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[Comments] (2) : I was reading an interesting article about competitive video game players. Some of these players express a strange attitude towards a game's "kill screen", the point at which the game breaks down because the authors didn't anticipate anyone getting that far.

From a programmer's perspective the kill screen is something to be decoded and understood. It is comprehensible and can be fixed. But when the kill screen comes at the end of a grueling ritual there seems a temptation to see it in esoteric and mystical terms.

With Pac-Man, there has always been a powerful appeal surrounding the notion of "The Doorway" -- a prospective passageway to the other side, a way past level 256... 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?

Before I go on, let me make my position clear: I am a total video game nerd (though not a particularly angry one). Songs have I written and stories that draw from this pixelated well. My cohort has a fascination with video games: old ones, new ones, the people who make them, the ones we make ourselves, their distribution mechanisms, their similarities and basic building blocks, the ways we push ourselves to best them, the stories we tell about them, the relationships they create and mediate.

So don't take it as "Get a life!" when I say there's nothing special about the games themselves. Like books, they only have the power we give them. Pac-Man has a bug. It's not even an Easter Egg. There's nothing to unlock. The kill screen is not in the realm of the meant. If you spend years mastering Pac-Man and prefer it to Ms. Pac-Man because it's totally deterministic, why get mystical about the way it crashes at the end? This is real life, not Lucky Wander Boy.

I could see writing fan fiction about bugs, the same kind of fan fiction that explains what it means to make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, but this kind of talk about the bug's mysterious meaning leaves me cold.

PS: Feel free to apply this attitude to everything else in life! Other people will love it!

PPS: The keys are for use in Super Pac-Man.

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Posted by Adam Kaplan at Sun Aug 24 2008 19:10

I always found it rather nihilistic that the old game programmers never planned an ending, and just let the overflow errors do what they would with the game-play. There's something a bit mystical about a game so hard that it was never expected that people would even get to the inevitable crash-site. Now game endings have all sorts of beautiful cinematics and credits. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and their ilk don't even contain the classic motion picture sign-off of "THE END"...but rather lazily just die, killing the protagonist who has fought so hard to reach that level. Maybe that's how life is though...a long, increasingly hard fight met with inevitable system failure.

Posted by kirkjerk at Mon Aug 25 2008 10:27

Some pretty cool links...

I guess I'd counter with... why NOT get a little mystical about it? In an age where science seems to suggest that metaphor and relationships are a more valid use of religion than a literal explanation of why things are, I think people are free to find mysticism where they'd like.

(also for people who might not know Lucky Wander Boy, I quoted a bit from the Pac-Man meditation here: http://kirkjerk.com/2003/03/28/ )

The Pac-Man kill screen feels like... I dunno, like coming to the edge of the Matrix, of sailing to the place on the map where "There Be Dragons".

"The kill screen is not in the realm of the meant." - absolutely! You seem to be conflating found, interpreted meaning with authorial intent. The microcosm collapsing because of programmer oversight, as the natural product of code that otherwise seems fine, sturdy, and lovely, seems to have a potential for profundity that, say, a reward intermission screen showing Pac-Man winging off to the beyond, would never have. (Or for that matter, a patch either locking in level 255 forever, or looping back to cherries.)

Heck, even the patterns that let these players get to that point are in some ways transcendent... I've read about the surprising depth of personality used for the Pac-Man monsters, and it's a byproduct of that determinism that allows for this almost meta-game of perfect score plotting... have you ever seen a perfect play video? It's all about waiting in certain spots 'til the ghost waves finally coalesce and then pouncing... not very fun to watch or do, except in a meta-sense, and certainly not what was "meant" by the programmers.

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