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Screenshot: Level Up

Donkey Kong was the first game that incorporated the rules of mainstream fiction into gameplay.

1981 was the year of the cyborg. Three year’s before Gibson’s Neuromancer, at that moment, the word “cyberpunk” didn’t exist and most people knew the “mouse” only as a puffy mammal, but the explosion of arcade games was accelerating the blend of man and machine through increasingly intimate human-machine experiences. Still, at the end of the day, Pac-Man and Space Invaders were just fun, right? You couldn’t compare them with the visual effects, punchlines and cunning heroes of a Hollywood film. As mainstream fiction is the way humans realize their values and dreams, Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t just entertainment that year—it was the new epic. Meanwhile, the arcade was just a postmodern freak show, just a set of black particle board cabinets with TVs built in and a couple of joysticks. Come one, come all, be the intrepid pilot finding his way through the Asteroids belt; the lonely gunner, Earth´s last stand against the Space Invaders; the disembodied head known as Pac-Man, stranded in a recursive labyrinth, chased by his own nightmares. Apparently, the Golden Age of video games didn’t need much to be a happy one, just score rankings and a few nerds in a dark room. Donkey Kong (1981), however, would be a game changer.

Comparatively outstanding graphics and animation, cut scenes and an epic love story unfolding through different levels—that was the strategy Nintendo, a Japanese multinational consumer electronics corporation, came up with to break into the US arcade market. Needless to say, the strategy was a total success. Donkey Kong was the first Mario game (originally named Jumpman), now a billion-dollar franchise. Shigeru Miyamoto, the Stan Lee of the arcade era, was the first game designer to balance plot and play in-game and, for the first time in the history of video games, gameplay was effectively structured according to the rules of mainstream fiction since Homer.

Atari, one of the most important companies at the time (the guys behind Pong), chose its name as a reference to the Asian chess game, Go. In Japanese Go, “atari” is used to mean something like “check” or “check mate.” The name betrays an early notion of video games as being just that: fancy, sparkling new board games. Get to the arcade, insert coin, adjust your posture to the machine, grab the joystick with your left hand, slightly rest the other on the button panel, let the machine be an extension of your body and lose yourself. Play and be played, once and again in an infinite loop. Early players became extensions of these games—cyborg prototypes—which all had the same behavior and, therefore, the same issue: solipsism. As soon as the game began, players locked themselves away in the abstract realms of gameplay, as if they were playing Chess or Go.

Whereas Steven Spielberg attempted to fulfill the world’s egotism with a fedora-wearing, bullwhip-wielding Harrison Ford, the digital ecstasy of video games hollowed out any track of human ego. Then, Miyamoto brought drama and catharsis to the arcade.

Just look at the screenshot. Jumpman seizes his opportunity in the bottom left corner; the Lady (later called Pauline) screams in the upper left one; Donkey Kong, on the rampage, throws barrels from the top of the construction building. Whether Universal Studios was right or not in alleging Nintendo violated their trademark of King Kong, they inadvertently pointed out a crucial aspect of the game: in it, a story is told through gameplay mechanics. Space Invaders or Asteroids didn’t have that; they just had sci-fi names and scenarios for marketing purposes. If you didn’t read the label, you wouldn’t have a clue what the game was about. Thirty-two years have passed and still no one knows what the matter is with Pac-Man, but a quick look at the Donkey Kong screenshot will tell you that the guy with the mustache is on an epic quest for love.

Miyamoto’s level design made every player’s choice not only a game choice, but a dramatic action. Getting to the top of the structure, dodging barrels and climbing ladders were the arcade equivalent to Indy escaping from a giant boulder for the good of Western museology. Jumpman’s odyssey to rescue Pauline from her kidnapper and restore the status quo echoes Ulysses’ Odyssey through the Mediterranean to get to Penelope and kill her boisterous suitors. With a single screenshot, Donkey Kong managed to synthesize some thousand years of storytelling. Not only that, but the hero of the day found his way to convey one of the most valuable ideas in western civilization, that of freedom.

In 1968 Philip K. Dick asked the world, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” For a positive answer would question our whole conception of being. Shakespeare had the same concern: whether to be or not to be, what matters is the dream you have during the sleep of death—and there’s the rub. Only once the gamer shuffles off his mortal coil may the arcade give him pause to dream. Unfortunately, the first iteration of the cyborg was just an automaton with a hollow mind, an alienated gamer trapped in a recursive pattern. Pac-Man would be the perfect metaphor here: an addicted mind lost in a labyrinth without an exit. With Jumpman, however, you could jump, get the Lady, kill Kong and escape. Therefore, jumping was not just a gameplay mechanic, it was the only possibility to get rid of the labyrinth, an expression of freedom and will in a mechanical world, the trick to deceive Kong.

The remaining vestiges of recursive gameplay, as Jumpman rescues the princess only to begin again with higher difficultly, are less solipsistic and instead a reflection on love in postmodern times. Jumpman was a cunning liar, like Indiana Jones, Hamlet, or Ulysses, with a difference: By jumping over barrels and climbing ladders to the top of the construction building you were not bearing witness to the dramatic ascent of the hero, you were the hero dreaming of love and freedom, and you rose as a cyborg.

Pablo R. Balbontín studied Philosophy and Literary Theory in Spain, then moved to the U.S. to write a dissertation on Spanish literature and media.

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