Childhood horror media tends to be visual, as the cliché of “hiding behind the sofa” will attest. Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, 1978’s fantastic and unlikely adaptation, is the rare aural example. Simultaneously a progressive-rock concept album, and a faithful audio-drama adaptation of HG Wells’s foundational science-fiction masterpiece, it became a wildly improbable bestseller in the UK. (If you’ve never listened to it, imagine David Bowie’s “Future Legend” expanded to double-album length and you’ll get the general idea.) The eerily vivid sound design, the colourful cast encountered by Richard Burton’s wandering Journalist narrator, and the remarkable album artwork combined to grant and haunting effect. But lots of people have heard the album, and stories of being kept awake by Jeff Wayne’s spooky soundscapes are a dime a dozen. No, I’m here to talk about the obscure 1999 PlayStation game that nobody’s ever heard of.
Album-to-game is perhaps the least intuitive path from one medium to another. How can one translate a purely aural experience into an interactive audiovisual one? Well, at its core, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds is a third-person shooting and driving game. It places the player in control of a variety of vaguely Victorian vehicles so that we might wield the full military strength of dear old Blighty against our three-legged Martian invaders. The campaign takes us through fourteen levels, three of them “sequels” reusing the previous level’s map, and each one based on some real-world location around the island of Great Britain. More interestingly, in addition to the driving and shooting one would expect, there’s a strong element of strategy. Amidst all the driving about and blowing stuff up, we’re also required to gather resources like scrap metal and civilian workers to help construct reinforcements; we’re asked to protect barges and lorries carrying weaponry that will come in useful later. Next to the arena-style battles of Twisted Metal and the racing elements of Driver, The War of the Worlds is positively chess-like – a uniquely rigid and deliberate entry in the vehicular combat genre. Another major point in the game’s favour is that it can draw on the album’s artwork, a series of startling images painted by Mike Trim, Peter Goodfellow, and Geoff Taylor. The most obvious manifestation of this is Trim’s iconic Fighting-Machine tripod design, which is gleefully pilfered, reinterpreted, and extrapolated to form the diverse cast of enemies that any self-respecting action game should have.
In the novel, the real “War of the Worlds” occurs not between the intellects or technologies of Earth and Mars, but between their biospheres, with the invaders famously succumbing to the common cold virus at the story’s conclusion. Since the story’s 1898 publication, many writers and artists have attempted to translate Wells’s story to their medium of choice, but they frequently tend towards depicting a more literal type of warfare (perhaps owing to the fact that they all had rather a bit more pragmatic experience with world-scale war than Wells did). George Pal’s 1953 film, for instance, shift the story’s focus to the military by updating the story to a contemporary American setting and having the Martians battle modern tanks.
As an adaptation of the album, which was itself unusually faithful to the novel’s setting, the game had no such luxury. The developers’ solution? Simply give the Victorians technology years ahead of what they actually had. The opening sequence handwaves the anachronistic tanks and various other contraptions by having a military general mention that the country’s scientists and engineers are working round the clock on new technology. (A different but equally interesting compromise can be seen in the “History” Channel’s 2013 mockumentary The Great Martian War: 1913–1917, which bumps the novel’s events up by several years to replace World War I. A worthy effort, though its lengthy runtime and annoying sound design mean that it is probably best consumed as a series of animated GIFs.)
So who is the main character, our window into the game world? It’s a complicated question. Since I’ll be examining each level in turn, I’ll discuss the set-up here. The game contains five FMV cutscenes, and the one that plays on startup is a strange, wordless sequence, set – perhaps ironically – to “Horsell Common”. We follow an asteroid approaching Mars, only to be vaporised by an automated Heat-Ray turret on the surface, the Martians casually evading their own existential threat from the skies; in the asteroid’s debris we find the logo of Pixelogic, the developer. Immediately after this, there’s a sequence set to Burton’s famous “No-one would have believed” introduction from the beginning of “The Eve of the War”. In an effectively unnerving visualisation, we’re shown the perspective of a Martian essentially using a live-stream version of Google Earth to zoom in on Europe, then Britain, eventually fixing its sight on a single train crossing the countryside. Next, we find ourselves down with the train and its unknowing passengers, who are shortly fried by a Fighting-Machine; the camera pans up, and on-screen title text transforms the tableau into a reasonable approximation of the album artwork, in glorious late-90s CGI. (Since it takes the Martians a while to construct their vehicles, the Martian in this Fighting-Machine can’t logically be the one with whom we started the sequence, which is presumably a flash-forward to the landing of one of the slightly later crafts.) The three remaining cutscenes – one displayed on starting a new game, one on failing a mission, and one on completing the game – are also accompanied by extracts of Burton’s album narration, edited and recontextualised with no attempt to match or complement the album’s narrative.
In the novel and album, the Journalist witnesses the invasion from first contact with the Martian Cylinder at Horsell Common to the moment the invaders succumb to the cold virus, recounting his story to the listeners several years later. (The novel has a lengthy section where the Journalist recounts his brother’s parallel experiences elsewhere, but the album merges the two men, a wise simplification whose only drawback is that it makes the fused character’s wanderings in and out of London slightly schizophrenic.) Rewriting and reducing this story massively, the game essentially has the military summon the Journalist directly to the Houses of Parliament after his escape from Horsell Common so that he can give an eye-witness account in the war room. This is our first visual look at Burton’s character in any medium, and he’s just a nondescript fellow in a dark-green suit and bowler hat, with tanned skin and a thick black moustache. Interestingly, it seems that no effort was made to make him resemble Burton, who would later be resurrected/fetishised as a gigantic hologram by the album’s stage adaptation. As Burton narrates, the game flashes back to a computer-animated adaptation of the album’s first three tracks (including, incidentally, an extremely rare appearance by the astronomer Ogilvy, one of the novel’s only named characters). With the Martian Cylinder hurtling towards Earth, we see the journalist sitting in his office, reading a book which close inspection somewhat implausibly reveals to be Michael Crichton’s 1995 novel The Lost World. The choice to focus the game on a military campaign means that the timeframe has to be expanded from days to weeks, and the Martians’ vulnerability to the virus – one of the most subversive twists of the novel – is eliminated entirely. (Alan Moore makes the same change to the conclusion in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II, except that Moore cleverly and cynically has the military invent the “cold virus” explanation to conceal their use of a biological superweapon; in the game, the change just sort of exists, unacknowledged.)
While Burton’s narration returns for both the game-over and end-game FMVs – with the latter, oddly, showing him still sitting in the war room, in the same seat – we never get to play as the Journalist, or even see him in-game. (The “No-one would have believed” intro suggests that this character, like his novel and album counterparts, would go on to narrate his experiences again to some other audience years later, though if he’s been sitting in the war room this whole time they probably haven’t been quite as exciting.) Instead, the entire body of the story is told through the eyes of the British military, whose role in the previous iterations was liminal, ranging from glorious failure (the Thunder Child) to pathetic failure (the Artilleryman). Needless to say, this focus excludes a tremendous amount of what was interesting about the novel and album. There’s no place in a vehicular shooter for Phil Lynott’s lunatic Parson Nathaniel and his indefatigable wife Beth; no room for the Journalist’s syrupy but affecting lament for his lost wife Carrie; nowhere, even, for David Essex’s insanely optimistic Artilleryman to go. It’s enough, actually, to make one wish for a slightly more narrative-heavy adaptation. A Telltale-style point-and-click adventure would certainly be a fun way to visualise the character-based interactions and tense Victorian setting, especially if it were able to secure the likenesses of the album’s original cast, but one can even imagine a stealth action game à la Metal Gear Solid, with the Journalist sneaking across the countryside, evading monstrous tripods.
Throughout the game, a nameless, faceless military superior addresses us via subtitles (or telegram, depending on your level of metafictional cognisance). We are called Soldier. I sort of like to think that our boss is the general from the opening sequence – voiced by Nigel Hawthorne, of all people – and that we’re playing as the young fellow who says “Good morning, sir” while delivering him the news about the invasion, since that would mean that the only two characters who have speaking roles beside Burton subtly form a secret rapport that permeates the entire game. (I ship it – General Guy/Soldier Guy OTP.) However, we never actually seem to move from one vehicle to another. Instead, we can use a shoulder button to conjure a 2D level map which allows us to take instant control of any currently manned human vehicle as we see fit, with the camera zooming through the air to settle on the one we’ve selected. The same effect occurs whenever our current vehicle is destroyed. The fact that we’re actually playing as either a succession of interchangeable Soldiers or one with an ability to commandeer minds is never acknowledged. No individual death matters – so long as one vehicle survives, we linger on, even if the game has become unwinnable. (Incidentally, Don Webb’s 1996 short story “To Mars and Providence” merges Wells’s Martians with the Great Race of Yith, creatures which appear in HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time, and who happen to possess that exact ability. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the reason we’re able to leap from one human unit to another is that we’re playing as an alien pacifist who’s trying to take out their own side…? OK, that’s enough of that.)
If you think this god-like overview and control over units sounds a tiny bit like a real-time strategy game, you may well be onto something. The PlayStation game was developed by Pixelogic and released in 1999; what I didn’t know as a child was that it was heavily derived from an RTS game developed by Rage Software and released the previous year. The design is completely different – they’re not versions of the same game, not by a long shot – but so much of what I considered the very essence of the PlayStation game was inherited; second-hand. All those weird and wonderful Martian designs, riffing so cleverly on Trim’s original artwork? Taken from the PC game. Those pulsing, irresistible techno remixes by Max Mondo and Mister Joyboy, so much more successful at updating the album than Wayne’s own efforts with The New Generation in 2012? From the PC game, which even had an extra track. Those FMV sequences, which seemed so gripping and cinematic to a child who’d grown up with the album? Ripped straight from the PC game, which had several more sequences to accompany its Martian campaign – it had a Martian campaign.
So, not only is the PlayStation game confined by the aurally baroque 1970s album and its visually striking artwork – and not only does it have to attempt to honour the novel from which both were derived – but it’s also buried under the weight of an RTS game, released only the previous year. To an extent, something similar is true of any adaptation, but it’s a miracle that this game can stand at all under the crippling weight of its antecedents’ legacy. With the story, cutscenes, visuals, voice acting, and music all handed to the developers on a plate, their creative input must have been very restricted – perhaps they picked and chose which elements of Rage’s work to incorporate, but the job was largely a technical one: just add gameplay. (Regardless of the undeniable debt here, I’ve never found the Rage game very compelling. The simple fact that it places the player in direct control of an avatar means that the aged Pixelogic version has remained enjoyable on a visceral arcade level that an equally decrepit RTS can’t manage – some genres are just more future-proof than others.)
In short, it appears that GT Interactive, the publisher of both games, largely handed Rage’s assets over to Pixelogic and asked them to fashion a game out of them. It’s not obvious within the game itself, but once you learn of the production’s circumstances, it really drives home the paradoxical strangeness of this game – the severe identity crisis the poor thing would reveal if only it could talk. This is a vehicle-based third-person shooter based on an RTS game based on a prog-rock audio-drama concept album based (probably via an Orson Welles radio play) on a Victorian science-fiction novel which was itself a revised version of a serialised publication. Not only that, but it’s a PlayStation exclusive, and a Europe exclusive to boot, released with zero fanfare and virtually no reviews. I’ve only ever seen one physical copy of the game – mine, already a bit scratched and with some choppy music and cutscenes when I got it – and have yet to met anyone who’s even heard of it (unless it was from my own drunken ramblings). This seems unlikely to change. I’ve tried every copy of the game that’s ever been posted online, but they always seem to have some flaw or other – an audio glitch here, an FMV jitter there. It’s as if the discs were pressed using slightly faulty equipment (though I don’t know how feasible that is, technically speaking). Its controls are dodgy, its memory card functionality non-existent, its 1970s nostalgia adrift in search of a target market. This game never really had a chance… in any sense. If we’re being totally honest, it’s not even that great as a game, but what it lacks in refined and elegant design it makes up for in atmosphere and audiovisual intensity, which are only strengthened by its quaint, specifically 32-bit limitations – its eerily low-resolution sky textures, its tensely claustrophobic render distance.
We all have those pieces of media that mean more to us than they should – that cheesy childhood action movie you watched again and again, that dumb kids’ book that gave you nightmares – but video games are different. The points we make about immersion and audience involvement are obvious, but only because they’re true: we enter games, become enmeshed in them, and partake of them in a way that passive media like film and television fundamentally can’t achieve. Literature is better-suited to complex and subtle narrative experiences, but it’s also malleable and ephemeral, the unique dialogue that always exists between text and reader far more vulnerable to the caprice of memory and personal development. If you want to know what your five-year-old self saw that dimly-remembered night in the cinema, you can just watch the film again and get most of it, but if you’d like to recover that initial alchemy between your young brain and its favourite storybook, you’re probably out of luck – as Edmund Wilson said, one can never read the same book twice. Video games represent the opposite end of this spectrum, with a durability far beyond that of the motion picture. They’re not just texts: they’re places. Beloved toys perish, childhood haunts decay, but old games never change – their little worlds are always there, preserved in digital amber, waiting for us to find our way home. The audience is literalised as an avatar within the spaces of the text, and gameplay itself is a type of reading – a metafictional type that takes place entirely on-screen. This is one of the strange, gothic secrets at the heart of the medium’s unique appeal, but it’s also the root of the compulsive nostalgic wallowing in which innovative game design finds its eternal enemy: it can reconnect us, in a visceral, irreducible way, to what we once were – and to what we’ve lost.
With apologies to the fine people at Pixelogic (1995–2001?), who probably did not foresee this sort of thing, here’s the plan: I shall attempt to provide a sort of exegesis, documenting my journey through the game one level at a time – a series of analytical critical essays which together will also function as a conventional video-game walkthrough. It all begins with a flare, spurting out from Mars – bright green, drawing a green mist behind it; a beautiful, but somehow disturbing sight…