So below is a video — made by the good people at Boing Boing — featuring a rather large collection of video game deaths. Go ahead and watch it and then come back and we’ll chat:
So before watching this video, it never really occurred to me how much video games are about failure and death. Poets and writers like to wax rhapsodic about the game of baseball — and part of the reason for this is nostalgia for the sport of their youth. But the other reason that people obsess about baseball, it seems to me, is that more than any other sport, baseball is about failure. The best hitters still fail to get a hit 70 percent of the time. The best teams still lose 60 games a year. Baseball is a game where everyone fails all the time. Even the season of the game, summer heading into autumn, heralds the inevitability of winter: winter — the season that symbolizes death.
…And now that I’ve depressed everyone the fuck out about baseball, I’ll go ahead and say that I don’t have any real nostalgia for the sport (mostly because I’m from Philadelphia, where, until recently, our team was abso-fucking-lutely godawful).
No, I don’t care about baseball — and all of my nostalgia is confined to games of the video sort: Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position and Mappy. This makes sense, because I’m a hipster of a certain age, and most of my youth was wasted either in arcades or huddled over my Atari 2600.
But until I watched this video, I never realized how completely video games are about failure. Think about it. You simply can’t win at “Pac-Man.” No matter what you do… you will… die. (Even if you’re some sort of genius savant who can make it through hundreds of levels, the game will simply crash upon reaching the 256th stage.)
In this way, classic arcade games mirror life: life, which — no matter how much we want to avoid it — can only end with one inevitable result. Or, as an eminent poet once put it:
For I haue dyscust
We ar but dust,
And dy we must.
It is generall
To be mortall :
I haue well espyde
No man may hym hyde
From Deth holow eyed…
…It’s a good point. And it’s a point with which the makers of “Pac-Man” and “Galaga” would almost certainly agree.
Even in games that you can “win,” no one ever wins the first time around. No one makes it all the way through Super Mario Brothers the first time they play it. No, getting to the end and rescuing Princess Peach is predicated on hundreds and even thousands of individual failures — and deaths. It’s sometimes tempting for me to imagine Mario as some poor creature trapped in an endless Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth, suffering, dying, and being endlessly reborn, all for the sake of our sins.
…Or maybe not.
A few quick thoughts about some of the games collected in the video clip, and then we’ll close this out.
- I’d like to thank the creators of the video for including a clip of the game Time Pilot ’84. Not because ‘Time Pilot ’84,’ was such a great game, but because it was a game that I was inexplicably good at — enabling me to stretch out my arcade-playing time (which was limited by the confines of my five dollar allowance) for hours, instead of seconds. The other random games that I was good at: Donkey Kong 3, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both of which were very weird games. …Also, Time Pilot ’84 apparently posits a version of the year 1984 in which everyone was continually under attack by robotic tanks, which is — words fail me — awesome.
- Another game in the video compilation: Arkanoid. Arkanoid is where you’re endlessly paddling a ball against a series of brick walls; it’s “Breakout” with the addition of laser beams and a completely nonsensical plot. I used to like playing “Arkanoid,” and also “Breakout”… until someone pointed out to me that they were basically “Pong” for people who had no friends. …And then I got depressed for a while.
- The deaths in Outrun always seemed especially brutal to me; you weren’t just killing yourself, you were also presumably breaking the neck of your hot blond girlfriend: who after all had only wanted to go for a ride in a totally bitchin’ red Ferrari.
- Although it’s not included in the compilation, no series of video game deaths would be complete without these, from the classic game Dragon’s Lair. I sucked so relentlessly at Dragon’s Lair, but forced myself to waste hundreds of quarters on it… because it looked like a Disney movie. I was a very dumb child.
- For me, the ne plus ultra of video game deaths took place in Missile Command — in addition to your own death, you were also allowing cities full of millions of inhabitants to be slaughtered by nuclear missiles. Missile Command was never a fun game for me, because — since I was playing it in 1982, at the height of the Cold War — it was what I actually thought the future was going to be like: nukes falling on New York, Chicago, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles…. And you really couldn’t win this game; the missiles just fell faster and faster until Philadelphia and everyplace else was toast and the words ‘THE END’ came on the screen in massive block letters. It was fun to stare at these words for a while and wonder to yourself: “…But what if we had gone the diplomatic route instead? How about a little détente?” …Actually, that’s a lie. I was seven at the time, so I never would have thought that. I just like showing off and using the word “détente.” It’s a fun word!
- An-nnnd that is all, I guess. Except: I always really sucked at ‘Pole Position.’ I don’t even have a joke here. That’s how much I sucked at it.
- …And that’s really all. The end.