Bridge Transports Are Hard to Come By (The Martians Land at the Thames)

lv2-01Every video-game level, to some degree or other, is a response to the one that precedes it. Where the first level of The War of the Worlds began peacefully, the second begins with fire: our introductory fly-by is interrupted by the arrival of a Martian Cylinder, scorching the trees as it comes in to land. This is the second Cylinder we’ll encounter in-game, and also the last – as in the novel and album, the craft lose their significance quite early on, with the focus shifting to their passengers. Still, the vast number of enemy Martian units suggests there must be a hell of a lot of these Cylinders dotted around the country – certainly more than the total of ten specified in the novel. In additional second-level inversions, we begin trapped in a stationary Machine-Gun Turret rather than a mobile Armoured Lorry, and instead of having to potter around with target practice, we’re thrown into immediate combat.

lv2-02Since the Cylinder touches down on the other side of the Thames, we can’t take it on just yet. (Actually, you can skip the opening fly-by and get a ground’s-eye view of the Cylinder’s arrival, but you can’t blow it up mid-air, alas.) First we must complete a series of tasks, both defensive and offensive, in the generally half-baked sort of strategy that will come to characterise much of the game. Allowing the Fighting-Machine to sit out this level, the game grabs our attention by playing one of its more interesting Martian lore cards: the Flying-Machine.

lv2-03lv2-04lv2-04

In Wells’s novel, the Flying-Machine is little more than a terrifying idea. Claiming to have seen a light in the sky, the Artilleryman speculates that the Martians are experimenting with flight, a prospect the Journalist finds intolerable: “It is all over with humanity. If they can do that they will simply go round the world.” The Flying-Machine’s existence is confirmed at the climax, when our narrator reaches the alien base in London and sees the thing for himself, “flat and vast and strange”. It’s implied to be a prototype, a new invention, owing to the fact that Mars’s atmosphere is too thin to support aircraft. Mentioned only twice, it’s a triviality, omitted entirely by most adaptations (with the notable exception of George Pal’s 1953 film, which replaces the Fighting-Machines entirely with Flying-Machines – a move one imagines was motivated by the opportunity to reduce the special-effects budget to the price of some thin wires rather than any loyalty to obscure and fantastical vehicles). Wayne’s album skips it entirely. However, all video games require an annoying and agile airborne enemy: in a framework where gravity is a lie and varied conflict is the easiest way to sustain entertainment, this is as basic as breathing. Naturally enough, the game has a field day with the Flying-Machine, diffusing that lone apocalyptic monstrosity into a multitude of frail, ineffectual in-game cannon fodder. In fact, they’re the weakest enemy of all, soaring so swiftly through the air that their Heat-Ray can barely graze your health bar before you’re out of their range again. The game’s Martian units always patrol about in pre-determined routes, and nowhere is this AI shortcoming as obvious as in the case of the Flying-Machine – they usually attack in swarms, but never stray from their rigid, pre-ordained circuits through the sky, so if you note the position of one, you can usually kill a whole bunch just by firing endlessly at that point, with a single hit from most vehicles being enough to send them spiralling harmlessly and prettily to the ground. (It’s interesting that the debris of so many Martian machines is clearly composed of the same boxy green wreckage seen when our own vehicles explode. A cursory reading of Erich von Däniken will explain.)

Martian_Gunship

Without any lovely artwork from the album’s painters to use as a basis, the developers had free reign to conceive their own Flying-Machine, and I think they managed admirably. For the most part, their solution – and this goes for the rest of the Martian units – was to emulate the aesthetic of Mike Trim: like his Fighting-Machine design, the game’s Flying-Machine is silvery steel, its body rounded and its appendages spindly and static. Each is roughly the size of a Fighting-Machine’s head, and carries a Heat-Ray gun attached to its undercarriage, but stays airborne by means of four rigid wings – a large pair on either side, and a smaller pair below, each held in place by stiff, narrow rods. Rather than the pair of insectile green orbs given to both the album’s Fighting- and Handling-Machines, the game’s Flying-Machine is given a cycloptic visor, not unlike Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a horizontal slit that glows orange from within and provides a welcome splash of colour.

In Wells’s short story “The Crystal Egg”, a kind of prologue to The War of the Worlds, a man comes into possession of the eponymous device and, on examining it, finds that it provides what’s essentially a live feed streaming from the surface of Mars. All the details he sees match those given in the subsequent novel, with the elaboration that some of the Martians flap about in the air, seemingly with the help of “broad, silvery wings … supported by curved ribs radiating from the body”, and resembling those of a butterfly, but retractable. While this might offer further clues as to how Wells might have envisioned the Flying-Machine, what we get in the game is quite different: an extension of Trim’s decision to eliminate the machines’ tentacled, flexible dynamism. Despite the design’s complete rigidity, however, the rounded appearance of the bulk and wings gives the craft an otherworldly organic quality, almost as if it were grown rather than constructed. There’s something faintly Halloweenish about them, with their combination of bat-like wings and pumpkin-like shape and inner orange flame, but their diving motion seems closer to that of a World War I biplane, echoing the game’s slightly accelerated Victorian setting. As we spin our Gun Turret about in the first person, comfortably massacring dozens of unimaginably advanced Martians, we get a good look at our environs: while it’s much like the English greenery of the first level, there’s also a nicely animated river representing the Thames, and an intriguing stone circle on the nearby hillside.

lv2-05lv2-06scoutscout

After a few waves of Flying-Machines are defeated, we encounter our next enemy, the first created entirely for the games: the Scout-Machine. The thinking behind their creation is clear: in order to preserve some sense of the original story, the mythic Fighting-Machine must remain a reasonably powerful enemy, one whose occasional appearance can be relied upon to send a tremor of atavistic fear into those of us traumatised by Jeff Wayne’s album as children (wonky game design and difficulty balancing notwithstanding). Games require grunt enemies, of the grounded as well as flying variety. Enter the Scout-Machines, a few more green dots on the edge of our compass, working their way towards the event horizon of the PlayStation’s draw distance. Still tripodal – basically a miniature version of the Fighting-Machine – the Scout trades strength for speed, traversing the countryside at a quicker pace at the cost of a lighter hull that allow it to be destroyed more easily. Trim’s Fighting-Machine design (and, to a lesser extent, the Handling-Machine he extrapolated from it) remains the game’s ur-Martian, the irreducible origin of its alien aesthetic, but it’s the Scout-Machine that follows this template most closely. In a wise bit of colour-coding, their eyes are dark blue instead of green. In the CG renders, they’re also much larger and buggier, or perhaps simply the same size despite a smaller, leaner head. In-game, the technical limitations of the simpler model flatten these insectile eyes, with the result that the Scouts look a bit like they’re wearing sunglasses, cool and blank and expressionless. Other details of the Fighting-Machine are similarly lost to the polycount, including the struts and modelled Heat-Ray proboscis, now flattened into a vertical shadow that’s easier to read as a sort of mouth. The overall effect is that of a slightly less happy Martian marauder, one who’s a little blue himself. The Scout possesses no attacks beyond its Heat-Ray. Its head barely reaches the notional knees of its brethren, but the lineage is clear: discount Trim.

lv2-07

We’re told to fight off several more waves of Flying-Machines and Scout-Machines, though a savvy player might already be taking advantage of the fact that the game’s terrible AI does not allow off-screen enemies to recognise and attack our units – it’s possible to survive this entire baptism of fire by quite literally looking away. (We’d miss out on some interesting visuals, however, as the image of the Scouts creeping about behind the ancient structure is oddly arresting: perhaps the druids who built it were ancestors of our nameless Soldier.) After dealing with these enemies, we’re given our next task: travel to a nearby village and safeguard its evacuation. An Armoured Car rolls up and parks beside our Gun Turret, inviting us to possess it.

lv2-08lv2-09lv2-10

Driving up the hill, we soon arrive at our destination. It seems that every village in this game will have a chapel, a post office, and multiple “Free Houses” with pixellated signs informing us that each one is named the Bald Faced Stag. Technical limitations can have endearingly naive effects – it’s almost like a child’s playset of a little town, being deployed in each new level and packed up at the end, the same basic blocks rearranged to represent each new location. A fleet of Flying-Machines attacks, but if we’ve noticed their extremely rigid aerial paths, we’ll quickly make mince-metal of them using our “fire several cannon balls per second at the same spot in the sky” trick – it sure is handy that the game gives all our vehicles magical unlimited ammunition. It’s over if all the buildings are destroyed, but if we fend off the invaders while keeping a few intact, the surviving villagers are deemed safe to evacuate, and go fleeing down the main road. (You can use them for target practice, if the mood takes you – the game doesn’t seem to notice.) At the outskirts, the road reaches the edge of the map and quickly trails off into blackness, with an invisible wall preventing us from exploring any further – the sort of eerie, disquieting touch that’s so very absent from more advanced games. Interestingly, there’s a completely unique item here: a stone obelisk engraved “7⅓ LONDON – a UK ordnance-survey trig point, albeit not located on a hilltop, and perhaps slightly anachronistic in that these ones don’t seem to have been installed until 1935. (It’s really just big enough for the player to read, but seen alongside the villagers, the bloody thing must be about twenty feet tall and weigh several tonnes. That’s video-game abstraction for you.) The briefing screen tells us that this mission takes place somewhere to the east of London, but according to our compass, this road leads east, so we should be somewhere to the west. Assuming that the units used are miles: if the pre-level briefing is wrong, we’re somewhere in Middlesex, between Chiswick and Brentford, while if the HUD compass is what’s banjaxed, we’re somewhere around Leytonstone. Take your pick. In the abstract, compressed haze of the skybox, we can glimpse the city on the horizon, an indistinct tangle of geometry. (Spoiler warning: the following level is indeed London. As a child, I can remember fantasising about driving off the edge of one map and into another, the whole game knitted together into a sprawling vastitude. A bit tame, as fantasies go, but I still think there’s something to be said for the sense of atmospheric isolation and yearning for connection that this type of old-fashioned, modular, closed-world level design can instil.)

lv2-11lv2-12lv2-13

Just as the roads to the edge of the world take, they also give: an Armoured Lorry emerges from the darkness, carrying within it a Gun Turret that we’re told will be useful to us. We just need to protect it until it can deploy its cargo: this is our first escort mission. The game’s decisions as to which Lorries we can drive ourselves and which we must tail as they amble painfully along a pre-set route is arbitrary, to say the least; the latter process often makes one feel a little like a Looney Tunes character protecting a wayward baby from crawling stupidly into hot irons or dangling knives, and the fact that the game’s invincibility cheat doesn’t apply to NPC vehicles only makes things trickier. In this instance, our ward drives through the village and takes a left, passing by a large, important-looking stone hill and through a grove of deciduous trees, already pale orange with the decay of autumn. A Scout-Machine emerges, intent on destroying our quarry, but we blast it to pieces. Emerging from the woods, we follow the Lorry across a picture-postcard little stream to arrive at a military base: a grey-brick Command Post with its little tower, and a slightly purplish barn-like building we’ll come to know as a Workshop. If we look to the distance, we might spy the stone circle from earlier, and realise that we’ve actually just travelled in a large clockwise circle ourselves. The Lorry sidles up to the bank of the Thames, depositing its Gun Turret in a pre-ordained spot already fortified with sandbags.

lv2-14

Our mission is to destroy the Cylinder on the opposite bank, but unfortunately, the bridge has been destroyed, so we must acquire a special temporary Bridge Section to repair it. (Better get used to this sort of thing – there are basically no non-destroyed bridges in the entire game.) Over by the Workshop, a device appears. We see a soldier seated in this boxy, mint-coloured metal contraption, with its little green and yellow lights and dreamcatcher-like aerial – this device which looks, for all the world, like a cross between an early computer terminal and the Time Machine in Pal’s 1960 film of the same name. This is the transmitter, and impressively manages to be identifiable as one despite looking absolutely ridiculous and bearing zero resemblance to any early electrical-telegraph technology. The on-screen instructions inform us that we must take it to higher ground, so that we might request a Bridge Section – the signal is too weak down here. I’m not sure if the science is on the side of our superiors in this particular goose chase, but we’re not given a lot of options. The Workshops become quite important later in the game, but this one’s role is brief: it opens its doors, and out rolls the Mobile Artillery Truck, our favourite all-purpose off-road friend, which certainly makes this particular task a bit more palatable. Naturally, we jump straight into the Artillery Truck and use it pick up the transmitter. (As in all good games, important items in The War of the Worlds are collected by moving onto them.)

lv2-15

Astute players, racking their minds for areas in this level which might count as high ground, will recall that ominous rocky hill they drove past a little earlier. In other words, it’s time to backtrack. Retracing our steps counter-clockwise, we probably spend a moment or two driving about in the swampy, water-logged field between the base and the woods – the sprite-based splashing animations are strangely compelling – before getting back on track. Unluckily for Soldier, the high ground has been occupied since he last passed it. Enter the games’ next original Martian creation: the Bombarding-Machines.

lv2-15lv2-16Bombardment_Machinegt6_lg
bombarding-machine-2

Straying substantially from both Wells and Trim, the Bombarding-Machine is a fantastically imaginative design, bringing a whole new variety of creepiness to the invading forces. The most important innovation is that they’re not tripods but bipeds, meaning that they move in a way that’s disconcertingly familiar to us Earth inhabitants just when we’d expect something alien. A War of the Worlds adaptation that replaced tripods with bipeds entirely would be disappointing, much as the Pal version’s adherence to Flying-Machines was disappointing, but as part of the diverse Martian milieu offered by the game, it’s a very welcome addition. Paying notional respects to Trim’s designs, the Bombarding-Machine maintains the basic traits of rounded body, angular legs, and silver-with-green-eyes colour scheme. It’s there, however, that the similarities end. The head (which is also the body) is tapered and neotenous, much larger and taller than that of a Fighting-Machine, and reminds me more than anything of Roald Dahl’s Vermicious Knids – they’re unnerving in the way that creatures composed primarily of head always are. Rather than the dual bug-eyes Wayne forced Trim to give to his machines, these are cyclopes, blank and staring, with little impression of a face. Emerging from the sides are two digitigrade legs, the knees reversed: the machine’s shape recalls the amusing-but-unsettling pre-modern depictions of the blemmyes, the fusion of head and body echoing Wells’s own description of the Martians themselves, while the walk cycle brings to mind some weird combination of human, dog, and velociraptor. The Bombarding-Machine is also the first enemy in the game not to use a Heat-Ray: instead, a cannon is mounted atop its head, enabling it to launch sizeable cylindrical projectiles which arc through the air and detonate powerfully upon impact. (Turns out the British Empire aren’t the only ones who’ve discovered the secret of unlimited ammo.) We get a better look at the Bombarding-Machine in the game-over cutscene, in which the sight of one terrorising a London street is matched to Richard Burton’s “fire leapt from house to house”. Its hull is gleaming, mirror-like, its movements more frightening and alive and mercurial. Interestingly, it actually appears to have three eyes, with a large one protected by metal bars on top and two smaller ones below. It doesn’t use its cannon here, but in a shot clearly inspired by the album’s Panic in the Streets illustration, it’s shown blasting a fleeing woman with a Heat-Ray mounted on its lower body – a weapon it’s not even evident that it has in-game, and which it never uses. (Little differences like this were common in the PlayStation era, as pre-rendered cutscenes were often storyboarded, animated, and finalised relatively early in development, while characters’ appearances and abilities could be tweaked and rebalanced up until the last moment; consider the flying Slig in the opening sequence of Abe’s Exoddus. With The War of the Worlds recycling so many assets from an RTS game released the previous year – a game in which the Bombarding-Machines did indeed use Heat-Rays – it’s a wonder there aren’t more contradictions.)

lv2-17

This game draws a significant deal of atmosphere from its own limited draw distance, and the way the eerie outlines of the Martians materialise on the edge of our vision. Nowhere is this more effective than in the introduction of the Bombarding-Machines. They emerge from the darkness as silhouettes, a pair of strange new beings cavorting atop the hill, one making its way down to greet us. The hill – which I’ve decided to call the Carrock, because it seems to demand a name and vaguely reminds me of Beorn’s chill-out spot in The Hobbit – is a bizarre landmark: a perfectly vertical cylinder of stone, striking in its resemblance to the Martians’ own interplanetary craft, with a twisting slope running clockwise up its length, conveniently allowing military vehicles to scale its heights. I thought the stone circle earlier on imbued the level with a faintly Celtic atmosphere, but the Carrock, with its perfect spiral structure and hint of subterranean vastness, is even more overtly supernatural. Is it any wonder that minds far greater than our own should gravitate towards it as they prepare for their unknowable deeds? The Bombarding-Machines were probably using it to hack the ley lines or something.

lv2-18

Unless we stop it, one Bombarding-Machine will stroll to the base and start attacking. The other will remain guarding the Carrock. Interestingly, they’re invincible while moving: ammunition will simply glance off them, dissolved in a flash of blue by their force-fields. Why so few Martian machines have these defences, and why they can’t function at all while they’re standing still, are questions for the game-world’s engineers and philosophers to puzzle over in the coming centuries. Once we’ve defeated both enemies and driven to the top of the Carrock, the transmitter is deposited in its centre, and the signal goes out: the Bridge Section is on its way. Despite the technological warfare that’s occurring here, it’s hard not to read this as quasi-mystical. The strategic purpose is clear, yes, but the value of this strange territory feels more symbolic than anything. The invaders captured our ancient stone spiral, so we wrenched it back from them and planted our transmitter man there, a guardian, a beacon, calling upon our people for aid.

lv2-19

Moments later, command tells us that a barge carrying the Bridge Section we need is on its way down the Thames. A completely uncontrollable NPC vehicle, barges exist solely to deliver reinforcements and special items, with our role generally being to protect them from our vantage point on the shore. They’re weaponless themselves, with the colour palette of a mallard, gliding serenely along pre-set paths, blithely ignorant of enemy fire. (If we’ve successfully escorted the Gun Turret to its prescient location overlooking the river, this is where that pays off.) The barge is beset by Flying-Machines, and it’s our job to ensure that it reaches our base in one piece. If it’s destroyed, another is sent – then another, and another, with HQ sending us increasingly exasperated yet supremely helpful messages like “Do not let it be destroyed”, “Bridge transports are hard to come by”, and “take better care and try to aim better”. If the fourth barge is sunk, it’s game over.

lv2-20

Once the Bridge Section is dropped off, we can collect it in any vehicle – despite the fact that the thing is a grid of wrought iron about fifteen feet by thirty – and deposit it on the broken bridge to create a perfectly solid crossing point. On the other side, in a little wooded copse, we find our mark: the Cylinder. Unlike the one in the first level, which we essentially ambushed, there’s a sense that this one has had some time to bed in, the passengers having built up a little base of their own. Our first taste of Martian architecture is the third enemy introduced in this level: the Heat-Ray Turret.

lv2-21

A thoroughly eerie creation, the Heat-Ray Turrets borrow the silvery sheen and metal struts from Trim’s design work, and are one of the game’s most truly alien inventions. With a large stationary base and a Heat-Ray gun for a “head”, these enemies are the invaders’ counterpart to our own Machine-Gun Turrets, turning slowly to fire their beams at us if we stray into the path, but with a sluggish inflexibility that’s almost suggestive of an organic creature that can only turn its neck so far. Get behind one, or sidle up close to its base, and it’s completely defenceless. The head is narrow and tapered, evoking Wells’s description of the Heat-Ray as a “funnel”. While it has no clear facial features, the head has several perforations revealing the fire within, with the two uppermost giving the unmistakable impression of dull, pained, indifferent eyes. The overall effect is somewhere between fighting a swan, a snail, and a flower, with the Turret’s ponderous movement evoking – of all things – the serpentine, record-player-inspired Flying-Machines in the George Pal film. It’s unclear whether they’re manned by Martians or completely robotic, but it’s not like Soldier cares.

lv2-22

The default music heard in this level is a techno remix of “Brave New World”, the song of the Artilleryman. When the Journalist first meets this character near the beginning of the album, he’s a shellshocked soldier who’s narrowly escaped as his company was destroyed by the initial group of Martians. The two men are separated in another attack, but by chance, they cross paths another again towards the end of the album. In the days since their first meeting, the Artilleryman has become increasingly unhinged, spinning an elaborate plan for rebellion against the Martians. In the novel, he shares this dream via dialogue. In the album, of course, he sings: this is “Brave New World”. Cheerfully, he talks the Journalist through his grand idea. Reasoning that the invaders cannot be combated directly, he suggests that humanity must fight instead for survival, and begin to rebuild their civilisation underground. Sewers, basements, and railways can be connected into a network by digging tunnels, allowing the humans to travel and converge without Martian detection. They’ll build shops, schools, hospitals, prisons – everything they need. It’s clear that the Artilleryman has been rehearing this speech for some time. At last, he reveals his ultimate hope for this subterranean utopia: to capture a Fighting-Machine, reverse-engineer it, and use the Martians’ own technology to oust them. Glam singer David Essex gives a really outstanding performance, making the Artilleryman’s excitement over his own delusional, solipsistic fantasies absolutely infectious while leavening them with occasional moments of wistful working-class humility – a messianic masterplan that somehow sounds perfectly reasonable despite having no praxis at all to back it up. A few wry comments indicate that the invasion isn’t the only thing he wants to escape: “And what’s so bad about living underground, eh? It’s not been so great living up here if you want my opinion…” Even the intellectual Journalist finds himself taken in, but after the Artilleryman proudly reveals his pathetic attempt at digging to the sewer, the Journalist realises the young man’s inadequacy and decides to slip away at the soonest opportunity. The Artilleryman is easily the most likeable character on the album, and also the only one to develop significantly as a character (if largely off-screen), evolving from a lost, frightened man to a confident but delusional dreamer. (His creativity is quietly hinted at earlier in the album – he’s actually the character who coins the name “Fighting-Machine” for the invaders’ vehicles, and factoring in that the story is narrated in retrospect, he also gives us the first chronological use of “Heat-Ray”.)

lv2-23

Like most characters in the book and album, the Artilleryman is basically absent from the game, reduced to a (presumable) cameo as one of the company of redcoats glimpsed at Horsell Common in the opening sequence. Nonetheless, the Artilleryman’s spirit of rebellion is the engine at the heart of the game – his dream of taking out the Martians with cunning and force, an idea Wells explores but ultimately discards in favour of the influenza twist ending, is finally given a real chance. That’s why “Brave New World” is the perfect choice to soundtrack this level: since “The Training Camp” was just a tutorial, “The Martians Land at the Thames” is the game’s first proper mission, and the one that sets the tone for the entire experience. There’s no obvious way to do a War of the Worlds game, much less one that draws from the album more than the novel, but given that “arcade-style vehicular action game” is the possibility they settled on, an upbeat, inspiring call to arms is the ideal musical choice. This isn’t a story with a lot of uplifting, inspiring moments, but Wayne absolutely pulls off the tonal acrobatics required, and between the original’s spine-tingling orchestral sweeps and soaring electric guitar and Max Mondo’s contribution of irresistible percussive synths, every bit of the mad hype and glory of the Artilleryman’s dream is captured. The game imbued its version of “The Spirit of Man” with a very different tone, transforming it from an intense duet to a chillaxed instrumental more befitting of strategic or puzzle-based gameplay, but “Brave New World” is given a much more faithful treatment, following the game’s essential “replace all disco with techno” direction while preserving the song’s core feeling and atmosphere exactly. It’s a remarkable achievement, considering that the game’s instrumental version doesn’t have Essex’s vocals to fall back on for its semiotics. (And how crazy is it that you can actually play an action game where one track in the score is specifically, genuinely aimed at capturing the spirit of a particular monologue in one chapter towards the end of a book that HG Wells wrote in 1898 – let alone an action game that fulfils that ridiculously obscuritan brief extremely well?)

Wells never actually uses the phrase “Brave New World” in the novel. Instead, Wayne took it from the book by Aldous Huxley, itself named after a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While it’s unclear whether Wayne knew the history of what he was referencing, it turns out that this is a very appropriate choice, as Huxley himself was writing in response to Wells – Brave New World is a satirical, dystopian answer to Wells’s utopian fiction, particularly Men Like Gods. Huxley viewed Wells’s visions of the future with scepticism – indeed, we might compare Huxley’s views on Wells’s utopian writing with the thoughts Wells’s own Journalist expresses about the Artilleryman.

brave new world - geoff taylor

The illustration, also titled Brave New World, is painted by noted Philip K Dick and JRR Tolkien artist Geoff Taylor, who opts to do what Wells and his heroes never could: actually realise the Artilleryman’s dream of a thriving new subterranean English society. On first glance, the illustration seems like a pleasant Victorian cityscape on a bright summer day – it’s not until a few moments later that you realise that what looks like the sky isn’t. Taylor really allows his imagination to run wild, taking the Artilleryman’s descriptions as a basis and extrapolating into an even more ambitious future. These rebels haven’t just tunnelled themselves a network where they can live safely – they’ve excavated a vast underground world, complete with huge cities, elevated trains, and white-hot artificial suns, its vaulted ceiling expanding as far as the eye can see. A gigantic mill with wheels that must span hundreds of feet in diameter powers a massive turbine, and a series of tubes or ducts links it to a favela-like mass of buildings, apparently forming some kind of archaic electrical grid. Redcoat soldiers march on the streets, and men at leisure play cricket in a green field, acknowledging one of the Artilleryman’s little fancies – Taylor really packed this one with details. The streets are broad and clean, with a hint of classical architecture in their imposing white marble stairs and pillars. It’s a wild, absurd achievement, and one that goes a long way towards establishing Earth as a force to rival Mars – one that seems to brim with storytelling possibilities: we want to see them capture that Fighting-Machine and take the war to the next level. It’s a genuinely rich science-fiction setting, and could easily support an entire novel – perhaps a Wellsian account of the subterranean humans turning the tables on their oppressors, Morlock-like, only to be faced with new problems of their own…

The only problem here, of course, is that it isn’t real – not even within the story. The illustrations for both “The Spirit of Man” and “Brave New World” are diegetic fantasies: the former depicts the confrontation the delirious Parson Nathaniel imagines having with the demonic invaders, while the latter depicts the utopian underground civilisation that the Artilleryman dreams of but can never achieve; one foolish and religious and phantasmagorical, the other foolish and scientific and photorealistic. And why shouldn’t Wells’s story, a parable of an imperialist society confronted with its own evolved mirror image, be crystallised with yet more parables, more dreams of societal strata fractured by things to come? Despite their total irrelevance to the plot, these fevered imaginings are compelling enough to survive from adaptation to adaptation, from music to painting.

Wells’s Curate was a frail, introverted character, so Wayne had to name him just to fit a song around him. The Artilleryman, already a broad and exuberant fantasist in the source material, needed no such upgrade – he can carry a musical number with barely a change to his personality. This also means he gets to keep his namelessness – a trait shared by many Wells characters, and which underscores the degree to which they are stand-ins for concepts or societal strata. Jonathan Miller’s 1966 film of Alice in Wonderland portrayed characters like the White Rabbit and the Caterpillar as completely human, with Miller explaining, “Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it’s all about.” The Journalist and the Curate and the Artilleryman function in the same way – somehow, a system of nameless humans, identified only by rank or job or position, always takes on a mythic, parabolic texture, each one elevated to the semiotic heft of their entire class, even if it’s not always entirely clear just what each figure symbolises. Christened Nathaniel, the Curate is diminished, turned into just another individual man. The Artilleryman, however, remains on the level of myth – and look which one of them got the game.

great exhibition 1851

Taylor’s inspirations aren’t as easy to identify as Peter Goodfellow’s Salvador Dalí pastiche, with the painting seeming to draw from the general aesthetic of Jules Verne and some of the more iconic illustrations of his stories. The word “steampunk” wasn’t coined until 1987, but that’s clearly the terrain Taylor is working in. That said, I would speculate that Taylor, while researching large-scale Victorian architecture for the piece, might well have come across images of the Crystal Palace. Built in 1851, the Crystal Palace was a vast structure of glass and iron created to house the celebrated Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. A huge fair with twenty-five participating countries, this event brought together the latest and greatest industrial machinery, art, and music for the appreciation of the public, attracting more than six million people over its five-month duration, including many luminaries of the day. While the Exhibition’s use to display art contradicts aspects of the Artilleryman’s scheme (“Men like you will teach the kids – not poems and rubbish; science!”), its excessive, outlandish Victorian ingenuity and technological fetishism is very much in keeping with what the song is about. Perhaps more importantly, it just looks a lot like Taylor’s illustration, sharing its sense of a constructed, wholly artificial proto-art-deco interior with a vast and vivid brightness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest the Crystal Palace as an inspiration for Taylor – or, indeed, for the Artilleryman.

lv2-x

Unless you count the game-over messages shown when you fail in certain ways, The War of the Worlds is a game with virtually no hidden or bonus content. This level, however, has what might be the only honest-to-God Easter egg in the whole experience. In one corner of the map, there’s a little stream flowing from the central forest. Follow it back to its source, through the undergrowth, and you’ll discover a secret area: a grove containing an Armoured Lorry. We get a message from command, congratulating us on finding the waylaid unit, which is now available for us to use. It’s not a lot, but I have to say, accidentally stumbling across it fifteen years after I first played the game did make me smile.

lv2-y

A lot that’s on display here is just recapitulation of the first level – indeed, the developers could probably have gotten away with starting the game here, or with a level of similar complexity and challenge – but there is a sense of progression; a sense that new territory is being mapped out. Where the first level was broadly arc-shaped, the second is circular in structure: again, the player begins near the end, and must complete a variety of tasks around the map – from the Gun Turret to the village to the Carrock to the workshop to the bridge, a great clockwise circle – before unlocking the final area and confronting the enemy there. Combined with the ring of ancient standing stones and the spiral of the Carrock, there’s a strong association – in this level, at least – with the native strength of Earth, and a consistency and unity in how that idea is presented symbolically. The Armoured Lorry, that lone gift of human resilience waiting for us at the centre of the level’s circuit – situated at the precise midpoint between the old stone circle and the spiral of our new technological beacon – seems to have greater use as a icon of solidarity and righteous defence than it does for practical gameplay. We never learn who lost it there, or how – it’s like a modest, faintly absurd tribute to the Unknown Soldier, fighting down throughout the centuries… and who, in a sense, is also our main character. (And really, placing the British Empire at its height against a vastly superior force of alien imperialists is about as close as you can get to making that regime relatable or sympathetic. This is why “Brave New World”, both song and painting, remain so enticing: they’re free of the sordid authoritarianism that lurks at the heart of most nostalgic retro-Victorian fantasy.) The only exception is the odd green cube floating in the Thames – apparently the spawning point for the barges, inexplicably left visible by the developers, a reminder of the ultimate falsehood and artifice of the world.

lv2-24

The copse across the bridge contains two Heat-Ray Turrets, standing guard on either side of the Cylinder, which has crash-landed in the middle of another road out of town, forming a crater. Once we destroy the Turrets, the Cylinder, and the last few Flying-Machines circling like vultures in the sky above, our mission is complete: on to the capital.

✕ ✕ ✕ ○ △ ✕ ○ □

Advertisements
This entry was posted in posts and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Notions

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s