Elf Shot the Food: The Inevitability of Discord in Co-Op 'Gauntlet'

It is almost as if J.R.R. Tolkein had second sight and modeled the theme of Fellowship of the Ring after a game of Gauntlet -- that theme being the eventual dissolution of brotherhood among heroes. Man, I hate the elf.

I hate the elf. I've always hated the Elf.

You know what I mean. You have to know what I mean because that tattletale narrator in the arcade classic Gauntlet is always telling you who to blame: “Elf Shot the Food.”

That damned Elf is always shooting the food.

Gauntlet, like most games of the arcade era, is a game designed to eat quarters. While offering only a single life per initial quarter for the player occupying the role of Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard, or Elf, it was one of the first games in my recollection that featured “hit points” in the form of a Health counter that ticked ever downwards over the course of a playthrough. Health could be increased by gathering food, or better yet for the owner of the machine, by adding another quarter during that time.

With this mechanic, Gauntlet (moreso than any arcade game that I can think of) constantly focuses the player's attention on his own mortality. Certainly, the earliest arcade games were not known for their overly long play times. If (as Billy Mitchell, Donkey Kong player extraordinaire, claims in King of Kong) the average game of Donkey Kong lasts under a minute (and this seems a pretty likely estimate to me), arcade games were designed to have very quick player turn around. However, while the average game of Gauntlet probably lasts quite a bit longer, that ever declining health counter tends to overly attenuate the player on the inevitability of his own demise and on one of the central goals of nearly every arcade title: survival. Oh, yeah, and the game even adds some ominous musical accompaniment to this “death clock” when it dips beneath the 100 point mark, so that you not only feel the pressure when eying this emblem of your life dripping away, you get to feel completely desperate about it.

What complicates the struggle for survival in Gauntlet is its other unusual feature in the earlier days of arcade machines, it was one of the rare co-op cabinets. What this means for the player interested in grinding their way through Gauntlet's seemingly endless levels of dungeon is that he need not merely concern himself with his own survival, but that of the rest of the team, too.

In that regard, most Gauntlet games initiated by multiple players tend to begin well enough, with a sense of camaraderie at the prospect of hunting for treasure while battling ghosts and other foul beasts with a little help from one's friends. In my experience, most folks who dropped a quarter in a Gauntlet machine alongside me, or perhaps, joined up very shortly after a game had begun usually keep an eye on everyone's health. When food shows up on a dungeon level, frequently players consider everyone's health and then allow the player whose health is lowest to go ahead and collect the food. After all, the game is about survival, and everyone seems (at first) to recognize that trying to get the longest playthrough personally is not the idea of co-operative play. The noble goal is to try to provide everyone playing an about equal survival rate (or game time) as everyone else.

Sure, in an arcade in which people were not shy about joining in a game with strangers (which was the case in my local arcade when I was growing up), there was always a “food hog” (very frequently the kind of player who seemed to prefer playing the Elf, but more on that in a moment). You know, some kid that would zip off as soon as food showed up on the board (and that food was relatively obstacle free to approach, meaning many of the monsters surrounding it had been cleared) and gobble up every food in sight just to raise his own health. You hated that guy and chose to wait until his game was done and he had left the arcade before attempting another game of Gauntlet. Nevertheless, those selfish, little bastards were generally blessedly rare -- at least, once again, at the beginning of a game of Gauntlet.

However, the presence of a death clock and the fact that some food is invulnerable (meaning that it cannot be destroyed by the players' attacks) and some is not (meaning that it can be destroyed in a single shot -- probably by that damned Elf) compounded with the fact that the narrator's voice in the game is a tattletale and also always cheerful in reminding you that “your life force is running out” results in the inevitable dissolution of any fellowship that one feels early on in a game of Gauntlet (it is almost as if J.R.R. Tolkein had second sight and modeled the theme of Fellowship of the Ring after a game of Gauntlet-- that theme being the eventual dissolution of brotherhood among heroes). The game demands a kind of inevitable discord in co-operative play by the aforementioned focus that it brings to the player on the tenuous grasp that they have on life and even more particularly with the addition of that most foul of friends, the Elf.

Here's the thing about the Elf: his attributes and the resulting style of play that they encourage lend themselves to disaster for the party, especially because what makes the Elf the kind of character that he is also encourages the very worst kind of personality for a co-operative experience. The Elf is the fastest character. Likewise, so too are his attacks; the Elf can fire a bow ridiculously fast. However, the Elf is also the most physically vulnerable member of the group, which makes some sense, of course. After all, the little green-clad pixie is seemingly a killing machine, which requires some kind of balance. Thus, make him the glass cannon. Other characters, like the Warrior for instance, are balanced in the opposite direction. The warrior is slow and deliberate, also much better armored and much harder to kill. Guess who can get to the food the fastest?

Of course, also, guess who needs it the most? Most certainly, the Elf does, which on the face of it seems fair enough. He is more likely to be dipping more quickly into the 200-300 health point region than any other character, especially with his erratic controls, which are related to his speed. He often moves so quickly that some players have a tendency to launch him right into a swarm of monsters when only intending to get him pointed in the right direction to line up a shot.

However, this brings us to the issue of destructible food and some rather frequently seeming and needlessly cruel game design. A common enough arrangement of a dungeon's corridors on a level in Gauntlet will include a long hallway populated with, say, wall-to-wall ghosts. Up the hallway, at the opposite end from the heroes, will be a couple of ghost generators, the “devices” that must be destroyed in order to stop the respawn of monsters in that area of the level. Again, a commonly cruel bit of level design will include a tantalizing bit of destructible food just one space behind one of the generators.

What this means for the players is that they need to carve a path through the ghosts to get to the generators, which means lining themselves up for an assault on the corridor and mashing attack as quickly as possible to kill the long line of ghosts in front of the generator. Mashing fast is crucial because the players need to beat the respawn of ghosts from the generators, which are initially not accessible for assault. Killing a ghost up front means that there will be enough space now for a new ghost to spawn in the corridor. Ghosts usually do take multiple hits to kill, so a slow progress is usually created as one kills two or three ghosts and at least another one is generated in the line. Reaching the generator is likely inevitable but most often feels a bit like an uphill battle. When reaching the generator (which also takes multiple hits to kill), it is always disheartening to begin an assault on the generator and be interrupted by more monster spawns, pausing a successful clearing of the corridor. Thus, again, the player tends to furiously mash the button to kill the generator quickly. However, what that destructible food lying just behind the generator means is that shooting just a single time too many will result in the destruction of a precious food (vulnerable food icons always take only a single strike to destroy). In other words, while speed is important in clearing such a hallway, restraint is required in order to reap the full rewards of one's effort, some life sustaining and game sustaining food.

This would be about the time that the Elf shoots the food.

Because, well, the character is designed with very little restraint in mind. He is the personification of speed, adrenaline, and mayhem, which (as I noted earlier) tends to draw a certain kind of personality, not one noted for qualities like restraint. Remember when I said that the Warrior is a rather slow and deliberate sort of character to play, guess what sort of player is drawn to them? Yeah, the sort that can likely show enough restraint while attacking to NOT SHOOT THE FOOD.

The fact that everyone's death clocks are slowly winding down over the course of a Gauntlet game (and that when you have 130 health compared to a player who has 110, you feel less magnanimous about making sure that he, not you, stays alive) and the fact that the player that you have most likely been feeding the most often, the ever vulnerable Elf, is the same player that is probably also frequently shooting it when it was finally your tuen to “eat” leads to inevitable discord and a tendency for the united party forged with a sense of shared purpose and a desire to provide mutual aid to suddenly degenerate into an “every man for himself” scenario. Those who are least hurt suddenly become “food hogs.” Players begin pushing the Elf in front of them towards a throng of foes (and good riddance, I say). And generally speaking, the spirit of co-op disintegrates into the worst kind of individualist attitudes.

None of which is to say that Gauntlet was or is a bad game. It does lend itself well to a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque morality play as need, and then want, slowly replace any sense of empathy for the need and want of other players. Plus, it is just hella fun to thwap that kid who is playing the elf on the shoulder when the narrator announces once again, “Elf Shot the Food.”

In fact, recounting how Gauntlet plays, even the inevitability of the dissolution of any good feelings among players, actually makes me want to take a fistful of quarters down to an old school arcade. However, I'm playing the Elf this time, though.

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