A video game retrospective for your consideration by Ulises Silva.
Kids today have it easy. They turn on their PS3 and turn off their imagination. When a box today says something like, “heart-pounding first-person shooter action as you lead a group of elite commandos into enemy territory to shoot up armies of commie jihady bastards,” chances are, you’re playing one of the Call of Duty games. And chances are, the graphic representations of the game in question really do involve a realistically rendered first-person shooting experience as you lead a group of elite commandoes into enemy territory to shoot up armies of commie jihady bastards. About the only use for your imagination is when you imagine what it’d be like to see an actually plausible storyline in any of these games.
But back in the 80s, we video gamers had a whole other use for imagination: we needed it to actually make sense of the game and bridge the gap between representation and actuality.
Case in point: Space Invaders for the Atari 2600.
On the cover, you see these colossal alien spacecraft (because you can see whole cities in them, for crying out loud) and they’re flying through some alien landscape (because there are two moons) that kind of looks like an alien Grand Canyon, and they’re shooting these translucent death rays at something. We don’t know what, but they’re shooting!
But wait, it gets better! Just look at what the instruction manual says: “Each time you turn on Space Invaders, you will be at war with enemies from space who are threatening the earth. Your objective is to destroy these invaders by firing your ‘laser cannon.’ You must wipe out the invaders either before they reach the earth (bottom of the screen), or before they hit you three times with their laser bombs.”
So you turn on, ready for this war that apparently begins the moment you turn on Space Invaders, and ready for this brutal onslaught of merciless invaders from space who threaten to descend upon planet earth in these giant, city-sized star ships that shoot laser bombs! Bombs that are made of lasers! Or lasers that fall like bombs…or something! Wow! It’s like being right in the middle of Independence Day, only this game might actually make sense!
And when you turn the game on, you see this:
Hmmm… Well, I don’t see space, I don’t see those two alien moons from the cover, and those alien canyons are missing. What I do see is a lonely little chess piece at the bottom that I suppose is my “laser cannon.” There are six rows of…things that I guess are the alien ships. The top row look like perplexed TV sets. The next row looks like a walrus head making raspberries at me. There’s a guy doing jumping jacks on the next row. Below him, there’s a jellyfish that’s trying to grab what I think is Q-bert on the level below. And finally, there’s a very confused vanilla wafer that doesn’t know whether it’s going one way or the other.
And I guess the war is about your little chess piece firing these dashes up at the little aliens while dodging their dashes…er…laser bombs. And I guess saving the earth is all about racking up points, because there’s no way to win the game aside from lasting as long as you can and scoring as many points as possible because the damn TV sets, Q-berts, and vanilla wafers keep regenerating and coming at you faster and faster.
By today’s standards, the conceptual gap between what’s represented on the cover and instruction manual and what’s onscreen is too large to bridge with anything other than a hearty WTF.
But back in the day, we had this thing called imagination, and it helped us make sense of it all.
“Oh, I see! The flying TV sets are actually relay ships that are calling for reinforcements from those city-sized ships on the cover. The walrus guy is just using diversionary tactics to keep me from noticing the alien mother ships trying to outflank me through the Grand Canyon, which now has two moons because the aliens brought one of theirs with them for nostalgia’s sake. And the jumping jacks guy? He’s just training himself up for the ground assault, so I better get rid of him fast because I don’t know if my ground forces are ready or if it’s just the chess piece holding down the fort. That jellyfish is probably going to attack the oceans, so I hope I can buy the 6th Fleet time to prepare. And Q-bert? I never trusted that box-jumping bastard! I knew he’d turn on the human race at some point! And the wafer aliens on the very front row? Oh, I see! They’re the cannon fodder conscripts sent to the front lines! No wonder they’re wavering! Better take them out quickly before they’re ordered on a suicide charge!”
See how quickly imagination changed the Space Invaders experience from “Huh??” to “OH MY GODS, IT’S UP TO ME AND MY LASER CANNON TO WAGE TOTAL WAR FOR THE SAKE OF HUMAN SURVIVAL?”
And I guess imagination was also good for replay value, because when I got Space Invaders for Christmas, my dad, uncle, and I played it through the night, and first thing the following morning. Though I’m fairly certain that, by then, I was convinced the TV sets on top were actually toaster ovens out to bake humanity into extinction.
Which is why they needed to be stopped at all costs.