There’s a great article by writer Joshuah Bearman in
this month’s last month’s (what do you want from me: I’m a historian) Harper’s about Billy Mitchell and the world’s best Pac-Man players. Mitchell is the subject of the recent documentary King of Kong, and he is a total piece of work, but I won’t spoil that if you haven’t seen the movie. While focusing on Pac-Man rather than Donkey Kong, the Harper’s article necessarily covers some of the same ground as the film. But the parts I really like are about the zen of classic arcade games: the difference between Pac-Man’s complex but essentially predictable patterns and the randomized unknowability of Ms Pac-Man (ah, woman); Mitchell’s analytical schematic approach versus the dream-inspired chaos surfing of Abdner Ashman; and (shades of Lucky Wander Boy) the eternal mystery of the “kill screen” and What Lies Beyond.
When Billy was in Japan, he asked the programmers detailed questions about the far reaches of Pac-Man, to which they responded, “We should really be asking you the questions. You have been where we never will.”
For Billy, though, there is always the question of going further. Back in his van, we talk about what is known in classic-gaming argot as the “kill screen.” This is the edge of the universe, the place where instructions end. … Pac-Man comes to a halt at level 256, as the program runs out of code and the entire right side of the screen is engulfed by senseless symbols. Circus Charlie just freezes. Donkey Kong ends after five seconds on level 22. Then there is Galaga, which eventually closes in solitude. After everything comes nothing. No enemy armada. No music. No score. Just you and the existential void. Other games end in violence. In Burger Time, Billy says, the kill screen came at level 28, which he describes as the most chaotic moment he has ever experienced. The fried egg and hot dog and pickles chased him around so aggressively that Billy took it as a cruelly encoded joke. That did not prevent him from attempting to breach Burger Time’s event horizon. Everyone said it was impossible, but he had to know: Is there more?
With Pac-Man, there has always been a powerful appeal surrounding the notion of the “The Doorway”–a prospective passageway to the other side, a way past level 256. There are hints right at the threshold. As the maze comes undone, the disintegrating edges seem to hint at an unprogrammed but perhaps navigable new space. Equally enticing is that the final prize Pac-Man collects is not a fruit but a key, the last of nine–and why are there keys if there is nothing to unlock?
Speaking of classic gaming: As the slain-by-a-elf crowd heads off to GenCon, Ben Robbins at Ars Ludi has a straight-from-the-horse’s mouth piece about David Wesely and the proto-roleplaying game Braunstein, the taking-off point for my two old posts about the deep history of roleplaying games and Cold War roleplaying at RAND. I know it’s been more than a year, but I do still mean to complete that tryptich of essays spinning off from the three books Wesely cited as his influences in creating Braunstein. I notice that Ben always refers to Wesely as Major Wesely, which is respectful and perfectly proper, but also reminds me of the final thing I want to talk about in this extremely attenuated “series”: the military context and the great silence that never seems to come up in the history of roleplaying games: Vietnam. While we’re on the subject, the most thoughtful and careful “internalist” historian of roleplaying I know of is Eliot Wilen. You can see his collected links on Braunstein, including tough but fair criticism of my own loosy-goosy “externalist” take, over at his LiveJournal.