Naturally, the first level in Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds is the game’s smallest and most straightforwardly designed. Set in a rural area south of London (specifically Sussex, judging by the loading-screen map), it’s largely a linear affair. Like all fourteen levels, it begins with a subtitled mission briefing superimposed over an aerial tour of the surrounding landscape. (The loading screen and opening flyover frequently disagree, to varying extents, about what a level’s name is – in this case, the former leaves out the definite article. I’ll be opting for whichever title offers the most elegance and symmetry.) The camera drifts down a country road, circling round a military base to settle at last on a humble Armoured Lorry – our first vessel.
It’s easy to forget that HG Wells’s story, serialised in 1897 and collected the following year, is actually set primarily in the early 1900s, with the Journalist narrating its events from another six years into the future. Wayne’s album exacerbates this, keeping the “No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century…” opening but not “…And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.” The PlayStation game’s 1998 Windows counterpart makes this mistake on its dramatic back cover: “It’s 1898.” Still, this gets at a certain truth: as Alan Moore noted while writing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, futuristic stories are really about the time they’re written, not the time they’re set. 1984 is really about 1948, and if Wells hadn’t been looking down the barrel of the onrushing twentieth century – those two great zeroes – he might not have arrived at this particular cocktail of apocalypse terror and scrambling social progress. There could hardly be a better time to revisit this story in another medium than 1999: monstrous tripods and Y2K bugs come from the same place.
While the PlayStation game sticks to the Victorian setting, at least nominally, it does fudge Earth’s technological history quite a bit, accelerating the development of tanks and other military vehicles by several years in order to balance out the influenza vaccine they’ve given the Martians. The developers’ first port of call, reasonably enough, was World War I. There’s very little of the grime and substance of that war – no trenches, no bayonets, no mustard gas, no horses used for cavalry – but the game’s vehicles and weaponry draw freely from its era.
The Lorry, a great green block whose only real capability is moving sluggishly from one checkpoint to another, is comfortably the game’s worst unit. Evidently synthesised from reference photos of several WWI-era vehicles, it’s basically the body of a Mack AC “Bulldog” Type-EHC truck with the canvas and colouration of a Thornycroft Type-J. That said, neither of those had a machine gun, err, emerging through their windscreen. The gun is the game’s weakest weapon, and with no real way to aim, it’s practically useless. (Not to rub it in, but if we look closely, we can also see that its wheels don’t even turn.) Nonetheless, the Lorry’s down-to-earth rubbishness makes it the most historically accurate vehicle to be found in these odd quasi-Victorian times, somehow refreshing for a sci-fi action game, while the developers’ insistence on the British “lorry” over “truck” gives it an oddly endearing quaintness.
The on-screen text tells us to approach the commander in front of us for instructions, but it isn’t clear why they don’t just tell us what to do themselves – is that particular soldier diegetic, and the other narration non-diegetic? And why are all the in-game soldiers wearing khaki uniforms when the ones in the opening sequence were redcoats – did the storm of rapid technological research spurred on by the invasion also reach the world of fashion? Never mind. This level is quite straightforward in structure: we must drive the Lorry down the dirt road, through a picturesque village that looks straight out of a British stop-motion-animated children’s television series, and finally to a farm on the opposite side of the map. All the while, we must make sure to steer between the bright-red poles that frame the roadway, and which seem to exist just so that our Soldier can get to grips with accelerating, steering, and braking. Considering that the Martian invasion has already begun, this is, on the whole, an alarming state of affairs. Every time our current mission is updated, the envelope icon in the heads-up display begins flickering, but the player quickly learns to ignore this – checking the current objective involves pausing the game, which causes the music to restart, which is intolerably annoying, and besides, we already know what the objective is because the on-screen text just told us.
Once our first driving lesson has been passed, our consciousness is booted out of the Lorry and into the Machine-Gun Turret back at the base – a machine gun just like the Lorry’s, but actually useful, because it has a targeting reticule and can rotate and aim. These stationary weapons are given strategic positions throughout the game, generally so that they can be used to fight off particular waves of enemies. From the outside, each one appears as a helmeted soldier seated in a swivelling metal box, usually either built into a larger wall or surrounded by sandbags – these fellows are often the only reminder that our vehicles are indeed meant to be controlled by an army of humans. Whenever we take control of a Turret, we’re given a first-person perspective, and the game essentially becomes a more visually baroque version of whack-a-mole. There’s a button to zoom in, and a button to rotate more quickly, but these are largely useless. Spinning our reticule about, we might notice the sky, an intensely artificial pixel-dome of the sort you only get in 3D games from the 1990s, its hue suggesting mulch that might once have been yellow leaves. An endearingly inexplicable rainbow-coloured lens flare tilts across our vision whenever we turn to face the sun – one of the game’s state-of-the-art special effects. As for the mission, matters take a distinctly contrived direction when we are ordered to start shooting weather balloons on the other side of a field for target practice. Rather than fully-rendered three-dimensional models, the balloons are flat two-dimensional sprites which rotate so that they always face the camera, a technique which makes them always seem to face you, sickly yellow, their blood-red bullseyes like the orbs of a haunted portrait. They’re great swollen things, rivalling our vehicles in scale, and when we shoot them, they explode in vast fiery detonations. Just why the panicking, invaded Empire deemed incandescent balloons the optimal method for honing Soldier’s sharpshooting abilities is a question for the ages.
Next, we’re tasked with driving the Lorry back to the base – this time, though, we have to avoid other Lorries. We don’t yet have the power to take control of them – they simply drone by, blocking our path. Using his Lorry’s mounted machine gun, Soldier can destroy them if he likes, vaporising his countrymen in cylindrical blue blasts of energy and rubble. This is not a game that has a great deal of regard for its non-player characters. We can blow up many of our allies – and demolish many human buildings – for no reason at all. Destroy a building in this level, and we’ll see that the village currently being used as a military training zone hasn’t been evacuated – the inhabitants will flee for the safety of the forests that bound the edge of the map. We can run over soldiers and civilians (which incapacitates them for a few seconds) or shoot them (which, well, kills them). Our commander never holds us accountable for our actions; it’s almost as if he can’t always tell what we’re doing. His only response to our cathartic acts of lunatic destruction is to send occasional updates like “The Post Office has been destroyed! Communications are down.” Somehow.
Once we’ve gotten to grips with our Basic Training, we progress to Advanced Training. Advanced Shooting is largely the same thing, except that we have more balloons to shoot with the Turret, and fewer seconds in which to shoot them. The wind grows stronger, Mother Nature actively conspiring in our education. Across the field that serves as our shooting range, the player might spot an odd gap in the hedge, where the blocky “walls” of foliage so common to early 3D games give way to penetrable 2D sprites. A perceptive player might realise that something is going to happen there later.
Advanced Driving is more immediately engaging, as we find ourselves placed in control of the Armoured Car. Essentially an exact recreation of the WWI-era Rolls-Royce Armoured Car, it’s a capable bread-and-butter piece of machinery, smaller, lighter, and faster than the Lorry, but the same pale-green shade that the game takes as default for military vehicles. The only change is that it replaces its real-world counterpart’s mounted machine gun with a small cannon, effectively turning it into a miniature tank – our first remotely useful vehicle. That said, the game’s wretched controls are beginning to make themselves felt: the player will notice that the directional buttons, which allow for steering while a vehicle is in motion, are also responsible for aiming the vehicle’s weapon. Which means that you cannot aim while moving. Aiming is also the only way to move the camera. The left and right analogue sticks? Both completely unused. Oh yes. While we’re at it, I hope you like recording and entering passwords, because this game isn’t compatible with memory cards either.
(A less serious development oversight is that this game is very light on Easter eggs or bonus content of any kind. That said, a couple of levels do have interesting little secrets. Just outside the village, we can find what seems to be a pile of hay with a wooden slat resting on it, in a configuration that looks suspiciously like a ramp. If we drive at it head-on and with enough speed – a harder task than it sounds, given the game’s wonky controls – our vehicle soars improbably over the nearest house to land in the middle of the street, and the commander sends us the message, “Get back to your training, soldier!” It’s not much, but it’s fun. There’s also a mountain ridge we can drive up near the edge of the camp, which feels like it may once have been meant to lead to something.)
I don’t think I’ll attract too much ire by saying that tutorials generally don’t have a place in good game design. Including optional ones is sometimes even worse, since it invites the player to skip content without necessarily knowing how interesting or useful it is. Yes, new players should be inducted into the experience carefully – should be offered a fair learning curve that makes allowances for the inexperienced – but holding our hands and walking us through a progression of the most simplistic tasks and their most basic combinations is clearly not ideal. In the case of The War of the Worlds, the nature of “The Training Camp” means that one of the game’s fourteen levels is devoid of action and worthy challenge, fundamentally boring and uninteresting to replay.
And, of course, a conspicuous absence of Martian activity for much of its duration. After a certain amount of time, however, and regardless of whether the player has actually completed their training yet, it happens: a Martian cylinder arrives, soaring through the sky to crash-land in the woods nearby, right in the murky clearing we glimpsed from our Turret. In quick succession, they emerge, one after another: the Fighting-Machines. The war of the worlds has begun.
Of all the enemy designs, the Fighting-Machine is the one with which the developers had the least creative freedom. The task was simple: bring Mike Trim’s classic design to life, in 3D, changing it as little as possible. In the process of being turned into destructible in-game obstacles, the Fighting-Machines admittedly lose a great deal of their terrifying and mythic weight, but they’re rendered with reasonable fidelity for the time of the game’s release. Their walking animation, the sort of thing that might never cross your mind in an audio drama but which becomes a serious question for any visualisation, is realised by the game in the simplest way: by having them move their legs one at a time, in a clockwise fashion, quickly enough that the logic of their feet physically shifting them along the ground needn’t be processed. The novel’s Heat-Ray, a realistically silent and invisible blast of radiation, had already been visualised on the album artwork (though dialogue still describes it as “invisible”); in the game, it’s a rather more conventional orange sci-fi laser beam. When we attack back, we find that our enemies flicker a satisfying bright-red to indicate they’re sustaining damage – something true of all Martian units. The 32-bit graphics can’t live up the paintings, or the images in our heads, but there are moments of sublimity where the game comes close – particularly the tension we feel as the alien machines weave between the woods towards us, and we know they could cross the threshold into the range of our limited draw distance at any instant. Perhaps this is just an accident, a quirk of technological limitations, but at times the effect is almost chilling.
In a 2005 interview, Trim reveals that he initially designed the Martian machines as cycloptic, with a detailed compound eye based on that of a fly, split down the middle and completely filling the ocular aperture. Wayne saw things differently, and asked him to modify his art (and that of the other illustrators) to give the tripod two distinct, round, bulbous eyes. It’s a change that Trim regrets – understandably, considering the variety of interesting body parts the pair of rounded eyes can be said to resemble – but it’s still a strong look, the finished version leaning more towards “bug” than “insect”. (While the inspiration here was probably a housefly, the creature those twin green domes evoke most strongly is actually the bizarre-looking barreleye fish.) Trim’s preferred design was cooler and more robotic, but the revision has a touch of haughty imperiousness – it leers. Perhaps most significant of all is its sheer sense of having a face – the Fighting-Machines didn’t in the novel, which, being written before the advent of computer monitors, actually had each Martian sitting in a “brazen hood that … moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head” atop each tripod, the alien seemingly looking directly out from beneath a sort of metallic cowl.
The methodology Trim used to approach the Fighting-Machine is interesting, if rather paradoxical. On the one hand, Trim wanted to create something faithful to the novel’s Victorian setting. On the other, he wanted to provide a suitably contemporary visual for a 1978 album. In designing the tripod’s legs, he went out of his way to evoke “the huge beam engines found in pumping stations and the delicate cast-iron work of pillars and columns” common to Victorian engineering, yet he also considered it critical to provide a strong contrast between the Fighting-Machine and the Thunder Child, the warship with which the now-iconic cover painting finds it locked in battle. Trim says that the tripod’s “smooth rounded body, with its reflective surfaces, seemed to offer the biggest contrast possible to the slab sides, dull colour and straight lines of the ship”, without breaking the illusion that this alien machine might plausibly work.
He criticises the portrayal of the tripods in Wells’s novel and early illustrations, saying that they were each “drawing on their own ideas of something alien – a technology more advanced than their own. Yet, from our present-day perspective, that concept perhaps now looks quaintly Victorian in style.” So Trim drew instead on contemporary, late-twentieth-century technology, with an effort to incorporate futuristic elements while still retaining echoes of the Victorian aesthetic. And he’s not wrong: Wells’s description is sometimes silly, particularly his idea that the Fighting-Machines should hold their Heat-Rays in external boxes, as if they were B-movie ray guns, and his frankly confusing description of their bodies as “hoods”. These aspects have clearly been left behind by the march of twentieth-century science fiction, and it’s only natural that any elements of a foundational text not to become influential should feel strange – they’re the spectres of paths not taken; glimpses into futures lost. Instead, Trim sensibly mounts the Heat-Ray within the body, turning it into a pareidolic “mouth”, with a trio of thin, whisker-like spikes on the undercarriage below it. The “long, flexible, glittering tentacles” described by Wells are gone, and while a close inspection of the album cover reveals a single flexible tendril emerging from a small door between the spikes, it’s barely noticeable, and completely absent from the rest of the album art, while the game’s tripods have neither spikes nor tentacles. Album dialogue still says that the Fighting-Machines are capable of “picking up men [and] bashing them against trees”, so the effective elimination of the tentacles seems to have been Trim’s decision entirely – something of a pity, as their organic movements would have made for a very interesting contrast with the rest of his design. The album also removes the net behind the head of each Fighting-Machine, used to hold captured humans, transferring it instead to the Handling-Machine – a differentiation the game happily builds on.
When Trim says that he achieved a contrast between Martian and Victorian technology not found in early illustrations, it’s not entirely clear which illustrations he’s referring to. The Fighting-Machines that Wells described were lithe and flexible, disconcertingly organic in appearance. The first edition was illustrated by Warwick Goble, and Wells was quite outspoken in his disliking for Goble’s renderings, which showed the tripods as stiff-legged and robotic machines resembling walking water towers. The author was far more impressed by the subsequent artwork of Henrique Alvim Corrêa, who faithfully rendered the tripods as slender, subtle, and kinetic, adding stylised external eyes that somehow manage to be both cartoonish and menacingly villainous. Overall, Trim’s design is closer to the static, overtly mechanical Goble tripods; while his infusion of colour and goofiness imbues Trim’s Fighting-Machine with a sense of personality to rival Corrêa’s lanky teapots, Wells probably wouldn’t have been happy with it. It’s effortlessly iconic, but edificial rather than mercurial – it’s no wonder that nearly all the album art shows it from the exact same angle, an angle reiterated endlessly in and around the game.
Whatever our preferences, both Goble and Corrêa represent authentically Victorian mindsets grasping for a vision of a never-before-imagined future. In his attempt to differentiate the tripod from the ironclad, Trim approached both with the same eighty-year historical distance, and in doing so collapsed them into yin and yang, inextricably interwoven. The result is a Fighting-Machine which, despite its twentieth-century B-movie charms, looks less like Wells’s otherworldly creation than a cousin of the very same Victorian culture it’s invading – an effect that quietly accentuates the story’s criticism of the British Empire while also inadvertently tying into Wells’s fixation with evolutionary biology and possible futures. Human vs Martian, Morlock vs Eloi – it’s the same war, in the end, and the things we have in common with our enemies are often more horrible than those that make us different.
But this is copious over-analysis: Trim’s design is still great. If there’s any disappointment in how the Fighting-Machines are rendered in the game, it’s actually in the sound design. The album, in an under-appreciated bit of aural storytelling, used a shrill guitar riff played by Jo Partridge to represent the searing motion of the Heat-Ray, but here that musical touch is replaced with a generic sci-fi sound effect. Additionally, the cry of the Martians is strangely used. In the novel, we’re told that the Fighting-Machines communicate by means of “sirenlike howls, running up and down the scale from one note to another”, at one point onomatopoeised as “Aloo! Aloo!”, with the dying Martians in the closing chapters emitting “a sobbing alternation of two notes, ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla'”. This is an interesting challenge for any adaptation. On the album, Wayne cleverly turns the “Ulla” howl into a musical motif, with two distinct versions – a triumphant war-cry early on, and the mournful sob later, with Partridge mouthing both noises into a talkbox while playing the same notes on a connected guitar to produce a thrillingly alien vocal effect. (Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film similarly adapted the novel’s “Ulla” cry for the earlier scenes, turning it into a genuinely unnerving two-note horn blast that might well be its most memorable moment.) In the game, the meaning of Partridge’s “Ulla” is inverted – the war-cry is used to signify the player’s triumph at the end of each level, while the distorted, mournful cry of the Martian who dies at the album’s conclusion is heard whenever we fail our mission. Considering that we’re playing as the humans, this would make a lot more sense the other way round, but hey, at least they got the sounds in there somewhere. (The sound design in general is weak, with our vehicles and weapons frequently making annoying and monotonous noises, but thankfully we can turn the sound effects down while leaving the music up.)
Given that this artefact has the extraordinarily rare distinction of being an action video game based on a musical album, one would expect the soundtrack to be a primary feature, and happily it does not disappoint. Jeff Wayne’s album freely mixes song, instrumental music, narration, and dramatic dialogue, so the game didn’t have the option of simply plugging in the soundtrack as some film-to-game translations do. Instead, its score consists of seven remixed tracks, each based on a song from the album (with certain tracks incorporating aspects of more than one). Arranged, mixed, programmed, and engineered by a somewhat mysterious collective known as Max Mondo, it’s an excellent update, trading Wayne’s 1970s disco flourishes in for 1990s electronica with techno, rave, and trance elements. Stripped of narration and vocals, the core of each song is successfully adapted to a more game-suitable instrumental structure. (Again, it’s worth remembering that the soundtrack first appeared in Rage’s PC game, which was released the year before Pixelogic’s PlayStation game.)
The game makes no effort to hide its preoccupation with its own soundtrack. Its start menu offers a music player, endearingly illustrated with an image of a gramophone on the Martian surface, and allowing us to listen to each track without even entering the game. (They really needn’t have bothered, as the soundtrack is encoded in the CDDA format: much like Rayman, you can just pop the disc into any normal CD player and peruse the entire score at your leisure.) Uniquely, we can even select different tracks from the pause menu, allowing the player to customise the in-game music experience. Any level can be played with any track in the background, but each level does have its own “default” track that will play if you don’t mess around with the music settings. Accordingly, I’ll be looking at each track along with its corresponding level.
The default soundtrack of “The Training Camp” is “The Spirit of Man”. On the album, this song was one of the absolute highlights – a rousing duet between Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott and Julie Covington, who portray Parson Nathaniel and his wife Beth respectively. (The former character was an unnamed, unmarried curate in the novel, so this song is Wayne’s main concession both to his American audience and to people who think there should sometimes be women in things.) Just past the story’s midpoint, the Journalist stumbles across the couple, and soon finds himself sheltering with them in an abandoned house. This proves to be a rather traumatic episode: the Parson is in the midst of a psychotic break, ranting about how the invaders are demons and melodramatically blaming his own failures as a preacher for the apocalypse while Beth desperately attempts to calm him. In the album’s most contrived beat, a Martian cylinder lands on the house, simultaneously fridging Beth and trapping the Journalist with the increasingly unhinged Nathaniel (and Lynott’s increasingly hilarious performance). In Wayne’s defence, at least the album even has a female character – the novel really doesn’t, and nor does the game (though about half of the civilians you’ll accidentally run over are ladies – representation!). When the Parson declares his intention to confront and banish the demons, the Journalist is forced to knock him out, and the Martians, investigating the commotion, haul the unconscious Nathaniel away to drain his blood.
Unlike, for instance, the photographic montages of Big Finish’s audio dramas, the artwork accompanying Jeff Wayne’s album features no actor likenesses. Instead, each listener is perfectly welcome to create their own mental picture of each character. “The Spirit of Man” is illustrated by Peter Goodfellow with Parson Nathaniel, an inventive pastiche of Salvador Dalí’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony. (Goodfellow, an accomplished artist, also provided the memorable symbolist illustrations for the definitive edition of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.) Where Dalí has Anthony warding off naked women and towers of gold mounted atop a dizzying stork-legged procession of horse and elephants, Goodfellow has Nathaniel warding off ungodly tripods, with the cross that blazes with holy fire only in his fevered imaginings. While it pales in comparison to the original, it’s still an impressively avant-garde illustration for the story, and seems born of a real appreciation for the surrealist’s work – in addition to flipping the composition horizontally, creating a potential diptych of sorts, Goodfellow replaces the blue sky with the red gradient that formed the backdrop of The Elephants, Dalí’s subsequent study of the lanky creatures that haunt so many of his paintings. Goodfellow also gives the Fighting-Machines themselves a slight redesign, with a more splayed, spider-like stance, bathing them in shadow to smooth their more mechanical textures into a streamlined mosquito-like appearance, and generally making them appear feasibly demonic and organic rather than alien and mechanical. Given the red sky and the hint of an ocean behind the approaching monstrosities, the overall image recalls the closing chapters of Wells’s other great novel, The Time Machine, where the Time Traveller’s terrifying final encounter with the octopoid creature emerging from the sea of a far-future Earth beneath a red-giant sun, the incomprehensible symbol of what mankind might one day become, sends him fleeing back to the nineteenth century. Put simply, this is exactly the sort of evocative and stirring visual accompaniment that audio drama should ideally have. (Nonetheless, in this particular instance I choose to envision the character as the actor playing him, because the idea of a black Irish Victorian London fire-and-brimstone Anglican preacher preparing to confront the demonic Martian horde is just not resistible.)
Of all the game’s remixes, “The Spirit of Man” is probably the one which strays furthest from Wayne’s original. Rather than a soaring rock melodrama, it’s a relatively mellow and reflective electronic piece; basically an original techno composition that heavily samples its namesake track for its orchestral hooks, appropriate to the level’s low-risk, slow-pace nature. The game makes no direct reference to the events or characters of the song, and its rejigging of events doesn’t really allow the Journalist to have had many of his important experiences, including the incident with Parson Nathaniel and Beth. However, it’s worth noting that this level is set in the countryside just outside London, which – owing to Wayne’s amalgamation of the novel’s two brother protagonists – is where the album’s Journalist was wandering when he encountered them. It’s also nice to see that the level’s little village contains a chapel.
While “The Training Camp” is the game’s least fun level, there’s still a certain elegant simplicity to it, and to its position in the story. In many ways, it’s familiar: the arrival of the Martian Cylinder in a clearing near London, the emergence of the three Fighting-Machines, and the military response broadly retell the events of the novel’s opening chapters, or the album’s first tracks, hitting all the major iconic beats, albeit as a sequel, and from a more impersonal perspective. (We never get the synthesised, whistling whoosh that the album’s Cylinders make as they launch, but it’s becoming clear that the game isn’t interested in blurring sound effects with music the way Wayne was.) More specifically, the level’s closest antecedent might actually be a passage early in the novel, where the Journalist converses matter-of-factly with three soldiers who are heading to confront the second Cylinder at Woking.
If we manage to complete our training in time, we’re rewarded with a Mobile Artillery Vehicle, rolling in from the abyss which seems to loom behind the meshes of impenetrable woods and invisible walls that border all the game’s levels. Everything about this vehicle is immensely satisfying – the way its caterpillar treads somehow allow it to speed along earth as fast as it speeds along roads, the permanent-marker-like trail of perfect blackness it leaves in its wake, the way its cannon is just powerful enough to make the 3D trees that dot the landscape explode in a shower of inexplicable flame with a single shot… everything. It’s a little more fanciful than the other basic vehicles in the game, however, and doesn’t seem to have a clear WWI counterpart (the Gun Carrier Mark I coming closest). This is also the point in the level where we gain the ability to switch freely between vehicles using the side-bar map. (The game has two maps: a small compass in the top-right corner which shows units, enemies, and points of interest as colour-coded dots, and this larger one which can be conjured with a shoulder button. Displaying the complete level, this map, while unwieldy, allows us to view the entire Martian force and cycle through available human units to take possession of. It also shows our selection as a rotating 3D model, which is neat.)
Once we’ve destroyed the three Fighting-Machines, we’re told to eliminate the Cylinder, and given two additional Artillery as reinforcements. This is rather unnecessary, as there are no enemies left to defend it, and it’s now harmless and probably full of revolutionary technology, but whatever, the commander says blow it up. (Perhaps I shouldn’t complain, as the game becomes ridiculously difficult later on, with long checkpoint-free levels ratcheting up the penalty for failure. Using the invincibility cheat code, which transmutes the health bar to an irreducible void, is really the most enjoyable way to experience it.) When we arrive at the clearing, we can take a good look at the craft itself. Unlike the great ovoid one in Goodfellow’s illustration of Horsell Common, or indeed the oddly rock-encrusted one in the game’s opening sequence, this Cylinder is the same gleaming silver as Trim’s Fighting-Machine, laced with metallic seams and plating, with the rear end perfectly cylindrical and the front tapered to an aerodynamic point. Shoot it a few times, and it will explode in a satisfying (if semiotically confusing) technicolour mushroom cloud. If we investigate the clearing before the Cylinder arrives, we’ll find that its crater is already there, the story’s events inevitable, pre-ordained, as stories always are.
“You have completed your first mission, Soldier,” reads the level’s closing message, “but that Cylinder was not the biggest threat you will face over the coming weeks. The fate of the Planet is in your hands. I hope for all our sakes, that we have made the right choice in you. Good Luck.” This fascinates on a couple of levels. First, we’re given a predicted timeframe for the expanded war, marking out a chronological territory for this new version of the story – the album already shifted the setting from June to a more atmospheric August, and the game, inheriting this change and extending the conflict, becomes a journey to the heart of autumn. There’s also an implication here that our character is somehow humanity’s mythic and singular saviour, selected from among the nation’s entire body of military personnel despite having stumbled through an alarmingly inadequate training regime earlier that evening and not actually seeming to possess a name or identity. The truth, of course, is that Soldier isn’t really a character – he’s just us, and the commander is just Pixelogic, but there’s a kind of pantomime fun in seeing the text flirt with acknowledging the artifice. This is the kind of briefing a child might give an army action-figure – a staid British version of “Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?”, and all the more charming for its straightforward naivety, its sheer sense of play, and its knowingly silly call to action. In its own small way, this really does feel like the beginning of a great and rousing adventure, albeit one that stands atop a Jenga tower as shaky and convoluted as has ever been constructed from the building-blocks of culture.
To play Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds is to be alone; to immerse oneself in a lurid Victorian fever-dream whose fluke televisual alchemy carves it a niche as unique and alien as any in the vaunted ideaspace of Albion. Let’s see where the journey takes us.
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