Nibbler is a snake arcade game similar to Pac-Man where the player grows longer the more things they eat. In Nibbler, however, there aren’t any ghosts chasing you. Instead, the only thing the serpent has to fear is itself. If it makes contact with another part of its body while zig-zagging through mazes, the game ends. The game’s fail state is literally a snake eating its own tail.
It’s also the subject of a documentary by Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy, two arcade gamers who’s friendly rivalry in Nibbler drew them to seek out record holder for the game’s highest score. That man was Tim McVey, one of the game’s top players. He set the world record for the score back in the early 80s, and did so again in 2011. Man Vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, released earlier this year, document’s what happened in-between.
The game is special for being the first to include a nine-digit score counter, making it possible to reach one billion points and just keep going. Getting a top score in Nibbler doesn’t just require good reflexes and a lot of skill. It also requires focus, stamina, and perhaps a small amount of sadomasochism. That’s because getting anywhere near the game’s current world record means sitting down to play Nibbler for over 30 hours straight. It took McVey nearly two days to reach 1,041,767,060, a score that was eventually surpassed by Rick Carter at 1,231,372,670.
Anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter knows the toll it takes on one’s mind and body. First there’s the initial rush of having dedicated oneself to transgressing society’s established norms regarding sleep. You are alone, or at least feel yourself to be, hard at work on overcoming some cosmic obstacle while those in the homes and apartments around you rest, unmoving, unthinking. There’s something messianic in this thrill, like Noah out building the arc, dreading the monumental task at hand but also secretly reveling in the intimacy of it.
This enthusiasm eventually wanes. By two or three o’clock in the morning, you start to wonder what could possibly be so important that you willingly decided to deprive yourself of sleep? Whatever it is can surely wait, can’t it?
If you make it through this phase, and so few do, you find yourself rejuvenated. Appetites and discomfort fade away, replaced by a hazy but emphatic focus on the rest of the job ahead. Too tired to care, the anxiety dissipates, the distractions disappear, and as the sun starts to rise, with the end in sight, you feel unconquerable. When McVey hit this point, there was still another 12 or so hours to go.
You can hear the exhaustion in his voice. The way he fumbles his words, talking not to his wife or even himself but to something imaginary standing invisibly in-between. Even the pizza he at one point is holding in his left hand looks tired as it hangs limply in the air.
It’s easy to laugh when McVey claims, with complete sincerity, that this level of gaming requires drawing on a deep and unique well of athleticism. The movie even goes to some lengths to reinforce this idea by having McVey go through a Rocky-esque training montage.
But watch him sit on a stool for nearly two days snapping his wrist back and forth as he manipulates the joystick under his palm and it almost feels like he’s underselling it. At one point McVey jokes that people don’t realize that even the most comfortable chair starts to hurt if you sit there for too long. Building up enough lives over the course of the game allows competitors a brief break. They can go to the bathroom, stretch, or grab some food while their snake slowly dies from running out of time.
If anything though, I can only imagine those short respites make returning to the game that much more difficult. Once you’ve dislodged yourself from the obsession pushing you forward, how easy it would be to simply lie down on the couch for a few seconds. And then a few more. Until at some point you finally just give up and give into the exhaustion.
One of the more interesting and easy to overlook aspects of McVey’s pursuit is the length of time that passes between each new attempt to marathon Nibbler. He works full time in a manufacturing plant, and doesn’t seem to have many vacation days, or maybe can’t afford to take them. As a result, it’s only on holidays like Easter and Christmas that McVey is able to indulge in his quixotic pursuit. In some ways, this makes his pursuit both tragic but also inspiring. After all, what could be more redeeming than watching some decide for themselves what’s important to them and then refusing to let anything or anyone else prevent them from achieving it?
You can stream Man Vs. Snake on Netflix and elsewhere.