[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 a look at Pong and Breakout, we continue on to classic Taito title Space Invaders.]

What can I say about Space Invaders that you don’t already know? Not a lot, I reckon, so I’m not going to go into too much depth on the facts. If you need more, there’s the Internet. Rather, I mean to frame the available information within the discussion we’ve been having, with an aim to highlighting its greater relevance.

You will recall we talked about Pong, and the easy introduction it provided into that alien space on the other side of the TV screen. Although there wasn’t much meaning to be had, the passive control the game provided over that one packet of information, bouncing around its tiny gameworld according to discernible laws acting on their own, allowed the player to mentally map out the game’s reality.

There was a whole new, bottled system of cause and effect for the player’s mind to lock into and understand. And as minimally involving as the laws and interface were, they were novel and fascinating, and simple to digest -- to the extent that Pong became a cultural sensation.

Then, as we discussed, four years later, Breakout came along and reframed Pong as a solitary experience, as a complex space, and as a distinct narrative. Now the player’s focus was entirely on the gameworld, rather than the gameworld acting as a catalyst for two players to entertain each other. In turn, the gameworld had more to focus on.

The player’s every action -- as indirect as the interface remained -- resulted in a tangible effect, or consequence, within the world. A tile would break, the board would be a little more open, and the surfaces to bounce off of would be a little different. The interaction was suddenly more meaningful, at least within the narrow scope provided. And then when the board was clear, twice over, the game was over. There was a distinct goal to achieve, entirely within the parameters of the game’s bottle universe.

Well, all those changes were significant. Different designers took away different lessons by how they balanced those changes in their heads, and ran off to extrapolate further -- leading us to at least two distinct schools of game design and a new focus on a single player’s causal relationship with the gameworld, as compared to videogames as a mere game or social tool.

For now let’s jump the Pacific, and ride the narrative train for a while.

Space Invaders (1978)

Tomohiro Nishikado already had a reputation within Taito; in 1973 he designed Japan’s first domestic videogame, the Pong clone Soccer. In Breakout, though Nishikado saw real potential for improvement. The scenario, clearing the tiles and moving from board to board in a sort of linear narrative, was compelling but dry.

And furthermore, the player’s indirect control over the projectile was kind of frustrating. The lack of control meant that all of the game’s challenge and therefore most of its staying power was sort of artificial. And yet if the player could simply select a target and directly send out a projectile, how would the otherwise neat premise -- clearing the board of targets -- work?

In place of chaos, what if the mitigating factor were the tiles themselves? What if -- to further the weak narrative conceit of Breakout -- they were to slowly advance toward the player’s paddle? So now there’s a distinct time element, tracing a narrative arc within each wave.

And now there’s a pressure, a threat, compelling the player to clear the board within that timeframe. In place of the abstract challenge of Breakout, the game is now a personal mission, with conflict and stakes and tension. Compared to what came before, Space Invaders is pure drama. In fact, it’s kind of terrifying, in an essentially post-war Japanese way.

To aid the scenario, the tiles have been retooled into an invading alien force. For a while Nishikado toyed with airplanes or an advancing army, but considering the recent popularity of Star Wars he looked back to War of the Worlds and settled in on a grim threat from beyond the stars. So the player, then, was charged not just with the success of a game against an opponent or an individual challenge, or even just his own ostensible safety, but the protection of the entire planet -- all of humanity, and just a feeble cannon to protect them against the horde. Yikes.

Impact

So, yes, Space Invaders did pretty well. It caused a shortage of 100-yen coins, founded a whole industry and school of game design, and for a while became the new generic in much the way that Pong had been.

Whole arcades were set up just for Space Invaders. It reached a market penetration and cultural prestige that previous videogames could have only dreamed of; here was not just a novelty adaptation of a familiar passtime, but an original entertainment concept unto itself. For the next few years, the game that everyone would ape, to an extent on both shores, would be Space Invaders.

It’s hard to isolate the factors that make Space Invaders such a success, as they are all so logistically bound to each other. To allow that direct control, to let the player choose to reach out and touch the gameworld -- in this case personified in the Invaders and the barriers -- is to create a vacuum for some other compelling threat outside the player’s direct control; the creation of a whole narrative structure operating on its own against the player’s interest, to which the player’s minimal possible response is only a slight and procedural impediment.

In short, the school of thought expounded by Nishikado is to keep the player innocent and helpless, as abstracted as the player’s role necessarily is by the interface, and then as designer to take on the bulk of responsibility as master of ceremonies. Nishikado’s idea of a videogame is like a roller coaster or summer blockbuster, where most of the appeal is in carefully-prepared and orchestrated spectacle that the player can experience within limited boundaries. Space Invaders made videogames an event.

And yet it also personalized them and grounded them in emotion -- both in terms of a comprehensible narrative scenario, and in terms of the ownership the player is given over those scant actions allowed. You can’t do much in Space Invaders, but every shot you take is deliberate. The distance between action and reaction is minimized, and with every successful shot chosen the player feels an important part of proceedings.

With the weight of decision placed on the player’s shoulders, the ramifications of every decision become powerful. The game’s drama and tension come from that knowledge that when the aliens do hit bottom, and the player has failed, it is the player’s own fault. In Space Invaders, failure is inevitable; it’s just a question of how long you can hold out before you are overwhelmed, both practically and emotionally.

Thus the popularization of the high score table, and the passive reintroduction of the social aspect eliminated from Pong. At least in failure you get to leave your mark -- Hoshi Was Here -- as a sort of consolation prize. That in turn becomes a discussion point; Oh, you held out that long? Well, I got 1300 more points than you. Here’s what I did... Again, cause and effect. Ping and pong. In leaving your mark, you have achieved something lasting and therefore narrowly significant.

Again it’s a matter of touch, of eliminating distance and thereby creating meaningful change -- although this time time it’s more a matter of the player’s physical contact with the cabinet; of the fact of having played the game at all. In this way the videogame bridges the psychological space into the player’s real life. Which, one may safely assume, has something to do with the resulting phenomenon.

How much further can that distance be reduced? Well, it only took two more years for us to find out...

Next time on Phantom Fingers: The Series: Pac-Man

[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.]