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January 22, 1998


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Manjula Padmanabhan

Rodger Dodger

Dominic Xavier's illustration A friend who says she reads my work was careless enough to mention in particular that she enjoyed what I had written about screen-savers. Well, that's as good as waving a chequered flag in front of a Formula One racer! The fact is, the last time I wrote about screen-savers, I hadn't even seen the Rolls Royce of the genre -- Berkeley Systems' After Dark, famous for its flying toasters. Now that it has been installed on my PC, surely it is my duty to report on it?

A screen-saver is supposed to protect the screen from damage in case an image remains static for too long. However, I believe this original purpose has mutated into yet another clever ploy to keep the unfortunate computer user from ever finding any use for life away from the desktop. They're like dreams are for humans: things which appear when the computer is dormant but not yet in the deep sleep signalled by a blank screen, with the only tiniest of LCDs to indicate that life pulses on within the machine. And sometimes, in just the way that our dreams can be more beguiling than reality, some screen savers have become more entertaining than regular software!

I, for instance, have wasted precious hours of 'spare' time playing a ridiculous little game called 'Rodger Dodger'. It is just one of the After Dark (Version 4.0) screen-saver options and is neither as attractive as the tropical fish, nor as zany as the Hula Twins nor as funny as Bad Dog. It is not clever enough to be worth serious game-playing time, it requires no skills beyond those of the professional one-finger typist. And yet it had me utterly hooked!

Rodger is a tiny spheroid whose colour pulses green and purple, so that he appears to be breathing. The environment in which he lives is entirely flat, a pleasingly abstract plain, with no discernible features relating to the real world. Villains take the form of jittering creatures like red and yellow plastic germs which cause poor Rodger to shatter when they come into contact with him. The player's responsibility is to use the arrow keys on the keyboard to move Rodger through increasingly fiendish routes, collecting up a number of green squiggly tokens before placing him over a green patch of what looks like electronic quicksand to escape to the next level.

At the time that I began playing the game, I had no idea how many levels there were. At each new level, I thought I had no hope of getting Rodger safely through the maze and to the exit. Not only do the germs increase in number and in their speed of attack, but the tokens are tucked into spaces which can only be accessed by releasing yet more germs from captivity.

By the ninth level, I was sure I'd have to give up in despair. At the 15th level, when the exit was in the middle of a maze and the germs raced in hectic relays around and around that track, there seemed no hope at all of ever keeping Rodger intact long enough to reach the centre. But by the end of it, Rodger and I had made it through 25 gruelling levels before being returned to the first level again!

Some of the germs had become, by this stage, so toxic that Rodger would lose energy if he so much as strayed too close to them. And there were so many varieties of germs that it was impossible to keep track of their movements, as well as run about collecting tokens. Rodger could only dodge them by pretending he hadn't seen them.

It seemed to me, by the time I was through with the game, that it may have been designed by someone who had had the misfortune of going shopping on the streets of Delhi during the rush hour traffic. The behaviour of motorists towards pedestrians is very similar to the germs in Rodger Dodger: the same reckless careening about, the same manic, brain dead energy. Rodger doesn't have a chance to defend himself against the germs, just as Delhi's pedestrians have no option but to get out of the way of buses and crazed brats masquerading as motorists.

The harried shopper has to dash about from one location to the next, picking up sqiggly tokens, excuse me, purchases before diving into an exit in the form of a building or a vehicle. Each day is like each level; just as one adjusts to the speeds and quirks of one set of germs -- uh, drivers -- the next day brings a fresh generation of them, faster, smarter and less compassionate than ever before.

Too bad then, that for real life Rodgers, impacts with germs results in what a computer might call Fatal General Error Of The Life System from which there is no rebooting, no recovery of lost clusters, no RAM, no ROM, no anything but the soft husk of hardware, dead forever.

Readers of this column who might be interested in corrupting their hard disks by playing Rodger Dodger and other After Dark screen savers may check out Berkeley Systems.

Happy dodging!

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan