The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.
“People ask, ‘What is the self?’ ‘What is life?’ ‘What is eternity?’ They will die with these questions unanswered. That is the curse of man.”
—Sweepwell Minestock II, After the Battle of the Last Flag
In a scene I once saw, there was a modest peace, and there was a small hope. Glistening on the horizon like a golden kingdom sat a future rife with opportunity, unmarred by fear’s heinous touch. It was a future I believed to be my own, and, with any luck, the future of my children and their children as well.
But, as we all found it much too soon, that pristine paradise was never meant to last. On the day the Mines began their onslaught, we were all given a grim reminder that the fantastic future we were promised was just that: a fantasy.
The Mines’ attack was as ruthless as it was efficient. In mere moments, entire cities were razed to the ground, and those explosive demons burrowed their way into our soil so quickly and ferociously that we had no time to realize just how fastidious and regimented they were being. Before we were able to run away and lick our wounds, they had managed to turn our entire world into a gridded hellscape, with scarce few spaces in the ground that weren’t plagued with the terror of sudden detonation. Men gnashed their teeth and rent their clothing, women wept lamented the passing of our once-beautiful future, and children? Would that I could describe the terror of the least fortunate among our young.
The worst continued to happen and humanity plunged deeper into despair’s depths. Then, just as death’s inescapable, exploding embrace was poised to consume us all, one man rose against it.
One man rose to fight the Mines’ tyranny.
With nothing but the tattered clothes on his back, he ventured into the Exploding Wastes and risked life and limb to determine where exactly the Mines had placed themselves. Using naught but his intuition and a vague understanding of where a Mine may potentially be, he began not only planting flags in the safe spaces, but also cordoning off areas with estimations as to how far away a Mine may be at any given time.
Slowly, but surely, tales of the Flagger King began to spread among the remaining pockets of humanity, and a resistance formed. One by one, Flaggers joined that man in droves to once again make safe the plains of men, and renew society square by precious square. In his hand were hope and enormous strength. Strength enough to beat back the Mines’ menace, but only for a short time.
The man fought and fought, but he inevitably learned of despair.
When the Flagger King had regained a sizable portion of the world, and his Flagging Squadrons were set to take back the planet from the Mines, the Devil Smiler appeared in the center of the sky. In that same instant, any Mines that had not been detonated exploded in a violent torrent of dirt and blood, and the progress that the Flagger King had made was wiped out in an instant.
As if in a waking nightmare, thousands upon thousands of Mines crashed down to the Earth, destroying what little hope the Flagger King had cultivated in his rebellion. He screamed to the heavens, and was met with nothing but the knowing grin of the Devil Smiler. And that’s when it hit him like so many explosions:
No matter how many Mines he flagged, this would never stop.
In a rage, the Flagger King began running through his settlements, removing the flags he and his subjects had taken such pains to plant. It was merely an illusion of safety, he realized, and so the only way to win this hellish game over which the Devil Smiler presided was not to play in the first place. Again the bed of civilization was razed to the ground—this time, not by some cataclysmic play in some wicked deity’s game, but rather by the very man who had given people hope in the first place.
People ask, “Why did you uproot the flags?” “Why did you bring destruction back to us?” “Why do you kill?”
They will die with these questions unanswered. That is the bliss of man.
FOOLISH MEN! Tremble before my absolute power! Prostrate yourself before the unknowing fear and despair that I dug up all those years ago.
BOW BEFORE THE MIGHT OF THE FLAGGER KING!
Let the earth remain uncovered, my foolish tribe. Stay hidden in the graves which I have dug for you with my arrogance.
To let the Mines lie. That is the fate of this world.
Story and Characters: The Gridder
What you have just read was the manifesto of the Mad Flagger King, who, depending on who you ask, is either our savior or just as cruel and heartless as the Devil Smiler which hangs mockingly in the sky above us. Personally, I tend to land somewhere in the middle with my thoughts on the crazy old man.
On the one hand, he gave us all a brief taste of that hope he mentioned, if even for a short time. On the other, however, were it not for his recklessness, we might have been spared the Second Exploding that nearly wiped us from the face of the planet.
Then again, who can say what the Devil Smiler is really thinking? There’s just as much of a chance that it all would have played out exactly like it had without the Mad Flagger King’s interference. Or, hell, who knows, it could have been much worse.
I’m a Gridder. All of my days are spent wandering the last vestiges of human settlements, making sure that the gridded sections of the world we inhabit don’t expand into possible Mine territory. I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not out there flagging these areas like the old man did. I simply ensure that what little space we have left doesn’t encroach on possible Mine Spots. One foot-by-foot square too many, and we risk triggering a Third Exploding. I’d like to avoid that if I could.
But it’s not always easy.
Most people I know are just as scared by the prospect of Third Exploding as I am, but there are those crazy few who actually believe in what the Mad Flagger King was doing. “If we could just find out where the Mines are,” they always say, “Maybe we could figure out what makes them tick! Maybe we could destroy them and get our land back!”
A fool’s dream. As I see it, it’s not our land anymore. It’s the Mines’.
Every now and again, one of these cultists will venture off into the Exploding Wastes, trying to plant flags here and there in some vain bid for land, or glory, or both. But, more often than not, they go out there all foolhardy, thinking they can make a difference for the rest of us, and then they get too cocky and end up spread out all over the place. I’d go out there and pick up the pieces, but there’s no way I’m risking Armageddon for the blown-up limbs of some vainglorious moron.
But then today happened.
As I was minding my business ensuring that the cordons were in the correct places, a woosh of air flipped up my cloak and a black blur rushed past me. Dazed, I realized after a moment that I had just been passed by a hooded figure, and before I could understand what he had done to me, I felt the tug from his rope pull at my mid-section.
In a split-second, I picked up my feet and began running after the figure. I could barely keep up with his speed, but, out of fear of being dragged along the Mine-studded ground, I made sure I matched his swiftness.
“Stop it!” I cried, terrified of being so far from the border of safety I had sworn to protect. “You’re verging on Mine territory, you’ll kill us both! Stop!” He said nothing back to me, and it was then that I noticed he was zigging and zagging as he ran. I quickly put together that he had somehow managed to dodge the Mines, and so I made it a point to mimic his trail so that I wouldn’t end up scrapped.
He moved as if he knew where the Mines were, but that was impossible. There were no flags to be seen, and to know where the Mines were planted was nothing short of fantasy. And yet, for as far as we ran, we never triggered one Mine. Finally, just as my legs were about to give out beneath me and my lungs were set to burst from my chest, he stopped.
“What the hell are you thinking?!” I said between bouts of catching my breath.
“Hush,” he said, not looking back at me.
“’Hush’ nothing! How dare you take me out here?! Do you have any idea the kind of danger—”
“I said ‘hush,’ Gridder. I can’t hear them when you’re blabbing on like that.”
My lungs having finally caught up to the situation, I looked up at him, exasperated. He reached down to unclasp the rope he had lassoed me with, and finally looked back at me.
“Why did you bring me out here?” I asked, finally calm enough to process what he looked like. I had never seen this man before, and yet his features were familiar to me. That square face, deep-set eyes…He looked rather like the etchings of the Mad Flagger King, but it couldn’t be him. That had been decades ago.
“I need a Flagger.” He said after a long silence. “Someone to mark off the Mines for me.” I laughed in spite of myself.
“What’s so funny?” He said, looking out once more towards the Exploding Wastes.
“What’s so funny is that you called me “Gridder,” so you know exactly what I do and what I’m sworn to protect people against. There’s no way I’ll be your Flagger, you lunatic, so let me go. I have to get back to the village.”
He let the rope fall to his side, his glance never shifting from the vast wasteland which stretched before him.
“By all means, go back.
“I hope you remember the path.”
I stood there motionless, realizing how utterly trapped I was. Fair enough, I thought. If he’s going to play this game, I might as well figure out his rules.
“What do you need of me?” I asked, staying close to his side on the off-chance that I stepped out of a safe square.
“Like I said, I need you to flag for me. Mark the safe squares, and I’ll keep you safe. Understood?”
I scoffed and finally grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around to meet me.
“Like hell! There’s no way I’m causing the Third Exploding because of some hooded lunatic’s deathwish! Either bring me back to the village now, or I’ll push both of us into an unknown square!”
He calmly removed my hand from him, and turned to look at me with a stare that chilled me to my core.
“I am Sweepwell Minestock the Third, son of the Mad Flagger King, and you will help me put an end to this game.”
Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: A Mocking Smile
The work that followed was grueling. For days on end, Minestock and I traveled through the wastes, joined at the hip for safety. He would make a horrid clicking noise, point to a square, and I would flag it; then, we would move on to the next Mine Spot to do the same. Time passed achingly slowly, and the fact that the work was done begrudgingly on my part did nothing to make the days go any faster. Every now and again when we would take a small break, I would probe my captor king’s mind for answers that might shed light on his insane plan.
“If you’re the son of the Mad Flagger King,” I ventured during one such session, “why exactly do you need me? Can’t you flag these things yourself?”
“I can just find ‘em. Never was exactly like the old man.”
“So you can, what, sense them?”
“Something like that.”
And with that, that little chat had ended. We moved on to space after space, and as we nearly finished marking off the safe spaces in the North Eastern Quadrant, I began to panic. Surely at this point in our mad journey, we were being noticed by the Devil Smiler in the sky. It was only a matter of time before it came down to mock us, just as it had with the Mad Flagger King, triggering the Third Exploding.
“I have a plan, you know,” Minestock said, as if sensing my growing fear of the apocalypse.
“Oh, do you?” I said, dragging my feet as much as possible behind him. “And what is that plan, Highness? To click your foolish way all over this god-forsaken grid? To bring the wrath of the Devil Smiler down on us? I suppose you deserve it with these daft thoughts of yours, but I was actually pretty happy being a good, non-exploded person back in the village. See how I am now, all intact and whatnot? I’m pretty happy with that, thanks!”
“You talk too much.”
“Oh, well, naturally you would say that, Mr. Stone-Cold Silent. Forgive me, Your Majesty, for asking one too many questions when my life—no, sorry, the entire world—hangs in the balance! Maybe if you just packed up and let me go home, we can avoid the same blasted apocalypse your damned father brought about in the first place!”
Minestock stopped dead in his tracks, and the world stopped for a moment. Ire poured off him like rain, and I could almost feel the temperature rising around me.
“First,” he began coolly. “My father was a madman and a fool, but he did not trigger that exploding. The Devil Smiler did when my father’s followers made one too many mistakes.”
“Second,” he continued. “Why do you think it’s just you and me out here? Safety in numbers. The fewer people flagging the Mines, the fewer mistakes, and the lesser the chance that the Devil Smiler starts everything over again. My father’s mistake was trusting too many people with a dangerous job. Do not make me regret trusting only one person with it.”
That shut me up for a while. We marched ever onwards, marking and flagging as we went, and, with every space we cleared, I could feel the chill of the Devil Smiler on my back.
There was only one space left to clear, and god only knew what would happen afterwards. I wasn’t in the mood to find out.
“My lord, if I may, the Devil Smiler—”
“Should be here, soon, yes.”
He said this so calmly that I had no choice but to be taken aback. His plan was finally clicking into place; he was doing all this to gain some perverted audience with the very demon that had caused all this suffering in the first place.
“You…you want it to come?” I managed.
“You…want to speak to it?” I sputtered.
“But….what on Earth…why would you seek an audience with that monster?”
“To end the game, Gridder. To put an end to it all.”
“You would destroy us all? For what? Some twisted sense of loyalty to your mad father? You can’t just damn us all out of some weird desire for closure, Minestock!”
“It’s closure for us all, Gridder. If you and I finish this, mark every single space without setting off even one Mine, then all of this resets. We go back to how life was before the First Exploding, before anything terrible happened.
“Now, plant your last flag. Flag the final space, and stand with me as we confront our tormentor together. Please.”
And just as I was considering what my last move on this earth would be, I felt a sudden despair, as if all hope and joy had left the world. Minestock’s face turned pale as he saw something behind me, and it was on this last space, in this last moment, that I realized we were no longer alone.
“Go on, then, Gridder,” coaxed the Devil Smiler. “Plant it.”
Impact of Video Gaming and Culture: Final Moments
I had hardly noticed that the sun had all but left the sky, and that the heavens above had turned to sackcloth. I had scarcely realized that what little wind there had been completely frozen, and the air had stagnated. I had not seen that the horizon was slowly reddening, as if millions of Mines were priming themselves for destruction. I had only noticed that the Devil Smiler had descended from the sky, and that I no longer could remember what hope was.
“I say plant it,” the evil deity continued. “Plant it. If nothing else, we’ll all get to see what happens.”
I looked towards Minestock, and saw nothing but acceptance on his face. How could he be so calm in the face of a demon? How could he look as if all his dreams came true when the very thing that made our lives an unending hell was staring him down?
“And if I don’t?” I managed to say, quieter than a whisper. “If I don’t, what happens?”
A chilling laugh rang through the air, like the peal of hell’s bells.
“Then I suppose we could always start this all over again. My Mines are ready to go, Gridder. We could wipe creation back to kingdom come.”
“And how would that be any different? How would destroying us all bring any peace? It would just be the same hell we’ve known all our lives…”
“Yes,” said the Devil Smiler. “But, what was that saying? ‘The Devil you know…’”
That horrid laughter of his continued, and I could feel the flag waiver in my trembling hand. I looked back towards Sweepwell Minestock the Third, son of the man who caused all our misery so long ago. I looked at his ashen, sunken face, and I realized that the sins of his father had weighed on him, alone, his entire life. It was this man’s determination and hope for a future that drove him to take on this odious task. Now that it fell to me to finish the job, I didn’t think I could.
“You know,” I said, slowly turning to face the Devil Smiler, “I’ve been a Gridder my whole life, and hoped against hope I wouldn’t have to come up against a Mine until my dying day. Now, thanks to you two idiots, I’m right smack dab in the middle of the end of the world.
My compatriot looked at me, those cold eyes warming just a bit at the prospect of the end of all things.
“I can’t do this.” His face fell, and the Devil Smiler’s laughter seemed to fill the very universe itself.
“Not alone, I can’t.”
I grabbed Minestock’s hand and placed it on the flag, and together he and I planted it into the last safe space mankind would ever know. The Devil Smiler’s laughter turned to eldritch screams, the sounds of worlds dying and souls rending. He dissipated before us, his once maliciously jovial eyes turning to crosses and his tongue lolling out as he spat his last breath. We felt a rumbling, and looked around us to see if the Mines we had marked off were all detonating.
But there was no explosion, no fiery mayhem…Only encroaching whiteness as we held the flag firmly into the ground.
“Gridder,” Minestock said, his eyes full of tears, “thank you.”
And with that, there was nothing.
BONUS LEVEL: Back to Work
My man! Sorry the new Canon pieces are so late, I’ve got no real excuse for you. I was just dicking around playing Minesweeper and watching YouTube videos. Sometimes it’s nice to relax and unwind by playing a game that has absolutely no story, and nothing at all to offer the player other than mindless entertainment. I’ll get that next article to you after PAX!
VERDICT: Games are Fun