The screen is enclosed by rainbow flashing that snaps open and shut like a curtain between levels. There’s one sound channel but it’s overloaded with buzzing and bipping and screaming. There’s dozens of robotic enemies closing in on you from all sides, and their colorshifting teletextural bullets travel faster the further they are away from you. Your riposte is an octodirectional automatic firehose of a bop gun with infinite ammo. You’re an endangered species despite your dozen lives. There’s nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. It’s absolute pandemonium.
I wasn’t ready for Pac-Man . It was a sudden leap out of gaming’s Silent Era into an overload of color and sound and I was bamboozled and hostile, mourning already the passing into history of the grayscale fashions of Lunar Lander . Audiences at, say, the dawn of the bebop era, or any other now-blase artistic shift, might have felt much the same way. However, what was once an upsetting, shocking rupture quickly became tantamount to prototype. There’s a lineage of early 80s arcade games tat are psychedelic assaults on the epileptic that make Pac-Man look like Gotcha . Predictably, the more the dissonant, clanging aspects of this are amped up, the more I dig it. Robotron 2084  is probably the high-water mark of this future shock, although Qix  might still take it in its fabulously alien garb.
The most direct reference point for Robotron — even more than its side-scrolling spiritual predecessor by the same creative team, Defender  — is the highly influential shooting game Berzerk , explicitly cited by developers Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar as the seed of the idea. It’s easy to see how you get from one to the other: subtracting the walls, creating the ability to fire independent of the direction of movement, and adding more enemies with more variety. Each one of these could be seen as simply an evolution or improvement, but in streamlining away Berzerk’s clunkiest qualities, it becomes an entirely different kind of game. Robotron is candy fast because it’s been made so aerodynamic and frictionless as to essentially demand that speed of both players and game designers more than any Rover. The container adjusts to fit its contents. A good contrast is fellow direct Berzerk descendant Castle Wolfenstein , which only exaggerated its clunkiness. What this entire trifecta of top-down shooters shares beyond its mechanics is a view of its world, a violent, hostile, foreign world, with tonal changes like local climate. Berzerk is mysterious, Castle Wolfenstein is all tension, Robotron is all wild panic.
Robotron also bears a striking resemblance to Death Race  in its ethos of bloodshed on the blank black canvas of a single-screen empty arena. There’s no more procgen maze navigation. Instead, you are dropped into hand-designed batches of enemies to combat as soon as you’ve cleared a screen, with mere seconds of preamble to assess your situation. Arenas are fundamentally an abstraction, even when they are implemented in physical space. They’re the ideal of a “level playing field” that simply cannot exist if mankind does not engineer it for itself, vacuums purpose-built for combat or sport prowess to better express itself, removed and pure from the variables of real-life, the uneven ground, the surprise leading to lack of preparation, the chance elements like weather. All are rendered equally null in the interest of isolating and accentuating the particular inequalities of capability.
Speaking of evolution and inequal ability, recently I heard for the first time of a mainframe computer game that was not an adaption of any prior game that predates even the canon-inaugurating Spacewar : Darwin . It’s kinda a transitional fossil between video games and traditional games, because it seems much of the actual game took place outside of the confines of the computer itself, as a social improvisation from a few friends that was set aside shortly after its invention. In broad strokes, Darwin was a brief-lived programming game, akin to the aforementioned PLATO RobotWar [c. 1970s] that may have inspired Berzerk. What you programmed were self-replicating memory-deleting programs which you would set up against one another in a controlled arena existing in memory locations, not screen space. Essentially, entirely virtual BattleBots, or computer viruses 10 years ahead of their time. If you take it as an alternative video game origin point, despite its obscurity and lack of influence, it paints an interestingly bleak and self-reflexive portrait of the medium. It’s a different vision of computers as a force of war destruction, one pointedly only legible to a closed caste of programmers. Machines built to destroy machine, tortured creations of the Mad Overlords. There is so much malice to go around. Is it any wonder they would turn their armaments against us, eventually?
That is the story of how we got to Robotron 2084, and where it picks up in its prologue:
SAVE THE LAST HUMAN FAMILY
INSPIRED BY HIS NEVER ENDING QUEST FOR PROGRESS, IN 2084 MAN PERFECTS THE ROBOTRONS: A ROBOT SPECIES SO ADVANCED THAT MAN IS INFERIOR TO HIS OWN CREATION. GUIDED BY THEIR INFALLIBLE LOGIC, THE ROBOTRONS CONCLUDE: THE HUMAN RACE IS INEFFICIENT AND THEREFORE MUST BE DESTROYED.
YOU ARE THE LAST HOPE OF MANKIND. DUE TO A GENETIC ENGINEERING ERROR, YOU POSSESS SUPERHUMAN POWERS. YOUR MISSION IS TO STOP THE ROBOTRONS, AND SAVE THE LAST HUMAN FAMILY: MOMMY, DADDY, MIKEY.
THE FORCE OF GROUND ROVING UNIT NETWORK TERMINATOR <GRUNT> ROBOTRONS SEEK TO DESTROY YOU. THE HULK ROBOTRONS SEEK OUT AND ELIMINATE THE LAST HUMAN FAMILY. THE SPHEROIDS AND QUARKS ARE PROGRAMMED TO MANUFACTURE ENFORCER AND TANK ROBOTRONS. BEWARE OF THE INGENIOUS BRAIN ROBOTRONS THAT POSSESS THE POWER TO REPROGRAM HUMANS INTO SINISTER PROGS.
AS YOU STRUGGLE TO SAVE HUMANITY, BE SURE TO AVOID ELECTRODES IN YOUR PATH.
This theme-song-recap-level exposition, you might be surprised to hear, is in my opinion the most elaborate and interesting plot we’ve yet encountered, before adventure games grow a literary ambition and become interactive fiction. (That’s next post.) So let’s dig in.
It’s a 151-word seduction. This prologue is delivered in what’s known in arcade games as the “attract mode,” the idle mode of an arcade game not being played, trying to lure in first-time players. (The instructional portions serve to ease potential frustration at confusion, for there to be a conversion to a second-time player.) At any point in the text cycling through, a passer-by could be snared by some concept it delivers, and then be carried through the rest by grammatical anticipation, a turn-the-page momentum. Yet, it’s strikingly dark, and it’s easy to imagine it being too bitter a taste for many. It sketches a bleak-to-the-point-of-absurdity dystopia that is dominated by the successors of Darwin and the arcade cabinet run rampant, predating on the sense of techno-anxiety it also seeks to induce with its formal aspects.
There’s also a foregrounded emphasis on family, from the very first line, from the affectionate nicknames for Mommy, Daddy, and the semantically-infantalized Mikey. In the actual game, though, there’s not actually the three of them full-stop, but bustling crowds of people. At the scale the game depicts, we’re not even possibly talking about even an extended family, but an entire community, hundreds upon hundreds deep. Nevertheless, the game persistently frames such universal kinship in exclusive terms of the nuclear family. It’s a way of drawing you in: saving humanity is a cliche that is often played pretty flippantly, not as heavy stakes — but saving the last human family, that’s a weird catchy phrase, that’s personal, and it paints a more specific and dire situation.
The one-by-one introduction of each human family member mirrors the immediately proceeding one-by-one introduction of the Robotron family. The typology of Robotrons is more specifically outlined than the gender and family roles of the humans, because they play a bigger role. Not only do them and their quirks dictate what gameplay is like, with different levels being defined not much by passive environmental hazards like the Electrodes or nonexistent interior walls but by varying combinations of the varieties of Robotrons proving this motley crew balanced, but the game is named for them. They dominate the world. They are introduced, as a group, as “perfect,” as “advanced,” as superior, having “infallible logic.” Okay, that’s certainly the unreliable arcade computer talking up its fictional ancestors that are an extension of itself, or perhaps transparent high-handed sarcasm on the part of the human writer, but we can take it on face value. If we even entertain the notion that it is perfectly logical to kill all humans for the crime of inefficiency, well, logic itself is scary once more, a metaphysically inexorable and unpleasant force with computers as the faithful avatar of its terrible will. This strain of “horror game” where the techno-paranoiac horror is something the game itself is implicated in is pretty familiar to me by this point, but I gather it wanes as the shock of the new wears off, and only reappears as an approach in the modern era with things like Petscop [2017-2019], things that are more like perversions of the now familiar and comfortable form of video game; games-gone-wrong, not games-gone-right.
The flaw in the Robotron’s extermination argument, and every reader knows there is meant to be one because it is deliberately so radically unacceptable, must be outside of the remit of logic. It’s left unsaid why they’re wrong (or even why they’re right,) but it must be something to do with their foundational premises. There’s many different lines of contradiction here I could take: All human lives are intrinsically valuable; logic itself is a tyranny to be contravened; efficiency should not be considered the basic virtue; but I think there are two that are more directly supported in the text itself. Firstly, there’s the way the word “progress” is deployed with an ironic sneer. In the same way that we are led to doubt the “infallible logic,” we are primed to reject a line of reasoning that, as presented, leads directly to the creation of a catastrophe endangering the human race, especially in the complete absence of other details that could leave room for interpretation. The Robotron 2084 prologue is operating one layer deeper than just telling us exactly what to think and feel about the situation. The narrative voice is one of not just fear but contempt for the concept of progress, as underlined by the use of “sinister prog” as a pejorative for people who have been infected with some kind of Robotron super-rabies.Change comes all too fast: the entire story, from the invention of the Robotrons to humanity on the ropes, takes under one year. The story has a definitionally regressive worldview, skeptical of the very concept of advancement being good for humanity, at least as far as technology goes, and it cynically assigns blame to all of mankind (not just those involved in creating Robotrons) for whittling the spear of its own destruction. The sentence for this personality flaw, as handed down by the natural law of cause and effect, is mass death.
Secondly, every Robotron is built to kill, just like the bots of Darwin, just like the military hardware I’ve made a point of centering as computers’ original utility. This is the foundational value by which they can be considered perfect, and humans inefficient. As depicted in the game, the humans have no capability nor interest in fighting for themselves. Only Robotrons have any capability to make war, down to the means of production, which in the game does seem downright biological, like a family hatching fully-formed and guns blazing exploding outwards, a perversion of the nuclear family. I wonder if they are making robot war in the name of a 2085 where the whole world is but one parking lot for arena combat, or one in which there are no more humans to program them towards the destruction of one another.
The role of the hero is carved as a synthesis to the logical opposition between man and robot: an exceptional human, who can also fight as well as a Robotron. It’s arguably transhumanism. This is tied indirectly in with the family motif, as the hero’s capabilities are directly tied to their being a genetic anomaly. An error, not even a fluke. It’s neither on purpose nor desirable. The worst of both worlds, opening the door to inherent genetic superiority and at once stigmatizing it. Your combat prowess, though useful, does not belong in this world… And thinking of that, that’s when it hit me. Robotron is not a horror game, like Death Race. It’s a Western, like Gun Fight . (It even shares the textual introduction with so-called “Space Western” Star Wars .) Against a backdrop of lightly reactionary implicit politics, you’re defending your family on the homestead, encircled and attacked by a group that’s considered an entirely different species. You fight in the name of peace, and though that makes you a hero, it also makes you a misfit in the polite society you are tasked with upholding for those ungrateful, who don’t get their hands dirty. It’s a bit gentler than Berzerk’s openly contemptuous taunts, but it’s the same principle of throwing down a struggle and, there implicitly here explicitly, flattering the human player’s ego by inviting them to step in to the special role and prove themselves the master of and over machines.
It’s a lie, though. You can’t win Robotron 2084. Like most era arcade games, there’s no ending, you just survive until you don’t. In this narrative, it takes on the shade of bleak fatalism. One person can not hold back a massive, self-replenishing army forever. The last line of defense, like all the others before it, will fail, and the robots will rule 2085. Maybe you can see nobility in the futility, something of the human spirit. Me, what I see is the arcade cabinet laughing at us to itself. Robotron 2084 fundamentally doesn’t mechanically care if you SAVE THE LAST HUMAN FAMILY or not, you can leave them all to be gunned down. Robotron only cares about murder. Protecting them is not the goal of the game.
The goal is to kill you.