To Destroy the Tempest (Thunderchild)

lv7-01The best adaptations understand that The War of the Worlds is a two-part story. Book One, “The Coming of the Martians”, covers the first days of the invasion, with humanity still active and resistant; while Book Two, “The Earth Under the Martians”, details a slightly more advanced phase, with humanity now broken and mad. The symbolic event which splits the story is the sinking of the ironclad Thunder Child by the Fighting-Machines, representing the destruction of humanity’s last hope of victory. Jeff Wayne’s album transmutes this brief, grimly low-key battle into the cheesily captivating rock anthem “Thunder Child”, which closes out the album’s A-side, recreating the novel’s structure. While the PlayStation game echoes the story’s before-and-after bifurcation with its various two-part levels, it also reflects it on a macro scale: the game is divided into two halves. Any initial disappointment that we’re not yet given a chance to control the Flying-Machine we captured in the previous level is quickly allayed by what actually happens: we are placed in command of the ironclad.

In both the novel and the album, the ship was named the Thunder Child – two words (endearingly stylised by Wells as “THUNDER CHILD”). Thunder, we can presume, for its lightning speed and the sound of its blazing cannons; and Child to affirm its nature as a creation of human ingenuity (and gender-neutral, too; perhaps more truthful than the conventional Freudian feminisation of ships). The game, however, collapses this to the mononym Thunderchild, which is also the title of the seventh level. This may well have been a mistake, but in truth, it’s an improvement: the new name better expresses the ship’s singular, monolithic status within the narrative, and there is a certain dark sublimity in utilising “-child” as a suffix.

At the midpoint of Wells’s novel, a fleet of refugee steamships flee down the River Blackwater in Essex, only to find themselves intercepted at the river’s mouth by three Fighting-Machines. The Thunder Child surges to their defence: it guns down one tripod, almost immediately gets Heat-Rayed, then manages impressively to steer its flaming wreck and ram another tripod before finally sinking. The steamships are saved, the tripods destroyed or fled, but the ironclad is lost. Whereas Wells told his THUNDER CHILD chapter from the perspective of the Journalist’s brother on one of the steamships, Wayne instead has the Journalist himself witness the battle, and adds more personal stakes by having the Journalist’s partner Carrie be the one on the endangered steamship.

In the novel and album, the actual human military response to the Martians is a comparatively minor subplot. It climaxes with the last stand of the Thunder Child; the second half of the story, with all due respect to the Artilleryman, features no military action whatsoever. The game, however, expands the military campaign until it is the story. So, clearly, the Thunder Child deserves pride of place in this version. (If anything, it’s a little strange that the game blows the story’s only other military encounter – the initial skirmish at Horsell Common – on an opening FMV rather than adapting it for the first level.)

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Using the Thunder Child here, however, brings its own complications. Since the game needed to increase massively the number of units in the invasion force – nerfing and multiplying the sublime Martian machines to serve as Goombas – any faithful rendition of the clash between one ship and three Fighting-Machines would have been pitifully brief and easy. Instead, the game assigns the ironclad a bigger, more complex mission: to cruise into the heart of a coastal Martian stronghold, laying waste to enemy installations while completing some defensive objectives along the way. No longer the doomed last stand, the Thunder Child is given a glorious, impossible chance at victory. It retains its position as the midpoint and fulcrum of the overall story, but since that story is now one where the day is saved by human ingenuity rather than bacteria, it serves not as a tragic symbol but just another cog in the great mechanism of human collaboration and unity.

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Wells specifies that his THUNDER CHILD is a torpedo ram. In reality, very few such ships were ever constructed, with the only notable example in the Royal Navy being the HMS Polyphemus, an experimental vessel. It seems that Wells, taking the Polyphemus as a starting-point, extrapolated for his near-future setting a larger, more powerful torpedo ram suitable for coastal-defence operations. Album illustrator Mike Trim, slightly less imaginatively, based his version of the Thunder Child closely on the Canopus-class pre-dreadnought battleships, which were being built at the time Wells was writing. Naturally, the game follows Trim’s design.

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Rather than turning the ironclad into just another playable vehicle, the game dedicates an entire level to the Thunderchild. It’s a very unusual level, and not just because it has only one playable vehicle: it’s also entirely on-rails. We control the ship’s two forward guns, which fire alternately; they appear to be based on the BL 12-inch Mk VIII naval gun used by the real Canopus class. We can’t steer the ship, or slow down, or speed up – it moves along at its own pace, allowing us to focus entirely on aiming and firing. The Thunderchild plays more like a turret than a mobile vehicle. This works surprisingly well, and since the level is quite short, the novelty value counter-intuitively makes it one of the game’s most fun and replayable.

Rather than the mouth of the Blackwater, the level – according to the loading-screen map – places the Thunderchild in the Wash, a large square bay near the Fenlands on the east coast of England. This is the only level in the game without an opening flyover – a pity, since it means we never really get a complete view of the Thunderchild. We cruise a long, snaking course up and down the banks of the Wash, moving ever inland until we reach the heart of a Martian stronghold. When the level begins, we are sailing south, with the North Sea on our starboard. It’s at this point that a certain truth becomes undeniable: this game does not know what directions are. Evidently the aliens’ initial martiaforming efforts are already interfering with Earth’s electromagnetic field.

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At first we’re assailed by Flying-Machines. As we cruise on, however, we see where they’re coming from: a towering, top-heavy structure like a Space Age raygun, a great dark aperture in its centre. This appears to be some kind of hangar or factory: Flying-Machines stream out, one every few seconds. Perhaps all the Fighting-Machines in the game were created here. Taking fourteen direct hits from the ironclad’s powerful guns to destroy, it’s perhaps the single most durable thing in the game.

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At this point, we discover one of the level’s greatest ideas. Since we have only one vehicle, losing it means an instant game over, which could get very frustrating. How does the level compensate for this, you ask? Brace yourself: first-aid kits. Which is to say: first-aid kits for the ironclad. Whenever we manage to destroy one of the vast, unique, heavily armoured Martian buildings we find throughout the level, a gigantic first-aid kit is sent rocketing upwards by the explosion, soars through the air, then lands on the Thunderchild, instantly restoring a large chunk of our health. Beautiful. No other level in the game has first-aid kits, and no other vehicle in the game can recover its health in any way. Now that is the kind of healthy disrespect I like my game design to have for the Aristotelian unities.

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If we do allow the Thunderchild to get blown up, our commander tells us, “The Iron Clad has been destroyed, 951 crew members have been lost at sea. You have failed.” The casual comma splice is especially brutal. Still, it makes one wonder: is this the last thought that flashed through the mind of the captain in the novel and album as his ship went down? (Incidentally, the actual Canopus-class battleships were crewed by 682 men on completion, but subsequent crew size could fluctuate. It’s as if the destruction of the Thunderchild, even as a game-over condition within a version where the Thunderchild ultimately triumphs, is still such a poignant topic that the game must veer into bleak realism for this one detail.)

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As we cruise past the Flying-Machine factory, we encounter a new Martian weapon: the Mines. These drifting contact mines float at the surface of the water, spinning rapidly, but they don’t appear to be directed by any intelligence. Each one consists of a glowing blood-red core surrounded by four vertical fins of grey metal. Considered alongside the massive ironclad, they also appear to be absurdly gigantic, but it’s not like the scale in this game ever made sense anyway. If they touch the Thunderchild, they explode instantly; since we can’t steer, the only way to avoid damage is to blast them before they get too close. We also encounter several of the silver beetle-like Drones, which it turns out are also a sort of hovercraft: they float idly on the water’s surface, then head straight for us as we come closer, detonating on impact unless destroyed first.

lv7-05lv7-22As we’re rounding the first corner, we encounter another new type of alien architecture – one which will become a recurring feature of enemy strongholds in later levels: the Martian homes. Seemingly inspired by the red weed, these crimson structures are organic and spindly, and look like they’ve been grown rather than built. Whereas most of the game’s alien architecture is symmetrical and silver, in keeping with the faintly goofy B-movie aesthetic of Trim’s machine designs, these structures are dramatically different – more like the Martian creatures themselves. When I call them “homes”, I’m conjecturing, but this seems the likeliest possibility: they have dark apertures which, while small and irregular, are quite evidently doors and windows. (They somewhat resemble the Telepath Training Centre, a building which in the PC game is used to train a certain Martian unit that we’ll discuss in time, but the structures here are considerably more sprawling, numerous, and decentralised, and so seem to have a different purpose.) This village is swarming with defensive Scout-Machines. We never see anything entering or exiting the buildings, but since the game drastically increases the number of Martians invading and the duration of their stay here, it makes sense that they must have somewhere to spend their downtime – even if they have no need of rest, they must have some life outside war. Alternatively, perhaps these are some sort of crèches or nurseries for raising infant Martians? The novel mentions that the aliens reproduce asexually, by budding, freshwater polyps; and that at least one Martian was born on Earth, found partially budded off its parent. In any case: razing any sizeable village of these spindly structures nets the Thunder Child one first-aid kit. The red cross: a symbol that transcends all boundaries.

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On the edge of the village is another new Martian structure, one which veers hard back to the machines’ aesthetic: a raised silver dais with three curved, equidistant pillars, grasping towards the sky. Several of these are strewn throughout the level. We don’t see them in action here, but in a later level we’ll discover that these dispense Scout-Machines, in a flash of blue-white energy, apparently either creating them or teleporting them from somewhere else.

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Next, we discover another unique Martian building: a huge, low structure with four sloping grey walls. A small turret atop one of its corners fires a damaging beam of blue electricity at the Thunderchild, and can be destroyed with a single accurate shot, but the building itself takes much more effort to bring down. My guess is that it’s some sort of Martian warehouse or storage facility; or perhaps some manner of generator – presumably they get their energy from somewhere.

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Once we’ve turned, the Thunderchild finds itself cruising past the same bank again, this time along its other side. Seen from above, our course is shaped liked two wide “S”s joined together – we turn left, right, left, right. Along the way, we’ll get an additional chance to finish off any Martian structures we didn’t manage to destroy during the preceding pass. Managing our attacks on these installations so that we acquire those precious first-aid kits is the closest this level comes to rewarding strategic thinking.

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At the next turn, we encounter a recreation of perhaps the most iconic moment in The War of the Worlds: the battle for the steamship itself, as depicted on the album cover. Here, the ship is attempting to leave its dock as the attack happens, and it’s attacked by a fleet of Flying-Machines rather than Fighting-Machines. The Thunderchild drifts to a halt until the steamship’s fate is decided. If we fail to defend it, our commander admonishes us drily, “You’ll have to do better than this, Soldier,” as the steamship slowly sinks beneath the waves, in an amusing inversion of the album artwork. If we succeed, it sails off into the sunset, tossing us a first-aid kit to say thanks; which, while it might not quite match the melodrama of Carrie’s calling out as the steamer pulls away, is still rather sweet.

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The absence of any Fighting-Machines from this moment, and indeed the level, is striking. It seems to me a deliberate choice, intended to distribute elements of the iconic Thunder Child battle more evenly throughout the level and so avoid crushing any particular moment with the responsibility of representing it entirely. Still, it makes one wonder: is it the same ship? In other words: does this level replace the Thunder Child’s battle with the Fighting-Machines in the Blackwater? Or did that happen off-screen earlier? Are we playing as a version of Thunderchild which, in the game’s timeline, has already defeated the Fighting-Machines in the battle of the Blackwater, and has since been assigned a more important task? The idea of Thunderchild being promoted from coastal defence to special missions on the basis of performance is appealing, but so is the idea that the entire level represents that originary iconic clash, distilled into its discrete elements and unfolded for gameplay purposes.

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For the next three minutes, we cruise through the Wash, blowing up various installations, obstacles, and enemies already discussed above. We also pass a couple of Bombarding-Machines, wandering the banks with their eerie bipedal walks; they attack by launching their canister-like bombs, echoing the moment in the novel when the tripods shoot a canister of Black Smoke at the Thunderchild (though these ones explode rather than glancing off harmlessly into the water, which sums up the difference in tone quite well). Nothing else remarkable happens during these three minutes, so we’ll now turn our attention to the soundtrack. Since the game includes seven remixes of songs from the album, level seven is the last one in which we’ll hear a new track. By default, it features a remix called “The Fighting Machine”.

Where the game tacks on parentheticals to disambiguate its two “Eve of the War” remixes, placing them in distinct human- and Martian-inflected niches within the larger song, it takes the opposite approach to “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine”, whittling its title down until it becomes something else. On the album, this is a lengthy, ten-minute track, mixing song with drama: the first four minutes have the Journalist meeting the Artilleryman in his home, then deciding to travel to London with him; while the remainder has the two men get caught in a Fighting-Machine attack in the village of Weybridge and lose each other in the chaos, which we experience from the Journalist’s perspective as he struggles not to drown in the river. The remix, as its name would suggest, eliminates most of this stuff in favour of a meditation upon the Fighting-Machine itself.

The attack in “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine” is the first moment we hear the album’s rendition of the tripods’ cry, “Ulla, ulla”. The remix samples the “Ulla” sound and repeats it, slices it, draws it out into a staggered, timestretched nightmare howl. It builds an entire hard-trance anthem around it, intense and searing and feverish. It works shockingly well. There is, simply put, nothing one would rather hear on yokes. The remix confirms, if this was not already clear, that Jo Partridge’s “Ulla”, filtered through a talkbox and electric guitar, is simply one of the greatest sound effects of all time.

All this is a little ironic, not just because the level includes no Fighting-Machines, but because the album actually has a song called “Thunder Child” – one which is not featured in the game. At first glance, this might seem like a major oversight. However, it’s really not, as the album tracks “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine” and “Thunder Child” are basically the same song. They share the same underlying synth/electric-guitar melody, and since the in-game score doesn’t include vocals or narration, one remix can stand in for both. (There’s even a certain similarity between the album’s multi-tracking of Chris Thompson’s vocals and the game’s use of the Martian cry; it’s almost as if “The Fighting Machine” is the “Thunder Child” counterpart that would appear in that hypothetical Martian version of the album.)

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The image the game’s music-player menu uses to illustrate the track shows the Fighting-Machine not in triumph but in failure. Geoff Taylor’s “Dead London” depicts the climax, or anticlimax, of The War of the Worlds, where the Journalist finds the Martian machines, dead or dying, strewn across the ravaged city. Already they are scavenged by birds, themselves a visual stand-in for Earth’s biosphere, a representation of the microbes that laid the invaders low. In the foreground, a crow picks a beakful of stringy red flesh from a Fighting-Machine’s green compound eye – the art revealing casually, horrifically, that those eyes were organic all along. In the book, the aliens’ transports were entirely mechanical, and only moved like living things; this illustration is a rare example of the album not toning down or streamlining the source material, but making an active decision to be much weirder. Both the novel and the album mentioned the detail of “red shreds” hanging from the hoods of the machines, but the implication was simply that this was the soft flesh of the dead Martian inside; in Taylor’s painting, however, it’s clearly the vast eyes themselves that are mangled and bleeding. Do the Martians grow these eyes, like some kind of artificial meat, to use them as organic cameras for their vehicles? Or are the tripods cyborgs in a more meaningful sense? Are they living things – tortured, enslaved, Evangelion-like giants? Are the tendrils that hang from their bodies actual tentacles of flesh? Do those metal legs have marrow in their core? Do the Handling-Machines harvest people’s blood by digesting them?

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Regardless of the fascinating possibilities it raises, what ultimately makes “Dead London” an apt illustration for “The Fighting Machine”, despite their differences in context, is that both are studies – value-neutral meditations on the same subject, those glittering engines. They simply centre the tripods – as they are in life and in death – and invite us to consider them. There is no need for the Fighting-Machine to appear physically in this level: it is all over it, everywhere, already. It is in the music. It is in the air. Ulla, ulla.

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Next, we come to the second of the level’s three major objectives. A convoy of three Armoured Lorries are fleeing inland from the docks, but they have to pass directly through Martian territory, where they’ll be attacked by Scout-Machines – we’re tasked with protecting them. Each surviving Lorry sends us a first-aid kit upon escape. (Our commander is allowing his Queen’s English to slip; he refers to the Lorries as “Trucks”.) This objective is adequate as busywork, but it does make one wonder if the level might have been better with multiple playable vehicles and the ability to switch between the Thunderchild and regular landbound units. Defending Lorries is also, it has to be said, something of a step down from the mythic battle for the steamship – the order of these two objectives should probably have been reversed.

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The on-screen compass, dodgy at best, is even less useful in this level than usual, inexplicably representing Bombarding-Machines with the orange dots that normally signify Scrap for us to collect. It also draws a yellow line between the Thunderchild and friendly units, but only for the split second after they’ve reached safety but before they’ve disappeared off the edge of the map (and even then only sometimes). Since we can’t switch between vehicles or even decide where we’re going, the sidebar map is also supremely useless here (and doesn’t even display the usual rotating 3D image of our vehicle, which makes one wonder if they even bothered to model the Thunderchild completely – we never get a good look at the ship). Nonetheless, it does give us a general idea of how much of the map we’ve seen at any point, so we know now that we have reached the final stretch.

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On the left bank, we discover a unique Martian structure: a great circular stone pit, dug into the hillside. With four square blocks of stone embedded in the soil around it, it almost resembles a hill-figure of a Celtic cross, foreboding and faintly mystic. On the opposite bank stands another strange alien structure: a ridged silver dome, like a gigantic lemon juicer, with a great cyan door. It is inscribed with strange black sigils. This building has no evident purpose, but seems to be based on the Repair Facility, one of the structures the Martian side can build in the PC game (though the version here is remodelled and much more detailed).

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Beside the cross-like structure, we encounter another new Martian unit: the Electric-Machine. There are two of them, crawling about the hillside. This slow, six-legged vehicle, with its luminous green eyes and its body low to the ground, closely resembles the Handling-Machine; however, it also possesses a powerful offensive weapon, a gun that fires a damaging beam of blue electricity. Like the Bombarding-Machine, the Electric-Machine is protected by a force-field capable of disintegrating our projectiles in a flicker of blue; it appears we can only damage it by firing directly on its face, or perhaps by hitting it while it isn’t moving – neither works reliably, so evidently the game has difficulty making its mind up on this issue. For some reason, each one also has a boxy, dark-blue electrical generator attached to its rear. In an amusing and uncharacteristic display of attention to detail, this generator goes flying off, visibly intact, when we blow up the Electric-Machine, like it’s the black box of a plane or something.

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We drift along the barren straits. It is preternaturally quiet. The rocky banks are drenched in red weed.

The Tempest emerges from the darkness.

The Tempest is the most powerful enemy in the game. It towers. It is unique.

The Tempest never takes a step. It sways from left to right, its body rising and falling rhythmically, cyclically. This is, by a vast margin, the most organic animation in the game – the most organic anything in the game. The metal surface of the Tempest’s body is a pallid green. Its four green compound eyes are large and sleek, aerodynamic, almost like windscreens.

All of the game’s Martian units draw from Mike Trim’s designs. The Tempest extrapolates from his Fighting-Machine, but with dramatic changes. It has four legs rather than three, trading that motif of alienness for a sense of solidity and blunt power. Its silhouette recalls that of an entirely different Martian monster: the gigantic rat-bat-spider-crab creature from The Angry Red Planet. The supporting struts which Trim added to the Fighting-Machine’s legs, intended as an ironic mirror of Victorian engineering, here are massively expanded and intensified: the legs of the Tempest are practically composed of strut, all curved and spindly and skeletal. Whereas Trim designed his machine to evoke the 1890s, the Tempest simply instantiates the 1990s. It is cyber. 

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Most Martian units have pragmatic names. Wells gives us the Fighting-Machine, the Handling-Machine, the Flying-Machine; the games add the Scout-Machine, the Bombarding-Machine, the Scanning-Machine. These are names that tell us what the vehicles do. The introduction of the Tempest, then, is a discordant veer into the poetic, a jaunt into the Shakespearean. The suggestion is that this machine transcends its Martian creators. It is a force of nature.

The word “tempest” refers to a violent storm, especially one with rain or hail. Which is to say: the type of storm that would seem like an otherworldly dream to one accustomed to the arid dust storms of Mars. Etymologically, it derives from the Latin tempestas, meaning “storm, weather, season”; this, in turn, derives from the older tempus, meaning “time, season”, as in “temporal”.

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The Tempest, then, embodies the epoch of the Martians. It is the coming Martian age. It is seen only in water, its great metallic legs rooted in the North Sea, a symbol of Martian dominion over Earth’s aerosphere, in all its aqueous vitality.

The name Thunderchild invokes stormy weather: consider how it echoes the torpedo ram Polyphemus, itself named for a son of Poseidon – a son of the storm. The Tempest, too, extends from this. As the Thunderchild rocks up and down in the water, the Tempest gyres and gimbles in the air; these are the two most fluid entities in the game. This idea of a strange commonality is present even in the novel, where Wells notes of the tripods’ meeting with the great ironclad: “It would seem they were regarding this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, the giant was even such another as themselves.” The Tempest is the Thunderchild of the other side. Who might its pilot be?

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The Thunderchild drifts to a halt as it approaches the Tempest. This is the only confrontation in the game which can straightforwardly be called a boss battle. In a retelling where Fighting-Machines are disposable enemies, the only way to capture the heroism of the original Thunder Child is to give the Thunderchild a far more powerful foe. The Tempest has three guns attached to its body – one on each side, on great metal stalks, and the other atop its crown. One at a time, rhythmically, these three guns fire strange orbs of green energy with radiant golden halos. Nothing else in the game fires anything remotely like these. They move towards us slowly, inexorably, an allegory for the green flares that promise the coming of the Cylinders. If we aim for these projectiles, we can blast them in mid-air; this does not affect their trajectory, but instead turns them into pale, feeble things that glance harmlessly off our hull. The Tempest’s weapons are its weak spots, but each one takes a dozen direct hits from the Thunderchild’s powerful guns to destroy; the challenge lies in taking into account the machine’s constant gyrating motions while also deflecting its attacks. “Aim for the guns on the Martian Machine!” our commander tells us. The name “the Tempest” appears only once, on the loading screen – it’s as if it’s somehow occulted, unspeakable.

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The Tempest is by far the most complex and interactive enemy in the game. Each time you hit one of its guns, the gun is rocked back by the impact, briefly unable to aim – perhaps not a mind-blowing technological achievement, even by PS1 standards, but still a degree of modular detail that feels positively unearthly in this simple game. Even our ability to nullify its projectiles seems uncanny – totally unlike anything else we have done before, or will do again.

Once its three guns are destroyed, the Tempest simply continues rocking, gyrating. It can no longer attack. It makes no attempt to escape. It simply faces us, impassively, curiously. We need land only a single shot – the thirty-seventh strike – upon its defenceless body, and the Tempest will erupt in a conflagration of light, and begin to sink beneath the waves. Slowly disappearing: farewell, Tempest.

Because we move at a fixed speed, unable to steer or stop, the level invariably takes around nine minutes to complete, making it the shortest in the game. However, if we hold back our killing shot, we can let the final moment go on for as long as we want. We can leave the Tempest and the Thunderchild, facing each other over the water.

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Look at these two. How they wish to destroy one another. How they wish to control one another. How they both wish to be free. Can you see? Can you see how much they need one another?

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