[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh]. Following the introductory column, this installment moves forward in time to look at Atari's classic 1976 title Breakout ...]

Though Pong, which we covered last time, opened the window to a new world, that world was a void. You had some basic physical rules, and you had a packet of information bouncing around in a box.

The bulk of communication was supplied by a second player. Pong exists in a weird medium that offers the player the vaguest hint of another reality -- a persistent, active set of laws that react upon the player’s every stimulus -- then anchors that experience back in reality. It’s sort of like shaking hands through a curtain of water.

You pass through, and get a fleeting sense of, this alternative medium. That’s nice, and it gives you a sense of the basic laws of water. But compare to snorkeling along a coral reef, and the whole alien world that water opens up by virtue of those laws.

For about four years, no one significantly built on Pong. You saw things like four-player Pong, and Pong with two paddles, and a vertically-oriented Pong that passed itself off as a Volleyball sim.

Atari did experiment a bit with Gran Trak 10 and Tank!, but somehow it took until 1976 for Bushnell and Bristow to hit on a one-player version of Pong. And that pretty much was the missing piece that gave us two distinct schools of design, the home PC, and thereby the information revolution that allows a person to research articles such as this.

As these things go, Breakout was pretty well-named.

Breakout (1976)

You know Breakout. You’ve the single Pong paddle at the bottom; up above you have several rows of tiles. Hit the tiles with your ball to break them. Break all the tiles to move on. The original Breakout has just two levels; clear the bricks twice, and you’ve won. Or at least, you’ve earned the highest possible score and there’s nothing more for you to do except bat your ball around an empty room. Which, I suppose, is no less entertaining than Pong.

The main thing that Breakout does is that it defines a tangible world, and then shifts the burden of narrative from a second player to the gameworld itself. This sounds simple and obvious, but it’s a profound move. Breakout changes the whole premise of a videogame from an empty medium or catalyst for competition to a persistent system for an individual to explore.

It’s not just Solitaire, as the game’s laws are automated. This casts the player in the role of explorer, free within narrow limitations to act and to study the game’s reactions. And unlike the earlier Gran Trak 10, the world and the rules that define it are dynamic. When you break a tile, it’s not a matter of success or failure; rather, what you’ve done is changed the world, which in turn significantly redefines your situation in respect to that world. And this, here, is the basic premise of a videogame.

Basically, without particularly changing the setup from Pong, Breakout gives the player something to touch. Something to meaningfully affect, and change. This in turn creates a distinct, if simple, narrative. It’s still fairly indirect contact, of course; all you’re doing is reflecting a ping back against that ocean floor. Yet every positive movement you make, every reflection, asserts your involvement. Your mere presence in the gameworld is significant. The act of playing changes the course of events, introducing chaos to what had been a static, stable system.

As with Pong, the player involvement is kept to an absolute minimum: twiddle a knob left and right. Given the simplicity of the targets, that lingering indirectness may be the game’s main appeal. The task, the goal, is to successfully make contact despite a lack of direct control over the situation. There's a certain friction here similar to a game of pinball; although you don't really have control over the ball or where it goes, you are responsible for guiding and protecting the ball, and the lack of control only enhances your determination to hit those targets.

The driving compulsion is to hit every tile there is to hit, to explore all there is to explore, to clear the board. There is a distinct end condition here, lending an object to the narrative. A personal impetus, inspired by the gameworld. Fundamental as it is, you can take this same framework and apply it to Pac-Man or Zelda, or Myst or Half-Life 2. It's all the same relationship; it's just the details that differ. Breakout is where the bond between the player and the gameworld really begins.

Breakdown

Breakout’s influence was immediate and enormous, in three distinct areas: technology, logistics, and experience. On the technology end, I’m sure you know about Woz’s involvement, and how the development of Breakout led to his Apple II. It also gives an early glimpse at Steve Jobs’ mindset, if you look up the term “$5000 bonus”.

I’m also sure you know how the microprocessor-based remake, Super Breakout, was Ed Logg’s first major contribution to Atari. From there we get Asteroids (to SpaceWar! as Breakout is to Pong), Centipede, and Gauntlet, and the open-ended, proto-sandbox style of design traditionally favored by Western developers: giving the player a canvas for making decisions and bathing in their consequences. This is more or less a pure extrapolation of videogame theory, as first illustrated in Breakout.

And then there’s Tomohiro Nishikado, who felt inspired to reach out and directly touch those tiles. How, though, can you keep the game interesting without the random element of a bouncing ball? The key word: scenario.

Next time on Phantom Fingers: The Series: Space Invaders

[Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne is a writer most recently hailing from Brooklyn, New York. When he manages to detach his brain from his keyboard, he spends his hours concocting bagels and exploring the deep places of the Earth. You can sponge up more of his work at gloaming.aderack.com. ]