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The Sentinel stands alone

Why I Love: Quantum Soup's Chris Payne remembers Geoff Crammond's purely innovative, rarely imitated classic

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Chris Payne, managing director at Quantum Soup Studios and former senior game mechanics programmer at Traveller's Tales. Payne is our first repeat columnist, having previously written about Ultima Underworld.

The 1980s were an amazing decade for the games industry. A whole new market had been discovered, and there were no rules. Successful games founded entire genres. But one of my all-time favourites is a game so unorthodox that it broke the mold.

Geoff Crammond's surreal masterpiece The Sentinel (known as The Sentry in North America) was released in 1986. I acquired it as part of the justifiably titled "Supreme Challenge" compilation by Beau Jolly, comprising The Sentinel, Elite, Starglider, Tetris, and ACE 2. It was possibly the best value bundle I ever bought. Of course, I got it primarily for the already-legendary Elite, but it was The Sentinel that became my favourite.

Alongside the wireframe minimalism of Elite and Starglider, The Sentinel's visuals were astonishingly rich and detailed. Crammond knew the limitations of contemporary hardware, and designed a game that was basically a dynamic slideshow. With a clever fish-eye 3D projection he built the game so that the player rotated in discrete steps - waiting for the player to turn, and drawing only a narrow strip of graphics which was then scrolled onscreen. This allowed him to make the landscapes far more complex than any other game that decade.

"Playing the game felt like immersing yourself in a lonely, mysterious place with its own laws of physics"

Even so, it was a far cry from photorealism. The Sentinel cleverly sidestepped that challenge with its surreal, abstract look. The procedural landscapes (1000 of them, because that felt like a reachable target) hung in an empty void, their checkerboard surfaces and angular trees and rocks a deliberate abstraction of reality. The Sentinel itself, and the lowlier Sentries and Meanies were similarly impressionistic, statuesque figures. No story was given. The world of The Sentinel just WAS, and that air of mystery was compounded by a spare, mournful complement of musical stings. Playing the game felt like immersing yourself in a lonely, mysterious place with its own laws of physics.

And what laws. The rendering engine demanded a static camera and minimal changes in the environment. In order to make this playable, Crammond devised an elegant, chess-like game of strategy based on line of sight, elevation and positioning. Each level was a closed system of energy - any health stolen from the player was replaced on the landscape as trees, which the player could recover. Suddenly the slow panning speed became a source of enormous tension, as the player raced to find visible energy sources and choose a new vantage point before the Sentinel's gaze inevitably found them. Panic was induced by the static hiss of energy loss, culminating in a dismal disintegration of the scene and the brooding chimes of defeat, the implacable Sentinel the last thing the player sees. The mood of alienation and solitude it conjured was an incredible achievement on such limited hardware.

There has never been a game quite like it. The Sentinel Returns on PS1 was highly-anticipated by fans of the original, but somehow the bio-organic visual stylings of that sequel didn't quite conjure the right mood. Over 30 years there have been a mere handful of clones or homages - I'm working on one myself - because the concept was so unique. Zenith (PC) is a very faithful remake, Capita (iOS) a stylish modernisation, and Surveillant (iOS) a more adventurous adaptation themed around security cameras. For my own homage I've attempted to recapture the spooky atmosphere with a dark fairytale setting.

The Sentinel was a landmark game for technical accomplishment, game design, visual and audio style...but for me and for thousands of players who remember exploring those bleak checkerboard worlds, it was the haunting mood that lingers, decades later. Even with the incredible power of the latest gaming hardware, few modern games manage such immersion. The Sentinel stands as a monument to the adage that video games truly take place not on the screen, but inside the player's head.

Upcoming Why I Love columns:

  • Tuesday, May 8 - Solar Sail's Tancred Dyke-Wells on Tenchu: Stealth Assassins
  • Tuesday, May 22 - Sperasoft's Steven Thornton on Portal 2
  • Tuesday, June 5 - Over the Moon Studios' John Warner on Dark Souls
  • Tuesday, June 19 - Infinite State Games' Mike Daw on Bubble Bobble
  • Tuesday, July 3 - Infinite State Games' Charlie Scott-Skinner on Monster Hunter

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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Latest comments (4)

Richard Browne VP Production, Leyou Technologies5 months ago
Great call Chris. One of the truly most staggering games ever devised, it functioned so perfectly within the limitations of the platform. I actually tried to do a Virtuality port of it back in 1995 at Domark which would have been epic, sadly despite getting Jeff onboard it went no further.
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John Cook Senior Partner, Bad Management5 months ago
It is a truly original game - I finished it twice, then got Sentinel Returns made - which won Best Puzzle Game at that year's E3. Yes - I was pretty puzzled about that myself.......

Geoff Crammond still retains the rights - perhaps it's time will come again!
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John Cook Senior Partner, Bad Management5 months ago
@Richard Browne: You mean Dactyl Nightmare wasn't enough for you? :-)
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios5 months ago
I'm gonna cheekily link my WIP homage, as GamesIndustry.biz probably has an above-average percentage of Sentinel fans whose feedback is particularly useful ;)
https://store.steampowered.com/app/770860/Annwn_the_Otherworld/
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