September 24, 2007

The Tell-Tale Brick

by Nick Montfort · , 9:51 pm

A Review of Pilgrim in the Microworld: Eye, Mind, and the Essence of Video Skill
David Sudnow
Warner Books
227 pp.

The King of Kong‘s Steve Wiebe looks like a casual gamer compared to David Sudnow. While Sudnow may not be a video game champion, it is evident that he had the same relationship with Breakout that Ishmael had with whales. I know of no story of monomania, since those in the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, at least, that can match Sudnow’s memoir of his obsession with one single Atari VCS cartridge. For the love of God, Sudnow! How can you break down those luminescent, rainbow bands of bricks again and again, so attentive to your own physiology, almost ready to report to us your galvanic skin response at the moment of breakout?

The text of Pilgrim in the Microworld, after briefly visiting the finer points of Missile Command, fixes its gaze upon the arcade port of Breakout as intently as Sudnow fixed his grip upon the paddle controller – or “knob,” as he calls it to distinguish it from the virtual paddle. Sudnow’s struggles with “the slam shot,” his joy at the music of the rebounding ball, his attempts to learn a precise opening, midgame, and endgame – all are chronicled in what is certainly the most fanatical report of video game play that has ever been provided.

Just for kicks I covered the paddle path all along the bottom with of the screen with an inch-thick strip of black tape. I tried playing blind …

Tentative, ragged, and safe in its way, handling a round of play with five planned strokes subdivided the ultimate tension into tolerable components, and little thrills emerged. Fearfully stretching down the ski slope, criscrossing to safe resting points on the far side, a little spate of real skiing shows up for an instant or two, a small kick in the midst of terror …

Fifty hours, a good five hours a day for ten days, in the afternoon, the evening, at three o’clock in the morning, more time on these five shots than I’d so far spent altogether.

I watched the ball come down. I glanced at the paddle, back at the ball, then the paddle, and then more or less gropingly chose a position at the very last instant and settled for that.

I stared at the TV for six nonstop hours, hitting the reset switch again and again like a homebound Vegas gambler …

The book is a tale of bizarre extremes. Sudnow arranges interviews with Atari programmers (who remain nameless, of course, given their value on the market in 1983 and given that this volume was published, ahem, by Warner Books) so he can learn how to do better at Breakout. But he fails to notice that Breakout has two-, three-, and four-player modes, or, at least, to utilize them. He reports everywhere his eyes foveate during a Breakout “opening,” and even how his head and feet move, but never observes anyone else’s behavior as they play, even though he is willing to scour the Atari campus for star Breakout players who can be interrogated, even though he notices arcades and describes them as unusually “classess” places where races mix.

After calling an Atari programmer back to inquire again about how the “paddle” is subdivided into five segments, each of which deflects the ball a different way, Sudnow hears on the phone “Isn’t that in the booklet?” The author has failed to Read The Fine Manual before going all the way to Atari to quiz programmers about the game. On the one hand, I have to credit Sudnow for fessing up about this; it is typical for computer and video game users to overlook the booklet, and his book is richer for documenting that he had failed to study the docs. On the other hand, how about reading the material that came with the cartridge before you start stalking programmers who are busily at work in a different part of the country?

This is not a book about the VCS, nor breakout, nor video games and video game culture; it is a chronicle of the experience of that entity we might call “the player.” Oddly, there is little I can take from it in terms of approaches to video gaming or thoughts on the VCS Breakout. But it did enlarge my perspective and help me think about physiological, cognitive, and, let us say, monomaniacal aspects of video game play. Nervous, very dreadfully nervous Sudnow has been, but why would I say that he is mad?