My life is a vector with both magnitude and direction. Yet as much as I want to determine my own position in space and time relative to another, my story—like all life stories—takes on a curve all its own. Though it’s comforting to imagine my life unfolding on some linear plane of years, it often feels more like it’s spiraling outward through three dimensional space, returning to old haunts and playing old games I thought had ended years ago. Lives spiral outward beyond our control. Like many people, I feel the need to transform myself to define my position in space and time.
Enter Vectorman, protagonist of the eponymous Sega Genesis classic “run and gun” side-scroller. Although Vectorman (1996) attempted to answer Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country (1994) by using graphical tricks to show graphics beyond what the Genesis console was thought capable of, sometimes it feels like the other way around—a sprawling multidimensional ziggurat attempting to squeeze itself into a run-of-the-mill 2D adventure platformer. As an “Orbot,” Vectorman is a robot whose body is composed of orbs. The universe and its spiral course runs through Vectorman, each orb a universe in and of itself, part of the baffling multiverse that composes all things virtual and real.
“Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets,” writes Stephen Hawking. Thus the gestures we assume often feel original, as satisfyingly organic as the smooth, computer-generated feel of Vectorman’s movements on the screen, from his propulsive rocket boot launch all the way down to his friendly flash of the peace sign when idle. Yet Vectorman features a then-groundbreaking programming technique known as Vector Piece Animation, in which the titular character’s body actually consists of twenty-three individual “sprites” programmed to move in unison. Consciousness often plays similar tricks on us. Vectorman is a friendly reminder that sometimes movements of my body, mind, and its component parts are not always traversing the ways we will them to move. When we realize this, it’s time to try to become more mindful. It’s time to sit down, meditate, and become one with the sounds and sights around us.
But not all the time. And so I crank Jon Holland’s riveting, retro techno soundtrack and reacquaint myself with a flood of memories that rearrange my mind-life much like the spherical sprites that reconstitute themselves in the game. It’s then that I take on the form of my childhood self to locate myself in space-time, to shore fragments against ruin, and to free myself—like Vectorman morphing into a drill to cut through floors, or transforming into an aquatic form to swim underwater. Vectorman finds himself in different situations inhabited by familiar ghosts, be they “beedles”—mosquito-esqe mechanical pests—or “Sludge Pilots”—mindless sentinels protecting a world overrun by drones—reappearing in later levels when they were thought to be forgotten chapters of levels past. Such are the many returns in the spirals of both mind-life and game-life.
Like Vectorman, I envision myself as the hero of my own narrative, sent to pick up important pieces of the life I’ve lived, to correct past mistakes through present actions, and to make sense of where I’ve come through positioning myself in opposition to or in accordance with others around me. The game’s bonus level is a fitting manifestation of self-preservation: as an embattled nucleus desperately defends itself from the deadly particles spinning around it, so must the mind protect itself from the orbiting deceptions of self-expectation.
Vectorman also sorts out identity through returning to pick up the pieces of his past. Consider the plot of the game: It’s the year 2049 and Earth has become inhospitable to human life thanks to climate change and pollution. Hawking would be pleased, at least, to learn that humanity has embarked on a migratory voyage to colonize other worlds, leaving the doomed planet behind in all its glorious wreckage.
While humankind jets across the cosmos in search of redemption, mechanical “Orbots” are left behind, tasked with cleaning up the planet for humanity’s eventual return. When Raster (a nod to pixelated raster graphics—the opposite of vector graphics), a high-level Orbot who observes Earth through a planetwide computer network, is accidentally attached to a fully-functional nuclear missile by a (no doubt fatigued and underpaid) worker Orbot, entropy is unleashed on Earth. Raster becomes an evil dictator named Warhead that declares itself supreme ruler, brainwashing the Orbot caretakers of Earth into agents of chaos prepared to terminate any humans who dare to return to their home planet. The abandoned superstructures and polluted skylines of “Day 1: Terraport” and the propaganda videoclips projected from the shattered flat-screens of “Day 15: Worldlink Center” are stark reminders of the grim consequences of unbridled technocracy. Have no fear, though. All is not lost. It’s up to Vectorman, an Orbot charged with the task of cleaning up toxic sludge by discharging it into the sun who happens to be off-planet during the rise of the dictatorship, to rectify these wrongs. Returning to Earth, Vectorman takes it upon himself to destroy Warhead’s horde of brainwashed minions.
As much as Vectorman engages with post-apocalyptic narratives that reflect humanity’s self-destructive instability, the game reminds me of the urgency of committing myself to the projects of elf-analysis and self-restoration. “Toasted,” Vectorman boasts after cleansing his broken world. Now and then, we all have to pick up the ruined pieces of the psyche to free ourselves from the illusion of linear progress. At least for sixteen levels or so, we might give up some control and become open to life’s grand, eternal spiral.
Paul S. Rowe is a writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Image: Vectorman, BlueSky Studios, 1995.