Who remembers E.T. for the Atari 2600?

In the latest issue of Wireframe magazine, video game pioneer Howard Scott Warshaw reflects on the calamitous E.T. for the Atari 2600. Could it serve as a useful metaphor for real life?

When Julius Caesar ran into Brutus on the Ides of March so many years ago, it changed his life dramatically. I would say the same thing about my life when I ran into the E.T. project, though in my case, the change wasn’t quite so abrupt… or pointed. People say that my E.T. game was ahead of its time, so much so that it didn’t work for many players in its time. Fair enough. But E.T. is more than that. On many levels, that game has served as a metaphor for life, at least for my life. Let me explain, and perhaps it will sound familiar in yours as well.

ET for Atari

There was an aura of promise and anticipation on the advent of the E.T. project – much like the prospect of graduating from college and entering the working world as a computer programming professional. This was super-exciting to me. Once I began the challenge of delivering this game, however, the bloom left the rose (no matter how many times I healed it). Similarly, on my entry into the working world, my excitement was quashed by the unsatisfying nature and demands of typical corporate computing tasks. This is analogous to the experience of E.T. players, having just unwrapped the game. They pop the cartridge in, fire it up, and venture forward with innocent exuberance… only to be crushed by a confusing and unforgiving game world. Perhaps the E.T. game was some sort of unconscious impulse on my part. Was I recreating the disappointment of my first foray into corporate life? Highly unlikely, but the therapist in me just had to ask.

In the E.T. game, I spend a lot of time wandering around and falling into pits. Sometimes I find treasure in those pits. Sometimes I’m just stuck in a pit and I need to dig my way out. That costs energy I could have used on more productive endeavours. There’s also a power-up in the game you can use to find out if there is something worth diving in for. Sadly, there’s no such power-up in life. Figuring out the difference between the treasure and the waste has always been one of my biggest questions, and it’s rarely obvious to me.

ET for Atari

One of the treasures you find in the game is the flower. The act of healing it brings benefits and occasional delightful surprises. I was at the bottom of a ‘pit’ in my life when I found the path to becoming a psychotherapist (another act of healing). It helped me climb out and take some big steps toward winning the bigger game.

E.T. is all about the pits, at least it seems so for many who talk about it. And they do so with such derision. Many times I’ve heard the phrase, “E.T. isn’t about the pits. It is the pits!” But are pits really so bad? After all, there are situations in which being stuck in a pit can be an advantage – OK, perhaps not so much in the game. But in life, I find it’s unwise to judge where I am until I see where it takes me. There have been times where major disappointments ended up saving me from a far worse fate had I been granted my original desire. And in more concrete terms, during a hurricane or tornado, there are far worse outcomes than stumbling into a pit. Sometimes when I trip and fall, I wind up dodging a bullet.

ET for Atari

Yes, in the game you can wind up wandering aimlessly around, feeling hopeless and without direction (somehow, they didn’t put that on the box). But ultimately, if you persevere (and read the directions), you can create a reasonably satisfying win. After finishing development of the game, there was a long period of waiting before any feedback arrived. Then it came with a vengeance. Of course, that only lasted for decades. My life after Atari seemed a bit of a wasteland for a long time too. Rays of sunlight broke through on occasion, but mostly cloudy skies persisted. Things didn’t improve until I broke free from the world in which I was stuck in order to launch the improbable life I truly wanted.

ET for Atari

But it’s not like there were no lingering issues from my E.T. experience. It turns out that ever since the E.T. project, I have a much greater propensity to procrastinate, regularly shorting myself of dev time. I didn’t used to do that before E.T., but I’ve done it quite a bit since. I delay launching a genuine effort, then rush into things and try to do them too quickly. This results in a flurry of motion that doesn’t quite realise the potential of the original concept. More flailing and more failing. It doesn’t mean my idea was poor; it means it was unrefined and didn’t receive sufficient nourishment. On reflection, I see there are both challenges and opportunities at every turn. Pits and treasures. Which of those I emphasise as I move forward is how I construct the life I’m going to have, and I’m doing that all the time.

ET for Atari

Pits and treasures, this is much of life. My E.T. game has mostly pits. Truth be known, people like to call them ‘pits’, but I’ve always thought of them as wells: a place to hide, to take repose and to weather out life’s storms. For me, that has been the value of having so many wells. I hope it works for you as well. Try it on. It just might fit like Caesar’s toga. And if it doesn’t, you can say what Brutus said on that fateful day: “At least I took a stab at it.”

Get your copy of Wireframe issue 55

You can read more features like this one in Wireframe issue 54, available directly from Raspberry Pi Press — we deliver worldwide.

wireframe 54 cover

And if you’d like a handy digital version of the magazine, you can also download issue 54 for free in PDF format.

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Recently David Crane, the mastermind programmer behind “Pitfall”, got together with Dan Kitchen to create a brand new game for the Atari 2600 called “Circus Convoy”. Maybe Howard could do the same thing himself by recreating ET as he would have done if he had had more time the first time. (As many people know, he only had about 5 weeks to create it from beginning to end). What would he have done differently? In what ways would it have been better? I think a lot of people would pay to see what he could come up with if he had five or six months to work on it or more. I know I would pay money to find out.

Reply to Russell P Jones

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Considering how many ended up at the bottom of pit in some desert I would image some have nightmares about it rather than fond memories.

In life being in a pit is not always bad but being stuck in a pit when you think there is no way out is always bad. Escaping that pit is good just try not to fall into a deeper one.

Reply to David North

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I recently got my old Atari from my sister, in the box of stuff, was E.T. I’ll hang on to it and add it to my collection.

Reply to Geoff

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