Existential Dread As Entertainment

By Mikey Shake


Sitting alone in the dark as the screen flickers. As the last one slips through my fingers, and then everyone’s gone.

I’m not the first to notice or comment on it, but there’s an awful, existential dread to many early video games.  The ones before the concept of "bosses" or "endings" were innovated by home consoles.  When technology only allowed things to "just keep going" until they couldn’t go any faster.  When the idea of taking an electronic quest from your couch was more or less science fiction.  When home ports aspired to the arcade version.  When the average video game lasted two minutes instead of two hours, and most people played standing up.  Just enough time to keep you interested enough to put in another quarter.

The sun started to set while I was flipping channels, and I never got up to turn the light on once I started playing the Atari.  After a few rounds of the bright, colorful sprites and fun gameplay of Keystone Kapers, in it went… Berzerk.  The story in the manual is almost an afterthought.  You’re the survivor of a space ship crashed on a dark, menacing planet.  You’re captured and thrown into an electric maze, besieged by lazer-toting robots and their leader.  You shoot all the robots on the screen and run to the next one, without touching the deadly walls or getting crushed by the grinning maw of Evil Otto.  Once on the next screen, you shoot all the robots on the screen and run to the next one, without touching the… well, you get the point.

There’s no ending.  You just play until you die.  The goal at the time was simply to get the highest score.  Which is fine.  But from a story perspective, it means that you’ll never escape the maze.  Ever.  You can try again and again, but there’s no way out.  It wasn’t programmed.  You can keep running and blasting.  Every time getting further and further.  But you’ll never escape, because there is no escape.  It’s an endless prison without an exit.  There’s no end.  You can run, and you might do better than before… but you’re still never leaving.

The scariest of the early games, though, is Missile Command.  Nearly everyone who can read a blog has probably played Missile Command.  Keep in mind that it was programmed during the Cold War, a time with a very real threat of nuclear annihilation.  The game’s manual was revised somewhere after release to set it on some alien planet to make it less frightening.  But this game was written to be our world.  In it, you protect a handful of cities from encroaching nuclear missiles with your anti-ballistic blaster.  You blow the missiles up in the sky over the cities to protect them.  It’s a Reagan-style "Star Wars" fever fantasy on 128 bytes of memory.

But the missiles will never stop coming.  You’re bound to lose, because there’s no way to win.  It’s just a matter of how long you can survive.  How long can you continue to save humanity?  How long can you hold out, knowing that there’s no point… that no matter how hard you fight, you can never stop them all?  Why keep going?

The primitive graphics are perfectly suited to the atmosphere.  Thin, encroaching lines on a stark black background, like a NORAD vector display as you target those missiles faster and faster and faster.  Panic rises as your pulse races.  Trying desperately… to do what?  No matter how well you aim, they’ll slip through.  Eventually.

As the lines trace all the way and split the screen… as you watch that one you can’t catch… and the screen flickers against your face, you hear that sound that tells you "you’ve failed"… the sound of the cities you’re protecting dying.  That very distinct, very particular white-noise static.  A sound that’s so of-its-era that it still gives people of a certain age chills.  And as you reach to throw the reset switch (despite the futility, you know you’ll never win), you don’t just get a game over.   This is...


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