Looking Back On The Hypnotic Charm Of Breakout

Image: Atari

Pilgrim In The Microworld, a 1983 book by professor, sociologist, and musician David Sudnow, was far ahead of its time. As a book-length digression on a single video game—Breakout for the Atari 2600—it took the emerging medium seriously at a time when it was largely dismissed as a mere fad on the verge of dying.

Out of print for decades, Pilgrim In The Microworld will soon be back in print thanks to Boss Fight Books, which is currently taking preorders via Kickstarter. In this excerpt, Sudnow first gets his hands on the game, and quickly discovers the subtle magic behind its deceptively simple graphics.

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They were all out of Missile Command, damn it. I’d woken up in the morning with the silhouette of that psychedelectric landscape still etched on my retina. Wouldn’t it be neat if a “city in memory” came up looking a little different, more imperfect than the original, say, with just the essence suggested? That would at least make it appear computers remember sights as we do, rather than as just series of numerical values for each grid point on the screen. Remembering the looks of things, we forget aspects of them in ways we can’t predict in advance, which is to say images live a history within our lives. Computers don’t have that kind of memory. How could they?

Herb had another game called Breakout, which I’d glimpsed some guests play during time-outs from the favored bouts at nuclear defense. Was there a truly worthy video opponent—a Don Juan of Silicon Valley? Who knew, but the salesman said this Breakout thing was a real good game, the TV was sitting in the backseat of the car, and rather than drive around all day looking for missiles, I figured I’d take this one home for starters. How was I to know it would become “my game,” that I’d get so obsessed with it as to live out the next three months of my life almost exclusively within this nineteen-inch microworld, heaven help me.

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My next door neighbor must have seen me coming in and out, first carrying the TV up the stairs, then the box marked Atari, for no sooner was the configuration set up and ready to go than he appeared. And inside of twenty minutes versus this young San Francisco lawyer I’m in a cold sweat.

At bottom screen there’s a paddle, controlled by a steering wheel knob that comes with the unit, along with the joystick you get for other games. You push a button to serve yourself a ball, which descends from just beneath the barricade strip across the screen. Then you hit it back, and every time you do an unmarked half-inch brick segment gets knocked out of the wall. Of course size is relative, the more competent you become the more these lights take on a sort of environmental density and you’re pulled by the fingertips onto a full-scale playing field whose dimensions aren’t found on rulers.

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The immediate object is to chip through to the open space on the other side, and once you’ve made this Breakout the ball rebounds like crazy between the far wall and the band, moving from one side to the other and then back again to knock out bricks from above unless none obstructs its path and it therefore returns down to you. The overall goal, fat chance, is to eliminate the entire barricade until paddle and ball are alone in empty court, victors.

The wall is composed of six differently colored strata, and if and when a ball first gets through to hit the fourth one from the bottom, it takes off fast in a sudden break slam shot and then holds at this new speed till you miss and have to serve again. You get five balls per game, can set the console to play solo or in turns with an opponent, and can of course hit the reset switch at any time to reconstitute the whole barricade and instantly get a fresh five serves.

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Within about twenty minutes my neighbor had cut through the wall a few times while I couldn’t even get close, and when he insisted he’d only played the game once before for an hour, my evening was decided. Some piano player. As if last night’s effort to save the world wasn’t bad enough, I must have now gone on for four hours by myself after I finally got him to leave. And by the time I gave up for the night, I’d broken out one lousy time. I relentlessly served that damn speck of light without intermission, couldn’t pull myself away from the thing. Two hundred bucks after all.

Screenshot: Atari (VGMuseum)
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I tried rationalizing my initial anxiety with the conviction the guy was lying. But then again, he didn’t smoke, was ten years younger, who knows? Maybe some basic nervous system capacities were involved, rhythmic acuities different from what you need for jazz, say. Maybe microworld mastery varied by age, metabolic or alpha wave rates, astrological signs for all I knew. And how about cultural factors? I didn’t see a TV before the age of ten, probably haven’t logged a thousand hours in thirty years. Maybe he’d grown up with several hours of television a day. For all I knew extensive tube time trained micromuscles for neuroathletic competition and I was thus irrevocably consigned to the video boondocks.

At least the rudiments of slower play were easy enough for me. One of the guys at the party had created a big laugh, throwing himself back and forth while swinging his entire upper torso and arms and almost falling off the chair to hit the Breakout ball. He took the ribbing with good humor, exaggerating his incompetence for the sake of the party, but actually seemed unable to effect that transformation of sense needed to engage himself with big looking movements through little feeling ones. He couldn’t project a comfortable scale of being into the confining detachment of the interface, couldn’t trust the efficiency of a mere knob, but instead handled the encounter like those proverbial preliterate aborigines who respond to a photograph by looking around at its reverse side. The guy acted at the controls as if there were no video fence in the way. It probably took him a long time to get used to automatic transmissions and electric typewriters, not because the skills are so different from a technical standpoint, but because he refused to adopt the postural respect solicited by new embodied equipment. The guy just wasn’t a button pusher.

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I didn’t have his sort of quaint confusion, but automatically made the necessary shift in stance to control the paddle while sitting still in the right terminal position. And it only took a little time to transcend the physical awkwardness of the knob so I could get the racket more or less where I wanted, more or less when I wanted, without too often over or undershooting the ball.

Line up your extended finger with the lower left corner of the TV screen a comfortable six feet away. Now track back and forth several times in line the bottom border and project a movement of that breadth onto an imagined inch and a half diameter spool in your hands. That’s how knob and paddle are geared, a natural correspondence of scale between the body’s motions, the equipment, and the environs preserved in the interface. There’s that world space over there, this one over here, and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.

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They had it set just right. Held by fingertips and rotated through a third of its revolution, the little paddle steering wheel afforded rapid enough horizontal movement anywhere along the backcourt to handle the pace of action without wrist or forearm aid:

Image: Courtesy Boss Fight Books
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Not like a very fine tuning knob to change hi-fi stations, for with such a gearing you’ve got to spin the dial to traverse full field, letting go with your fingers and losing all accuracy. Very fine tuning knobs are meant for slow motions, and while you can twirl these dials to reach a rough vicinity quickly, to hit Breakout balls a vicinity isn’t enough. On the other hand, were the gearing too tight, the slightest motion would send the paddle right across screen. Ideally geared for travel through the terrains and tempos of a microworld, the dial had enough resistance so an accidental touch didn’t send the paddle too far, but not so much that you had to exert yourself to move through the court.

I served myself a ball. It came down. I went for it and missed. I centered the fingers in relation to the knob’s range so I could swing back and forth across the field with hardly any elbow play at all. I rotated some partial practice strokes, trying out each side to test the expanse and timing of the whereabouts, appraising the extent of pressure needed to move various distances at various rates.

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I served again. The ball’s coming down over there and my paddle’s here. How fast to go? A smooth gesture knows from the outset when it’ll get where it’s headed, as a little pulse is established that lays out the upcoming arrival time, a compressed “ready, set, go” built into the start of the movement. The gesture then feels when to speed up and slow down to attain the target. I swing the bat back and forth to acquire its weight, establish a usable rhythm then held in reserve as I await the ball, preparing for a well-timed movement anywhere within the arc of the swing.

Within fifteen minutes I’m no longer conscious of the knob’s gearing and I’m not jerking around too much. So far so good. Slow down, get rid of the neighbor, get a little rhythm going, and in no time at all you’ve got a workable eye-hand partnership, the calibrating movement quickly passes beneath awareness, and in the slow phase the game is a breeze, doesn’t even touch the fingering you need for “the eentsy, weentsy spider went up the water spout….” Here I was lobbing away with a gentle rhythm, soon only now and then missing a shot through what seemed a brief lapse in attention rather than a defect in skill.

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Then came the breakaway slam when the ball reaches the fourth layer, and the eye-hand partnership instantly dissolved. Wooosh, there it goes right past, coming from nowhere, a streak of light impossible to intercept. They’ve got to be kidding. Out of the playpen onto the softball field. I missed every one, each time left standing with bat in hand swatting video air. The lawyer had to have been lying, had to have put in more hours than he said.

I tabled my anxiety and simply figured more delicate paddle handling skills were called for. Besides, just as the panning shot made Missile Command fun, I began getting off on the action, building control and precision in these gentle little calibrations. With slow shots my gaze could lift a bit off from the finer details of the ball’s path to roam the court analytically, to glance at my paddle, then where the ball would hit the barricade, and then ahead to predict where it’d hit the side so I could position myself in advance. And I’d get there, sometimes in sync with the ball and sometimes ahead of it, just waiting. My glance took snapshots of the overall neighborhood, there was enough give in the tempo to allow for some instant geometry during play, enough casualness to the pace that looking could disengage from tracking to analyze the opponent’s ways and fit the rhythm of its queries into the timing of the shots. Scrutinizing the neighborhood to learn my way around, I could still bring the paddle where needed on time.

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Screenshot: Atari (MobyGames)

The sounds helped. Every time you hit the ball there’s a little bleep, then a differently pitched tone if you hit a side wall, and still another one for each different bandful of bricks. These recurrent bleeps helped you gear into the overall rate of action. The sights helped. The more or less steady passage of the ball painted the action’s tempo in broad strokes, so when the eyes loosened their hold on it to take in a wider or different territory, that gently tracing light kept the fingers continuously alive to the whereabouts and pace of things.

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At first it felt like my eyes told my fingers where to go. But in time I knew the smooth rotating hand motions were assisting the look in turn, eyes and fingers in a two-way partnership. Walking a rainy street, you identify the dimensions of a puddle in relation to the size and rate of your gait, so the stride itself patterns the style of your looking, how you scan the field’s depth of focus and extent of coverage, what you see. So too with sight reading music at the piano for instance, where you never look ahead of what you can grasp and your hands’ own sense of their location therefore instructs the gaze where to regard the score. So too again with typing from a text, where if your eyes move in front of where your fingers are, you’ll likely make an error, and thus hands and gaze maintain a delicate rhythmic alignment. And so too here, you’d have to sustain a pulse to organize the simultaneous work of visually and tactilely grasping the ball, your hands helping your look help your hands make the shot.

I played around with slow balls, getting the first chance I’d had in years to handle ping-pong–type action, listening to the bleeps and feeling my way round the court. I hit a shot over to the left. Can I place the next one there as well? Of course the lights didn’t obey the laws of physics governing solid objects, like billiard balls, say. But Atari had rather decently simulated a sense of solidity. The light came from a certain angle toward the side wall, and then followed out the triangulation by going in the direction you’d predict for a real ball. What about the paddle? Hit on an off-centered portion of a tennis racket or hand, a ball will deflect on a different path and you can thereby place shots. Sure enough they’d programmed the trajectories and different parts of the paddle surface to match, so the light-ball behaved rather like a tangible object, refracting and deflecting so it seemed you could at least somewhat control the ball’s direction.

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I watched the paddle and ball at the precise point of their contact, refining the control I could exercise over placement. Could I hit it on the left third of the paddle? How about the left fourth? Could I hit balls with the paddle’s side rather than its upper surface, maybe useless in actual play but fun, and perhaps good for improving touch? I tried knocking out all the bricks of the lower band before the ball broke through to the next layer, eating corn on the cob. Virtually impossible. I tried putting more English into the shot, coming at the ball from the side and swooshing the paddle across quickly beneath it at the last moment, trying a spin. Did Atari accommodate that? I thought so, but wasn’t sure.

It was here I discovered an ethically troublesome defect in the game. I’d hit a brick and the ball would come down. Taking care to line up the paddle, I knocked out an adjacent one, or even knocked out one above it, entering the open slot made by the preceding shot. Again I aimed. The lights faked enough solid physics and the placement was tight. With still more barricade cut from the same narrow region, the ball once again dropped almost straight down as you’d expect. So I hit it square on again to further eat away that vicinity.

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Screenshot: Atari (VGMuseum)

Poof. It veered radically to the side, a full sixty degrees off course. I went through the same sequence enough times to make sure it wasn’t my mistake. And it wasn’t. They’d messed with the rebounds, by God, preventing you from breaking through too fast. A few shots straight up and down to the same vicinity, and then Atari took the mathematically cheap way out. The arbitrary and sharply pitched deflection they used to get out of trouble sent the ball into a low horizontal pattern for several volleys, and I couldn’t redress these returns to pursue a vertical attack, had to wade through a long drawn-out exchange until the trajectory gradually became more upright.

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Three explosions on screen at Missile Command is one thing. That becomes an acceptable rule of play. But an electronic tactic to forestall your progress is another. “All right, veer off to the side. I’ll wait it out. Mess with my carefully aimed shot. But if you want forgiveness for being a computer, don’t put rocks in the snowballs.”

I stored the disturbance like you register a lie on the first date and puzzled for a moment over the game’s moral integrity. If the programmer could patch up an organizational weakness with a trivial trick like this, where else might there be monkey business? If it was their way to let you feel competent, giving you three easy placements and then veering off as if you wouldn’t notice it, they were stupid. Anybody would see what was up after a few times at the controls. The tactic didn’t speak well for Breakout. What if she lies all the time?

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By this point I was getting pooped and needed to go for the score, to break out at least once before calling it a night. If my neighbor could do it after an hour, certainly I could after three. The slam shot had been putting me out of commission every time. Mostly, by the time I knew it was coming, it was gone. You’re going along at a comfortable pace, hit the fourth band, and then whap, the ball goes double time on you and you’re wiped out.

Now I told myself, “Concentrate.” I did a little seat squirm, as when entering a freeway onramp and you have to hit sixty in a real hurry, peeked up to the band to get the jump on when it was coming, stiffened up and sat on the edge of the chair, and handled one. I missed the follow-up but had returned my first slam. Actually, I got myself in its way.

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In a half hour of just “concentrating” I’d refined the instruction. I discovered if I told myself to “glue my eye to the ball” I could start fielding first slams much better and get some of the follow-ups as well. For about twenty minutes I sat there mesmerized, tracking the ball like my life depended on it, my entire being invested in the hypnotic pursuit of that pea-sized light. Kneading my eyeballs into the guts of its movement like following a guy in a fast crowd where a momentary diversion would lose him, I soon got to a four- or five-round volley of fast ones. Knocking out that many more bricks a hole opened on the side of the barricade, and I watched the ball break out, ricochet like crazy between the back wall and the band, eat up six or seven more bricks, then fly down right past me. Had I not been taken in by the new quickened sights and sounds, I might have field it back up. My first Breakout. Thank God, I could go to bed.

 

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