Videogames in The Beach (novel)

Videogames and novels aren’t usually the best of bedfellows. But I’ve been a fan of Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and many other successful films, ever since I first read his first novel, The Beach, at the tender age of 16. The way The Beach’s narrator speaks about videogames like Street Fighter 2 affectionately was icing on the cake of a really great book. Re-reading the novel recently, I was pleased to discover that it’s undimmed by the passing of time and my growing older. It’s still great stuff, fast-paced pulpy fiction that reads like cinema but without that distance that films have (you know, the distance that allows you as the viewer to voice judgments like “wow, that Leonardo di Caprio is annoying”, for example). As well as enjoying a finely spun yarn for the first time in several years, I was also able to re-appreciate (real word?) those well-done references to videogames that appear in certain parts.

The film adaptation of The Beach made in 2000 and directed by Danny Boyle, also included a brief nod to videogames in a short sequence modeled on Crash Bandicoot which doesn’t appear in the book:

Film aside, I’d like to quote a short excerpt from the book here. Despite the fact that The Beach was originally published in 1996(!), I think this part of the book makes for very good videogame blog fodder. So if Alex Garland wasn’t so busy being a highly successful screenplay writer for Hollywood I’d suggest he turn his hand to the lucrative business of blogging about games. Ha.

One face stuck out. It belonged to a black guy sitting alone, his back against a storeroom hut. He looked around twenty, he had a shaved head, and his eyes were fixed intently on a small grey box in his hands – the Nintendo Gameboy I’d spotted earlier. […] His face suddenly screwed up and over the murmur of talking I heard him hiss, “Game Over.”

I began walking towards him.

I once read that the most widely understood word in the whole world is “OK”, followed by “Coke”, as in cola. I think they should do the survey again, this time checking for “Game Over”.

Game Over is my favourite thing about playing videogames. Actually, I should qualify that. It’s the split second before Game Over that’s my favourite thing.

Street Fighter II – an oldie but goldie – with Leo controlling Ryu. Ryu’s his best character because he’s a good all-rounder – great defensive moves, pretty quick, and once he’s on an offensive roll he’s unstoppable. Theo’s controlling Blanka. Blanka’s faster than Ryu but he’s only really good on attack. The way to win with Blanka is to get in the other player’s face and just never let up. Flying kick, leg-sweep, spin attack, head-bite. Daze them into submission.

Both players are down to the end of their energy bars. One more hit and they’re down, so they’re both being cagey. They’re hanging back at opposite ends of the screen, waiting for the other guy to make the first move. Leo takes the initiative. He sends off a fireball to force Theo into blocking, then jumps in with a flying kick to knock Blanka’s green head off. But as he’s moving through the air, he hears a soft tapping. Theo’s tapping the punch button on his control pad. He’s charging up an electricity defence so that when Ryu’s foot makes contact with Blanka’s head it’s going to be Ryu who gets KO’d with 10,000 volts charging through his system.

This is the split second before Game Over.

Leo’s heard the noise. He knows he’s fucked. He has time to blurt, “I’m toast,” before Ryu is lit up and thrown backwards across the screen, flashing like a Christmas tree, a charred skeleton. Toast.

The split second is the moment you comprehend you’re just about to die. Different people react to it in different ways. Some swear and rage. Some sigh or gasp. Some scream. I’ve heard a lot of screams over the twelve years I’ve been addicted to video games.

I’m sure that this moment provides a rare insight into the way people react just before they really do die. The game taps into something pure and beyond affectations. As Leo hears the tapping he blurts, “I’m toast.” He says it quickly, with resignation and understanding. If he were driving down the M1 and saw a car spinning into his path I think he’d react in the same way.

Personally, I’m a rager. I fling my joypad across the floor, eyes clenched shut, head thrown back, a torrent of abuse pouring from my lips.

A couple of years ago I had a game called Alien 3. It had a great feature. When you ran out of lives you’d get a photo-realistic picture of the Alien with saliva dripping from its jaws, and a digitized voice would beat, “Game over, man!”

I really used to love that.

That’s all for now, I’ll be back soon with impressions of Xenoblade Chronicles, which I completed the other day after 90+ hours of game time. Plenty to say about that!


  1. moresleepneeded

    I have seen the film The Beach and am aware it was based on a book. I have always considered it to be an interesting book to read as some concepts described in the film may be expanded in the book (similar to The Shining). I find it interesting that the book was written in 1996 as the film uses bits of nineties popular culture (such as the computer game graphics that were dated at the time the film was released and the use of a Blur song). The description of playing a video game is really good, although, I have recently realised that the best way to defeat a human-controlled opponent in the Street Fighter 2 game is to jump and kick at them. I also like the way the author assumes the reader is familiar with the Street Fighter game so they can identify the characters.

    • veryverygaming

      I like how in-depth (and accurate) the discussion is too, and there’s lots of nice details like that throughout the novel. There are also references to Tetris and Mario Land on Gameboy, for instance. If you’re thinking of reading it, I’d really recommend it! It’s a serious page-turner.

  2. Pingback: I just read: Breakers | James Derry
    • veryverygaming

      I’d recommended this book to other people for years so it was good to go back and confirm, yes, it really is that good. I think the videogame stuff works because it’s subtle and it illuminates certain parts of the plot. You mentioned survivalism, and there’s that (the fact that the Game Over theory is put to the test later). I also love how the Gameboy itself speaks volumes about the desires of the people on the beach. They want to remove themselves from life as far as possible but they still hold onto those modern luxuries, with the rice run.

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