By Tim Stone on November 6th, 2010 at 2:50 pm.
In 1887, Charles Pearson, a wealthy London lawyer sick to death of the “I had that Mr. Holmes in the front last week” anecdotes of hansom cabbies, proposed the building of a subterranean railway line from Paddington Station to Farringdon Street. That line eventually grew into the 27-stop transport loop that TML Studios are painstakingly reproducing for their third World Of Subways sim.
If WoS 3: Circle Line follows the pattern of its predecessors, we’ll be driving the trains rather than clogging their carriages as dead-eyed commuters, cunning pickpockets, or sly revellers. Some – like those yearning for a sequel to Metro Rules of Conduct – may regard that as a colossal design flaw. Me, I’m just happy to see the London Underground’s long and glittering career in games take another fascinating turn.
It all started of course, back in 1983. That was the year that the young LU snagged a lead role in 3D Tunnel for the ZX Spectrum. Based on Willard Warfarin’s “Confessions of a Victoria Line Vermin Exterminator” the game cast the player as an armed environmental health officer tasked with cleansing some unusually angular Tube tunnels of rat, bat and frog life. Quite why this diligent public servant couldn’t stop occasionally and gather his thoughts/grab a cuppa/grumble about the proposed abolition of the GLC, was never fully explained. The critics however were prepared to overlook such inconsistencies describing 3D Tunnel variously as “The best SGWAHP (Shooting Game With A Human Perspective) since Maze Wars” (Your Sinclair) and “Froggier than Frogger, rattier than Cyber Rats and battier than Graham Gooch’s Lords of Midwicket!” (Crash).
A rash of Tube-themed games seemed inevitable, but mysteriously never materialised. LU had to wait four years for another role. That role when it came was in Viz Design’s calamity-steeped Werewolves of London. The Heaven’s Gate of its day, WoL arrived two years late and more than £8 over-budget. Blatantly unfinished, callous reviewers took pleasure in comparing it unfavourably to lycanthropic landmarks such as Knight Lore, Operation Wolf and Horace Goes Throat-Ripping. A smarting and disillusioned LU turned its back on the entertainment business for what would turn out to be almost a decade.
It would take a personal entreaty from adventure game design guru Charles Cecil to lure LU back into the video game limelight. In 1997 the man behind Beneath A Steel Sky and many other fine examples of Walkeriana, called up London’s premier mass transit system and offered it a cameo role in upcoming point-and-click spectacular Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror. The chance to perform, albeit briefly, alongside Gallic heartthrob Nico Collard and (EASTER EGG SPOILER) BaSS lead Robert Foster proved impossible to resist. PC Player magazine described the resulting scene set in an abandoned Tube station under the British Museum as a “troglodytic triumph” (preview, PCP#24) and “fairly good” (review, PCP#31).
Nico wasn’t the only feisty femme LU shared a screen with in the late Nineties. Shortly after Broken Sword 2 broke cover, London’s tile-lined intestines were seen again in Tomb Raider III. A level based on Westminster’s Aldwych station gave daring archaeologist/sherry heiress Lara Croft ample opportunity to demonstrate her new ‘vault over ticket barrier’, ‘kick chocolate vending machine’ and ‘disembowel busker’ abilities. Official Tomb Raider Magazine’s editor Nigel Canesten found the Underground section “Tube-tastic” comparing Miss Croft to an “unstoppable endoscope”, the guard-dogs and gun-toting goons she encountered to “rectal polyps” and “compacted gobbets of faecal matter”.
If LU hadn’t already shown itself to be adept in action roles, its appearance in Rogue Spear: Urban Operations (2000) proved it beyond any doubt. New Bridge station might have been fictional but the poster-plastered foot tunnels, plodding escalators, and hard-to-find staff screamed ‘London Transport’. The visual fidelity and redolent atmosphere were recognised at that year’s Golden Joysticks where UO scooped the coveted ‘Best Grouting In A PC Game’ award ahead of favourite Duncan Goodhew’s Let’s Learn How To Swim IV: Backstroke.
The next phase in LU’s career was blighted by controversy. After an unconvincing performance in Midtown Madness 2 (2000), it began working on a gritty Film Noir-style action-adventure with Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment. By all accounts ‘Bert Payne’ was progressing swimmingly when the British rail network, citing ‘health reasons’, unexpectedly pulled out. An exasperated Remedy were forced to parachute in a replacement (the New York City Subway) and radically rethink the project.
Post-Payne, LU’s attitude to game involvement appeared to change. For a good five years, the focus was on rigorous, respectful simulations rather than high-drama hokum. Collaborations with various amateur creators, produced a slew of Microsoft Train Simulator, Trainz, and BVE modifications. A few of the latter simulated the giant aluminium centipedes scuttling beneath London’s gold-paved streets so faithfully, they were incorporated into visitor attractions at the network’s own museum.
The documentary years may have salved LU’s conscience, but they didn’t pay the bills. In 2006 violence returned to the world’s oldest underground railway system, courtesy of the Rogue Spear-reminiscent The Regiment. This bit part was closely followed by a massive role in what should have been LU’s crowning glory. Distinctly sulphurous, unapologetically blood-curdling, and populated with a grotesque cast of semi-humans, Underground Ernie: International Fun Station emerged in 2007 to chilly reviews and barely-disguised gasps of disappointment. Jasper Wirt of Practical Prosthetic Monthly put into words the thoughts of many when he wrote “It’s hard to believe that the hands and minds that moulded this mediocrity also moulded Crazy Aquarium, Sudoku Potato Famine, and My First Gazebo Planner”.
And now let’s see if I can terminate this pointless history without A) Mentioning the splendid fellow that has faithfully recreated all of London’s Tube and bus routes in SimuTrans, B) Referring to that bit in Doctor Who Adventures where the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion (Keiron Gillen) dodge Daleks on a stretch of Tube trackbed that plainly lacks power rails, C) Giving Mornington Crescent a quick nod or D) Linking to a prize piece of Eighties pop with Underground overtones.