If we are to take the medium of video games seriously as an art form, we have to come to the realization that sometimes the art takes on meaning beyond the artist’s intent. This is considered the “Intentional Fallacy,” which argues that an author’s intention determines a work of art’s meaning. In the 1920s, a group of literary critics began to argue for a new form of criticism that eschewed this kind of thinking. The goal was to view the work of art as an entity unto itself, ignoring cultural, personal, or authorial influences. In this spirit, I’m going to attempt to evaluate Pierhead Arcade, by developer Mechabit Ltd., a game that through any other lens could be viewed as lacking any artistic merit.
Pierhead Arcade presents an extremely desirable situation. Imagine, if you will, that I have lucked into the enviable position of being inside an arcade after hours with full amenities available to me. All the machines are fully functioning. The ticket-prize counter is open, and the prizes are readily available to me, should I be able to earn enough tickets to purchase them. And, greatest of all, I have a bottomless pocket of quarters at my disposal. The only thing standing between me and every last prize, every last ticket, and every last high score (which is thankfully ranked online) is time.
The initial menu of the game hammers this idea home. I appear on a pier, in the middle of apparent civilization. However there are no people around. It’s well into the night as the distant city’s street lights can attest, but the arcade at the end of this pier, the arcade before me, beckons. It’s not even worth considering, as there’s nowhere to go but in. There’s no reason not to go in. I am alone on this pier. My money is unlimited, and my time is money.
Entering the building I am greeted by four signs, left presumably for me by someone who came before, someone I shouldn’t expect to ever meet, but someone who thought it important to pass along some information beforehand. The move buttons teleport me, and when possible, interact for me. The trigger buttons allow me to grab things. And the “O” button, held down, allows me twist a compass that will adjust my rotational orientation. Perhaps this prior person left this here to save me time, knowing that there might be some confusion in the unintuitive nature of rotation. I appreciate the gesture, although I didn’t yet understand how fully appreciative to be, as I had yet to understand that time is my only penny here.
I began fumbling my way around this arcade. I had whack-a-mole. I had UFO-catchers. I had a shooting gallery with a pistol and a shooting gallery with a shotgun. Nearly every ticket-based game imaginable was at my disposal, and nearly everything worked exactly as expected. With my motions precisely tracked, I was never left to wonder whether or not I was in this arcade. I was in it. I was there. It didn’t matter why.
I tele-hopped over to the ticket counter and leaned over the counter to see what prizes were available. A drum, a xylophone, a drone, a car, a tank, fireworks, and the like were guarded behind an insurmountable counter. I looked around to see if anyone could prevent me from reaching these prizes without the requisite tickets. And as I looked around I began to realize my situation. Despite the ambient arcade noise of the machines left in attract mode, there was not much life in this room. No one was here. No one will ever be here.
I am alone.
This invokes a philosophical question that might one day soon become a reality. What is a man supposed to do once we enter the post-scarcity world? I have an assortment of games at my disposal for unlimited use. Let’s see how long this lasts.
I first tried a boxing reflex game. Donning the gloves which thankfully lacked any odor or sweat from previous use, I punched through combination mitts that popped up in a puglistic take on traditional whack-a-mole. What started as simple jabs developed into elaborate combinations that existed to test precision and speed. It was exhausting. Comparing my near-breathless score to that of the global rankings, I came to realize how short of the ultimate goal I was. There are men out there who are much better than me at this. So much better that if I have even a hope to compete, I must practice or gain some other edge.
Before I could wrestle too deeply with the thought that I might not ever be good enough, a confetti blast of tickets exploded above my head. As they showered down on me, my Move-controller hands sucked them up and tabulated the amount of tickets I held.
Although my efforts felt Sisyphean, they were not fruitless. I tried again and gained marginally more tokens. So this is how this room works.
I tried many other games after this. Some games did not translate so well to the near-weightless world of Virtual Reality. It’s hard to gauge the amount of force required to throw a ball in a hole when there’s no sense of inertia or momentum to overcome. Similarly, what does it mean to throw a bowling ball when the bowling ball carries no weight. Finesse can be applied, but it is not natural and is not fulfilling.
However, many games are properly translated. Penguin curling was particularly engaging, and the claw-machine games were realistically fickle in their ability to grasp a prize. The precision of my pellet-gun six shooter made it enjoyable to shoot down pop-up ducks and rabbits, and the shoot-pump-shoot mechanics of the pellet shotgun made the Zombie Saloon repeatedly enjoyable.
Through these games I acquired enough tickets to buy a small prize. I purchased a xylophone. I set the xylophone on a nearby refreshment table and toyed around with it. It responded to my sticks so appropriately, it’s as if it wanted to say “What did you expect?” After hammering out a simple melody, I then looked around again. There was still no one. An existential crisis began to creep into this game.
I was throwing fake balls into moving hoops, shooting zombies that would never stay down, and clawing at teddy bears that mocked me with their realistic flop. I was competing with others that were either doomed to my similar state in another universe or that were simply figments of an imagined realm where my points, my scores, and my tickets mattered.
I began searching for something, anything to make this existence real. I hopped around throwing bowling balls into basketball goals, hoping for someone, somewhere to give me a sign that “this is not how you’re supposed to behave, this is against the rules.” But no one ever came.
As I blasted shotgun pellets into the prize counter and threw skee-ball rocks at the whack-a-mole dinosaurs, I concluded that there truly is no one else here. And not just that, there’s no purpose here either. Oh sure, I can earn tickets, but what value does a ticket hold as a benchmark for progress when such progress serves only as a benchmark for time elapsed. I could spend 5 hours of 500 hours collecting all the toys behind the counter only to be left alone, pounding out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to the penguins that I immaturely got stuck in the ball-return device at the bowling lanes, or flying drones with perfect agility around machines and up into the ceiling without damaging anything.
I had one last chance to make an escape. I had one chance to make this whole thing real, even if it meant taking the whole arcade down with me. I walked over to the shooting gallery. I grabbed the six shooter, and I looked down the barrel. I don’t remember what happened when I pulled the trigger, and that’s because it had no ultimate effect. It either bounced harmlessly off my face, or passed right through my head. Either way is depressing and damning. I’m either a Superman in a harmless, danger-less world, or I’m a ghost, with no way to affect my destiny, my world, or my universe.
I took off my headset and was washed over with a sense of relief. I experienced a couple hours in a perfectly hospitable arcade, a dream of entertainment, and it made me feel like I’d been to hell.
I was slightly cold, a bit hungry, and my back hurt a bit. But it was getting late, and I had to get in bed so I could be able to work the next morning. Before I going to my bedroom, though, I went to check on my sleeping daughter in her crib. I want her to be happy, I want her to be healthy, and I want her to have everything she wants. But what’s going to happen if I succeed and she does get everything she wants? What will she do, then, when the only thing left in front of her is time to spend, time to pass?
-Alex Score: 7/10.