Binary Land is one of the most beautiful videogames I have ever played. It’s the kind of game that everyone should play at least once before they die.
It may seem strange to say that about an obscure Famicom game from 1985, seemingly indistinguishable from the throngs of Pac-Man-influenced skill games that stuffed the shelves during this time. But it is truly beautiful and romantic. This is no hyperbole.
It’s deceptively simple to explain. You play as one of two penguins, a male penguin named Gurin and a female penguin named Malon. At the top of a labyrinth of blocks rests a heart in a cage. You are at the bottom of the labyrinth, and you must make your way upward through the labyrinth to the heart at the top, avoiding webs that will trap you and spiders that patrol the labyrinth looking for someone to wrap up in one of those webs. If you get caught in a web, you merely become immobilized. If one of the spiders catches you, however, you lose a life (Although I think the spiders would just call it a bag lunch.)
It seems easy enough. You can take out both the webs and the spiders with an A button-activated bug spray, and you can see the entire labyrinth on one screen. So what’s the challenge?
The challenge is that you aren’t travelling alone. On the opposite side of the labyrinth, divided by a one-block-wide wall (Malon on the left side, Gurin on the right) is your partner, the other penguin. And whenever you move to the left or right, your partner moves in the other direction, and vice versa.
This complicates things considerably. If you hit a block and keep pressing the d-pad in its direction, and your partner isn’t being blocked by anything, they will continue moving even though you can’t. On top of that, you can’t open the heart’s cage alone. It can only be unlocked if both of you are standing on opposite sides of it, precisely equidistant, on the first block to the left of it and the first block to the right of it. The labyrinths are designed to trip you up every step of the way, snagging one penguin and locking off another. This is hard enough to work out, but then they add the spiders on your tail…and the timer. Never forget the timer. Ever.
It’s the intersection of all of these factors that makes the game truly nerve-wracking, and in the later stages (provided you make it through the psychological gut-punch that is Round 4) you’ll find yourself pausing every few seconds to add another step to your master plan. Every move has to be made carefully, and you have to keep track of a lot of things at once.
To play a videogame is to, in a sense, attempt to communicate with a computer. You put in some kind of input, and get some information in response. In a similar sense, you could say that the movement of your partner relative to yours is a kind of communication. You establish that you, playing as Penguin A, are going to do some action, and Penguin B does some other action in response.
And if you can be said to be communicating with a partner in this game, then it’s important to note that the behavior of your partner is a reflection of your own. Not exactly the same, fair enough, but not irreconcilably incomprehensible either (like some men like to think of most if not all women). Really, the two paths are not really all that different. The gameplay might be a shock at first, but it becomes understandable if you just take the time to try to understand, to observe, to listen. It takes patience and a willingness to learn from mistakes, but that just makes your eventual catharsis at the screen’s peak all the sweeter. I’d like to think that whoever made this game had a long and happy marriage.
It’s implied from the beginning that Gurin and Malon are deeply in love, and the dynamic the game creates between them is, dare I say it (Yes I do!) intimate. And like any intimate relationship, it takes work. You have to get to know your partner very well, and learn to see things from their perspective instead of getting locked in your own.
It also takes responsibility. You can’t let yourself be so tempted by randomly appearing (and quickly disappearing–better hurry!) power-ups and goodies that you lose track of your partner, but you also can’t spend so much time focusing on your partner that you end up forgetting to take care of yourself and stumble into a web…or a hungry spider.
In addition, you and your partner have to look out for each other, rescuing each other if one of you gets caught in a web. I think Anita Sarkeesian especially would appreciate the game’s commitment to the idea of mutual aid between equal partners, although she might scoff at Malon being a pink palette swap of Gurin with a bow. But hey, this is a hard game to ruin.
What amazes me most about this game is that none of these read as accidental moments of artistry in a game only intended as a coffee replacement. No, Binary Land seems to know exactly what it’s doing. Okay, so maybe the creator wasn’t thinking of specific terms like “mutual aid” or “self vs. other”, but the mindset was there. It even goes so far as to use Erik Satie’s famous waltz of romance Je Te Veux (“I want you”) as its musical score, just to hammer the theme home, a thoughtful aesthetic choice that soars above the often sophomoric standards of the mainstream game industry. Of course, I wasn’t aware of all the choices that went into making this game when I first played it. I just remember the sense of genuine empathy it made me feel for these anthropomorphic penguins, which is to say that this game is effective on every level.
Finally, it manages to achieve all of this without mocap, pre-rendered cutscenes, voice acting, or speech. Elegant in its simplicity, Binary Land is a work of romantic poetry that takes up less data than this essay.
It may seem surprising to find that such a profound game could have been released so early in videogames’ short history, but maybe it shouldn’t be. We tend to act as though the medium hadn’t begun to develop artistically until very recently (not that we’ve ever been good at judging our position in history).
It’s easy to see where this attitude comes from. These are videogames. Their history took a radically different course than most other art forms. Some milestones were hit out of order. Some were hit behind schedule. Some haven’t been hit at all yet. The forces of industry and commercialism have had more power over gaming’s development than could ever really be argued healthy.
So we missed a few trains. Big deal. Call our history warped or twisted, but as long as there have been videogames, and as long as there ARE videogames, there have been and will be people making them, and people are artistic by nature. There will be beauty. It will show up in the strangest places, (Penguins in Love?) but it’s always there. You just have to know where to look, and look carefully.
Few of us probably realize that Missile Command (1980!) was originally intended as a statement on the ultimate futility of nuclear war, one chilling enough to give its designer nightmares. Many of us today haven’t even heard of Chris Crawford, let alone his “Un-War” strategy game Balance of Power (1985!) Even I wouldn’t have heard of Binary Land (ported to the Famicom from a 1983 PC game) had it not been for the convoluted (and ambiguously legal) series of events that landed me in possession of a “300-in-1” Famicom game DVD at the age of 13. But there it was, all this time, touching and tragically overlooked.
Although I said that I want everyone to play this game, you may never get that chance. It’s only ever been available in Japan, and it’s never been remade or rereleased, at least not for anything you probably own. Your best bet for the foreseeable future, I’m afraid, would be to import a Famicom and buy the game alongside it, which must be super expensive, right? I don’t know, but I will go so far as to say that, in my opinion, it’s worth every penny, or yen, as it were.
But if you ever do get to play it, I want you to do so while thinking of your loved ones. They don’t have to be romantic partners; even family members and close friends will do. And if you manage to do well in the game, I want you to stop and ask yourself if you treat those people with the same sense of consideration, respect and understanding, and above all else love, that you do with Gurin or Malon.