In this, the very first show of 2021, Dean, Chris and Mads talk about their experiences playing December's game club game Exile on the BBC Micro.
Thanks to all of our Patreon’s who made this episode possible.
William E Rimmer
Cane and Rinse
Q and A with Peter Irvin.
Q: Where did the concept of the game come from? Was it influenced by earlier videogames?
A: The concept for Exile started as just the idea of a man with a jetpack exploring an underground cavern system, having to solve problems to progress, fighting off hostiles. It wasn’t influenced by other games, more from TV/film - like Star Trek, Blakes 7, Forbidden Planet.
Q: Was the game built around the plot or did the mechanics of the game come first?
A: The mechanics came first and we kept adding stuff to the game engine until we knew what the limits were and how far we could go with the resources available. The plot crystallised over time, after we worked out what could be achieved, then we had to populate the map to match and make a playable game. Major way points were decided, like the Rune Door and Triax’s lab, and the scattering of other puzzles, equipment and encounters designed to get the player equipped to pass through these way points. However we sometimes had “we could add this cool thing” moments and had to include that - like the digital speech on the large RAM BBC micro version.
Q: Nowadays, there is infinite memory to craft a story and provide lots of context for the game. That was not possible for you. How early did you develop the idea of a novella?
A: To include a novella was decided quite late in the day. Yes, it was a way to help explain the game back story better but it was also a way to add perceived value to the game, and reduce piracy - the thinking being that people would pay more and pirates would think they were missing out on important stuff if they did’t have the full package, though I’m not convinced by that.
Q: How much of what you and Jeremy learned from Thrust did you carry forward into Exile?
A: With Thrust, Jeremy showed that implementing physics well - gravity, thrusting, multi-body mechanics - was actually rewarding for the player; it was pleasing just to fly around. We were both interested in physics so that had to be a big part of Exile, and a lot of time was spent getting the physics engine right - all the acceleration rates, gravity, impacts, wind forces, floating, etc work in balance and to feel ok but coded with very little memory.
Q: Were there any interesting alien life forms that you prototyped but had to cut?
A: There were a few but the details are lost to me by the passing of time. Most memorable now was a dog - which was to be the player’s faithful companion, helping out as best he could. He was included from the beginning as it came over from an unfinished game I was doing before Exile called “Wizard’s Walk” - a wizard travelling down a long pretty cave populated by hazards. The dog used too much RAM for its graphics in Exile - it needed extra frames due to walking up diagonals. It also had to be indestructible, and manage to get around the map as well as the player or the game wouldn’t work, so it ended up being removed and we put in Fluffy which was small alien bundle of pixels and trivial code to control.
Q: Some game reviews show screenshots that are clearly from a different game map. Were review copies sent out that were radically different or were these more likely pictures from earlier prototype builds?
A: I don’t recall any wrong maps being reviewed. Perhaps on the Amiga version? The BBC Micro Exile game map was generated by a tiny algorithm to produce the straight tunnels, a scattering of caverns, some individual tiles and areas that could be hand-defined (like for the top ship, the top underground base, Triax’s lab, various doors, etc. The map code was fixed in stone at a very early stage because changing it would have meant repopulating the entire game.
Q: The manual quite bluntly tells players that it’s a game which requires thought. Where you worried that people wouldn’t “get it”?
A: Exile was hard to play in parts and required people to use their brains in some places to solve the natural puzzles. That wasn’t the way games were back then - most were short duration entertainment requiring little thought. We designed Exile as the sort of game we wanted to play, hoped others would accept it, but knew if they got stuck they could ask their friends or get advice from one of the games magazines. It isn’t a “levels game” where you just shoot your way through and collect stars, it was more like a movie - one big adventure. It was also more difficult than it should have been partly due to the limitations and efficiencies of the physics engine and shared general purpose code between many creatures. Many people didn’t complete Exile, or even get as far as the excitement of destroying the maggot machine, the earthquake and the flooding caverns, but I like to think they still got value for money. It’s hard to balance a game for all abilities when the resources are so tight and trying not to allow dead ends in progress were the player to have inadvertently wasted all the required resources to overcome upcoming obstacles, but in retrospect perhaps some things should have been easier.
Q: The purple, vertical blast door near the start has a gap at the top which can be flown through, with enough time and patience. Did you know about it when the game shipped, but decided it wasn't a big enough game-breaker to fix?
A: There were many such collision “features” - a side effect of a general purpose physics engine with limited resources to prevent special cases. Anyway, quantum tunnelling happens in physics, so surely that’s fine!
Q: Are there any (other) bugs in the game which you look back on now and think “ah, if only we could patch it!”?
A: There were many of what I call “features” rather than bugs in Exile and I think we knew about most of the ways things could go wrong but had no spare RAM to fix. My favourite one was, with your back to a vertical door, holding something, suddenly turning around while thrusting forward and do a throw - the thrown object can usually be made to appear on the other side of the door to you. Sometimes you could use a similar system to get yourself through! There were so many things to balance - like the relationship between the speed of a firer, the speed and dimensions of bullets and the thickness of doors, otherwise they could tunnel through the door or bullets hit the firer.
Q: Did it bother you that the published solutions made use of physics/engine glitches to get the coronium rocks out of the eastern area, instead of the 'correct' solution which involves creating additional coronium by luring slimes through a piece of solid rock, converting them to yellow balls, then passing them through the underwater structure containing red blobs to the west of the windy shaft?
A: No, I’m not really bothered about players making use of things they found. Exile is about exploration and experiment, so finding shortcuts, even if relying on “features” is still in that spirit. We wanted several ways to do many of the puzzles anyway, and the eastern tunnels were meant to be a natural area uncorrupted yet by Triax, where the player could experiment to discover the tools they would need in the western caves. This probably didn’t come across to the player. Also some of the puzzles were a bit contrived I suppose - nevertheless rewarding if you solved them.
Q: Which version of the game do you consider definitive?
A: The BBC micro version was the most definitive. It was the first and a genuine struggle to make happen at all, and I believe took that platform to its limits. I hated the Electron version - there was no way to avoid having a border of white noise (ie code) around the game view - buyers must have been so forgiving.
Q: We are aware of the tragic circumstances around Jeremy’s death. Was a sequel planned before he died?
A: From fading memory, I think we were still working on bits and pieces with the original game - like an Amiga CD 32 console game, and we had tried to get publishers interested in a Sega Mega Drive version but the console market was very controlled, with publishers taking few risks on unconventional product due to the costs of making the expensive ROM cartridges. You almost had to have a working game already on the platform to be considered seriously and with development systems hard to come we didn’t have the funds to make that happen ourselves. There were some explorations into making use of the code for a new game but nothing solid.
Q: You had a version of the game planned for iOS and Android back in 2010. Are we correct to assume that that project has been discontinued?
A: No, it is my intention that this should still happen. It’s difficult to know how non-retro it would need to be to have any measure of success against todays effects-driven offerings, though computer gaming is a broad church.
Q: If the mobile project had gone ahead, would there have been any fundamental changes to the game?
A: The first release would be very familiar, but enhanced in details, the plot cleaned up - more obvious - and easier to play. The control system on a touch screen can’t depend on the zillion keys that Exile required either! I don’t think it should stray too far from the original fundamentally as the audience would include fans of the originals; but sequels could go much further.