Burger Time Event Horizon

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.


  1. Hey Rob, funny you should mention this; I ran a course this summer at Madison on “Video games and mass communication” and we watched the King of Kong in class. The students loved it. I was intending it to be a guilty pleasure (really, though, how many guilty pleasures do you need to throw into a class on video games, anyway?) but they convinced me that it had great Enduring Educational Value in demonstrating how even what to them was a dead-end “old media” artifact (the screen-by-screen arcade video game, RIP) could be a catalyst for people to build meaning, identity, and institutions. We also played some Donkey Kong ourselves, courtesy of the “virtual console” emulation of the Nintendo Wii, and they realized those old-skool games ain’t as easy as they look. (Our university library still has a screen-by-screen guide to winning Pac Man on the shelves.) P.S. You (or your site visitors) should feel free to check out the resources I accumulated for the class, on the web site linked to this comment.

  2. Hey Rob,

    I’m going to be playing in the Braunstein game the Major is running at GenCon on Friday. I’ll give you the scoop afterwards.

  3. Greg: What a fun course! Everybody should check it out.

    Tom: Coolio! I think the game is happening right now so I won’t pepper you with questions for Major Dave. But I’ll be curious to hear about it.

  4. “…why are there keys if there is nothing to unlock?” Sounds a little like it’s a stargate, that the sky will open up and pacman will waka waka into our world. They ever find those Arati 2600 E.T. cartridges buried out in the desert? We got a C64 in ’84, Jumpman ruled! This afternoon CBC was talking about the Madden NFL game, it’s been a top-seller for 20 years, or something.

  5. Muchas gracias for the link-to, Rob.

    I’m very much looking forward to reports from Tom, Ben, and the other participants at GenCon. There’s already been a little tantalizing chatter at Story-Games…

  6. Rob – you are approaching Master of the West Wind territory here (which, should you need to be reminded means that you have acquired at least 500001 xp).

    Glad to have read this. Thanks.

  7. Elliot: You’re welcome, and I’m looking forward to the Braunstein reports too. Funny how when you & I were first posting about Braunstein, it seemed like only a handful of people interested in RPG history had even heard of it; now David Wesely’s the toast of Story Games…

    Sean: Do I have to fight the reigning Master of the West Wind to take his place? (I believe he is living in Vancouver, practicing bass guitar the Robert Fripp way.) Or is that just the Grandmaster of Flowers?

  8. Rob: apologies for the late response but i’ve been spelunking in the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for the past few weeks and haven’t had internet access.

    You’ll be happy to know that due to your American citizenship you won’t have to fight the Canadian Master of West Wind but will rather have to engage his American cousin, Michael Vick. Shouldn’t be much of a fight, really.

    Love the site. Keep rocking.

  9. Um, Rob, I’m so embarassed. I’d love to offer this to you directly, but I’ll be darned/danged/etc if I can find a proper email-esque thing.
    Obviously, feel free to delete this but I thought you’d want to peruse.
    Is it purely steampunk? Gosh, I don’t think so…. but do we want anything that’s PURELY steampunk? Is ANYTHING steampunk purely anything? Oh, great, now I’ve asked too many questions…..well, hell, you tell me.


    Bob Peters


    At some time in the very distant future, long after America is gone, a group of artists

    scouring the backwater of whatever the Net has become discover the American Memory Archives of the Library of Congress. It’s barely a ghost of its original form, all broken links and code that reads like gibberish. They manage to extract images, bits of text and sounds. Although they have no context for its meaning, they are intrigued by these strange antiquities. The group creates surreal impressions of the material they find and broadcast it back through time. A quantum radio channel beamed into the subconscious minds of the 21st Century.



    The American Memory Project will release a DVD EP in conjunction with the OHGR DTOUR, followed by a full-length Hi-Definition DVD in the spring of 2009.

    In our time, the first decade of the 21st Century, members of the American Memory Project are film-maker/guitarist William Morrison and drummer/composer Justin Bennett. Morrison may well be best known for the films and videos that have accompanied the Skinny Puppy performances, though he has also played guitar with SP and will be playing with OHGR on DTOUR. Bennett will play with Ohgr as well, and has performed with Skinny Puppy, Professional Murder Music, Rozz Williams, Pigface, and numerous others. Together, they have been channeling AMP for two years thus far.

    American Memory Project (AMP) will offer a startling multi-media presentation mixing visuals and audio from the past, the future, and the present in real time on each date of the OHGR DTOUR of the US and Canada throughout November and December 2008.

    Tour dates:

    OHGR – DTOUR with

    American Memory Project (AMP)

    Mon-Nov-17 Phoenix, AZ The Marquee
    Tue-Nov-18 San Diego, CA House of Blues
    Wed-Nov-19 Los Angeles, CA El Rey Theatre
    Fri-Nov-21 San Francisco, CA Slims
    Sat-Nov-22 Portland, OR Dante’s
    Sun-Nov-23 Vancouver, BC Red Room
    Mon-Nov-24 Seattle, WA El Corazon
    Wed-Nov-26 Salt Lake City, UT Murray Theatre
    Thu-Nov-27 Denver, CO Bluebird
    Sat-Nov-29 Minneapolis, MN Station 4
    Sun-Nov-30 Chicago, IL Double Door
    Tue-Dec-02 Toronto, ON The Opera House
    Wed-Dec-03 Montreal, QUE Les Saints
    Thu-Dec-04 New York, NY Gramercy
    Sat-Dec-06 Boston, MA Paradise
    Sun-Dec-07 Washington, DC Rock and Roll Hotel
    Tue-Dec-09 Raleigh, NC Cats Cradle
    Wed-Dec-10 Atlanta, GA Masquerade
    Fri-Dec-12 Ft. Lauderdale, FL Culture Room
    Sat-Dec-13 Tampa, FL State Theatre
    Mon-Dec-15 New Orleans, LA House of Blues
    Wed-Dec-17 Houston, TX Warehouse
    Thu-Dec-18 Dallas, TX Granada Theatre
    Fri-Dec-19 San Antonio, TX White Rabbit
    Sun-Dec-21 Albuquerque, NM

    For more, please contact:

    Bob Peters
    Access All Areas

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