I was a sensitive child. As I’ve disclosed previously, I was scared of my first Nintendo Entertainment System. Which is entirely reasonable when you consider that it was inhabited by a ghost that took control of Mario whenever I turned my attention away for a few moments. However, that NES console provoked more than terror in me; it also precipitated what was likely my first existential crisis. What exactly was it that deformed my previously compact and self-contained mind into a warping tunnel extending infinitely in all directions into time and space? It was Duck Hunt.
I was five years old. Prior to my discovery of the Mario-demo-ghost, I spent some time playing Duck Hunt. Undoubtedly sitting a mere few feet from the screen, clutching the futuristic NES Zapper gun*, shooting green and purple pixelated ducks and relishing triumph with my co-conspirator, the hound. Soon I had gotten good enough to zap easily through the first few levels.
As I reached whatever I considered at the time to be a high level (was it five? ten? I don’t know), it seemed to me that the game should, at some point, reach its conclusion. That was how games worked. They had endpoints. In the other NES game I played, Mario Bros., every level had a clear endpoint and I confidently believed that were I skilled enough, I could reach the end of the game. For whatever reason, I did not have this sense with Duck Hunt. Maybe it was the repetitiveness of the levels. So although I lacked the vocabulary and theoretical reasoning to properly articulate this thought, I began to fear that Duck Hunt was infinite. In the clearly-delineated world of a five-year-old, the concept of infinity may exist in some vague form (the sky never ends!). However, the idea that I could keep shooting ducks for ever and ever, and the game would keep playing that bit of jaunty music and loading a new level, brought the concept of endlessness crashing down onto me with a force that shook me to my very core.
I asked my mother when the game would end. She said that if I turned off the Nintendo, the game would be over. She did not understand.
I had to put my theory to the test, and find out if Duck Hunt was, in fact, infinite. To accomplish this, I could not trust my still-developing hand-eye coordination and risk a few missed shots resulting in game over and an aborted experiment. I moved in and put that orange muzzle right against the screen. I zapped through level after level, struggling against a crescendo of anxiety. I reached higher levels than ever before, and by the time the erratically-flying ducks got fast enough to end my close-up game, I felt queasy with incomprehension. It was clearly true: the game was infinite.
I tried to understand. I liked things that I could understand. I knew that if I understood, I would feel more comfortable. But I just couldn’t. I felt tiny and insignificant in the face of this eternal game. I closed my eyes and imagined the ducks flying, falling, held as trophies by the hound. More ducks, more music, the hound sniffing the ground and leaping into the grass to begin a new level, ducks flying, ducks falling, over and over and over. I tried to come to terms with the idea that this process could go on forever. What would happen to a person who just kept playing? Would they stop eating and starve? Would they actually die? I believed that they might. Who would create such a sinister game? What were their motives? And I wondered most desperately… what did forever actually mean?
I did not resolve these questions. I stopped playing Duck Hunt. I turned my attention to Super Mario Bros… and we know how that turned out. My video game career was off to a rocky start, but in retrospect, I think it was ultimately a positive thing for me to be so truly affected by my early gaming experiences.
By the way, a quick Wiki search has finally put my mind at ease… Duck hunt glitches out at level one hundred. Phew.
(*It wasn’t until a brief resurgence of interest in Duck Hunt during my high school years that I ever considered the mechanics of the gun, and realized that it works by acting as an input – registering the area on the tv screen at which it is pointed in order to determine if a shot is a hit or miss. This realization came in a flash of clarity, and once again, Duck Hunt had succeeded in making me question everything in the world I took for granted… for example, that a gun is fundamentally an output device.)