just_nonplussed's Kaboom! (Atari 2600) review

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Apples in a basket.


 
Kaboom! is an interesting example of narrative in Video Games. I will breifly examine the narrative and its inherent schism. 
 
First there is the symbolic story. This is communicated to the Player first and foremost by the images and their relationship. You have the Mad Bomber 'at the top of the screen' (Or is it on the opposite side?) who is throwing bombs 'down' (Or is across?) seemingly to blow you up, or blow the whole environment up...Or something beyond the environment (Though it is suggested that the Mad Bomber is content with at least 'killing' you when each game ends, so perhaps it is just about you (At least to begin with)). 
 
As the bombs come raining down, Players are forced to catch them; almost as if they are catching apples in a basket. Each bomb is diffused and returns to the void upon connecting with the bomb diffusion unit. And this is all there is (Materially at least) to the symbolic narrative. It is about your role to defend yourself and to neautralize the wider threat that the Mad Bomber represents.  
 
However, the fight continues! The story (And the threat) is practically infinitely repeating. Each screen, each battle gets faster and faster. The Bomber attains the speed of a super-human with an infinite number of bombs. The player however, is still only human and constantly plays catch-up; having to keep up all the time. Generally it is inevitable that the Player will lose at some point.
 
This change in the narrative of Kaboom! from a simple cops & robbers type story, to the bizzare virus-like powers of the Bomber to get smarter and to evolve (Figuratively speaking) highlights a schism between the symbolism of the characters and setting, and the abstract nature of the game design, including all the limitations of the hardware back in the 80s that probably lead to such a schism. But the spatial questions I raised in the first paragraph as to the positioning of the characters/objects and their intentions, or even what they actually were (Is the bomb diffuser sentient, or a symbol for another human character?) displays that even the symbolic narrative is on shaky ground with its representations and could possibly be considered abstract as well. 
 
Eventually, even the symbolic story of the super-human Mad Bomber dissolves as the speed of the game forces the Player to simply hypnotically react. The game becomes abstract...About kinetic, dizzying control. This change highlights the structual relationship between the computer and the player more than the symbolic narrative of the Bomber and the Diffuser. This abstraction also better allows the unconcious mind to interpret personal, individual readings of the text. The diffusion unit is almost like a mouth or a hole, swallowing food. Playing feels very subservient and passive. 
 
Kaboom! highlights the quite complex system of what a game is. A game is a self-contained, limited system that humans can participate with, but that kind of stands on its own. Sometimes the system allows for Player choice and agency, allowing interpretation of the narrative through play. Other times, there is no such agency (Or very little choice), but since we have consciousness, the symbols and structures have meanings beyond the game itself (The symbol of the bomb for instance, was not invented by the game), simply because we can interpret them because we're not a computer. So this highlights a complex, but inter-related relationship between a symbolic story, abstract mechanics, and the individual Player story (That can come from either the symbolic narrative, the player-computer relationship, or both). 
 
  

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