Imagine discovering that a secret tribe of Neolithic cavemen used electricity long before it became a cornerstone of civilization. That’s what playing Exile for the first time feels like today.
Released on the BBC Micro home computer in 1988, it crammed a sprawling open-world environment (along with digitized speech) onto a single side of audio cassette tape data. It also came bundled with a 20,000-word novella explaining the backstory. These were far from its only achievements: Along with the original Metroid for the NES, Exile was also one of the earliest examples of the “Metroidvania” genre; in fact, you can find many parallels between the designs of Exile and 1994’s Super Metroid six years later.
Sadly, this groundbreaking science-fiction adventure went mostly unnoticed outside of Europe. It was co-developed by Jeremy C. Smith and Peter Irvin, and while Smith sadly passed away in 1992 I was fortunate enough to speak with Irvin recently about the game’s creation. He comments on its obscurity in the States: “To my knowledge, Exile was sold only in the U.K., Europe and Australia. It’s a shame the C64, Amiga and Atari ST versions never got published in the U.S.”
But Exile‘s legacy goes far beyond pioneering a nascent genre or cramming a ton of game into a tiny amount of disk space. More than anything else, it was a landmark title that featured realistic gravity, inertia and object mass years before players understood the concept of a physics engine. It also had an astounding level of AI, stealth-based gameplay, a logical ecosystem governing the world’s creatures and a teleportation mechanic that feels startlingly like a predecessor to Portal. In short, Exile pioneered a lot of the science for which later games would become famous.
Few games take place in a believable environment where creatures exist for their own sake instead of solely to interact with players – but Exile is one of those games. In its world, native species have realistic (if simplistic) behavioral patterns and nesting territories. Yellow birds are harmless but will follow and annoy you, while wasps are aggressive and red monkeys fling what appears to be dung. But it’s the way these creatures interact that makes the game so fascinating. Birds will eat wasps if led to their hive, protecting you and allowing you to collect any nearby items. Wasps can also be captured and fed to the monkeys, which return to their burrow and reward you with energy tanks. The Amiga update introduced even more varied wildlife, including a wonderful moment where you stumble across a pond containing tiny frogs that serve no gameplay-related purpose, existing solely to create a more believable world.
Irvin explains the naturalistic behaviour of Exile‘s wildlife: “All of the game’s objects have properties defining what groups they’re members of, how they move, what they fear or are attracted to, etc. Some objects modify the default functions of others, and it’s surprising the sophisticated behavior this creates. Wasps are attracted to wasps, but occasionally one wasp becomes attracted to humans and the others follow as a swarm because they’re still attracted to wasps.”
Realism and believability were a priority when creating Exile, and it shows in how creatures and enemies react to you, each other and the environment. “It was something we’d always wanted to do, striving for better realism, because Jeremy and I had a big interest in physics and maths,” Irvin says. “Features were continually added, and it influenced the design: creatures using line of sight behavior and reacting to noises nearby, automated guns turrets taking into account gravity, mass related puzzles and so on.”
The Laws of Motion
As much as Exile‘s ecosystem adds to the experience, its accurate physics form the core of its gameplay. Every object has its own mass, which in turn affects the objects it impacts. You have weapons which you can fire in a 180-degree semi-circle in front of you and a jetpack for unlimited flight. Flying, meanwhile, is affected by the mass of the objects you’re carrying, and every input of kinetic energy plays out realistically, adhering to the laws of physics. Stored energy, measured in kilojoules and megajoules, also plays a big role: Both the game’s weapons and the jetpack require it, and once it’s depleted items only function intermittently. Your central energy reservoir, the jetpack, can be topped up by collecting energy tanks and, should any required item be running low, it’s possible to transfer between items any remaining megajoules.
Tying in to Exile‘s physics are a series of teleporters and your own “personal transporter,” which allows you at any time to record up to four positions and, at the press of a button, warp to the last one instantly. “The teleportation system was a means of getting around the huge map without having to physically fly along the tunnels,” Irvin explains. “This also became the solution to the eternal problem of what to do if players died. Your protection suit detects that you are about to die and warps you to your last recorded position. This was influenced by Star Trek and the BBC space drama Blake’s 7.”
The personal transporter also allowed the creation of a multitude of mind-bendingly complex 2D puzzles that required clever thinking and quick reflexes. Perhaps the best example is in the Amiga version, where a harmless robot blocks a tunnel. You can record your position to the right of him, then lure him a few steps down the tunnel before warping to your recorded location which is now to his left. Many of Exile‘s other teleportation puzzles, however, are so complex that they defy explanation.
Limitless Ambition, Limited Hardware
But as ambitious as Exile‘s design was, it was limited by the meager hardware of the time, and some of the team’s best ideas, such as a deformable landscape, had to be dropped. “We spent an awful amount of time optimizing the physics and graphics engines to keep the speed up,” Irvin says, “and there were many compromises, like having an impact system where objects didn’t rotate but were aligned to the axes.”
The original BBC version pushed the limits of the system so much that, by accident, Exile featured both today’s design principles of recharging health and a HUD-less screen. There was no RAM left for an inventory or even health bar, Irvin explained, so when critically injured, your character flashes. Further damage results in transportation, and only over time do you heal. Pocketed items, meanwhile, have to be cycled through and displayed in your character’s hands, and the remaining energy for weapons is conveyed through audio when selected (three blips meant 3 megajoules of energy remaining).
This lack of RAM also means that running the BBC original today is only for the brave: The save routine requires wiping the BBC’s RAM in order to temporarily store potential save data, which worryingly also crashes the system. You then reboot the machine, pray it doesn’t get lost and reload the program in order to access the start-up menu with “save” and “load” functions. The Amiga version resolves all of this, but still suffers from keyboard controls which require nearly 30 different combinations of inputs to play.
Those curious about Exile currently only have the option to play it through emulation. Thankfully, though, it seems Exile may be reborn: During my interview, I discovered that Irvin plans to release an update of the Amiga version for the iPhone. “A few years back, I was contracted to produce a private demo of Exile for a cell phone manufacturer,” Irvin says. “Having the converted code, I thought it’d be a good idea to bring it to other platforms, hence the iPhone port. It’s surprising how you can simplify a control system when you set your mind to it!” Due out later this year, it could be a huge release if Irvin can overcome the difficulties with the interface – meaning Exile won’t remain as its name implies.
John Szczepaniak is a South African-born journalist, formerly employed by a Time Warner subsidiary, but now freelance.