Start Press: The High-Score Scourge

Games Features
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Videogames are fun. This is not breaking news. When we play games, we’re transported to different worlds and set free to explore. When we play games, the clock’s minute hand slows, blurs and then disappears entirely. Our brains are tickled, challenged to solve the puzzles and master the challenges presented to us by the game’s developers. There’s nearly unlimited potential for rhapsodic pleasure in a well-designed game. But lately I’ve been swearing at my games with unusual frequency, spitting out combinations of expletives that, to borrow the words of author Anne Lamott, would “make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Here’s the main problem: I’ve recently become obsessed with trying to beat my high scores in a handful of casual games—mainly Pinball FX, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 and the deceptively simple iPhone game Canabalt. This is a mistake. This is a stupefyingly bone-headed, moronic pursuit. We see dogs whipping around in circles chasing their tails and chuckle at the futility of their actions. Yet we don’t have the good sense to realize that every time we beat a high score, all we get for our trouble and dedication is a slightly higher high score that's even more difficult to reach. Each new high score’s smirk feels more condescending than the last. You might as well be asassinating an evil dictator, only to clear the way for his nefarious second-in-command to assume leadership. What’s the point?

Game developers fuel the neurotic high-score quest by allowing players to start another game instantly after the latest attempt has ended in sputtering disappointment and frustration. With the simple push of a button, you can try again…and again and again and again. There’s a moment right when you finish a game—you’ve fallen short of your high score once more. You’ve used the butt of your palm to thump yourself in the head. You’re in a vulnerable emotional state. You press the appropriate button to start another game as fast as possible, mainly so the score screen disappears before you have a chance to register what it says.

On the Speed Machine table in Pinball FX, I’ve scraped and clawed my way to 6017th place on the Xbox leaderboards with a high score of roughly 684 million points. Impressive, eh? No, it’s piss poor, especially when you consider the #1 score of 54 billion points set by someone with the Xbox Live gamertag “PURPLE VOMIT” (caps-lock difficulty his, not mine). Mine is only a high-ish score, but I reserve a small measure of pride in successfully climbing to the 6017th spot from a base camp at roughly 23,000th place.

Why do I put myself through this cycle of frustration? I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be the best at any of these games. I’ll never join the Steve Weibes and Billy Mitchells of the world. I’ll never know what it feels like to have a documentary filmmaker pointing a HD camcorder over my shoulder to capture my next nail-biting high-score attempt. Even still, there’s the occasional rare moment where you do in fact surpass your previous high score. And from the moment you break it, the points are relentlessly surging higher and higher and you feel like you’ve burst through a dense cloud canopy and, all of a sudden, anything is possible. You don’t know how high the score will climb and the feeling is one of the most grossly underrated natural highs available to humankind. Or at least to nerds.

In 2D action-platformer Canabalt (playable on the game’s website www.canabalt.com), the objective is to leap through the window of a high-rise office building and go sprinting across the rooftops as far as you can. The specific threat you’re fleeing is left to the imagination—hell, maybe you’re a fugitive. Off in the distance robots lumber back and forth, vaporizing the city while spaceships rumble by overhead. Your score is registered as the number of meters you’ve run before dying by falling into the gaps between buildings or slamming into a missile warhead lodged in one of the roofs.

The last time I went scampering past my high-score distance, I got light-headed. My cheeks flushed. My heart started beating with noticeably more force. My vision narrowed and I blocked out everything but that tiny pixilated man onscreen. Then I misjudged one of my jumps and slammed into the side of a building, tumbling to a grisly off-camera death. My new high score: 7,938 meters. Dizziness. Elation. Then it occurred to me how close I’d been to cracking the 8,000 mark. The text onscreen goaded me with the message “tap to retry your daring escape.” Without even realizing what my finger was doing, I heard an audible click, like the hammer on a firearm snapping down abruptly.

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.