Monday, December 27, 2010

Your Lithosphere (Dig Dug 2 and Digger: The Legend of the Lost City)

The number of video games based on going upwards far exceeds the number based on going downwards. The former category includes a wealth of games in which you fly. The latter includes D&D-type dungeon crawls, of which there are only a few on the NES, and a handful of arcade-style games that, due to the way in which verbs work, had two of their number appear together here today.

In Alan Moore's landmark Promethea, he describes two complimentary desires of humanity - the serpentine desire to ascend, and the dove-like desire to descend. Ascent is linked to human improvement, while descent is linked to self-sacrifice. The value of descent is that it is the means by which knowledge gained through ascent is disseminated through the world. It is, in other words, the engine by which good ideas turn into actual transformation of human consciousness.

Video games are the more natural ally of the serpentine, and so this pair of games is an interesting side trip from the norm that is worth exploring.

Of the two, it is Digger that is the most obvious game. A simple cave-based quest for treasure acquisition, it is not surprising that it was developed by Rare, because it plays very much like a mediocre game by people who are going to make a good one eventually. The ideas are there, the controls are reasonably sharp, it's just that the game lacks that final little bit that elevates it from forgettably fun to a good game.

But in it, we come upon a real challenge to our initial division of serpentine and Crap. I need an adjective here. Ooh. Columbidine. There's a fun word to coin. OK. So our initial division of serpentine and columbidine. If the columbidine is supposed to be the mode of sacrifice, then the quest for treasure, which is the major thrust of underground games, is, if not antithetical to the mode of self-sacrifice, at least orthogonal to it. Massive acclimation of personal wealth is only seen as noble self-sacrifice by, well, the Republican party. Further complicating this is that we are in a cave here. Caves are let's say, generally a bit more associated with snakes than with doves, who, and I'm speaking in the most general case here, tend not to like caves because they're rubbish for flying in.

So, yes, that's a theory dead and dusted, right? Yeah, you're new here, aren't you? We usually don't give a theory the time of day unless it's spectacularly and self-evidently wrong. Utter implausibility is our baseline reading. And anyway, any time you work up a nice dualism like serpentine/columbidine instincts, you know you're going to have some intermingling.

After all, it is, in Alan Moore's telling, the serpentine instinct that leads to genetic descent. Actually, we already did a whole entry on this. So it is clear that the serpentine and columbidine instincts are closely related. The will to improve and climb upwards is inexorably linked to a will to descend and bring light to the darkest of places. In which case Digger provides an interesting insight on this process. In Digger, the acquisition of treasure justifies further descent. In other words, the serpentine process of questing for riches justifies and fuels the columbidine process of descending further into the darkness, which in turn enables further serpentine treasure looting. The process is, furthermore, sustained by delaying the self-sacrificing instinct - that is, by avoiding death and maintaining one's lives. It is, in other words, the serpentine instinct that both motivates and curtails the columbidine instinct. Inasmuch as the columbidine is a reframing of the Freudian death drive, this was already clear - the death drive relies on the sex drive to sustain itself, because the death drive in its pure form is unsustainable. Thus the road to columbidine descent is paved with shiny treasures.

Dig Dug 2 is weird. Part of this is that Dig Dug, as a franchise, is weird. It actually makes a fairly good nerd test - is Dig Dug a classic video game, or a classic video game franchise? I mean, it's clear that Dig Dug is a franchise, given that it had a sequel, but actually, Dig Dug 2, despite being the better game, is not really a classic. So presumably Dig Dug is a classic game, but not a classic franchise. Except, actually, that's wrong, because the 1982 arcade game Dig Dug and the 1999 Mr. Driller are actually part of the same series, and that Mr. Driller is the son of Dig Dug. And Mr. Driller is, actually, a pretty solid arcade classic. So, you know. That's fun trivia.

But yes, in any case. Dig Dug 2 is not a classic game. This is not for any particular reason. It's a fun arcade-stye game. Unlike regular Dig Dug, in which the screen is used to depict a vertical cross-section of an underground region, Dig Dug 2 takes place on a series of islands. Digging is replaced with the alternate action of creating massive fault lines through the island and sinking portions of it underwater, preferably with nasty things in tow.

So, in this regard, not a game about digging in the sense of descent. Rather, it is a game about digging destructively. The act of digging is one of unmaking the established terrain - in a very literal sense one of destroying the Earth. But this destruction is not wanton, but rather carefully controlled. It is destruction in the sense of surgery. One destroys tracts of land to excise the nasty things. The risk of doing so is twofold - first, one can inadvertently sink one's self - one has to quickly move off the fault line or risk immediate death. Second, one can inadvertently trap monsters in closer proximity to one's self. Failure to eliminate enough bad things with an incision leaves you stuck on a smaller island with lots of monsters - not a good outcome.

In other words, to dig is still sacrificial. It is a game about cutting away the negative, about judicious and planned destruction. This is columbidine in the extreme - a game about plunging into the earth to purify it, risking one's life in the process. Dig Dug is not a game of treasure collection - occasionally a mushroom or some fruit shows up, but inasmuch as the game has a plot, the plot appears, to the player, to be primarily about destroying the monsters. The player travels from island to island, it seems, only to purify them. The game is endless - there are 72 levels, after which the game simply repeats. In other words, the act of purification has no end. The goal is simply to eliminate as much of the evil as one can before dying.

This is the unusual thing about the columbidine. Unlike the serpentine, it does not end straightforwardly in a moment of glory. This is an aspect of video games that, thus far, we have been hard-pressed to talk about at length, mostly because I don't usually reach them. But here, because there is no ending to reach, ironically, we can talk about it. The columbidine video game is simply an attempt to stave off death. Its goal is not victory, or triumph, but mere survival. And, furthermore, its goal can never actually be obtained. It is not a common sort of video game. But even that is strangely appropriate. The fragility of the columbidine game - its endless, ephemeral struggle against death - makes it a genre that is oddly suited to its own obscurity.


  1. Your posts allways make me scratch my head. In a good way, though. I really never thought about the psychology of tunneling.

  2. Maybe it is because it is easier for me to understand posts about games I've played, but I really liked this post a lot. Your spelunking into what you term columbidine and how it applies to these games versus other NES games is intriguing.

    As for Dig Dug as a franchise, I was well aware of 1982's Dig Dug, but was not aware of Mr. Driller. How many units make a franchise? I believe the answer must be 'at least two'. So, on the basis of Dig Dug I and II alone, I guess I would say yes.

  3. Separately, I also want to point out Lode Runner, a game I suspect we'll see in another couple of years, which also has a digging aspect to it.

  4. Ah, what I did not make clear is that it's Mr. Driller that renders Dig Dug a classic franchise, by virtue of the fact that Dig Dug II is not considered a classic. It's a good game - actually probably better than Dig Dug, ironically, but not, strictly speaking, a classic. I'll clarify that in the post.

  5. I still play Dr. Mario sometimes. It's addicting!

    When my parents first saw the game (back when I was a kid), they thought Mario throwing pills at a problem from a distance was an apt metaphor for medical practitioners in general.