 3, 2021 at 5:08 pm

    “Defect Police.”. -> “Defect Police.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 6, 2021 at 9:25 am


  18. Margaret Trauth

    August 26, 2022 at 5:26 am

    Somewhere between the time this was written in 2014 and the time I read this in 2022, the Deus Ex Machina 2 site has been hacked. It still has the styling for the game but it’s nothing but posts about kid’s toys with links to various completely unrelated sites lurking in them – ‘mauiroofingcontractor dot com’, ‘honoluluelectrician dot com’, and ‘bedbugseattlewa dot com’. seems to be a capture around when this entry was written; sadly all the links in the menus are presented as pop-ups, which didn’t seem to have captured.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 29, 2022 at 7:15 am

      Not much to be done about the situation in the absence of a good Wayback version, I’m afraid, but I did remove the link from the main body of the article. Thanks!

  19. P-Tux7

    June 7, 2023 at 11:36 pm

    Your link in the words “avant-garde game” is broken.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 15, 2023 at 10:12 am


  20. Jason Dyer

    June 29, 2023 at 5:12 pm

    One sort of bizarro postnote to hit after I re-read this.

    I recently played through Pimania trying to be as honest as possible, and I think the arse part of the story might be a goof. There was a post-game publication called The Answer that explained everything, and the contest part is actually tightly designed (much better than Masquerade!) I suspect the only reason it took a while to resolve is the visit-particular-time-and-date condition — once it wraps around, you have to wait a year. But everything in the game really indicates the head out to be the right place, and The Answer includes that in the explanation. Croucher later claimed the book was re-done to have it match the teacher’s solution, but this isn’t the type of game where there’s lots of alternate interpretations (I’d totally believe it if the game were Masquerade).

    My guess is the arse thing was said offhand as a joke and they’ve stuck with it. It wouldn’t be out of character.

  21. Tudor

    July 5, 2023 at 10:23 pm

    Inspirational, as a child growing up in the sterile and overly professional world of ‘Information Technology’ and the associated suit wearing patriarch wielding spread sheets it was a life saver to see Automata’s work, their irreverence, humour and humanity stuck out like a sore…

    I find it interesting that another legend, the visionary American inventor and philosopher Ted Nelson also saw computers as creative media machines, a vision I share, spreadsheets are cool. But language is a recipe for the mind, and it’s through creative work that novel experiences are uncovered.

  22. Dillon

    February 27, 2024 at 11:37 am

    In “narrated in the persona of of all people Charles Dickens”… double of?

    • arcanetrivia

      February 27, 2024 at 7:41 pm

      I think it’s correct, but needs commas for clarity: “narrated in the persona of, of all people, Charles Dickens…” Or could be reordered to “narrated in the persona of Charles Dickens, of all people…”

      • Jimmy Maher

        February 27, 2024 at 8:31 pm

        Yes, it needed commas to set it off. Thanks!


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