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Beyond the threshold of Burgertime

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Wednesday, Aug 20, 2008

Joshuah Bearman’s epic investigation of the pursuit of “kill screens” in classic video games in last month’s Harper’s is truly, as Bearman promises, “the most readable and entertaining look at the metaphysical implications of competitive Pac Man yet to appear!” It’s highly recommended, even if you don’t know what Space Port was.


I have nothing profound to say about the article, except that it is awesome. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:


For Billy, though, there is always the question of going further. Back in his van, we talk about what is known in classic-gaming argot as the “kill screen.” This is the edge of the universe, the place where instructions end. Billy has seen a lot of kill screens. Pac-Man comes to a halt at level 256, as the program runs out of code and the entire right side of the screen is engulfed by senseless symbols. Circus Charlie just freezes. Donkey Kong ends after five seconds on level 22. The first time Billy reached the impassable final level of Dig Dug, he lost all 400 of his free men. Then there is Galaga, which eventually closes in solitude. After everything comes nothing: No enemy armada. No music. No score. Just you and the existential void. Other games end in violence. In Burgertime, Billy says, the kill screen came ot level 28, which he describes as the most chaotic moment he has ever experienced. The fried egg and hot dog and pickles chased him around so aggressively that Billy took it as a cruelly encoded joke. That did not prevent him from attempting to breach Burgertime’s event horizon. Everyone said it was impossible, but he had to know: Is there more?


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