Theatre Review: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

In 2014 I saw a play about video games entitled Leveling Up. In 2015 I saw my second play about video games: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. The play is by Jennifer Haley and was performed by the Bloomsburg University Players. As in Leveling Up, this play examines the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, and ultimately concludes that video games can dangerously warp one’s sense of reality.

This post is not a review of this specific run of the play—the performances of the actors, the set design, the costumes—but rather, an analysis of the themes conveyed by this work. I’ll also be making comparisons to my review of Leveling Up, since both plays cover much the same territory.

Spoilers abound in this post!

A suburban neighborhood dripping with blood

Cover of the Neighborhood 3 playbill

Synopsis

The story follows the lives of several teenagers and their parents. The teens are into the latest video game, Neighborhood 3, a zombie killing game. The hook in Neighborhood 3 is that the game uses GPS to recreate a person’s neighborhood in-game. When the kids go house to house in the game, they are exploring their own neighborhood, protecting their own houses.

The families live in an affluent suburban neighborhood. The parents are largely clueless about what their kids are doing after school, but are concerned nonetheless. Whenever the parents attempt to talk to the kids about their excessive gameplay, the kids blow them off, whine, or run away.

As the kids get more into the game, buzz starts to grow about the so-called “final house.” Some kids are too scared to enter, and quit playing the game. Others, though, press on. The kids collect a variety of weapons, either in-game or in real-life. By the third act of the play, it starts to become unclear when the actors are “in-game” or “in real life,” reflecting how the teens’ dual realities are merging.

It’s never clearly stated, but it seems like the “final house” is each kid’s own  house. In-game, the kids must enter their own house and kill the zombies. But because the kids are getting their realities mixed up, they end up killing their parents.

The play ends after one kid in particular kills his mother after she harasses him all night to get off the game.

Fantasy vs. Reality, redux

After rereading my analysis of Leveling Up, I think I could largely repost what I wrote for that play here. N3 is strongest in the beginning, when it shows how faulty the artificial division of “fantasy” and “reality” is. As for the kids, they spend hours playing this game, which to an outsider, might look like a waste of time. But they are socializing and bonding with each other and forming friendships (and in one case, possibly a romantic relationship).

Do they spend a lot of time on the game? Sure. But this seems like a game that has a definite end, and some of the kids realize they are playing it too much. The kids are caught up in a fad. It’s unclear whether it lasts a week, two weeks, or more, but the fad grows and then fades rather quickly. The kids are ultimately engaging in harmless, if fantastical, fun.

While the parents do not understand the fantasy of the game, they are caught up in their own fantasy. They live in perfect suburbia, where every house looks the same and homeowners’ associations fault anybody who steps outside the lawn care guidelines. One of the parents, a judge, is an alcoholic, but some of the characters, particularly the judge’s wife, are too dumb to confront him about it, maintaining the facade of his fantasy life.

The parents are also under the delusion that they have control over their kids. They send their kids to fancy schools that require uniforms, and they try to set boundaries on when they must be home. And yet whatever control they think they have over their kids evaporates as soon as the kids step into the virtual world, where they can do anything.

Leveling Up, in the first half, covered these same themes. That play was also strongest when it pointed out that real life can be fantasy, and video games can be reality.

Like in Leveling Up, Haley comes to largely the same conclusion by the end of N3: the fantasy of video games is worse than the fantasy of real life, and the fantasy is so compelling that it can drive people to murder.

A fundamental question about video games?

I’m not sure if Haley, or Deborah Zoe Laufer (the playwright behind Leveling Up), are gamers. Based on the way the characters in both plays talk about games, and the way the games are conveyed, it seems like the playwrights aren’t exactly enthusiasts of the medium: the characterizations feel close to reality, but off. It seems, though, that for some people (mostly outsiders to the medium) the fundamental question to explore about video games is: what’s the line between fantasy and reality?

For the past three decades, movies and television shows have asked about this line in some form or another. Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) ask these questions. In QuestWorld, seen in The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (1996), sometimes the characters get trapped in the virtual world. The Matrix trilogy showed us that virtual worlds can be more real than the real world. In Sword Art Online (2009) the same ideas from QuestWorld are revisited on a grander scale. All of these stories examine these issues much more effectively than Leveling Up or N3.

As a lifelong gamer, I’m not sure if these are the most interesting questions for pop culture to ask about video games. To me, the line between fantasy and reality seems clear. I recognize the many realities of video games and the many fantasies of reality. In fact, the more I play video games, the line between the two becomes clearer, not blurrier.

And for the many gamer friends I have, it seems they know where that line is as well.

But to outsiders, perhaps this is not only the most interesting line of questions to ask, but also the most vital. After all, how can somebody who spends hours killing something in a virtual world not be affected by it? How can video games not teach people how to kill and destroy? This line of questioning isn’t a casual one either. As a mass communication researcher, I am well-versed in the line of research investigating the effects of video games, particularly in the area of violence. For some, it’s clear that video games do influence people to be violent.

But as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who’s looked at these research reports, I find the evidence the people get the lines between video games and reality confused shoddy, weak, and overextended.

A better question

This isn’t to say that pop culture shouldn’t explore these issues of fantasy and reality in video games. For some people, these are important questions to ask. But as a gamer, plays like Leveling Up and Neighborhood 3 are asking level 1 questions about fantasy and reality. And the conclusion to that level is this: yes, virtual worlds can be both real and fake, just as the physical world is both real and fake.

Next question, next level, please.

So what are the level 2, the level 3, and the level 4 questions about video games? I don’t have a solid answer yet, but I’ll share with you some thoughts. I think these storytellers, regardless of the medium, are onto something exploring fantasy and reality. It’s just like how all robot stories are essentially about the same thing: what if robots become sentient? What if robots come alive? Can robots become human?

As a lover of fantasy media, and a writer of fantasy stories myself, I have a huge personal stake in the theory of fantasy. For me, fantasy media (and I’m using fantasy very broadly here to mean created works, regardless of whether they feature swords and dragons and magic) are about showing us new worlds. Fantasy stories take readers, viewers, and players to new worlds, and allow them to explore.

One should not engage a fantasy world out of dissatisfaction with “the real world.” Fantasy helps people like me understand the real world better.

Neighborhood 3 sounds like a compelling game, if it were real. Is it really so creepy to have a game where you run around a virtual simulacrum of your own neighborhood, shooting zombies out of your house and the houses of your neighbors? My brother and I did the same thing when we were kids, only in “the real world.” Our backyard and side lot became dozens of different worlds. The playground at school was a multitude of worlds. Fantasy allowed me to see these spaces in many different ways, to see the possibilities of what they could be.

So let’s move past stories that ask level 1 questions about the line between fantasy and reality in video games. Let’s create stories (fantasies) about video games that show the depths of virtual worlds, how virtual worlds can be mapped many times over onto “the real world,” not in an effort to hide the real world, but to expand it.

~Dennis

Atari Pac-Man’s role in the Video Game Crash of 1983

The video game crash of 1983 was a significant event in the nascent video game industry. For myriad reasons—some unintentional, some due to arrogance—developers drove their own medium into the ground, taking paying customers with them.

Many people lay blame for the crash at the feet of a single game: E.T. for the Atari 2600. While E.T. was a bad game, if any game deserves blame, it’s the port of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.

E.T. was a disappointment, for sure

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was one of the highest grossing films of the 1980s. Despite having a creepy, wrinkly brown alien for a main character, the movie was a hit with children and adults alike. Steven Spielberg knew he had a winner on his hands, so it wasn’t long before Atari purchased the license to develop a video game based on the movies.

At this time, licensed video games weren’t common. Execs learned early on that it was easier to tap into an existing intellectual property, especially one as popular as E.T., than it was to create something new. This is a mindset that still holds true in both the video game and movie industries.

Atari executives treated programmers as if they were disposable. Anybody could make a game, they reasoned. It takes no effort or skill at all, they thought. Why couldn’t Howard Scott Warshaw, one of the most skilled game developers at the time, make a game based on E.T. in five weeks? Any monkey can do that! It’s thinking like this that led to the creation of Activision, the first third-party game developer, after four Atari programmers left the company.

Warshaw did his best, and the game shipped in time for Christmas 1982, but ultimately the game failed to even approximate the magic of the movie. And nobody understood why the game failed. Just listen to this interview with Spielberg. Spielberg may be a legendary film director, but at least in 1982, he understood nothing about video games.

Much has been written about E.T. 2600, probably too much. Just take one look at the game and you know that something is off:

Atari 2600 E.T. screenshot

Warshaw’s role in the crash was mitigated in the excellent 2014 movie Atari: Game Over, but that still leaves us with the question of which game most contributed to the crash. Sure, E.T. was bad, and a lot of kids were disappointed on Christmas day. How could they or their parents have known any better? It’s not like there were gaming magazines or websites to give them a heads-up. The television commercial for the game only shows 1.5 seconds of gameplay!

The difference between E.T. and Pac-Man is one of numbers: whereas E.T. 2600 old 1.5 million copies, a respectable number even by today’s standards, Pac-Man 2600 sold 7 million copies, out of 12 million printed! (see Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games)

Pac-Man: the most popular arcade game ever

Arcade games have been around for 40+ years now. That’s almost half a century: kind of remarkable to think about. However, arcades peaked in popularity in the early 1980s, right before the crash. After the crash, and with the rise of ever more sophisticated home consoles, arcades never duplicated their previous success.

A few games stood above the rest, producing hundreds of thousands of units. Estimates are that Pac-Man (1982) was the most popular arcade game ever with more than 400,000 units created! Pac-Man was so different than the other games at the time. The game wasn’t focused on violence, killing, war, or destruction. It was about eating, and featured kawaii characters and stunning audio.

Atari learned early on that if it could port quality arcade games to their home consoles, they would have a leg up on competitors like the ColecoVision and Intellivision.

Atari hit pay dirt when they got an exclusive deal to port Pac-Man to the 2600. The most popular arcade game ever, now in a convenient home version? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, the 2600 was vastly underpowered compared to the Pac-Man arcade game. Corners had to be cut, and it shows. Check out this video of Pac-Man 2600 gameplay:

Notice anything, uhh, different?

First, the obvious: the colors aren’t as vibrant, the pixel count is lower (so Pac-Man doesn’t look as round), the pellets are bars, and the music and sound is considerably degraded. The biggest problem, however, concerns the ghosts.

Watch the video for 10 seconds. See how the ghosts are constantly flickering, materializing and dematerializing at will? Tod Frye, the designer, faced a difficult programming challenge. The 2600 wasn’t powerful enough to have Pac-Man and four ghosts appear on the screen at once. The solution could not be to reduce the number of ghosts: what would Pac-Man be with only Blinky and Inky?

Instead, only two ghosts appear on the screen at once. Two ghosts appear in one frame, then the next frame the other two ghosts appear, and back and forth. Maybe if the game flicks through the frames fast enough, players won’t notice that only two ghosts are on the screen at once!

But you notice it the instant it happens. You might not understand why, programming-wise, the game was made this way. You only know that it’s wrong.

Atari downplay’s Pac-Man’s deficits in the promotional materials

I’ve long known the story I’ve recounted thus far. Reading about Pac-Man and Atari, and seeing these games in action, helps in understanding the role these games played in the video game crash. However, this story really came together when I actually bought a copy of Pac-Man for the 2600, box and manual and all! I found it on eBay for $10, quite a steal, I believe. When I opened the box and read through the materials, I found even more evidence to condemn Pac-Man.

From the box, and by looking at the cartridge, Pac-Man looks okay.

Pac-Man Atari 2600 box

Pac-Man Atari 2600 cartridge

Okay, on second thought, maybe there is a problem. Just compare the box to the cartridge for a second. The ghosts and maze are the same in both, but look how differently Pac-Man is rendered! Honestly, the Pac-Man on the cartridge looks a lot better than the “pie with an eye” on the cover. Of course, this doesn’t look like the Pac-Man we know today, the guy with the big doofy grin and big red boots. But then again, even the Pac-Man on the original (American) cabinet didn’t look like the Pac-Man we know today:

Pac-Man arcade cabinets from America and Japan

American cabinet on the left; Japanese cabinet on the right. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

See that little goofy yellow guy underneath the blue ghost? The yellow guy with the big red eyes? Yeah, that’s the cartoonized version of Pac-Man as he originally appeared in America.

Discrepancy between the box art and cartridge art aside, the Atari 2600 depiction of Pac-Man is at least some improvement on the original American cabinet design.

And that’s where my praise of Pac-Man 2600 begins and ends.

One design choice I never understood about Pac-Man 2600 was the use of “video wafers” over pellets. Was the Atari also limited in how many dots it could display on the screen at once? The instruction book at least tries to explain what these video wafers are:

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 2

The instruction book is a charming little document that does its best to sell you on the merits of Pac-Man 2600. The designer of the book, however, ran into an interesting problem. The instructions include screenshots of the game, but we know that the game can’t display four ghosts at once. How does the instruction book handle this? Simple: show a screenshot with all four ghosts anyway! Maybe kids will be tricked into thinking all four ghosts are really there! It’s not the game’s fault you only see two ghosts at once: it must be your eyes!

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 3

Look closely at the two ghosts on the right that I’ve circled in black. See how they are tilted slightly to the left? This is what I think happened: somebody took a screenshot of Pac-Man, and naturally, only two ghosts were displayed. So the designer copied two ghosts and pasted them onto the screenshot, as if to fool us.

Their image manipulation, unfortunately, wasn’t that good. The ghosts are clearly turned, and considering how low the resolution was on the 2600, there’s no way pixels could be rotated like that.

The instruction book gets better from here. The book contains four more screenshots, but they are all exactly the same as the first, image manipulation errors and all:

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 4

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 5

More than the instruction book, I really enjoyed the small advertising pamphlet that came with the game. This mini-catalog features 45 current and upcoming Atari games. Some of them actually look pretty good! But notice the advertisement for Pac-Man:

Pac-Man 2600 catalog ad

“Adapted from one of the most popular video arcade games ever created, which differs slightly from the original…” What an understatement! When you read between the lines of the promotional material, it seems clear that the fine people at Atari knew that Pac-Man 2600 was no good, that it could never live up to the standard set by the first one.

And hey, there’s our friend “tilted ghost screenshot” hiding in the corner of the ad!

The hubris was astounding

Okay, so Pac-Man 2600 is bad, from the game itself right down to the promotional materials. But it was the best-selling Atari game ever, by a long shot. That’s gotta count for something, right? Even today, many developers work on games their entire career and never get close to approaching the 7 million sales mark.

What really gets me, though, about this whole debacle, and this is one of my primary reasons that Pac-Man contributed most significantly to the 1983 crash, is the hubris Atari showed in how they marketed the game.

The game I purchased was a little battered, but there’s one last gem hidden on the box, and that’s the original price tag. My copy in particular was sold at J.C. Penney. Look at that price for a moment:

Pac-Man price tag $37.95

$37.95.

In 1982.

According to the U.S. government’s inflation calculator, this is equivalent to $93.58 in 2015 dollars!

Can you imagine paying that much for a game today? At the time, Atari games were selling for around $20: still expensive, but more in line with what top-shelf games cost today.

Not only was Pac-Man a bad game, but Atari and retailers gouged consumers, selling them a vastly inferior product to the arcade game everybody loved. Now I’m sure not all 7 million copies sold at $37.95. After word got out that this game was stinker (along with virtually every other home video game at the time) stores cut game prices dramatically, often selling Atari cartridges for $2-3. Retailers had so much useless product to get rid of in 1983 they ended up burying 700,000 games in the New Mexican desert.

One last relevant point about Pac-Man and the 1983 crash. Pac-Man 2600 was released in March, 1982. E.T. 2600 was released December, 1982. The way I see it, Pac-Man primed the pump for the crash, disappointing virtually every Atari 2600 owner—7 million owners, to be exact.

For many kids, this was the last time they bought an Atari game. Can you blame them? Their parents just plopped down $38 on a garbage game. I don’t know about your childhood, but my brother and I didn’t have very many video games. The ones we had, we had to play for months and months before getting new ones. And now they had Pac-Man to hold them through the spring, summer, and fall of ’82.

But 1.5 million loyal customers gave Atari one more chance. Christmas 1982 arrived, and they bought E.T., hoping, just hoping, that this time, things would be different.

E.T. may have been the final nail for many gamers, but Pac-Man 2600 was the coffin.

Game on,
Dennis