I Want To Break Free: The Story of Queen's The eYe
“Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy?”
It took a team of 22 more than 11 years to complete. It contained miles of virtually rendered landscapes, five CDs of pure data and over a gigabyte of still images. Six hundred camera angles framed some 300 characters and nearly a hundred real-time objects. Over one thousand motion-captured movements and two hours of recorded voices brought its characters to life. Fifty-five tracks totaling almost 90 minutes of music were bolstered with 30 clips from 15 music videos.
Yes, indeed, this was Queen. But more importantly, this was The eYe—the most epic rock ‘n’ roll game ever played…in 1998.
“I’ve been playing The eYe since it first came out. I was the first Dubroc on my block,” boasts gamer and Queen fan Zach Kabat-Post. “It seems so long ago though.”
Apropos of the decade we lost Freddie Mercury to AIDS, gaming life more or less sucked. Further still, with IBM’s Big Blue having bested Grandmaster Kasparov only a year earlier, the spectre of an all-seeing eYe controlling us at every turn didn’t seem too far off. What was forgone, however, was that CD-ROMs would eventually usurp cartridges as the de facto deliverer of consumer gaming. (By digitizing their offerings into discrete strands of 1s and 0s, little did the game companies know how easy it would be to “acquire” a copy here in the new millenium.)
Irony, or kismet? You decide.
In fin de siècle gaming, piracy was truly a scourge of the past. After all, it was home taping that was killing music. CD-ROMs weren’t analogue accomplices, obviously, and games were certainly not music. Luckily, for fans of both games and music, a cheery bloke named Tim Massey disagreed with the last half of that statement.
Eager to boost British gaming to the colonies’ level, and hopefully even up over Japan, Massey recruited two talented and enterprising ex-Electronic Arts staffers—Richard Ashdown and Stuart Law. With the Queen quartet’s full blessing, this development trio was incorporated as Destination Design Ltd. And as The Guardian’s David McCandless writes in the foreword to The Art of Queen: The eYe, “within four months, [Destination Design Ltd.] had swelled from a three-man production team to a fully operative development group consisting of software engineers, animator and support personnel all housed under one roof in Windsor.”
If you search online for DDL today, you’ll get the dreaded “404 notice” of non-existence; meaning The eYe quite literally did Massey & Co. in. But in a totalitarian regime where the individual is, in fact, deader than dead, I, myself, find that strikingly poetic. The eYe is some pretty dystopian shit. Really. Lifted verbatim from the original booklet so you can read how far humanity has succumbed—and furthermore, precisely how melodramatic storyboarders used to be—the world 13 years into the future looks thusly:
“The not too distant future. Cyber technology has reached its apotheosis. The world has been devastated by global recession. Famine and poverty are rife. Democratic governments have crumbled. The status quo is shattered. In its place has risen a new world order. A malevolent oppressive regime, ruled by a bio-electronic despot. A self-replicating, cybernetic demigod called The eYe.”
“What remains of urban society is dominated by The Network—a half-world where the physical and the computer-generated have become one. An extension of The eYe, it controls the population, suffocating, stifling, suppressing any creative thought or deed. Reality and illusion are blurred. Normal rules of life and death, freedom and spirit have ceased to exist.”
“Since the beginning of its reign, The eYe had been aware of a strange resonance. Powerful and rhythmic, it pulsed at the back of The eYe’s mind, emanating from The Network’s hidden archives. Even though the last vestiges of expression had been burnt from the eye-sockets of humanity, the resonance continued. Fear and a strange desire forced The eYe into action. It roved the areas, searching for the source of this macabre vibration. When it found the source, The eYe knew terror for the first time.”
Of course, a post-apocalyptic landscape (gaming or otherwise) is nothing without its leads. Here, then, are McCandless’ own slippery descriptions of both boss and hero:
Death On Two Legs
“Too large to contain and too powerful to destroy, Music clamoured for escape, threatening to overcome the blackened heart of The Network in a tidal wave of creativity and passion. In panic, The eYe sealed off the archives’ alternate domains with impenetrable barriers and created a character, a guardian, to stalk and purge them. This entity was never given a name, but soon became known as Death On Two Legs.”
“On the other side of the barriers, The State ground on, unaware of the discovery. The eYe ruled supreme and its controllers did its bidding. The most powerful and faithful bidder was Dubroc. He embodied The State’s credo and carried out the will of The eYe with a terrifying fervour. Those who disobeyed were punished. Those who questioned were punished. He never disobeyed or questioned. Then, by accident, Dubroc stumbled across a strange access port. He, too, had found the musical archive. He stood, stupefied, as a crescendo of sounds and images washed over him, paralysing him. Realisation dawned. The ideology of The State splintered before his eyes. He saw for the first time the cruelty of his world, the brutality of the regime, and the evil of The eYe.”
Now, let’s go glaring, stage-by-stage, into The eYe of Queen.
Many years prior, The eYe created the huge domed edifice of The Arena—a cruel maze where gladiatorial combat and deadly traps serve to dispatch those who had treasoned The State. In the years hence, the once palatial architecture has collapsed in on itself. Rotten and warped now, newer, even deadlier elements have since grafted onto the debris. Makeshift lights have created vast expanses of darkness. Suspended above the former splendor hangs a central spike, a taunting stalactite that lures the luckless with the promise of escape. The tip-top of the stone monolith is the only exit from The Arena.
Before Dubroc can explore the vibrant scenes of the three Queen Domains, he must first navigate this stage—the one least influenced by Queen iconography per se, but still featuring quite a bit from their catalog. Throughout The eYe, the band’s music will manifest in one of two ways: either as mere background to frame a given mood or atmosphere, or as pure, unabashed sound bursts whenever Dubroc frees a musical archive. With so much of Queen’s discography fitting into that latter instance, it was certainly tempting for the sound designers here to offer up those obvious warhorses. But for the most part, that’s not necessarily the case. True, as Dubroc is led through the entrance and into the first camera views, “I Want It All” peels out loud and defiant. Nevertheless, as he fights his way from skirmish to battle, danger to peril, there’s a medley of deeper cuts to help him find his way.
“More Of That Jazz” (Taylor) from Jazz
“In The Lap Of The Gods” (Mercury) from Sheer Heart Attack
“Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Taylor) from Queen
“Fight From The Inside” (Taylor) from News Of The World
“Dragon Attack” (May) from The Game
“Party” (Queen) from The Miracle
“I Want It All” (Queen)
“Hang On In There” (Queen)
“Chinese Torture” (Queen)
“Liar” (Mercury) from Queen
“The Night Comes Down” (May) from Queen
THE WORKS DOMAIN
After crashing through the roof of The Arena, a successful Dubroc falls unconscious. He awakens to the mottled sunlight of The Works Domain. Surrounding him are architectural behemoths floating on a sea of polluted water, crumbling and derelict, encased in a spray of filthy mist. Bridges lead from each edifice to the plaza, centered by a large astrolabe. The whole mise-en-scène is dominated by an awe-inspiring radio tower which soars high above the rooftop, puncturing the shroud of fog. To the west is a museum and library—once great halls of learning, now clogged with dirt. To the north lies an expansive ballroom, and at the east, the once magnificent Crystal Palace has turned decrepit. The remaining buildings are boarded up, shells-only. Unwittingly, Dubroc has found himself in a war zone. The evil Baroness, Astaroth and the seemingly benign Professor Cagliari are wrestling for control. The Professor proves the last obstacle to the Baroness’ complete subjugation of the domain, and with her army of thugs and the swashbuckling Lover Prince, she has laid siege to the Professor’s tower. Drawn into this conflict, Dubroc searches, often bewildered, for a way to break free.
Given the plot of resistance through radio, Queen references are found everywhere here. For instance, the clock in the museum is based on the one found in the “Radio Ga-Ga” video. The video prizes in this domain are “It’s A Hard Life” and “Radio Ga-Ga,” themselves. Meanwhile, the evil Baroness is partly inspired by the song “Killer Queen.” Naturally, most of the key songs here are taken from The Works album, topped with a rousing chorus of “One Vision” to signal this domain’s completion.
“Tear It Up” (May) from The Works
“Machines (Or Back To Humans)” (Taylor, May)
“Hammer To Fall” (May)
“Keep Passing The Open Window” (Mercury)
“Tie Your Mother Down” (May) from A Day At The Races
“You Take My Breath Away” (Mercury)
“The Prophet’s Song” (May) from A Night At The Opera
“Sweet Lady” (May)
“It’s Late” (May) from News Of The World
“Killer Queen” (Mercury) from Sheer Heart Attack
“One Vision” (Queen) from A Kind Of Magic
“Mother Love” (May, Mercury) from Made In Heaven
“Made In Heaven” (Mercury)
“Procession” (May) from Queen II
“Mustapha” (Mercury) from Jazz
“Was It All Worth It” (Queen) from The Miracle
THE THEATRE DOMAIN
Yet again, our hero finds himself a stranger in an even stranger land. These are the haunted environs of a deserted Victorian theatre. This is a Queen Domain on the brink of dissolution thanks to the evil of Death On Two Legs. Cobwebs drift through the half-light, while eerie echoes of productions past reverberate between Dubroc’s footsteps. Trap doors, dead ends and blind corners distort every notion of time and place. Aged stage sets lie broken and discarded; costumes rot on the floor. Old posters are peeling from the wall, leaving discolored lesions in the paintwork. The framework remains sound, as the rooms and hallways here still connect. Beyond the foyer are the auditorium and the stalls, buttressed by side boxes and a balcony. Below the stage lies the orchestra pit, behind which sit the dressing rooms. Secret passages and false floors give Dubroc further access to the hidden, blackened heart of this dying playhouse.
Perhaps the domain most specifically in debt to Queen, their “A Kind of Magic” video is the main inspiration. A dank, defunct theatre is a more than appropriate venue to stage the paranormal machinations of Mr. Mestopholies (aka one of Death On Two Legs’ many guises). Mestopholies’ own alter-ego, Leroy Brown—himself modeled after the track “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”—is seen in a top hat and tails à la Freddie Mercury from that video.
“Who Wants To Live Forever” (May) from A Kind Of Magic
“A Kind Of Magic” (Taylor)
“The Invisible Man” (Queen) from The Miracle
“Dreamers Ball” (May) from Jazz
“Gimme That Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)” (May) from A Kind Of Magic
“Don’t Lose Your Head” (Taylor)
“Princes Of The Universe” (Mercury)
“Let Me Entertain You” (Mercury) from Jazz
“Bring Back That Leroy Brown” (Mercury) from Sheer Heart Attack
“Was It All Worth It” (Queen) from The Miracle
THE INNUENDO DOMAIN
Throughout the Queen Domains, Dubroc has been exposed to a flurry of unchecked creativity. His adventure has been fraught with strange creatures and stranger still circumstances, and he’s been pushed to the limit by arcane puzzles of all manner and purport. Nothing, however, has prepared him for the sinister beauty of The Innuendo Domain. Long suppressed by The eYe and so long a chew toy of Death On Two Legs, this stage is a psychedelic tour de force. A sprawling circus packed with stands, stalls and side shows encircles a garish carnival top in a cold, autumnal twilight. Like the Grandeville illustrations of the 19th century, the ring of kiosks glare out of a hazy, nearly opaque fog. As Dubroc draws closer, he nonetheless senses a strange flatness to it all. The many facades—Madame Magritte’s Fortune Telling, The Cranium Crackers, The Hammer Test—only stir when something living passes by. The sky is stained red with a frozen mix of dusk and dawn.
This torrent of supra-surreal imagery is inspired by the look and feel of the Innuendo album. In fact, the cannon in the cornfield can be found on the back album cover, while The Juggler on front remains a focal point for the entire level.
“Keep Passing The Open Windows” (Mercury) from The Works
“Brighton Rock” (May) from Sheer Heart Attack
“Innuendo” (Queen) from Innuendo
“You Don’t Fool Me” (Queen) from Made In Heaven
“I Can’t Live With You” (Queen) from Innuendo
“The Hitman” (Queen)
“Khashoggi’s Ship” (Queen) from The Miracle
“Heaven For Everyone” (Taylor) from Made In Heaven
“I’m Going Slightly Mad” (Queen) from Innuendo
“The Show Must Go On” (Queen)
“Too Much Love Will Kill You” (May, Musker, Lamers) from Made In Heaven
“Made In Heaven” (Mercury)
“Track 13” (Queen)
“It’s A Beautiful Day” (Queen)
THE FINAL DOMAIN
At long last, Dubroc finds himself in the heart of The Network. This immense cavern is bustling with high-powered grids radiating all kinds of electricity. It is here that The eYe has manifested, and it is this level where the final showdown will take place. A mile-long corridor leads to the very heart of the cavern. Tesla coils and similar arcana line the floors and walls. The defense mechanism is akin to the human body, only this time it’s Dubroc that’s the blood-warm pathogen. Once inside the chamber, he is confronted by a maze-like structure. Waiting in the center is the omnipotent eYe. Aware of his presence well before he entered, it’s now forced to activate the last remaining challenge that Dubroc must overcome.
Pacing is of course paramount in this final stage. Any accelerando towards apocalypse must be a gradual one. “Breakthru” is the main theme, echoing down the twisting, turning halls as Dubroc chases Death On Two Legs through The Network.
“Headlong” (Queen) from Innuendo
“Ride The Wild Wind” (Queen)
“Get Down Make Love” (Mercury) from News Of The World
“We Will Rock You” (May)
“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Mercury) from A Night At The Opera
“Mother Love” (May, Mercury) from Made In Heaven
“Breakthru” (Queen) from The Miracle
“Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…) (Mercury) from A Night At The Opera
“Dancer” (May) from Hot Space
“Action This Day” (Taylor)
“Las Palabras De Amor” [The Words Of Love]” (May) from Hot Space
“Under Pressure” (Queen, D. Bowie)
“Put Out The Fire” (May)
“White Man” (May) from A Day At The Races
“I beat the game long ago, but I’ll still do a life every now and then,” admits Kabat-Post. “It’s an amazing play with an amazing playlist. It’s kind of the ultimate game like that.”
Yes, again, any statement on The eYe’s modern merit will almost have to be qualified. To paraphrase a certain comedian of that era, it would be “imprudent” not to. The dual worlds of gaming and music have changed irrevocably since the salad days of DOS, the halcyon ones even of Made In Heaven. Case in point(s): any video game, whatsoever, presently on the market, and Queen guitarist Brian May’s performance with Lady Gaga at this year’s Video Music Awards.
Regardless of The eYe’s hindsight, it is important to remember just how revolutionary its original vision truly was. As McCandless himself wrote without hyperbole in ‘98, “it goes beyond any interactive music CD, beyond any cutting-edge console, beyond any classic game of the last five years.” Stuck between the year we make contact and the year the Mayans have our screens going blank, who knows, we may need a Dubroc after all.
Logan K. Young is a writer in Washington, D.C. He last wrote about Colin Meloy’s YA novel The Wildwood Chronicles for Paste.