“Finn turned his thoughts away from the Earth and looked through his front screen at the panoramic immensity of space, a black sea as beautiful as life and as silent as death. Somewhere up ahead was the planet Phoebus. Finn gritted his teeth. He had a job to do.”
Copyright (c) Mark Cullen, P.J.M.Irvin & J.C.Smith, 1988.
30 years ago.
30 years ago almost to the day, Exile was released for both the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron. Having read about the game in the latest issue of ‘Electron User’ magazine (if my memory serves me correctly) and being 8 years old, it was at the very top of my Christmas list.
The beautiful extract heading this post is taken from the ‘Exile Novella’. A detailed book that came in the box, along with the instruction manual and single cassette tape that housed the game. The skillfully-crafted words were to act as a base layer, an undercoat to the canvas onto which we, as the player were expected to provide the colour. Or at least they would do, if my 8-year-old self had any interest in reading the book when he could be playing the game. He didn’t.
Unknowingly at the time, this game would affect my judgement of every other for the next three decades. It was to become a benchmark, at a time when I was still experiencing video game ‘firsts’. Before long, it would become impossible for any other game to remove the rose-tinted glasses through which I still look back on the Exile experience.
Open worlds, physics engines, believable AI, weather effects… all pieces of a modern triple-A release title that we expect developers to get right on our 4K-enabled consoles and super-computers. The two developers of Exile, Peter Irvin and Jeremy Smith, somehow managed to cram all of this into 32kB of RAM. After researching some of the techniques they used to achieve this, let’s just say they were goddamn coding wizards.
After the long wait to load the game via cassette tape, we would be introduced to our character, Finn. We found ourselves in an ‘orbiting’ ship above the alien planet, Phoebus. If we had read the backstory we would know that we were here on a rescue mission to find the surviving crew members of the abandoned ship ‘Pericles’, abducted by a renegade engineer going by the name ‘Triax’.
A brief look at the manual showed that there were a lot more controls than the usual ‘walk + jump’ combo demanded by the regular platformer, and so with some experimentation we would discover that Finn was equipped with a jetpack, could leave the ship through an airlock, and float down to the planet’s surface below by gently feathering the thrust. In reality, I more-likely boosted upwards as fast as I could until my jetpack cut out and hurtled uncontrollably towards a bone-crushing landing. I remember the first thing I did was to run to the right (or ‘East’) across the planet’s surface. I soon realised that conditions on the surface were less than ideal and struggled to run against the strong head wind. Before long, Finns’ feet would give way and he would fall violently backwards not too dissimilar to a downhill skier losing his footing (but… kind of in reverse). This was Exile’s not-too-subtle introduction to it’s realistic physics engine (“Look! Physics!”).
Running ‘West’ would yield the same result and so the only way of moving forward was downward, through a metallic hatch leading into a subterranean cavern system beneath the planet’s surface. Having just finished the ‘Prologue’, it was time to enter Chapter One of the Exile adventure.
At 8 years old, in a game as complex as this, I was probably a little too young to fully appreciate the problem solving aspect of the story. From memory, I remember finding an empty beaker, being able to ‘fill it’ with water, and jetpack around the caverns trying not to spill it. I remember getting chased by a very irritating bird creature that wouldn’t leave me alone until I managed to escape through a door which would slide shut behind me. I remember disturbing a nest of imp-like creatures who seemed particularly angry at me for waking them up until I successfully managed to get them caught in the cross-fire of a patrolling Dalek-like sentinel droid. I’d watch the ensuing firefight and marvel at the fact that these creatures would fight each other if I made it happen.
I spent a lot of time in that world without getting too far, but I enjoyed every single second. These days, this kind of game would be called a ‘sandbox’. Peter Irvin and Jeremy Smith handed us a jet-pack, an alien planet and just told us to “go play”. It was the kind of open-ended concept that still acts as the foundation for so many games today. However, for me Exile will always have the advantage. It sits in that unique and irreplaceable section of the brain’s filing-cabinet labelled ‘childhood memories’, with a lock bound by youth.