E.T.! Phone Home!
There is this story about Nolan Bushnell, the founder and CEO of Atari, and the video game adaptation of the popular film E.T. that he green lit. The game, thrown together at the last minute to capitalize on the success of what was clear to be a massive blockbuster, was designed on a shoe string over the course of two weeks. About five coders put the thing together over the course of twelve coffee and amphetamine fueled eight-hour overtime shifts, after spending their 9-5s working on games like Space Mafia, Space Mania, and Space Menace. (Indeed, “Space” is the first word in 45 of the 94 games on the Atari shelf in my basement, which I’ve only been able to persuade my wife to allow in the house by moving it there from the rightful place it held throughout my childhood, adolescence, and bachelorhood, beside the television in the living room).
Never properly QAed, the game is an utter disaster. You embody E.T. as an obscure, cubistic riddle of black pixels; a rectangle head, a long thin segment of neck, two oblong paddles for feet. You follow a trail of inconsistently sized and spaced pellets (Reese’s Pieces, as in the film) through a maze of dark green splotches, the Atari programmers’ lazy spin on a Rorschach blot, you think, or the pattern on one of Bill Cosby’s more ridiculous sweaters. You are not sure what to do, what goal you are working toward, how you might get to the next level (although there were not levels yet, in the Atari days, only “screens,” progress literally marked by the screen refreshing and providing a new background, the long black windshield wiper of the video God’s tabula rasa). There is a score at the bottom of the screen, but no matter what you do, no matter which way you turn the knob, or how many of the dipswitches on the front of the wood-paneled Atari console you flip, you cannot seem to obtain a single point. And of course, every few minutes, before you can really orient yourself in the world of the game, before you can become E.T., before you can take to heart the pleading, white-on-black exhortation to “Phone Home” that opens the game, you are dead. So much as touch one of the aforementioned green splotches, and the screen goes psychedelic, the tinny speakers of your television set scream through brown mesh, the black bar of God wipes the game clean, and you find yourself, E.T., trapped in a pit. It is a black pit, as tall as the screen (one of the green splotches from the home screen, you realize, the vague, impressionistic world of the game slowly making a little more sense to you). Do what you will, try what you might, you cannot escape the pit. The TV shrieks in what can only be an analog imitation of the reedy, frightened scream that E.T. makes in the most harrowing (comedically, or genuinely) moments of the film. The game is over. Phone home.
The story goes that the game was such a massive flop, so many copies left in Atari’s warehouse unsold, unordered, unshipped, that Bushnell ordered the leftovers buried in the desert way out to the east of L.A. You can see it, can’t you? Some massive pit, naked among cactuses and jack rabbits and tumbleweeds. (In my head, I see it in pixels. In fact, I picture the background for an unlicensed, pornographic Atari game called Custer’s Revenge, in which your objective as General Custer, clad in nothing but a hat and boots, is to move from left to right across the screen, dodging arrows so that you can rape a melon-breasted “squaw” tied to a post. Only then do you score, so to speak. The most upsetting image in the game being Custer’s visible erection, as long as his arm, jutting upwards at a diagonal, and because the Atari was not powerful enough to realistically depict diagonal lines, the penis is a series of upsettingly squared pixels, something inhuman and alien. The background, in any event, is familiar. Yellow sand. Pixilated cacti. The odd vulture breaking up what is, for an obscene video game, an impossibly pure and vivid blue sky). This was the height of what historians call the video game crash of 1983, and it coincided with the dizzying height of Bushnell’s drug addiction. Some have linked the two through pure causation: it was Bushnell’s excess that drove the market downward, this camp claims, his sheer unpredictability as the head of the only video game company that really mattered, the only one that could claim legitimacy through market share and brand recognition, that could claim to be anything more than just a cluster of MIT nerds drinking New Coke in a smelly, closet-sized office. (Although Atari was that, too. One had only to walk into their offices at three in the morning, squint through the haze of pot and hashish smoke to glimpse the little elfin faces, acne and ill-advised experiments with facial hair obscured by the angelic blue light of their Commodore Vic-20s, Jethro Tull blaring at unholy decibels through the hi-fi speakers mounted on the walls). And there is something to the theory that Bushnell’s unreliability drove the market down; and E.T. is the perfect case in point. How ridiculously medieval, to bury the army of tiny black cartridges alive, how like the villain in a Western he was, burying Clint Eastwood up to his head in sand, leaving him to the sunlight, the vultures, the coyotes, the ants. Insult to injury, as on the back of any licensed Atari cartridge it will tell you: CAUTION: DO NOT STORE ABOVE 82 DEGREES!!!
But it was no one’s fault but his own. He had assumed that all he had to do was stamp E.T. on the box, and the public would gobble the games up like so many Reese’s Pieces. But he was wrong. The whole industry was. Among video game historians, both amateur and professional, the crash is seen as a tragedy for the video game industry, a cautionary tale for fans and creators alike. Watch yourselves, or we’ll go the way of ’83, will become like so many comic fans, cowering in tiny basement shops giggling at the latest exploits of Black Lightning. But I see it, truly, as a holy purge, the clean burn that leaves the forest smoking, but ripe for the taking root of fragile seeds. Indeed, by Christmas 1985, Nintendo would release its NES, bundled with Super Mario Bros., and the rest, as they say, is history. So it’s hard for me to weep for any of them; Atari, Nolan Bushnell, Custer. Except for E.T., that is. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. You can see it, can’t you? The little blob of pixels shrieking from within the pit as bulldozers cover him with fill dirt. Turn the dial, click the dipswitch. Again. Take out the cartridge, blow it clean of dust. Check the connection to the TV (in those days you had to screw two sets of prongs into the antenna connection, with a Phillips head screwdriver). Nothing. But the shrieking, the blinking of the screen as the pixels refresh, the vertical hold slipping, the whole image cycling over, replacing itself, and for some reason, morbidly, horrifically, the score at the bottom of the screen is skyrocketing into octuple digits.
The United Federation of Planets
My father loved Star Wars. For that matter, he loved Star Trek. We used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes together on the couch. This is maybe one of my only memories left of him from my childhood, eating cereal while he adjusted the antenna to get the TV just right. Of course, “just right” was not all that great. If you could get it to stay in color, keep the vertical hold in place, and replace the lightning bolts of white static with an all-over film of crackling white dots, you were good to go.
In one episode that I remember, the Enterprise is hit by some kind of beacon of light after running sensors on an unidentified interplanetary probe. The ship itself suffers no adverse effects, but the Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is immediately rendered unconscious. And yet, seconds later, he is talking about “Space, the final frontier,” as planets wobble into focus and recede into the background. This is the credit sequence, and the moment when Picard is seen lying, prone on the bridge, is what we call the teaser, or the cold open; but to a child who has yet to master the most basic levels of cognition, it is an irreconcilable dilemma. This bald man with the halo of gray hair has slipped out of reality somehow, is floating now in the great beyond, pontificating on the meaning of life, space, time.
“Where is he now, daddy?” But he didn’t understand this question. How could he?
“Where is who? Watch the show.”
“What do we do?” wonders Commander Riker, after a handful of commercials for soaps and tampons have given my father a chance to get himself a beer, and the music swells, and the music swelling is only something that happens for us, on the television, but for Riker, who is the second in command, it must feel like the music is swelling for him too. Because Picard is his friend, and he wants to save his life. But also, if something were to happen, he would be made captain of the ship.
Meanwhile, Picard awakens on a strange planet. In a quiet home. He has a beautiful wife. She is pregnant. He is respected in the community. He is a farmer, and a man with a bookshelf as long as it is tall; which is to say both very long and very tall. But he springs into action. He does not lie back in bed, allow himself another few minutes of sleep. Something is wrong.
“Who are you? Where is my ship? What is the meaning of this?” He asks his wife. And this is always how Picard would handle a problem. He was always asking people “What is the meaning of this?” as if there was always some clear answer to his problem, as if people are somehow supposed to know the meanings of things. That is what is hard for me to think about now, remembering this episode, and I think it must have been hard for my father to imagine as well. Who, if given a chance to live another life, would do anything but take it for granted? But, we are products of our environment. He was a character on a television show, so he has the luxury of asking about meaning. Things have meanings there. Why is he on this planet? Well, not to spoil the story, but, to teach us all an important lesson about life and death.
But his wife does not understand. Picard is not even his name. He has another name. I don’t remember it, but it’s musical, beautiful, like a note on the flute. That’s another thing. This man, this Picard-who-is-not-Picard, plays the flute.
At first he fights. He uses telescopes, tries to find some trace of the Enterprise. But it’s a primitive world, with no space travel, no contact with the United Federation of Planets. He tries to send radio signals, he tries bonfires in the planet’s immense deserts, he even (in a moment of desperation) calls the name of an old enemy with magic powers who he thinks might be responsible for the mistake, this huge cosmic mistake, this rebirth at the other end of the universe. And this is when the episode gets interesting. We do not return to the Enterprise. We do not witness what might be happening in the “real world,” whether the crew is using phase variances or warp fields or manipulating polarities to get the captain back. And usually, the episode would focus on this. The captain would find some solution, wrap a copper wire around a gourd or something, and beam himself back.
That isn’t what happens. Instead, he gives up. He accepts that, while he cannot explain it, this is his life now, and he realizes, much to his surprise, that he loves his wife, he loves his children, and he is going to stay. He grows old. He plays the flute on the veranda, watches his children grow.
And then comes the science fiction. An asteroid is going to destroy the planet, and they need his help to stop it. Using all of his scientific knowledge, phase variances, polarity manipulation, etc., he fails. And so, Jean Luc Picard, played by a Patrick Stewart who is made up to look years beyond his already advanced age, watches the planet die. He holds his wife. He kisses his children. He cries heartfelt tears.
And then his eyes open. His real eyes now. All a dream. A holographic projection. An illusion. A trick by the space probe, which explodes unspectacularly now in the sites of one of Lieutenant Commander Worf’s phaser blasts, a sad little optical effect that brings to mind the Pink Floyd laser shows of my father’s youth.
What happens next? The credits. And when next you see Picard, he is fighting Ferengi, or answering a distress signal from a space station. He doesn’t mention it again, his other life. But he knows something now. He has to. And if you want to know the truth, it ruined the show for me. Or it ruined me for the show. Because, exciting as Picard’s adventures were, part of me knew that, in his heart, he was on that desert planet. He was playing the flute on his veranda. He was watching his children play ball (in any part of the universe, on any planet, there is always a child playing ball). That hologram, that brief instant that ended with a single phaser blast, that second that encompassed a life, that was his real life. This? This photon torpedo assault on the Crystalline Entity, yet another battle with the Borg? This was the dream. This was the fiction.
Speaking of fiction, the episode was over, of course, and my father drained the last sip of his third or fourth beer, crushed the can against the arm of the sofa.
“Time for work,” he said, like he was talking to a buddy, or to his wife, maybe, but not to a little boy just getting a handle on the concept of object permanence. And for so long, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get him. But now, so many car payments, so many tax returns later, so many nights spent slumped over the kitchen table, opening a new beer every time I recalculate the budget, hoping that maybe I’ve missed something, that maybe I subtracted the phone bill twice or didn’t add in the balance of my checking account yet, I get it more and more, more than I would like. I can see him standing in the doorway, his bulging beer belly protruding out over the elastic waist band of his sweat pants, and it is myself that I see standing there; it is I, calling up a friend for a beer when I should be watching television with my wife, letting myself in after last call and passing out in a haze on a bare mattress in the guest room. I am the one finishing the beer, turning off the TV, wishing there was always more Star Trek, more time to nap and sit shirtless in a room lit dimly by the early morning sunlight peeking through the narrow split between the curtains.