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The 8-Bit Existential Allegory

By Nathan Payne | pablosmoglives | 27 Aug 2022

I'm older-school than most.  There are older people who are older-school than me, by virtue of being older than me, and having therefore gone to school sooner, but I'm older-school than most.  I remember when video games all had to be different, instead of some variation on a 1st-person shooter game, or part of a Mario franchise (though the Mario games were admittedly good).  Gamers hadn't been invented yet, only games.  There was Donkey Kong, in which you had to climb some iron beams on a construction site and jump over barrels tossed at you by an angry monkey, some of them burning, to save an 8-bit blonde from the clutches of the ripped and burly beast.


There was Asteroids, which wasn't even 8-bit.  The monochrome stick graphics of your triangular spaceship spinning around in a field of asteroids required you to maneuver your ship using an actual ball, like a cue ball.  You had to roll it around and push one button for thrust and another to fire, breaking down the asteroids like a prisoner breaking rocks in a chain gang, thereby saving yourself from annihilation.  When you failed, your ship flew apart into 3 separate sticks, which exploded in a slow, leisurely fashion, like flower petals floating away from each other in a 2-dimensional, gravity-free environment.


There was Missile Command, which required you to shoot down incoming ICBMs, using a pool cue once again to maneuver your simplistic Iron Dome into action.  Centipede used the same pool cue to move your cursor up into the screen, as opposed to merely left and right, and you had to dodge the speeding insects while cutting them into pieces, which sometimes only created faster, smaller monsters that were harder to hit.


There was Space Invaders, and Galaga, which was a colorful Space-Invaders upgrade.  Defender was a favorite.  The Atari 5200 home console had a basic car-racing game called Pole Position, in which your Formula 8-bit racer remained motionless in the center of the screen as the track moved miraculously beneath it.  I was a big fan of Outrun, which had a real steering wheel and an accelerator pedal.  It cost twice as much as the other games, maybe 3x (50 or 75 cents, as opposed to the usual 25), and you embarked on a cross-country rally with your blonde, pixelated girlfriend through all kinds of different territories.  I don't remember what you were racing against, but it was a fun game.


There was Qix, which required you to mark out as much territory as possible on the screen with a little diamond cursor without crashing into the computer opponent's territory, which would kill you.  It was like the movie Tron.  There was also Qbert, which was a muppet-like guy with a noodle sticking out of his head or maybe nose, bouncing on a pyramid comprised of colored squares.  Today, we would read all kinds of Illuminati symbolism into such things, and the characters would all symbolize assorted forms of degeneracy and trafficking, but at the time, it was just fun to make the 2-tone Muppet jump around the obstacles. 


The games were all different, like electric versions of plastic puzzles you'd play in the back of the station wagon on the way to grandpa and grandma's house.  While the graphics may have been leagues beneath that of games today, the games themselves required imagination and ingenuity to invent.  It wouldn't have occurred to anyone to solicit prostitutes in the 1st-person for sexual favors before aimlessly running people down on the street in a game named after a crime.  There was no reason to scroll through an endless selection of weapons in order to decide what to carry for self-defense through the impressively-detailed, hi-rez zombie fallout zone.  As impressive as the newer graphics are, the games now seem to be as much about the detail of their setting, as the action of the game itself.  Back in the golden age of the video arcade, we had 2-tone alien invasions to repel, asteroids to break down, thousands of points to earn so we could get our names into the hallowed electric epitaph of Top 10 scores, in which you could inscribe your initials for everyone to see.  And best of all, we had quarters that needed to be changed into tokens.


I don't think most of us appreciated it as much as we might appreciate it now, but the arcade itself was half the reason to go there.  The din of those places was magical.  It was like an innocent casino full of 80s people.  Not as many girls as the roller rink, but more fun in a way, cuz really, who needs girls when you're 8.  All kinds of flashing, beeping machines, and kids lined up with pockets full of quarters.  You'd put quarters in a row on top of the console, to mark your place in line.  Whoever's quarters were up there, was next.  People would gather around a particularly-skilled player to watch him cut through the higher levels of a difficult game, watching with awe as he destroyed aliens with precision joystick movements and trigger-button skills. 

I became very good at a game called Red Baron, which was a 1st-person flying game in which you had to shoot down other WWI biplane pilots before they shot you down.  It was a monochromatic stick-graphic game, but the 1st-person viewpoint over the range of stick mountains, and watching your enemies' planes fall apart like anti-gravity line art, was hard to beat.  Or the horrific view of the mountains approaching, as you took heavy fire and went down in imaginary flames to the monochromatic terrain below.  It was cool.  I became so good at it, that kids would gather around to watch me play. 


None of these games, however, were allegories about the futility and temporal nature of the pursuit of pointless pleasure, and the inevitability of death.  As imaginative as they were, the philosophical weight of most arcade games in the 1980s was as the atomic weight of dreams.  Light, airy, insubstantial.  The Cheez-Whiz of canned electrons contained within the beeping, flashing consoles was utterly void of nutritional or philosophical value.  It was just lights.  You could fit the entirety of the existential meaning (and also processing power) behind an entire mallful of 1980s video arcades on the SIM card of a modern Mexican flip-phone.

So where was the mindful 5th-grader to turn, for hardcore existential fulfillment?

Pac-Man, of course.


Pac-Man was a cautionary morality tale masquerading as cheap, meaningless casino-training, and none of us ever had a clue.  It didn't occur to me until an hour ago, and I haven't even seen a Pac-Man game for probably close to 40 years.  Not to mention actually playing one.  There was a bar in Seattle I remember, the walls of which were lined with old-school arcade consoles and which sold cheap beer and hot dogs, where I spent a few hours in the late 90s.  I might have played it then.  But even then, the heavy existential lesson hadn't yet made its way through the hardened layers of intoxicated, 8-bit meaninglessness I was wallowing in as an act of retro-sentimentality, nearly 25 years ago at this point.  It has only now occurred to me.  Way after the fact.  Apropos, and as a side-effect, of absolutely nothing.  I was listening to a guy talk about Jesus on Bitchute, and out of nowhere I realized that Pac-Man was a money-chasing, philandering materialist who took performance-enhancing drugs to give him the illusion of invincibility in the face of death, which chased him everywhere he went. 

Worse, his entire life was spent trapped in a maze defined by the endless pursuit of wealth and material satisfaction.  With every passing year, death became quicker; it moved faster, and the maze became more complicated.  The price of fruit and pleasure went up as well, and where he might have spent $100 on some basic fruit on Level 1, by level 12 he was spending upwards of $1500 for the same measly pair of cherries.  He didn't have as much time to savor the fleeting pleasure of their acquisition, and spent so much time either running from death or looking for drugs which would empower him to overcome it, it never occurred to him that the "score" he was amassing on the lower part of the screen was actually a bill.  Pac-Man was such a morally-vacuous libertine that the only thing he ever did with his life was rack up a massive bar tab in the ledgers of eternity, while consuming pills and some weird, massive glowing speedball of cocaine and steroids which gave him the illusion of strength against the ghosts of his own impending demise, which, in his state of chemically-altered emotional derangement, he actually charges with aggressive, criminal intent.  Every ghost he ate of course added more to the huge, unpayable debt amassing in the lower part of the screen, until, finally, the ghosts inevitably catch up with him, and the "game" is finally declared to be over.

Behold, the cruel way in which death taunts him with the promise of reincarnation and cherries, while pursuing him relentlessly through a maze (unpictured), the only escape from which is the termination of the game itself:


Sadly, Ms. Pac-Man makes no appearance at his funeral, and none of his kids even notice that he's gone.  Pac-Man taught his family to be such greedy, neurotically-fast-moving pigs who deny the possibility of mortality so fully, that they don't even accept his death when it finally, inevitably occurs.  Of course, he probably was never actually betrothed to "Ms." Pac-Man, who didn't bother with becoming a "Mrs.," since their love was glib, shallow, and disposable enough to "not have any use" for vows or legal documents.  They were too good for all that (or so they thought).  It is for this reason that Pac-Man's legacy and lineage were finally destroyed.  His kids were rendered obsolete by several generations of 1st-person shooter games, and while as numerous as the stars in the sea, or the sand in the sky, all of them died young of drug overdoses in a maze of their malicious creator's design.

Pac-Man was a victim of Calvinist predeterminism like no other video game character has ever been.  His story is a tragic and cautionary tale about the pitfalls of not only climbing the devil's ladder of insatiable and ever-increasing desire, but also in disbelieving in the principle of individuality and free will.  At any time, he could have said no, and walked headlong into the ghosts without fear.  He could have denied the cheap, dubious rewards of drugs and maybe an occasional piece of fruit, and pursued the truth.  Even at the risk of death. 

But the game of "life" was designed to kill him, to bring him ever higher into the clutches of desire.  Sadly, rather than denying his sin nature and the appetites of which it is so tenuously composed, Pac-Man made a lifestyle of them.

May we heed the warning, and not follow him down the broad path of destruction as his programmers tried to teach us to all those years ago, in those flashing children's casinos of clinking coins and feathered haircuts and acid-wash jeans.  Perhaps we should leave the casino altogether, and get an Orange Julius and a foot-long with cheese.  The girl I like from Algebra is over there now.  We sat next to each other on the rollercoaster over summer break, and I think she likes me.  Let's go see if she wants to check out the record store, and maybe pick up a new cassette tape.

Unless, of course, she is one of the dangling faux-rewards herself....?  One of those fleeting peaches, a pair of cherries that appears for a moment but disappears if you're not quick enough to grab it.  Maybe we should take the slower, wiser route and leave the mall altogether.  Not as a critique of free-market capitalism, but as a way of weaning ourselves from the fear of these ridiculous, pixelated ghosts designed to keep us in perpetual fear of death.  We will disengage from the chase as a means of liberating ourselves from this maze of money and drugs from which no escape seems possible.  What if the mall is part of the maze?  The girl on the rollercoaster?  The Orange Julius itself?  The bowling alley, the roller rink, the pep rally on Friday that gets us out of Social Studies early?  Is there more to life than this?  Are these electric games and clouds of hairspray really all there is?

Let's get out of here.  I'm getting creeped out.  The ghosts are coming our way.  They see us.  They look like mall cops, and they may suspect us of shoplifting, but they are in fact symbols of a grisly, unavoidable death.  The cover story about shoplifting is just a way of keeping us afraid.  Of keeping us down.  Like lab rats, or mice in a dark, electric maze, engaged in a never-ending search for cocaine and cheese.

If they catch us, we'll be toast.


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Nathan Payne
Nathan Payne

I am a songwriter and bandleader who travels the world in search of the golden ticket.


Replacing my blog at

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