ET [1982] + Pitfall [1982]

The Video Game Crash Of 1983 wasn’t. It wasn’t a video game crash nor even “the Atari Crash,” it was a crash of the entire North American consumer computing industry, from Atari to Radio Shack to IBM. Every American computing firm fell prey to, yes, offering a slate of sub-par products, many with confusing naming schemes, but also some nasty combination of over-expansion, over-production, market saturation like a brick wall, a speculative bubble, inept out-of-touch management, grifters, loss-leading price cutting tactics on the hardware backfiring, perhaps the aftershocks of the 1981-82 recession finally catching up to them, or Jack Tramiel. That’s not even close to a complete inventory. It’s virtually an instructional guide on What Not To Do for MBA students.

The entire field of computing as we know it now was born in university research labs where one had to misappropriate government funds to chase your own bliss, which, though noble since it was really the military they were ripping off, is philosophically an awkward fit for transitioning to founding and running successful private businesses. In the ramshackle tech businesses of the 70s, borne from either that context or from hobbyists who suddenly got in over their heads, you find the same commitments to ping-pong tables, a self-regard as the virtuous vanguard, and hands-off micromanagement as you do in their Silicon Valley heirs in 2020. (Southern California is weirder than Japan.) It is a remarkably resilient model, especially when you consider that in the time period of catastrophe under autopsy here, the utopian industry was putting itself under the stewardship of more traditionally-minded and experienced executives from other industries en masse, like Atari’s sale to Warner in 1976, John Sculley from Pepsi at Apple in 1983, Marshall F. Smith from steel to Commodore in 1984, etc. It’s like there was a war between two incompatible notions of how to do business on that almost nobody realized they were fighting.

David Thomas, Chris Cutler, Alan Ravenstein – Didn’t Have A Very Good Time [1982], for ET.

ET [1982] serves, in the pop-historical discourse, as a totem for an apocalypse. The New Mexico landfill full of ET cartridges is a powerful symbol of failure and rejection. This is despite it being a bestselling hit and not critically reviled at the time. The actual reason there is a landfill full of ET cartridges is because they made more ET cartridges than there were Atari 2600s to play them — over-production. That one move had made the actual quality of the game completely irrelevant. Atari had made the same boneheaded error exactly one year earlier with their similarly infamous port of Pac-Man [1980], (EDIT: I have now seen hard numbers that this, too, is nothing but myth,) and after that fiasco, retailers banded together to force Atari to buyback unsold stock so that they wouldn’t be eating as much curb in a situation exactly like this. Similarly, the main reason why Atari 2600 Pac-Man is bad is the same main reason ET is bad: crunch, point-blank. Designers Howard Scott Warshaw of ET and Tod Frye of Pac-Man had more impressive titles under their belts, but Atari wanted the games to be done in a matter of weeks’ time for Christmas season. In other words, the executives at Atari were provably completely incapable of learning from or potentially even recognizing their own mistakes.

Yet, despite the massive bungling of elementary business on the part of hardware producers driving the crash, the crash has been consistently framed in terms of consumer choice of software. Compare the New York Times’ sober analytical framing of the home computer crash which passingly mentions Atari in June 1983

“The history of the personal computer business, brief as it is, has shown that the successful machines are the ones that have the most and best software available for them. It has also shown that no single company can write all the software itself. It must take advantage of the cottage industry of programmers.

Yet if T.I. [Texas Instruments] was to make its profits in software, the software that sold had to be its own, not that of others. That became clear in December, when Atari’s profits took a plunge because other companies began making games for its video game machine that were better than the games Atari itself was selling. T.I., trying to balance those contradictory influences, decided to try to get other companies to write software for its machine, but insisted on marketing the software itself. But many software companies would have none of that.”

… noting, for later reference, how it singles out third-party developers being better than the first-party as a problem. And then look at how it condescendingly frames the video game fad in October 1983 with Gene Shallit-esque wordplay…

“The electronic centipedes, outer space invaders and spooky goblins that only a year ago seemed to have an extraterrestrial grip on the play hours of America’s children are consuming each other like so many Pac-Men. Dozens of the game makers that rushed into the field last year have dropped by the wayside, their visions of high profits proving to be as imaginary as the fantasy worlds pictured on the game screens.
He said sales of games at his stores have plummeted 50 percent this year, adding, ”It’s just a product that’s run its course.”

In some respects, the history of video games mirrors the roller-coaster course of citizens’ band radios.
”A while back, a lot of games like Pac-Man I used to like a lot,” said Chris Foudy, a 12-year-old who lives in Cresskill, N.J. ”Now these games are really boring. They’re all the same. You kill the invaders and that’s it. Boring.”

Though the article also covers some of the same failures as the first article (such as the paper’s favored razor-and-blade metaphor,) the keen eyes of the New York Times now pin the blame for hundreds of millions of dollars lost on the fickle decrees of the Council Of Children, as represented by a pull quote from a random 12 year old in New Jersey. It’s the same state of affairs interpreted by a different author under a more pronounced and limited ideological lens of mystification, one where video games are siloed off from the rest of their industry, one under which failure on the market is mostly due to individual consumers voting with their dollars.

Somehow, that’s the framing that’s stuck all these years. Somehow, the lessons of The Video Game Crash Of 1983 becomes a parable not about executive mismanagement but about the dangers posed to the medium by bad games like ET and Pac-Man, the better to scaremonger about “asset flips” with. It’s enough to make you wonder who stands to benefit from this framing. The answer is Nintendo. I don’t even think they pushed the narrative themselves — certainly, they didn’t have their fingers in the New York Times in 1983. Nintendo did, in fact, successfully learn from and capitalize upon Atari’s mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they had the only valid interpretation of events. But the crash of 83, for generations of Nintendo fans, serves as the creation myth for the NES and Super Mario Bros [1985]. It’s the only framing under which the Nintendo Seal Of Quality and all the ways that Nintendo maneuvered to make their platforms closed gardens you had to pay them a fee at the gate to enter can be considered a good thing. It still jars, because, well, not only was and is the world of personal computer games doing just fine with bad games as the price you pay for an open platform, but outside of Custer’s Revenge [1983], which is infamous for being infamous, all the big go-to examples of bad games that led to the crash are first-party. An Atari Seal Of Quality might have been good for Atari’s profits, but for nobody else. Remember: third-party software being too high quality was what was cited as the problem. Pitfall [1982] by David Crane of Activision was the problem.

The creation myth of Activision is very noble, even among the aggrandized ranks of Silicon Valley’s self-hagiographies. Four programmers at Atari realized that they were single-handedly responsible for something like 60% of Atari’s profits. They banded together, asked for a raise and credit, and were rejected, told that they were as important to the success of the games as the person who assembles the cartridge. (The bizarre implication is that neither of them are very important, and less so than a jerk manager.) So they quit and founded their own company to make 2600 games, where artists would come first!

The tragedy of Activision is in that one word: company. It’s almost like I misspoke, so clear is it that I should be talking about the founding of, like, a co-op. But no. The founders didn’t realize that their jerk ex-boss wasn’t incidentally a jerk, but fundamentally a jerk, by the very structural nature of the business. Sure, artists came first at Activision, for a few years. Then artists stopped turning enough profit. So, in 1987, the board ousted the original CEO, who was loudly committed to exploring Games As Art, for another one of those aforementioned Sensible Business Types, who unilaterally ran the company into the ground just like it were Atari in 1983. In 1991, it was taken over by another Sensible Business Type, Bobby Kotick, but one who was as ruthless a jerk boss as he was miraculously competent. He took over Activision when the first order of business was bankruptcy, fired all but 25 employees rendering the connection to the Activision of yore a cynical, entirely nominal one, and still runs the international behemoth we all know and loathe today. Activision experienced the obliterating fates of all companies, shackled as they are to indefinite growth: catastrophic failure, or equally catastrophic success.

There. Now about these games…

Bengt Berger & The Bitter Funeral Beer Band – Bitter Funeral Beer [1982], for Pitfall. Not as bleak as the name makes it sound.

ET is pretty bad, Pitfall is pretty good, in just about equal proportion. They’re actually really similar in conceit: “Pitfall” would have been a perfectly acceptable, even more germane, title for ET if not for the necessary branding. Both games are operating under the idiom set forth by Adventure [1980], that of still-novel multi-screen world modeling, action game movement, and the treasure hunt to organize your exploration of it. They both give you three free deaths before the true death. They are both enormously ambitious games in design and programming, coming in at the tail end of the Atari 2600’s lifespan and stretching the hardware’s capabilities, its built-in “make a Pong [1972] clone” functions twisted out of recognition (into, say, a vine.)

If anything, ET is the more ambitious game. In ET, you have to become fluent in many different interfaces. Your singular action button is actually context-sensitive based on where ET the cursor is on the screen, so much does the design yearn for systemic complexity. There’s two separate tracks of collectibles that go into an actual on-screen inventory system, the telephone parts hidden in pits and the candy, which is optional but can be life-saving. When you fall into a pit, getting out is a minigame played from an entirely different visual perspective. It’s all a big mess. These systems do not play nice with each other nor are they terribly legible even once you’ve read the manual. The transition out of the pit is the iconic frustration of ET for this reason: Once you transfer from the side-view pit screen back to the top-down map view, the interface changes on you and now your holding down the button to ascend turns into pressing down the button to stop ascending, dropping you instantly back into the pit. Even when you know full well what’s going on, it’s very fiddly. In fact, I kinda think this kinda friction of fighting gravity in the sideview, also central to Pitfall, draws the vague notion of a character who is not the player in a way more than the more common top-down view where they are as your pawn or cursor, not subject to as many physical laws, a flashlight shone on the screen.

For me, though, the key to ET’s frustration is the remarkably disjoint assemblage of the different map screens. In Adventure, if you leave off the left hand side of the screen, you show up on the right hand side of the next screen at the same height. This is no guarantee in ET. You can go left and appear in the top-middle of the next screen. Going right from the very first screen at any height will throw you immediately in a pit. To mitigate this, there are teleport hot spots that will take you to the next screen in the indicated direction in the same position on the screen. Surprisingly often, these hot spots are placed so as to deposit you directly into a pit when you use it anyway. Mix all this disorientation with the added pressure of every single step and movement being counted down against your total life force while you’re being chased by two figures who are like faster Adventure dragons with no restrictions, one of whom will single-handedly undo all your progress and — well, it’s another tremendously hostile gameworld. As an adaptation of ET, this is one that zeroes in not on Eliot’s story of friendship but on how it must feel to be ET, to land in the middle of nowhere on a completely alien planet and wander around lost and desperate.

ET, like Mystery House [1980], hits that allegedly rare sweet spot of the “so bad it’s good” video game, incompetent assembly that’s amusing in its own right. Pitfall, its mirror image, is not by any stretch of the imagination a perfect game, but it is perfectly-tuned. If you go full steam ahead, constantly moving while not making any mistakes, the sine-wave timing of things like swinging vines and the ground’s opening maws seem to break in your favor. The whole game is calibrated for expert performance: There’s a 20 minute timer, which at first seems ludicrously overlong, and then an arbitrarily-set annoyance, but in actuality it’s just enough time to achieve the highest possible score, with under two minutes’ margin for error. This tight focus on 100% completion, though not entirely unprecedented (by way of text adventures,) is still fairly remarkable to cast into a more arcade style where you need to calculate how fast the player can sweep the screen, and all the moreso for the sheer scale of the game’s map.

That map – 255 screens – is the main measure of the game’s technical ambition. It’s an arrogance: the Atari 2600 simply isn’t designed to fit a vast world in its cartridges, and David Crane seems to embarked upon it as a challenge to himself, akin to the mandate of Spacewar [1962] to push the technology to its absolute limit. (The giddy utopianism of 60s computing, like the office culture of Silicon Valley, will continue to endure and form the backbone of how American society thinks about computing.) His digital world would be built by an algorithm, and unlike many modern examples of procedural generation, it would be always consistent. It’s also very monotonous, and inadequate, the way it assembles like 10 gameplay challenges in different combinations over and over again. Unlike the expansive multi-valenced blur of ET, Pitfall’s strictly a run and jump game, with rolling barrels and a little ladder climbing. The motion has snap and precision even without mid-air jump alteration, allowing the game to ask a moderately-skilled player to make possibly the first pixel-perfect jumps in gaming (across the heads of alligators when their mouths are open.) Clearly, this is an iteration on Donkey Kong [1981], except it’s more like the first part of King Kong [1931] instead of the last.

Almost as much as ET does, Pitfall also lives in the shadow of another recent hit Spielberg movie: Raiders Of The Lost Arc [1981]. (Raiders also had an official Atari adaption in 1982 that’s fairly well-regarded.) This is, by account, a coincidence. I buy it. Extraction of treasures was already a perennial subject for games for years by this point. Pitfall merely takes the most direct route to the colonialist idea, brings the idea of the action-adventure game back to the pulp story genre of the jungle-bound action-adventure, and sketches it out with recognizable graphics. (Uncharted [2007] [1982].) I feel I have to flag this alarming theming up, but I’m honestly having a hard time coming up with anything more to say about this basic recurrent set-up of you as an intruder into an exotic but hostile but self-contained and explicable digital world with the objective of plundering its digital treasures, this colonialism stripped of all specific geographic and historical referents and mistreatment of the indigenous, who here in Pitfall appear only as lethal campfires. How about this: Computing is materially, literally built out of this process of treasure extraction from the invisible locals. Colonialism never really went away, it just plain won. It is the founding ideology of the United States and we endlessly recreate its logic even in our fantasies. Capitalism goes hand-in-hand with colonialism, running off the exact same logic of maximal extraction. So, in the rapacious go-go corporate 80s, capitalists spy a new, open land of the digital, and carve it up, plundering its treasures to leave self-recreating barren amnesiac husks of industry in its own image behind, all the while falling in the obvious holes.

Huge thanks to Dalm again, LeeRoy Lewin‘s writings on David Crane and the Crash Of ’83, and Cassidy Jones’ on ET The Extra-Terrestrial, both of which you should read if you liked anything about this.

2 thoughts on “ET [1982] + Pitfall [1982]

  1. I think this is a really good article.

    To me, the Tragedy of Activision is such a strong example of something that I’ve seen so much– both in the games industry and in other industries and startups. When a group of people with good intentions who don’t know there is another option create a company and replicate the heirarchies that harmed them.

    The tragedy is that while they certainly wouldn’t be as popular if they had adopted a co-op model from the start, they wouldn’t have gone on to become one of the most evil companies there is.


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