Pennsylvania PolkaApril 6, 2009
I have to apologize for the dry run of activity on this blog. As the final weeks of class are on the horizon and I have been busy with some personal matters, you—neglected reader—probably have been wondering what has happened? Well, fret no more because I have been pondering some new exciting material for the site once the summer season sets in. In the mean time I thought a little fun post would suffice. I meant to post this story a couple of weeks ago when it was timelier but alas my procrastination and oversight have failed me once again. Rather than wait another year to finally make this little critique public, I feel that since it recently snowed in my hometown of Chicago I feel that this story is quite appropriate, offering no better opportunity to investigate one our the earliest videogame movies: Harold Ramis’s comedy classic Groundhog Day.
For those criminally uninitiated in Groundhog Day, the story is about meteorologist Phil Connors, an egotistical TV weatherman and his yearly trek to the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2nd. He is soon after inextricably fated to live the same day over and over again waking up promptly at 6AM every morning to re-experience Groundhog Day. In the process he learns about life, love, and happiness. Like most rewind films, the most popular being Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day has since received praise as one of the most spiritual movies of our time concerning man and the pursuit of self improvement and betterment. There is a connection for the relationship of faith and the videogame, but before I touch upon that aspect let me delve closer into what makes Groundhog Day one of the definitive videogame movies.
Released in 1993, only two years after the release of the Super Nintendo in North America and four years after the Sega Genesis, we may consider this one of the heights of the classic video game era. Already, media had become over saturated with many Nintendo franchise television programs and the horrid Super Mario Bros. movie that same year. Groundhog Day surrounds the story of a protagonist who one can consider is forced to play the same level of a videogame over and over again. In the film, Phil eventually remembers every aspect of the day from the dialog of the people of Punxsutawney to the actions that fated to happen: such a bus boy dropping dishes, a flat-tire, and so forth. Like many old 8-bit games it eventually becomes a memory game. Knowing who and when enemies react will allow the player to play through the level performing the best course of action.But Phil’s memory of the day goes beyond the gimmick value, it becomes second nature. I submit the scene where he counts down the actions of two bankers loading up a truck with sacks of money. Phil times his actions to the second to when these bankers are not looking giving him the perfect opportune time to swipe the cash unbeknownst to the citizens around him. Just like muscle memory when playing videogames or knowing secrets of the level, the action is a mix between planned and regulatory execution. Memory in a videogame level is created through repeated playthrough similarly to how Phil is forced to play out his horrid day for an infinite number of times. At one point Phil claims that he may be a god, and that maybe God is God because he has just been around forever.
The God complex is not a far stretch when we talk about videogames, with the Sim series and just about anything from Peter Molyneux, gamers have long had the option to play God in varying degrees. But the God mode has always been in videogames. This is not to be confused with invincibility, but rather the ability to circumvent permanent death. I am talking about the extra lives system. Of course, this is merely an illusionary consequence on consoles as the luxury of being able to reset is always an option. Phil has the same option as he is unable to die in Groundhog Day. A humorous series of attempted suicides only leads to Phil awaking to the tunes of “Sunny and Cher” every morning. Despite this setback Phil continues to persevere.
So Phil begins a journey to better himself. He learns French, ice sculpting, piano, and multitudes of other talents finally open to him as time is no longer a hindrance. We could view this as simply powering up a person’s avatar. To put it in more recent gamer terms, it’s basically leveling up a player in an RPG learning new skills and talents. But none of these talents that Phil gains necessarily allow him to escape living repeatedly through Groundhog Day. A casual reading of the film can conclude that in order for Phil to reach the endgame and break the cycle of Groundhog Day he must make himself worthy requited love from his dream girl, Rita. There is also the interpretation that Phil is only able to leave Groundhog Day if he becomes truly happy with himself and what he has become. It is the achievement of a state of Nirvana, an acceptance of himself and the way things are and the ability to mentally rise above it. For a closer videogame reading we can presuppose that Phil must be able to perform the perfect day or in other words, the perfect run through the level in order to beat the game.
No matter how the film is read, the similarities to the classic videogame are apt. We see the evolution of film and the construct of Groundhog Day not only similar to games of the past but even to an extent of games of today. The concept of Groundhog Day is not uncommon, rumor has it that inspiration for the film came from the Twilight Zone episode “Shadow Play.” The rules and the system of memory, repeatability, and perfection can see a connection that not only influenced the medium of videogames but vice-versa. Phil Connors acts as a nonplayable avatar for the audience and viewers not only sympathize with but empathize as well. Yet, with all these similarities what does the film say about videogames or what do videogames have to say about Groundhog Day?Instead of looking at the specific themes of Groundhog Day let us look at what the videogame medium can teach instead. The notion of second chances and the ability to play out events differently is a luxury that is often ignored in videogames and definitely one of the attractions in escapist fare. It is ironic that more often than not videogames are perceived as time wasters. Videogames can show that even in a system without consequence, players will not always ultimately fall for the most exploitative course of action. Creating the perfect run or achieving perfection is not a terrible goal to aspire to. We can also look at the thematic of leveling up or bettering ourselves to also reach achievement. It is the self-imposed limits that not only better players but allow them to grow within the system. By placing these moral limits or even freeing others videogames allow players to better themselves within the game and create a similar mentality towards life and problem solving. At the end of Phil’s journey in Groundhog Day he gives the exasperate statement, “It was the end of a very long day.” The same sense of relief and joy come from the best games and even through all the hardships, the time spent with the experience is worth the effort.