I’ll Pay You For Your Screwed Up Game

By A. A. BENJAMIN

 

There is a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up if anyone’s interested.

 

DKKillScreen

 

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. XD

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.

Powerful indeed.

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?

pacmankillscreen

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.

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Limitations of Genre in “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters”

I read some critique of the King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Although the film grossed over $700,000 globally (not bad for small-budget documentaries) and achieved critical acclaim (Rolling Stone calling it “roaringly funny”) others had their concerns. After some poking around, most critique falls into one of two categories:

1. Subject matter: many critics disliked the movie because they found the topic of video games inaccessible. Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post, opens her critique with the question “what is more tiresome than watching somebody play video games?” This type of critique has nothing to do with director Seth Gordon’s movie making ability or the strengths/weaknesses of storytelling, but dismisses the film for its subject matter alone. While I don’t think this is a very salient argument, Hornaday does have a point: King of Kong will most likely not attract non-gamers, regardless of the actual mechanics of the story or art of the film.

2. Unoriginal themes and “lack of depth:” Hornaday criticizes Gordon’s “all too familiar formula” and says that the film’s “structure … has become increasingly hackneyed with the glut of competition documentaries” (She cites Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound as probable inspiration for Gordon.) Other critics think the film relies on stock characters and overused themes which make the film one dimensional and unoriginal. Blogger Paul Dean agrees that the story is a simple “story about good pitted against evil.” However, Dean doesn’t think this is necessarily negative, but rather essential to writing a compelling story about video gamers, which most of the world is unfamiliar with.

These types of critiques struck me because they were extremely similar to the type of critique that Lord of the Rings (and the fantasy genre) typically receives: either people can’t connect with the subject matter, or they find the themes elementary. I had not thought of King of Kong as a “fantasy” because of its documentary quality, but now I’m not so sure. Examined under the same critique of fantasy, it appears that Gordon does prey on elements of fantasy storytelling to create his film: he sets up an unfamiliar world, describes the rules of that world, and forces the audience to connect with the characters despite their unique reality. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is not a fantasy film, but it invites the audience into a sort of virtual world. To do this successfully, the filmmakers used techniques of fantasy storytelling, and thus are met with similar criticisms. For me, this was an awesome exercise in the possibilities and limitations of genre (documentary, fantasy) and I’m curious to see how some of these critiques are either dodged or manifested in other mediums (film, written narrative, video games) as we move through the course.

-Emma Baker