The World Record That Wasn't
I tuned into a live online broadcast of Tim McVey's attempt to break the world record on the classic arcade game Nibbler around noon last Saturday. By that time, McVey had been playing for 30 hours. He needed to reach a billion and change; his score stood at about 810 million. Some of McVey's family and friends fielded questions from web commenters during the marathon. "What are the chances you won't break the record?" one asked.
McVey answered all the questions with the same weary, dismissive tone, like the way your office IT guy acts when you ask him how to log onto webmail. This one was no different. "The power could go out," he said. "The game could crash. The machine could be struck by lightning." Off-screen, you could hear a woman in the room laugh nervously. "C'mon, Tim," she said. The concern in her voice wasn't so much that he was being a sarcastic jerk to some well-meaning online spectators—after 30 hours awake, he was entitled to that. Her unspoken reprimand was more fundamental: Don't tempt fate.
Nibbler was produced in 1982 by Rock-Ola, a company that traditionally made jukeboxes and other coin-op machines. It's the basis for the countless versions of Snake that have since popped up on cell phones and elsewhere. You guide Nibbler the snake around various mazes, gobbling up little dots ("croutons") and trying to keep him from crashing into his ever-lengthening body.
While Nibbler is a cute, clever game, it only became famous for a point of trivia: It was the first game in which you could score a billion points. Tim McVey achieved this feat in 1984, scoring 1,000,042,270 over an uninterrupted two-day session. He got his name in the papers, a key to the city, and his name in the record books. The record stood for 25 years until this February, when Canadian Dwayne Richard put up a score of 1,004,328,140. So McVey decided to reclaim his rightful glory.
Except he didn't. I returned to the broadcast—which amounted to a webcam pointed at the Nibbler screen—around McVey's 35th hour. The score was above 910 million, but that wasn't the number that people were watching anymore. Earlier in the day, McVey had stored a huge stockpile of 100+ extra lives (so many, in fact, that the game's two-digit readout couldn't display them properly). Now he had around 60 lives left. Still a lot, but dwindling.
One commenter with an air of authority piped up: "No need to worry until he gets down to around 40 lives." An hour later, he had around 40 lives, and someone else tried to calm the crowd: "It's not a problem until around 20 lives." Nibbler doles out an extra snake every four levels, but McVey was losing them faster than that. "He's going to ragequit," one person said. He was shouted down by a moderator. "Positive thoughts, people."
Because all we could see was the game's screen, we had to piece together the scene from little details. The snake wasn't moving fluidly anymore; poor Nibbler was herky-jerking his way around each maze. We could hear McVey grunt and sigh and complain about his hand. A dog barked, shattering the tense quiet (and presumably any trace of concentration McVey had left), and a woman in the room hissed, "Shut him up!"
McVey only needed a few more hours, but his hand wouldn't cooperate. Later, after the ordeal was over, they'd inspect the game and find that the joystick had stopped working properly, too.
Around 15 lives left, there was a thud as McVey pounded the cabinet and walked away. Ragequit.
Final score: 945,939,420. McVey came back a few minutes later to enter his initials, or rather to enter the three-letter epithet SUX. (I would have gone with the timeless ASS, but to each their own.) His friends tried to console him, tell him that it was "still an amazing score!" but c'mon. He wanted the record, he fell short, and he knew that was all that mattered. It was like trying to tell the loser of the Super Bowl, "Hey, you still won the NFC Championship!" The guy did not want to hear it.
I felt awkward listening in on this moment of personal failure, but I didn't close the window, either. I wanted to wallow with McVey in his disappointment, because in the end, this is what makes the high-score competitions such an epic endeavor: There's first place, or there's nothing. Sure, 946 million is a nice score. And then they'll unplug the machine, and it'll be gone. If it were really as easy as McVey made it out to be—if the only thing that could stop him was a freak lightning strike—nobody would watch. As it is, the next time McVey sets out to retake his throne, I'll be watching.