Monday, May 25, 2015


     Too often, accounts of the Karvina Corporation will begin with Killswitch, ignoring their first two games entirely. We do not begrudge the omission of their first offering, the subpar What Happened to Agent Small?, but for posterity it must be noted that that game’s pitiful sales should have doomed the nascent company right out of the gate in 1984. In 1987, however, completely without anticipation or advertisement, they released their second game, Gargantua. Even now, little is known about this game’s funding and development but by the end of the year Karvina was a name that would not be soon forgotten.

     At startup, GARGANTUA appears in a dull gray barely visible over the black screen. It is quickly replaced by the blood-red text of PANURGE HAS BETRAYED YOU; FIND PANTAGRUEL! No further context is given as the player is immediately thrust into the game. He takes control of a gigantic if peasant-looking figure on a vibrant green field set against a bright blue sky. There is at the top of the screen, which Gargantua’s head almost reaches, a vertical meter next to a score counter. At the very start, the meter is always exactly 3/8 full with a sickly yellow color and the score is always 7230. But no matter what the player does, be it move in either direction or stand perfectly still, his score will start changing in either direction and the meter will likewise either increase or decrease with no readily apparent rhyme or reason.

     As for controls, Gargantua (implied but never actually confirmed to be your character) may move either left or right, jump, or perform a rude finger gesture, perceptible though pixelated. But the player will not move left for long before he encounters a disturbing skeletal figure wielding a scythe and for all intents and purposes appearing to be Death himself. Touching him, or even trying to jump over him, will immediately result in a black screen over which is written only YES. The game then shuts off.

     There are several points of interest here. For one, this is the only known way to die in the game. Second, Death will never actually move. He does seem to follow you offscreen, for as far right as Gargantua ventures on a level Death will always be a few steps to his left. Third is the fact that the vertical meter usually (but not always) changes color as it variously fills or diminishes; the YES of the game over screen will always be whatever color it was at the time of death.

     If you move right, you will quickly discover numerous obstacles in your path: trees, animals, houses, people. They are, however, all miniscule in size compared to you. Regardless, they will attack. But they cannot harm you. Whether you jump on them or simply walk over them they will crumble into dust. Your physical interaction with them seems to affect your meters, but so does merely gesturing at them or leaping over them. The scoring algorithm remained mysterious. 

     Eventually, Gargantua will come to a castle larger than all he has yet encountered save Death, but that he still dwarves in size. He smashes it, a decapitated head rolls out, and a victory fanfare plays as the score he has accumulated in the level (an unknown, offscreen calculation) is either added or subtracted to either meter. The game then cuts to a strange scene: Death is on one edge of the screen and a man Gargantua’s size (but with a different coloration) is in a gallows on the other edge of it. Imposed text reads as follows: WHY DID YOU KILL EPISTEMON!?

     The game then immediately moves to the next level which is functionally equivalent to the previous one, save only for the colors. The landscape is browner and a little less lush, and the enemies and boss castle have different tones as well, but otherwise it is like playing Level One again. However, depending on unknown factors long thought to be related to the two mysterious meters, Gargantua himself will be a different size than he was in the first level (the only stage in which his appearance is not known to vary). He may grow even larger. He might become as small as the enemy soldiers. There was even a rumor that it was possible to grow so small as to be effectively invisible onscreen, though it was never proven. At any rate, it is still impossible to die; the only difference is that the jump might now be needed to move over approaching enemies. And if the boss castle is too small to jump on, then the rude finger gesture now serves as a sort of punch that will break it into pieces in short order.

     Beating Level Two reveals the same cut scene as before, only Death is now closer to the man in the gallows and the text reads DID PICROCHOLE DESERVE IT!? Beating the gray wasteland of Level Three moves Death closer still and informs us that THE JUSTICE IS DEAD. Level Four’s palette is that of a black, charred wasteland; at the ending screen Death cannot move closer to the imprisoned figure without touching him. But what is truly strange is the message that appears on the screen: 111560.

     The player then moves to Level Five, the apparent final level of the game. It is a vividly bloody red, but this progression of color is the only obvious continuity it shares with the other stages. It appears to be horribly glitched, even extending to Gargantua’s sprite, although he is fully functional. Most notably, there are no enemies—including Death. If Gargantua goes left, he can scroll in that direction without apparent limit.

     If he goes right, at length he will not come to a boss, but rather the same scaffold from the ending cutscenes. It appears to be smeared with blood, though no one is visible. If, however, Gargantua makes any contact at all with the platform, which is so large that the entirety of it cannot be seen on the screen at once, the game will freeze with a single word emblazoned over it: NO.

     And that, for years, was Gargantua. Those who hated the game hated it, and for good reason; where was the gameplay, the actual danger? But there were those, a small but persistent minority, who could not just leave its many oddities unexplained—even if the answer came from outside the game. The most obvious place to turn for many was to the actual Gargantua and Pantagruel novels. Panurge? Epistemon? Picrochole? All real characters from the books but with only the passing mentions in the game. Attempts to somehow unlock them in the castles where you presumably fought them proved fruitless, and so attention quickly moved to the real enigma: 111560.

     Since the names given at the end of the first three levels took on new relevance from the novels, it was logically reasoned that the number, whatever it might mean, would also find its meaning in their pages. Most intriguingly, there was a game level for each novel, and the name at the end of each in fact corroborated with its literary counterpart. And so The Fourth Book of Pantagruel exploded in popularity at the college campuses that took to Karvina games with such fervor. Was it a code for a relevant page? Was the 111,560th word a key? Did the proximity of 1560 to the book’s publication date of 1552 mean anything?

     Ultimately, this line of thinking was rejected in favor of the primary alternative explanation which is that 111,560 was the score needed to unlock the real ending. Serious attention was given to cracking the scoring algorithm, but it proved impossible to find constants upon which a reliable formula could be based. Ten consecutive games could begin with the player immediately leaping into the air and touching the ground with a different score than the others, to say nothing of killing enemies. Most wrote off the score counter as bugged or impossibly random and put down the game for good.

     But some were not yet dissuaded and pressed on, inspiring a legion of wild rumors. If you waited around for 111,560 seconds on the final level Death would appear. Flipping off each castle that same number of times would finally induce their occupants to emerge. The secret number was really 334, very nearly (but not exactly) the square root of the larger number. Each number actually corresponded to the number of enemies you had to kill in each stage, meaning one kill on each of the first three levels, five kills on the fourth, and six on the fifth, a theory that both hinted at a mysterious Level Six and inspired numerous pilgrimages to the left on Level Five as the player desperately hunted for enemies that could not be found.

     However, it was alleged that this all took something for granted, the idea that once the necessary score had been achieved it would be locked into place. But what if the score remained as in flux as it always was? If the score wasn’t achieved in just the right place at the right time, would nothing come of it? Finally, one consensus (or as much of one as was possible) did emerge: the right time and place was at the very end of Level Four, for it did seem certain that your score at the end of a stage did affect your size in the next one. The Holy Grail, then, was this: to become big enough to leap over the scaffold at the very end of the game. For it had been proven over and over again that the game did not crash if you merely jumped over the platform but only if you came up short and touched it, as all eventually did.

     Fake photos continued to make the rounds and the “secrets” of alleged endings spread like wildfire. At the other end of the platform was the final battle with Panurge, or Death, or your reunion with Pantagruel, or Level Six, but the point was that it was something. The only concrete words about the game, however, would come from the Karvina Corporation itself in a February 1988 press release:
It is with a heavy heart that we must apologize for Gargantua. Untrusting of our own power after the failure Agent Small, we reached into the literary world for a pillar of strength. Unfortunately, in our fealty to what was an outside static narrative, we could not properly offer our own vision. But what we have learned from this game will not be forgotten. We promise you a game truly worthy of the name Karvina. It is called Killswitch and it will be ready for foreign release by 1990. Please do not waste even another second on Gargantua, for it is nothing.
Karvina’s own disapproval seemed to sap the life out of what remained of Gargantua’s fanbase; attention had universally moved over to Killswitch by the time it was released ahead of schedule.
     It was only in 1991, when Killswitch mania raged on even as fevered anticipation grew for that year’s later release of Guest at the Table of Heaven, that the first of two landmark posts was made to a Columbia BBS. The first post, made by “Bartholomew_Rex,” gave evidence that he had just attained the fabled 111560 score on Level Two (though it quickly changed as if nothing special had occurred) and asked a simple question: what should he do? A fierce debate ensued, namely between whether or not he should go left or right on the fifth stage. Days later, Rex explained what had happened. He had attempted to go left and attempt the infamous “Seconds Walk”: to go leftward for an amount equivalent to 111,560 seconds, or nearly 31 hours. But his system had badly overheated and crashed nearly 20 hours in, and he could not tell whether it was intentional on the game’s part or not. Rex was widely derided and never posted again.

     The second post of note regarding Gargantua (and coming years later, in 1994) was courtesy of the infamous “Porto881,” he of Killswitch cipher fame. The body of Porto881’s work was that he had discovered, among other things, the pattern involved with Porto’s seemingly random growth. He had done this in large part by cracking the growth pattern in Gargantua, which according to him was nearly identical.

     As it turns out, there were set values for nearly every action in the game—slaying enemies, avoiding them, doing things within the framework of an invisible ingame clock—but the underlying randomization had a simple explanation: the score counter, after years of vicious speculation, was glitched after all. Removing the bug, he claimed, made the score counter run like that of any other game, a slow if steady upward slog. He knew this because Karvina’s infamously complex game protection would only begin with Killswitch; it was no problem for him to actually look through Gargantua’s code to find the answers. Based on what he found there, he offered some final conclusions:
1. The vertical meter, the one that seemed to randomly fill or empty based on unknown factors, was also broken or unprogrammed, but to the extent that it was beyond recovery. Its connection with the color of the death screen, as he would soon reveal, was definite proof that it was bugged. 
2. There was an unused enemy. It was identical to Gargantua in appearance but had the coloration of the man in the gallows during the end-level cutscenes. Unused bomb and sword graphics suggested not only that you would fight this creature but also that it was actually dangerous. There was no information given as to its identity. 
3. There was no way to make Death appear on Level Five and nothing to the right of the scaffold on that level either. 
4. He claimed that he was able at length to remove the game’s buggy elements at which point the death screens behaved normally. If you killed yourself immediately, the YES would be displayed with a lush verdant green. The longer you took to do it, the more enemies you killed, and the further you were into the game the more the color would “decay” into a sickly yellow, then a dull gray, then a shadowy black, and finally a bloody red. 
5. The best ending possible was thus to kill yourself immediately; absolutely everything else you tried to do would only make things worse from that point on.
Though some few remaining skeptics obstinately rejected Porto881’s findings, most accepted their grim implications. It was clear that Gargantua was a broken game made by a company that actively hated its players—or drastically overestimated them—and if they were not so desperate to play its next offering they would have abandoned Karvina forever. The only thing it was in their power to do was to forget about Gargantua at last, just as Karvina had told them to. It would be the last game of theirs that the players would ever be allowed to completely decipher, and everyone would be better off for it.