Early last week I found myself suddenly, utterly engrossed in a Seattle locksmith's quest to topple the world-record high score in arcade classic Asteroids. The score to beat, set in 1982 by Scott Safran, stood at the confounding perch of 41,336,440 points. Safran’s high score had proved to be one of the most stubbornly enduring high scores in retro-gaming’s history, largely due to the unthinkable stretch of playtime required to accomplish the feat—not hours, but days. While learning to guide your tiny spaceship deftly around splintered, drifting asteroid shards can be effectively mastered without a Sysiphian expenditure of effort, the monotony of the exercise creates a hurdle out of prolonged focus itself. High scores in Asteroids require a rare combination of fine-motor skills and dogged mental endurance. Enter classic-gaming phenom John McAllister.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can reach him online at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.
Unlike previous high-score attempts on vintage arcade cabinets, interested viewers could follow McAllister’s in real-time over the internet. One camera lens brodcast the onscreen action to website Justin.tv; another followed McAllister himself, presumably in order to capture the moment when his eyes finally shut involuntarily and he slumped forward onto the cabinet, snoring loudly as his finite armada of spaceships gradually petered to nil. Only this scenario never played out. McAllister just kept drifting, shooting, drifting, shooting, dodging, shooting for 58 straight hours until he’d bested the world record with his own score of 41,338,740. Two days, ten hours and one supplanted world title later, McAllister celebrated with friends, talked to a local Portland news crew and retired for a well-earned nap.
This wasn't like watching illusionist/masochist David Blaine, who frequently cooks up endurance stunts that play out to frenzied media hoopla. There was something different, something strangely intimate about McAllister’s Asteroids high-score attempt. A revolving audience of several hundred people watched the online video feed. In a sidebar chat window, newly-arrived viewers asked the same set of questions: What's his score up to? How long has he been playing? Who set the current record? What's the score to beat? Where is he located?
The thing that kept me transfixed, even as my wife complained about the obvious dearth of visual interest, was the mesmerizing document of such a prolonged flow state. You couldn’t watch the live feed without sympathetically lapsing into McAllister’s own meditative calm. There was nothing frantic or harrowing about his spaceship’s movements. It just glided forever onward into oblivion. Even as I write this, I have a hard time shaking the sense that McAllister is still perched droopy-lidded at that arcade cabinet, hoping against a power outage and telling his friends what kind of Subway ham sandwich he’d prefer for his next meal.
Last year one of my friends here in Dublin successfully swam the English Channel, a feat that took him 14 grueling hours to complete. He trained—six days a week, swimming up and down Dublin bay—for months and months in preparation. Even though he obviously had to be in peak physical condition to complete the swim, the greatest challenge he said was the final stretch of the crossing when the coast of France comes into view and you swim for hours without feeling like you’re inching any closer to landfall. At this point the tide is pulling you sideways and you have to carefully keep your brain in check, focusing on each stroke so as not to be driven crazy by the immensity of the distance still left to swim. McAllister’s high score in Asteroids required a similar level of mental stamina, and no less adamantium resolve. Congrats, John.