Thursday, February 3, 2011

Soldiers of the Future (Duck Hunt)

This, then, is the primal scene in its first appearance. No serpents or dragons to be seen. Not even a rabbit. Just ducks. Ducks and a laughing dog. There is no particular mythic significance to ducks. A quick consult with my dictionary of symbols suggests only that I might instead want to look up "goose," a paragraph long entry about maternal instinct. So unless I want to get very Freudian about the symbolism of killing the maternal with a gigantic phallic gun, which, I'll readily admit, I kind of do, the mythic here will have to come from the actual history of the game.

Good thing we've got Duck Hunt then - one of a few games that can make a case for being the primal scene of the NES, given that it was one of the pack-in games for the system, along with its signature peripheral, the Zapper.

The future is formed, then, in a strangely incongruous moment. Everyone who had an NES played Duck Hunt - it was a packed-in game for most of the system's run. It is, for a number of reasons, not a classic game as such. It is designed in the classic arcade style - clearly intended to be played for a few quarters and no longer. There's no depth to the game play save the hope that the difficulty curve will drop most players before the game gets too boring. It is important because it is a touchstone. Nobody loves Duck Hunt, but everybody has played it, and it is inexorably linked to memories of other, actually good games.

The game is memorable beyond its cultural significance, true, but this comes mostly down to Nintendo's already discussed skill at making incidental characters memorable, in this case with the dog being a fairly flagrant homage to Shigeru Miyamoto's mocking ape. Indeed, it is the mockery of the dog, more than anything else, that stands out, with numerous "shoot the dog" remakes of Donkey Kong existing.

Part of the game's charm is that it is a game that is overtly magical, relying on a deliberately mysterious phenomenon. Most NES games work in a basically explicable way - you push a button on a controller that is wired up to the NES. The NES, which is wired up to the television, displays the results of your button push on the screen. The screen and the controller do not interact directly. But with Duck Hunt and the Zapper, they do. Duck Hunt works based on whether or not the Zapper is correctly aimed at something on the screen.

Indeed, by all appearances, the NES drops out of the equation entirely. From the player's perspective, particularly when that player is, as most NES players were, a small child, the gun acts directly upon the screen.

In truth, the Zapper is in fact an extremely simple camera. When you pull the trigger, the screen flashes black, then white where the duck is. The photosensor inside the Zapper then judges whether or not it is looking at white light or not (comparing it to the previous image of a black screen) and registers the hit accordingly. At the primal scene, then, we can see the future. The Zapper is a prototypic version of the Wii. There the sensor bar is in fact a set of infra-red LEDs - it senses nothing. The Wii remote sees the LEDs, and can determine its position relative to the sensor bar based on how the LEDs look to it.

But in this case, reality is the secret history. Almost nobody is actually influenced directly by the clear arc of history leading from the Zapper to the Wii. That history is instead buried under the experienced history, which is a complete fabrication.

In the experienced history, the Zapper is a gun that acts upon the television. The television, in other words, is changed from a mere screen that displays content (albeit in some cases interactive content) to something that can be directly acted upon and altered. The TV, in Duck Hunt, is aware of its audience, as opposed to a mere passive receiver of signal.

Thus Duck Hunt, combined with the (now retro-)futuristic design of the NES and Zapper, made a compelling case that video games changed what a television was. Once the NES was hooked up to it, the technology of television visibly evolved, becoming something altogether more unusual and interesting.

I noted above that ducks are not widely represented in creation mythology. But they are not unrepresented. Here they are. In older life, we know the television is, in reality, passive. Most of us know that the Zapper cannot work as we imagined. But the knowledge of how it does work is esoteric. The Zapper is a mystery of childhood for most of the Nintendo generation. The enduring mystery of the Zapper serves as the creation myth of the Nintendo generation - the point where we realized that we'd rather be in the future.

The power of this creation myth is that knowledge does not undo it. Knowing the truth of the technology does not alter the experience anymore than understanding human biology alters the primal scene.

We were flown away to the future on the wings of a duck.


  1. The beginning is forever obscured by its narrative. The future is uncertain.

    There's just you, the duck, the zapper, the goddamn dog, and this moment--this is one of the beauties of video games.

    Side note: No one remembers the skeet shooting game with such fondness. It was superior to pretend/believe we were acting directly on another living creature.

  2. I would play this game just to lose on purpose in hopes of "freeing" the ducks.

  3. Interestingly, I've started reading through the Kalevala, and in the beginning, the world is created out of duck eggs deposited on the body of a goddess lying partially exposed in the primordial ocean. It is the first duck-related creation myth that I've encountered (not that I'm an expert), and I don't imagine that the creators of Duck Hunt were thinking of the Kalevala at the time, but still. This does seem like the kind of thing that might make it into a mythic dictionary under the 'duck' heading.

    Not that this has any particular bearing on Duck Hunt.

  4. I also realized after I posted the DuckTales entry that I had blown through my duck games without mentioning the Friendly Floatees. So, more imperfections there.