Halt and Catch Fire has always been less about the big tech ideas themselves than the people struggling to discover them. While the burgeoning internet sets the backdrop for season four, the first couple episodes show Cameron’s struggle to get Atari to publish her high concept walking sim.
When I wrote last week’s post about season three’s pivotal Super Mario Bros. episode I had no idea how big a role those scenes would play in Halt and Catch Fire’s two hour season four premier. I certainly didn’t expect the show to situate what looks like a cross between Proteus and Tomb Raider as a mechanism for her reconnecting Joe. But then again mining the back stories and struggles of tech history’s failed dreamers and also-rans is part of what has made Halt and Catch Fire such an unusually compelling period drama.
It’s easy to view history not only as what did happen, but what, in retrospect, had to happen. The fact that Donald Trump did win the 2016 election transforms into the belief that he was always going to win. PlayStation revolutionized gaming because it was CDs destiny to revolutionize it. This instinct is especially strong in technology, where progress is conceived of as a something like a linear staircase to be ascended. In reality though, things could always have happened differently, and people have a way of circling back on things that make stories of technological destiny inadequate.
Another World creator Eric Chahi noted in a 2015 interview that it was only relatively recently that developers began feeling free to pursue their creative visions outside of the horse-race for ever better graphics. “That was a time where you felt you couldn’t make a 2D game!” he said to Eurogamer about the 90s. “I remember when Heart of Darkness was released, some people were criticizing that the game was in 2D. Today you can release a 2D game in very low resolution, and it’s not an issue at all! There is a realism wall, and the game industry broke that wall between 2000-2006, where finally you can have 2D games, if the game is good. It shows an evolution between the developer and the public.”
Prior to the proliferation of home consoles begun first by Atari and then later Nintendo, people could create games and share their projects via floppy disk with ease, a state of affairs that powers Halt and Catch Fire’s second season. In season four, however, Cameron finds herself in a situation similar to Chahi’s as she struggles, and ultimately fails, to get Atari to ship her esoteric exploration project, Pilgrim. The game testers are too busy salivating over fatalities in Mortal Kombat (or the “superior graphics” and controls in Street Fighter) to patiently endure her game’s eccentric and philosophic underpinnings. “It feels like homework,” they collectively agree. The game’s twist is that finally solving it sends you back to the beginning, although Cameron dangles the possibility that doing something less on subsequent playthroughs might unlock a new path. Nevertheless, her Atari handler asks if she can at the very least include the game’s controls in one of the menus to which she responds that that would be ruining the magic trick.
Showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers have demonstrated a deft touch when it comes to balancing the shows dramatic time jumps with the audience’s need to have something familiar it can hold onto to during these transitions, but few time lapses have felt more damatic than the ones exposed in Saturday’s back-to-back episodes“So It Goes” and “Signal to Noise.” Only a few seasons ago code monkeys were trading tips for text adventure games during work breaks. Now Gordon’s grunge-infused kids are watching FMV sprites pummel each other in gory detail.
It was the mid-80s when Gordon and Cameron were battling piranha plants and now, nearly a decade later, they once again find themselves with a Nintendo controller in their hands. But this time it’s Super Mario Kart instead of Super Mario Bros. and the mood’s more somber. It’s a contrast that specific to both the 90s and video games and which the show uses to build out the scene rather than simply exploit as a period-setting prop.
We’ve all been there, groggily firing off Koopa shells as the Saturday morning stretches into the afternoon (Gordon bashing his head against the Special Cup’s Donut Plains 3 stage is a great little added touch). Watching both characters play Battle Mode while they continue to spin their wheels in real life, however, is the exact opposite the carefree feeling the game’s menu music usually invokes. Of course, eight years ago Cameron and Gordon dropped Bowser in the lava while sitting in the same living room. The future of Mutiny looked bright. Cameron and Tom were finally getting hitched. Now everyone’s divorced, Mutiny’s no more, and both characters are fumbling around the edges of Dot Com boom. Also the only person who’s willing to endure her slow-paced mind-fuck of walking sim is a tortured ex-lover.
Because Cameron isn’t working on a Mario platformer clone or arcade fighter, it actually has a way of positioning our popular memory of the era as an incomplete, alternate timeline, making Pilgrim feel like the future and Super Mario Kart like a one-time fad, and in so doing reminds just that the recent past was rife with more possibilities than we usually allow them. Walking sims are by no means a new genre. We simply forgot about them in the face of recent history’s more iconic games and the ones, unlike Cameron’s Pilgrim, that weren’t canceled.