By A. A. BENJAMIN
There is a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone’s interested.
This, to me, was the most powerful line in the entire King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters movie. For a couple of reasons.
First, I appreciated the dorky way Brian Kuh ran around announcing this all over the arcade as if he were passive-aggressively declaring war. 😄
The movie documents underdog Steve Weibe’s attempt to beat Donkey Kong “heavy-weight champ” Billy Mitchell’s high score. Brian Kuh is Billy’s hype man. At this moment in the movie, Weibe has already near-shattered Kuh’s dream of being the first at the arcade to reach kill screen, which induces Kuh into manic slump-shouldered declarations intended to knock Wiebe off his game.
No, the power behind this phrase comes from the sense of intensity and mystery it creates. It calls up the minute existence of video games however escapist and fantastical we like them to be. When I heard the phrase “kill screen,” my ears perked and my low-lidded skeptical eyes widened. What the frack is a kill screen?
I remember seeing this image of Pac Man earlier in the movie and it made my heart race. Oh no, the game messed up! Progress lost! A glitch! No, Game Designer, we’re not supposed to see that! Make it stop!
Those were my original reactions, until I witnessed the scene in the arcade and saw how seamlessly the gamers had made the kill screen a part of their in-game reality. The kill screen became an active level of the game, part of the experience of playing Donkey Kong, and an indication of your general game-playing awesomeness. An unwritten rule of the game solidifies: if you’re that good, you get so far in the game that it can no longer function. You die because you’re just too awesome. Game designer and theorist Jesper Juul claims “video games are real in that they consist of real rules with which players actually interact.” How does something as mechanical and real as lack of memory space become part of the fictional experience of game achievement which in turn translates back into the reality of the competitive Donkey Kong world? Makes my head spin.
Is the glitch phenomenon something in gaming that we should aim to fix or eliminate, or does the rawness and somewhat intimacy of it add to the gamer experience?
Outside of arcade games, I’ve played many console games where I discovered glitches and turned them into a narrative of my own. For instance, when I was younger I played a video game in which I had discovered a hole in the rock walls. I would use the hole to evade attackers. The game designers never intended for that hole to be there. It was a glitch that I had adopted into my game play rather than getting upset or viewing the game designers any less credible (though, I was prone to compare graphic quality to other game systems). Similar things have occurred in other games, like discovering that turning your character a certain way reveals some laughable or hilariously distorted profile of the character.
As technology advances and graphic quality advances, and as storage space advances, will we see these endearing glitches disappear? The very glitches we made a part of our real world and fictional narratives? What will we do then?
LOTRO maestro and Vanderbilt University professor Jay Clayton asks, “What do you do then? The end game is the toughest part for game designers to wrestle with.” Exactly. This question has been relevant since Donkey Kong and way beyond. But I’d like to add, what will we do when we’re perfect? When all video game glitches are gone and storage strife is over, and video games have infinite quests and everyone becomes infinitely awesome at playing video games—
Wishful thinking. However, in that time of wishing we can reflect on what basic imperfections reveal about the human inclination to mold any and everything into a meaningful experience.