The Isle of Wight doesn't really do excitement. My wife, an Islander, often regales me about the time BHS in Newport installed an escalator - and she joined the crowds of people queuing up to have a go on it. If you ignore the increasingly chronic youth unemployment (as most do) the Island is a place of beautiful green fields, cream teas and a well-supported donkey sanctuary. It's not where you'd expect to find the birthplace of Carmageddon.
"There were only eight of us - so it was a real 'write the theme music, sing the theme music' affair," explains Stainless's Neil Barnden, who co-founded the company with fellow Islander Patrick Buckland back in 1993. "So we did all the reference stunt-work ourselves. Patrick was driving a big yank station wagon at the time, so we used that to capture our mate Tony rolling over its bonnet while we drove slowly towards him. Or at least slowly to begin with. He'd taken full precautions - he had cardboard stuffed up his jumper."
"There had been all these people in the offices nearby looking out of the windows. It was very shortly after Tony had gone through the windscreen that the police turned up. Then Patrick had to take the car up to Autoglass, and it was quite obvious that the windscreen had been stoved in by a large body."
Carmageddon's anarchy, in both development and design, bled out from every one of its 256 colours. As a young, impressionable teen the series' rabid coverage by Duncan McDonald and Charlie Brooker in (the dear departed) PC Zone hooked your correspondent into a mainframe of ped-crushing, PratCams and cunning stunts. There was no game like it. Carmageddon was a race, where the race didn't matter. A free-roaming destruction derby where valuable extra seconds of exploration and rooftop leaps could be totted up by running over old ladies with zimmer frames, bikini ladies on the beach and somewhat bemused cows.
"Faye was one of the girls from the High School, but she was actually fourteen at the time! So, erm, that's come to light since..."
"It started with myself and Patrick bumping into each other at a banger racing event here on the Island, when I'd moved back down from London," explains Barnden. "We'd previously been at school together." Buckland had become a game designer (responsible for the Mac's ubiquitous Crystal Quest) and Barnden was a professional dab-hand with computer graphics - and the noise of crumpling metal-work as they met must've set magical gears in motion. "Patrick had a feeling that he always wanted to do a really kinetic banger racing game. So we started talking about that and decided to do a 3D demo, in the very early days of 3D. We did the demo, which had a proto-PratCam in it of me as the driver and deformable cars. It was called 3D Destruction Derby, and we hawked it around."
SCi (who later would become one with Eidos, who'd then in turn be swallowed by Square Enix in the 'old lady who swallowed a fly' manner of UK gaming history) was the publisher, and the game, it was decided, would be a licensed rendition of Death Race 2000 - and based on a forthcoming spin-off comic called Death Race 2020. As such the focus on extreme destruction with a futuristic and nihilistic edge was introduced (as was the ped-death), which left its mark on the project once the license dropped. Barnden came up with the name Carmageddon as a replacement, and Buckland hated it, but the onward march of history was assured in any case.
Tracks like Bleak City's Main Street, the Dusty Trails National Park's Coastal Carnage and the Frosty Pass Ski Resort's Fridge Racer were gradually fed into Stainless' engine. Vast maps full of curios (almost Victorian-style follies) and random road architecture like towering loop-the-loops began to appear - results of what Barnden calls "spontaneous and collaborative design when you've got no internet for reference, and you're too lazy to go to a library". Combined with an eye to real world physics, deformable vehicles and the window-in-window grimaces of male and female drivers Max and Die-Anna and you had quite the stunt show...
As for getting those in-game facial close-ups for the PratCam, Tony Taylor (who we last saw wedged in a station wagon windscreen) was a shoe-in for Max. "He just is the right sort of man to employ for that sort of thing, and a face like a semi-distorted psycho Mel Gibson," explains Barnden. "Then we auditioned some schoolgirls. Erm... because my wife is a teacher, her friend was the head of a drama department. So she asked if some females might want to come and audition. Faye was one of the girls from the High School, but she was actually fourteen at the time! So, erm, that's come to light since..."
The fact that Faye, the murderous teenage tomboy behind the wheel of the Red Eagle, was a mere fourteen years old was thankfully never picked up by the red tops. In fact, if they found out that today the thirty-year old Faye has become a primary school teacher they'd no doubt retroactively shake themselves to death with fury. Carmageddon, you see, made a little more impact in the world beyond videogames than was anticipated.
"We were naive to have ever expected SCi to happily sit on their cash-cow till we felt like doing another one. It just wasn't going to happen. It never occurred to us that they'd give it to somebody else."
"It never crossed our mind that it was controversial. We were totally fixated by it," recalls Barnden. "All our emphasis, in terms of what we were doing was, how funny it was. The gaming press loved it, but they weren't perhaps the best barometer of what the wider public reaction would be, as personified by the Daily Mail".
Although Carmageddon was completed before Grand Theft Auto, it was DMA Design's top-down crime caper that was released first - and at the time it seemed to light the coals that Stainless were about to tiptoe out upon. Barnden, though, isn't quite so sure. "I'm not sure that GTA caused as much fuss, as it was a top-down game," he claims, to which I bring up the time GTA was mentioned in Parliament. "Well, so were we!" comes the retort - before a shared giggle at how instantly he's been bridled, and how proud he clearly remains of the brouhaha.
"As soon as articles started appearing about the idea of the game, and the fact that you could run over pedestrians, there was a rash of press reactions that were... less than enthusiastic," he explains. "It culminated in SCi saying that they'd voluntarily submit it to the BBFC for an 18 certificate. Which they did, and the BBFC said 'Sorry. We're not going to let you release this game unless you do something about the core premise.'" This was, clearly, something of a problem.
During a face-to-face meeting with the head of the BBFC, it was agreed that zombies would be more of a legitimate target than terrified pedestrians - and all hands turned to the pump that converted red blood to green. Carmageddon would go on to effectively be released twice - once with roaming deadheads, and again as an uncut version when the BBFC decision had been overruled at the time of the first appeal.
The Carmageddon Splat Pack came next - featuring a memorable final level in which you were expected to drive into Satan's balls while he sat at his computer playing... well... Carmageddon. In the background to its insanity, meanwhile, SCi bought out a quarter of company - and the Stainless crew were in clover, and piles of cash. "All we did was spend it on cars," recalls Barnden. "All of it. I used to just buy a knackered old coupe of one sort or another for a couple of hundred quid and just drive it until it died. Then suddenly I was able to go out and buy a Porsche. That was all the money gone. My wife Pauline was alright with it though... so I suppose it was sanctioned."
An extra influx of cash would, of course, arrive with 1998's much lauded Carmageddon 2. Here the order of the day would be three dimensional pedestrians, and indeed items like the Electro-Bastard Ray and Pedestrian Repulsificator to torment them with. Being able to use giant springs to slam bodies and cars through smashable plane glass windows then watching everything seamlessly recreate itself in the fabled Carmageddon action replays was a remarkable technical achievement. The game was a big enough success for Stainless to buy the farm. Or, at least, a beautiful farm tucked away in the central hills of the Island to convert into a new HQ. There were, however, storm clouds on the horizon.
"Because we'd effectively done three Carmageddons on the trot we said to SCi that we had ideas for other games - and that we'd love to pause working on Carma for a time and do them something else. They said, 'Yeah, we understand. That's fine,'" recalls Barnden. "So we started working on a gladiatorial combat third person fighting game called Arena. Then we heard that Carmageddon 3 was being made by this company in Australia."
The fact that Torus Games' abysmal Carmageddon: Total Destruction Racing 2000 is today referenced on Stainless' Carmageddon site with a picture of a steaming pile of shit and the words 'We don't talk about this' speaks volumes. "We were naive to have ever expected SCi to happily sit on their cash-cow till we felt like doing another one. It just wasn't going to happen. It never occurred to us that they'd give it to somebody else," explains Barnden. "I have never been able to play anything more than the first level."
After this, and many staff changes at SCi, the relationship soured. The Stainless team moved away from their former publisher, lost the Carmageddon license, became part of the Scottish VIS entertainment group, temporarily split into two sister studios and worked on conventional racer for EA that morphed between the corporate monolith's various driving licenses until a letter arrived (memorably enough the day after 9/11) to can the project.
It was a pattern that would rinse and repeat, and wash away Stainless' success from the minds of many gamers. A violent racer for Midway fell through, and a PSP driving game had a similarly dismal fate. The middle of the last decade was a time of Stainless prototypes, half-projects, budget titles and a Power Puff Girls tie-in. They were not in a happy place.
"We'd sunk all the money into the farm, and we had pigs to support!" rues Barnden, as he recalls his devoted relationship with a Large White breeding sow called Portia. "During the foot and mouth crisis a large white breeding sow left a farm, wandered across the fields and ended up at ours. It was a Sunday when no-one was at work - someone came running shouting 'There's a f***ing great pig in the car park!' So we went out and there was, indeed, a f***ing great pig in the car park."
"I quickly found where you tickle a pig to make it roll over. I'd just lie in the hay with Portia for a while, having a natter about what was on the agenda for the day. In the mean-time everything was falling apart, but me and Portia had a great time."
Due to animal movement restrictions, that pig was there to stay - Portia the pig was quarantined at a video game studio going through tumultuous times. Eventually the team grew so attached that they bought her a piggy friend and some chickens. "I'd come into work every day, and the first thing I'd do would be to come in and see Portia," explains a misty-eyed Barnton. "I'd clear out her little barn and feed her. I quickly found where you tickle a pig to make it roll over. I'd just lie in the hay with Portia for a while, having a natter about what was on the agenda for the day. In the meantime everything was falling apart, but me and Portia had a great time."
The long road back to Carmageddon was then tarmacced with graft on XBLA - for five or six years stability was found through smaller titles. Retooled versions of classic Atari retro games, Red Baron Arcade, Risk Factions, Scrabble on the PSP and DS and the recent Magic: The Gathering - Duel of the Planeswalkers all bear the mark of Stainless. There was, however, another prize on the horizon.
"SCi owned the rights to Carmageddon, then Eidos who had their own problems - and got eaten up by Square Enix," explains Barnden. "We started to think that Square probably wouldn't do anything with Carmageddon, so we started to talk to them about getting it back." Stainless were successful, beating off one other anonymous bidder, and Carmageddon Reincarnation started to rev in the garage.
Carmageddon Reincarnation will be a retooled version of the original game, packaged with its sequel's much loved power-ups and repulsificators, and all the joy that modern technology can bring. Recently its Kickstarter, required to grow the team and speed up production, has filled the coffers - yet can still be filled with extra funds in exchange for fan rewards. At the time of writing misty-eyed gamers of a certain age have chipped in $478,020. The glory days, it would seem, are about to return.
Apart from calling the police on them that one time (thankfully ignoring the Stainless Christmas tradition of throwing perfectly good computer screens out of windows and down fire escapes) the people of the Isle of Wight have never quite realised what manner of beast slumbered near their homes. The Carmageddon story, however, is so eccentric, good-natured and so very British that you can't really imagine it taking root anywhere else. Watch out Newport, there's a new escalator in town - and this time it's got spikes on...
Stainless will be talking through its new game at Rezzed, the PC and indie show that's being put on by EG this summer.