Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Pitfall II: Scene 3: Cycles of (Non)Violence

Returning to Pitfall! is like revisiting Leaves of Grass: progenitive, dizzying, and ultimately frustrating. Yeah, I’m just invoking literature in a bid to take this old game more seriously. The problem, or my trick, is that I can never really take Leaves of Grass seriously. One thing they really do have in common is being great influences on greater works. And being a bit racist. Pitfall! is better than Leaves of Grass. I can take Pitfall! seriously. Only trying to have the most incomprehensible asinine gamer opinions on here.

Pitfall! seemed like a staple game for the era. Complete rote tasks as fast as, or for as long as, possible, to get that high score. I’ve played it a few times like this. Having multiple screens keeps the focus away from solving the game, compared to… well I tried listing specific examples, but I just mean “arcade game.” There’s a freedom to approach—(okay it’s just how far left or right you go)—and that freedom layers and delays the period until all the player is doing is matching the machine. Would this difference be noticed or notable at it’s time of release? Is it noticed or notable today? It sold a lot, I guess, and it’s been said that’s the reason why. I think that the assemblage we call “platformer” is mostly taken for granted, because it’s just a convenient way for a game to happen.

Did you know that Pitfall! is the first metroidvania? I’m around 30% serious when I say this, given that it isn’t true, and metroidvania is one of the greater videogame wordcrimes. It is more accurate to say that Pitfall! envisioned a different kind of videogame compared to its contemporaries. I didn’t realize this when I first played the game. I didn’t expect it. The game repeats so many screens it appears to be random, but Pitfall! is innocuously huge, connected, and non-random.

It doesn’t become apparent until you start to play seriously for score, the game of just running around, dodging into and through jungle life, opens up into a metagame of finding out how big this game really is. Strewn about all 254 screens is, idk, fucking, jungle gold. Matching the machine means getting all of it. Playing this game “legitimately,” mapping out bunches of identical screens, getting genuinely lost, while under the pressure of a really strict time limit, honestly sounds like a terrifying prospect. Probably a month long project. Someone did it.

I know someone did it, because I followed a walkthrough. Beating Pitfall!, as opposed to the freeform style of playing it, as opposed to feeling out the solution—beating Pitfall! turns it into an incredibly strict speed game, with a hyperspecific route. Quite literally no mistakes in platforming can be made and even a “no mistake” run needs to be slightly optimized or you’ll time out (as I shudder to recall). Knowing that the first conventional platformer (one that looks a platformer, that plays like a platformer) is both a mestroidvinia and a speedgame feels like a totem to this era of games, and is a curse onto the shape of games to come.

But like, I wanna draw attention back to the fucking jungle gold. No matter how deep I want to dive in the game, or how I want to try to pull it apart, Pitfall Harry is a really awkward Indiana Jones cipher who’s entered a “forbidden jungle” to collect valuables. It’s not worth denouncing the game as absurdly racist and reflective of the settlers who made it, though that’s still true, because the racism itself is tokenized. It’s unassuming, not serious, naturalized, and badly filtered through more famous pop culture with somewhat identical problems. It’s there ‘cause it was “fun” and would sell a game.

Basically all of the moods of the game fall apart. When I’m exploring the mirrorworld, the purpose is to rob. When I’m optimizing, getting better, the point is to get the hell out of a place I’m not supposed to be as fast as possible (with all the things I robbed). Unlike god damn mother fucking Mario (and other platformers), Pitfall! uncomfortably strays away from fantasy, or damningly, thinks its dynamic is one of fantasy. Pitfall! is admired for its technological legacy, but its artistic legacy is boring and one-dimensional.

When Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was released, the Atari 2600 was considered obsolete (after a run of 7 years, at least), and it was treated like shovelware because of Atari’s own loss of marketshare (I will not say “game crash”). At this point, I mean at our point, in 2020, I think people are starting to understand that this cycle of forced obsolescence feeds into real life cycles of exploitation and violence, as the supply chains for manufacturing electronics becomes more transparent. Our post-industrial hellscape means we deforest actual forests to render artificial ones for abstract value. I see in Pitfall II an argument that there’s always life, always untapped veins, in our modes of game making, that never get to materialize or be appreciated, because of this unnecessary cycle of destruction.

Pitfall II reinterprets Pitfall! into a gentler, nature-appreciating cave-diving game, rather than a twitchy score hunt arcade game. I think the muted appreciation of the game at the time, alongside its unremarkable reception over the years, shows how its chill non-conflict is an aesthetic pose within videogames that has been comparatively misunderstood and underappreciated. Generally, Pitfall! is remembered over Pitfall II for having more “firsts.” Pitfall II has some firsts, but I suppose, when taken in the moment, the sequel is less shocking, and less of a paradigm shift. We’re outside the moment though. Nowadays, in our current retrospect, I think the foundations laid down by Pitfall! have been subsumed into games because they’re pretty obvious. Someone would have stumbled on them. On the other hand, the aesthetic argument made by Pitfall II is much more difficult to grapple with.

Does Pitfall II deal with the problem I will call “being a game made by white Americans”? Not exactly, but I contend that Pitfall II is much less dull about it. An important thing to note about all Activision games is that the actual game designer (so, David Crane) had next to no input about the marketing, including the shit that got put in the manuals. So, while the Pitfall II story is in some ways just as embarrassing as the Pitfall! story, it can keenly be felt that the marketers really had no idea how to adapt the concept of Pitfall Fucking Harry to the game Crane actually made. (At least this time they don’t imply that he’s taking the valuables, but is rather finding what was lost.)

More pertinently, Pitfall! takes place in a jungle, and what that implies geographically is inarguable. Pitfall II takes place in a nondescript forest, within a nondescript cave. The manual can say Peru, but really the location is “anywhere” or “in homage to nature.” The geographical features of Pitfall II unintentionally resemble USAian vistas, which feels at least, multiple degrees less othering and exotified. In its own damning way, the shift to a more cascadian geography coincides with the game’s own gentle and forgiving aesthetic, because this is “home” while a jungle is not.

Okay, I know I’m reading way too much into this shit, but I really do feel like Pitfall II is healthy to a degree an 80s game can be, and Pitfall! just isn’t. This angle is one of the main ways that feeling expresses itself and can be coherently explained. And, despite their continuum of hang ups, Pitfall! and Pitfall II both have no combat and no map. I have to give props to that. There’s no dominance, no killing shit, no mastery over; no “exploration” as we have come to understand that word in videogameland. This contributes a massive amount of authenticity toward these games' naturalistic aesthetics, despite the heavy abstractions done as a result of limitation.

Pitfall II is just about hanging out in a forest, then hanging out in a cave! It gets maybe too demanding—pixel perfect dodging is required at some parts—because it’s still an Atari 2600 game. The game feels like it’s catering to an imagined player, rather than accomplishing the poetry I feel on the margins. But I can get no more sheer joy from something as simple as hanging out in a nice forest and hanging out in a nice cave (which admittedly Pitfall II is mostly a cave), at least second to actually going to nature in real-life land.

I get the feeling that expressions of nature appreciation in the 21st century are translated as an automatic cliche. We’re suspicious or disinterested in landscapes (understandable) and other kinds of art that centers landscapes. I would argue that this is in part because we are conditioned to have a lesser relationship to natural ecosystems, and this lesser relationship is necessary for environmentally destructive capitalism to continue its reign.

I want to specify that Pitfall II is about hanging out in these natural spaces. Unlike a Skyrim where these natural places occur (so you can extract shit from them), the whole focus of Pitfall II is trying to slot into, trying to figure out how to co-exist, with the land itself. There are no distracting mechanics, or natural resources to collect, so the only way to relate to the land is by getting to know it, and this means going through it without disturbing anything. This is among my wildest “depower fantasies,” it’s a way of being I feel I have been deprived of utterly in our hellscape of post-industrial life.

Pitfall II is still a goofy arcade-y game, no doubt. Waiting to run under a death bird flying in the same pattern forever isn’t more “real” than having infinite bullet gun and shooting it out of the sky. But I mean, which expression shows more respect and awe toward birds and their ecosystem? Someone reading this can call me corny, and that’s fine, because that’s how I really feel. I fucking love birds, I fucking love caves, I fucking love nature, and in Pitfall II they’re all fixtures to be seen and navigated, rather than destroyed.

Granted, some of this attitude exists in the original Pitfall!. Pitfall II creates a less fearful or adversarial relationship than Pitfall! because there are no lives, no death is permanent (Pitfall II is in fact the first game with a checkpoint system). More importantly there is no timer to fight against. Navigating landmarks in Pitfall II at a leisurely pace is essentially an aesthetic opposite to Pitfall’s rushed repetitive mirror labyrinth. Leisure, waiting, watching, integration, non-disturbance; these expressions that weren’t possible in Pitfall! become valid in Pitfall II. And honestly, these expressions that lend themselves toward nature appreciation for its own sake still aren’t possible in many level-based games besides!

Okay so this is the part where I have to admit that I’m extremely fucking weird (though three parts into this write-up: no shit). Granted, I just got done getting to the kill screen in Pitfall! so I was primed with misery, but that’s not an excuse anyone can relate to. Anyway, I just about cried when I heard the first chiptune swell in Pitfall II. Like there’s a lot of stories and movies that I felt like I could’ve had that response and I didn’t. But I cried playing fucking Pitfall II I guess. My brain just comes up with new ways to be unrelatable to other people. Listening to the main theme now, it’s definitely good, though probably not that good...

Still, there is something both uplifting and melancholic in the theme itself, a potent crossfade. But more than that, it’s literally struggling to be heard, its low-fidelity distortion exemplifying that struggle. Something that shouldn’t be heard, something that is barely cohering, and yet it is heard! Music is not really something the Atari 2600 was known for, or capable of, and yet here the console is singing its heart out. I feel like I can textually link that struggle to the pacifism and nature appreciation central to Pitfall II, which are beautiful thoughts that struggle to be heard and internalized.

I guess I was also feeling an overwhelming reconnection. This is the sort of game that made me fall in love with a softer potential of videogames, that prodded me to imagine ways of playing, use, and growing with games that had nothing to do with stale bloodlust and devastation. It took me back to when I played Seiklus for the first time (at ye olde age 15), though for other people this game might be Journey, this game might be [topical walking sim], or hopefully some rad bitsy game, or any of the many sorts of gamey experiences that aren’t mediated by the taking of life.

The swimming animation in Pitfall II and Seiklus are near identical, which shook me immediately. Seiklus is a bit more fantastical and post-n64 platformer-y, but shares a similar core aesthetic of nature appreciation. This connection spawned this whole close read, and yet, is probably a meaningless observation to most people because Seiklus is a game that only people-who-went-on-yoyogames-dot-com-to-look-for-new-games-in-the-00’s would ever encounter. I’m still absolutely certain that Pitfall II had some influence on cly5m. And in that sense, all at once, I played Pitfall II and felt this massive missing link of non-violent videogame design that I believe has yet to be recognized. Even if Pitfall II didn’t directly influence games like Knytt and Journey, it would be an awful mistake to discount how connected Pitfall II is to that style of game.

Well, it feels like all the time someone is bemoaning the state of violent games (often because they’re trying to sell their own games that might be violent in ways they have yet to reckon with) and in that pose I think there’s something deeply tragic that

people don't really fucking care about the games I’ve been namedropping

Besides Journey, of course, but I would contend that even its cachet has been fading. The commonality between these games is that they’re old, independent, and obscure. It’s really frustrating to see some kind of us vs. them approach toward rallying around a new non-violent game, which causes us to keep litigating the same aesthetic arguments over and over again without any anchor to history.

It feels opportunistic and disingenuous to see people incredibly serious about decentering violent videogames, yet at the same time cannot see or imagine how videogames in the past were often beautifully or excitingly non-violent. It makes me think they don’t really want “non-violent games” because more exist than anyone could play already, or crucially, more than anyone even really knows about. Meaning, I’m pretty sure they just want to see videogames made in their own image, like most people in this scene.

Don’t get me mixed up, I’m a bona fide freak who cried playing Pitfall II. Violence in games is often (but not always) just something I deal with to get to the aesthetic parts of the game I do like. So I mean, I fully support the argument that we do not need to focus entirely on violent interactions in games. But to actually do that will require supporting old, independent, and obscure videogames!

The harder truth is that we’re unlikely to convince people of the merits of nature appreciation for its own sake through fucking videogames. We’re unlikely to convince people the merits of reflective or personal growth through the medium of fucking videogames. It’s kind of a conclusion you have to reach outside of videogames, to be brought to videogames, because this is a subculture dedicated to itself. Though besides, I mean, people in industrial societies don’t really fuck with poetry or nature anymore to begin with, so why do people think we can just force this meme through the medium with the least respect and least connection to the world outside of it. A medium that is also thoroughly compromised with real, actual environmental destruction, probably more than any other artistic medium.

This work is a complete fool’s errand! So if we’re going to do it, we at least have to do it right. We still need history and frameworks that are comprehensive and foundational that direct away from destructive practices like technological obsolescence.

Lately Pitfall II has felt like a potent symbol to me that any attempts to direct away from technological obsolescence will be forgotten or eroded, because of the combination of what kind of game it is, and its status as a failure in the throes of the so-called game crash. That’s 50% of why I have been obsessed with writing about it. I don’t want this kind of expression in games to be forgotten and eroded.