Berzerk [1980]

Not too close, not too close. I’m too big for where. Am I a knight? Right through the neck please. Hercules for a moment, then lament the blue brush. There’s no room and there’s no rooms. Gives green around the gills. KILL IT. The base place intruder. Regular 6-point figures trace the forever now and the way back gone. Circleback and it’s all new. Head dead ahead. Our electric nerve gaze connects, goes null. I’m a dead eye straight shooter, and I determine my deathstyle. Mustard & blood in the high-score corridor. Follow the bouncing ball and its hollow dead eyed smile. I carve a path past the bloodbath of ablation, angle immaterial when the next generation is procedural. I ride the very crest of creation and leave the rest to their dictation. Don’t leave us behind, CHICKEN. The easiest way to kill someone is to forget them. Never stop moving on. GOT THE HUMANOIDGOT THE INTRUDER Die diagonal in agony aisle. Again. AAA. AAA. AAA.

Peter Gabriel – Intruder [1980]

You know there’s an urban legend that this game actually killed someone in real life? It’s fact, although the proper explanation of the underlying heart condition is not so romantic, but it’s also a gothic legend that fits Berzerk [1980]. Like Death Race [1976], Berzerk is a cursed game that feels like it means to play the player rather than the other way around. They also share a goal of murdering everyone in sight, the only verbs on-hand being “move” and “kill,” although Berzerk’s gremlins are more plausibly inhuman. The root of Berzerk, so the reported legend also goes, is a dream in which the dreamer was attacked from all sides by robots. More peculiar, it was the rare dream not in first person: it was seen from above, in chunky pixels and 1-bit colors. Its dreamer, the designer Alan McNeil, had already been embedded in the video game (and pinball) industry for years, and games like some Robot-based game on the PLATO mainframe and Space Invaders [1978], and the glut of less famous shooting games that followed like say Nintendo’s Sheriff [1979], had had time to completely colonize his imagination. Berzerk is video gaming’s nightmare.

Killing — the entire ostensible point of the game, the sole verb beyond move — is, unlike Space Invaders, actually entirely optional. The thought that one could make a pacifist run at Berzerk, constantly fleeing, is odd and not likely to occur though: the point is the points. You are encouraged to kill with reward, the only currency by which you can measure your success, by now a paradigm that is arcade game orthodoxy very difficult (but not impossible) to imagine their basic grammar without, to even so much as imagine that not caring about is in any way a good-faith proper engagement. Movement is also tied with murder in a mechanical sense: this is not a twin-stick shooter but a single-stick shooter, where to shoot and project your will across the screen, you must also be moving your avatar in the direction in which you are shooting, like the infamously-impractical Bazooka Vespa. It’s even greater orthodoxy that video games revolve around gun violence, from Spacewar [1962] to literally today, when a friend of mine told about how they had just started their first Unity project and so far had an empty, solid-colored landscape with only a fireable gun and movement, inadvertently drawing directly from Berzerk’s lineage as aesthetic foundation, in an engine built to quickly & easily reproduce en masse the same video game nightmare.

As programmed by Red Breadforce to Jimmy Vegas’ tutorial.

The lethality is here escalated to absurdity. Touching robots kills you, walls kill you, getting too close to robots in the process of themselves dying kills you, there’s an immortal smiley-faced ball I couldn’t help but call “Rover” chasing you that kills you if you dare to cease fire and movement — and moreover, all of these things can also, astonishingly, kill the robots too, which really cuts against the notion that all this is just for eating quarters quicker. Unlike Death Race, the wanton violence here is enacted on a level playing field, where your opponents are exactly as capable and as weak as you, other than the aforementioned smiling ball Evil Otto (not to be confused with last week’s Crazy Otto) who serves to incentivize movement. I’ve written about hostile gameworlds before, there’s a whole tag for them, but Berzerk heightens the overticality to where — and I may eat my words here — I would be surprised if I see anything more about how it is trying to kill you until the likes of Syobon Action [2007] or maybe a Sierra game if their reputation holds up. Not in how Berzerk is the most difficult game around, mind: it’s not, Alan McNeil even said “my goal was to enable beginners to last three minutes” (which, incidentally, was calculated off how much movie tickets cost.) Just in how it openly hates you.

The only sounds, beyond blatantly Star Wars [1977]-inspired high-tension wire noise for laser blasters, are chilling robotic approximations of barked verbal abuse. Though not unprecedented, Berzerk’s speech synthesis is a then-stunning technical achievement that one could have plausibly designed an entire game around, maybe not an arcade Eliza [1966] (My Dinner With Andre [1993]) but something that fits within the technical constraints, something that would ask you to understand words, maybe combat barks with important tactical information. However, language, despite being so primary to its appeal and aesthetic, is firmly tertiary to its actual gameplay, its one entirely decorative element, the only thing that doesn’t kill you. There’s not even enough in the way of semantic content here, or anywhere on the cabinet, to get any clarity on things like motivations or setting. The genre referent of science fiction, unlike say the Western, has too broad a range of common scenarios to get your footing. The player character could easily be the villain, but the player isn’t going to assume as much, projecting into the character their own sense of self-righteousness and/or, less cynically, our instinctive allegiance with the outnumbered. There’s irreconcilable conflict between two parties, but it’s so removed from any coherent sense of struggle or stakes or interests that it’s an impressionistic haze of tactical or frantic last-man-standing combat in the most general sense. Determining heroism or villainy is pointedly moot. It’s an illustration of the free-standing brutality of mutual predation, a look at a world where everyone only thinks with their guns, where the only things separating the two-dimensional thoughts and actions of killer robots and of the player and their character are that both seek to destroy the other through the same means.

A better question is: You’re the intruder, but where are you intruding? Obviously, the robot’s territory. Though you are in foreign land, I don’t believe a colonial reading is terribly accurate here: There is no sense that you are here to make it your own, to dominate, to catalog, to map. There’s no going back where you came and saw and conquered, I went in a circle and swear I ended up in a different place. It’s randomized, a perpetually unfamiliar empire of shifting sand that can never be held and will always be theirs to toy with you on. Mazes of blue walls with no entrance or exit, just exactly like Pac-Man [1980], but a maze that leads nowhere and adds up to nothing but chaos, a maze that you will never be able to conceive of as a whole, only able to see what is in your immediate vicinity. Each screen is not a level, but a cell. A cell on a spreadsheet, just a location on a grid. A honeycomb cell buzzing with robotic bees. A battery cell linked by terminals. A biological cell and you’re the lysosome. A prison cell and there’s no way out but death. In any case, just one part of an incomprehensibly vast, even perceptually infinite, whole.

Last time we focused on the emergence of a player-character division; this time, however, Berzerk complicates the NPC-game division. You can see a separation if you like, but not only is it technically inaccurate in that the game is what gives the on-screen robots their embodiment and (for the time sophisticated, it’s worth noting,) marching orders, but the line is deliberately blurred by making its enemies themselves fictionally computerized, an extrapolation of the tech of the game itself. The aggression therefore can reach out of the fiction and personify the program itself. (Considering this is apparently a fairly-faithful translation of a dream of someone immersed in the game industry, the temptation to apply psychoanalysis to the intense hostility the game embodies to the dreamer is strong but those readings are fundamentally on shaky ground at best.) “KILL THE HUMANOID,” the game cabinet will shout. “INTRUDER ALERT.” “CHICKEN. FIGHT LIKE A ROBOT,” whenever you flee the current stage without completely clearing it. The taunt nearly gives the act away: it means to mock you but it can scan more like it’s mock-mocking you. The game wants you to stay and fight, not because then it can better kill you, because that’s what the play is. It needs you more than you need it, but it expresses its emotions through bullying instead of straightforwardly because it possibly correctly and nevertheless tragically believes that it can convince you to stay around longer with the challenge of overcoming its machismo and bluster and spur you on with negative motivational strategies than with open, direct, intimate honesty and support. Or perhaps its feelings towards you are more the masochistic tenderness of the dominatrix; after all, it does not simply reward you with points for following its rules, but it also rewards you with the punishment of ever-increasing difficulty.

Berzerk strikes people I’ve shown it to as some kind of ur-game cave painting. Although that smacks of gaming Whig history that can basically be immediately dismissed as without any serious critical merit, it’s true that it does have a remarkably stark design sense in all respects, and this raw aesthetic, looking all the more deliberate next to the slicker and more cramped Pac-Man, only adds to its potency. The abstraction of things unexplained, a world backlit by shadow, images only rising to the level of vague sketches in their low-resolution technical constraints, open hostility towards the player, who is the never-safe underdog being chased by the invincible: These are the ingredients of a video game horror experience, particularly something like The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc 2020 [2020] or even closer to Berzerk the ZX Spectrum-style Faith [2017], either of which, in revisiting allegedly-superseded game styles, mount an implicit argument for the validity of old games and styles against the narrative of constant progress.

It feels weird to call Berzerk a horror game all the same, even despite this reading of it — not just that the horror game genre is generally held to properly begin (after goofy and failed false starts) at the other end of this decade with Sweet Home [1989] and, I am to understand, do not generally feel like objects of horror, but stories of horror — but also just in the way that it is played. I fully believe Berzerk propagated its own nightmares, but how it is experienced is as a tactical shooting game. The threats are less terrifying than they are totally manageable obstacles. Immediately upon entering a room, you know what to do, you carve it up with your eyes into cover and priorities and execute upon your plan, with plenty of elbow room for maneuvering your avatar in the halls around those slow bullets. It actually plays a lot like… well. One candidate, in fact the only one I can find documented, for the PLATO mainframe game featuring robots that Berzerk’s designer cited as inspiration is Robotwar [c. 1976]. Robotwar was designed by one Silas Warner, who would return the favor, but his heavily-Berzerk-inspired Castle Wolfenstein [1981] would have to itself be stripped back to Berzerk’s basics in turn to produce Wolfenstein 3D [1992]’s own fitful dreamscape of last-man-standing warfare in nonsensical blue-walled halls, which Jimmy Vegas made a tutorial for my friend Red to explicitly “clone” in Unity. Which offers its own kind of implicit arguments against the narrative of constant progress.


Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than cis white males, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

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