clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Playing Tony Hawk without a save pack taught me existentialism

Learning the Birdman’s life lessons

Premiere Of Disney And Pixar's 'Cars 3' - Arrivals Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Do you ever picture a perfect death? Not the dying itself, but the final moments — the way you’d go out if reality were no object. I don’t mean in your sleep, or in your lover’s arms. I mean watching the sunrise in your bathrobe atop Everest, or drag-racing leopards across the Sahara: an impossible scene that crystallizes your affinity for life.

If I could direct it, my last snapshot would put me miles above a halfpipe, clutching my deck with perfect form, holding an infinite Benihana as I slowly spin into orbit.

This image does not reflect any lived experience — at least not directly. I’m afraid of skateboarding in the real world. But I’ve logged hundreds of hours in the virtual world thanks to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and I’ve come to appreciate certain existential truths because of it. I have stared into the void and seen Tony’s pixelated likeness.

The tale begins, as so many do, with a loss.

I can’t remember the events of the day after I bought the game. But I can reconstruct them. Having given myself fully to Tony the day before — having played for the entirety of what I assume was a Saturday afternoon (and no doubt well into the night) — I can say with confidence that I loaded the cartridge into my Nintendo 64, pressed the power button, watched Activision’s title screen with something like ecstatic anticipation and then promptly suffered a meltdown.

None of my progress had been saved. Bob Burnquist’s stats had not improved. I had lost all of my assiduously collected tapes; the School and Mall had reverted to their default states; and I was back to Warehouse, the game’s first level.


It turned out that Tony Hawks Pro Skater was one of several N64 titles to require the Controller Pak, Nintendo’s memory card, for saving. I did not have the necessary hardware to save my progress.

Whether the game had tried to tell me this multiple times was irrelevant. (Upon later inspection, it clearly had.) The notion that I would need to buy another device to use the one I already owned was offensive to me, as I considered myself a strong consumer advocate in the toy sector.

So I faced a paradox: I could only play the game, strictly speaking, without really playing it, as though embarking on a novel under the condition that I start over every time I closed the book.

I probably did mean to get a Controller Pak initially; the game felt nearly hopeless without it. But this was not an issue I could unilaterally solve at the age of 12. Lobbying for the Controller Pak on that bleak Sunday morning might have produced one a few weeks later, at best. I was stuck, for the foreseeable future, with a broken, Sisyphean task: accomplish as much as I could before wiping my own slate clean.

That’s what I did for a while. I soldiered through the early levels with workaday resolve, picking up on little efficiencies, learning how to progress by amassing the fewest tapes necessary. I mastered more difficult tricks: the grabs that demanded fine joystick cornering and the kickflip transitions between two grinds. While most of the later levels remained foreign to me — there was talk of one especially tubular set piece called Downhill Jam — I finally reached the first tournament in Chicago.

But these gains were ephemeral. It was obvious I’d never beat THPS without saving.

My sessions became more sadistic as that certainty sank in. I wanted to punish Tony and his carefree band of skaters. I used the impressive physics engine to contrive increasingly grave mistakes. Not only did the game oblige, it appeared to take as much pleasure in their torture as I did: Every story-high fall looked terminal; every faceplant sent their bodies skipping across the pavement like stones.

The game’s heartlessness seemed to confirm a subversive agenda, as though Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was out to prove that life is pain.

This inkling of conspiracy soon flowered into a full-blown existential crisis. If to play a game meant to seek its objectives and abide by its rules, then my presence in THPS wasn’t just pointless; it was absurd. Launching Chad Muska from the tallest tower in downtown Minneapolis wouldn’t change anything, and I knew it.

But that didn’t stop it from being super fun.

In fact, I was spending more time staging baroque injuries in Free Skate than I had ever spent in Career Mode. Weeks ticked by without the thought of a save. The way I rationalized it was, even if I never saw the final level — which by then I knew to be Roswell, New Mexico, and which admittedly sounded awesome — what did it really matter? The game was designed to prompt me down a predetermined path, but didn’t care whether I followed it. THPS didn’t judge. Everything not saved would be lost.

Not buying the Controller Pak had begun as a matter of apathy. But it soon took on the shape of a moral choice: an acceptance of the futility of achievement, the inevitability of loss and the eternal recurrence of all possible experience.

What I learned about life from Tony Hawk

This situation should have been defeating, but instead it felt liberating. Due to a confluence of circumstances (namely, laziness and entitlement), a vast swath of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater existed beyond my grasp. Acknowledging that truth allowed me to ignore the rest of the game’s conventions and start substituting my own.

Longest grind, biggest air and gnarliest collision with a moving car ... these became my self-imposed criteria. A game about skateboarding began to feel more like skateboarding itself — or at least what I imagined skateboarding to be: the stark rejection of every governing authority but your own.

Freedom. That’s what animated my version of Tony Hawk.

Developer Neversoft understood that what we yearn for — what skating best embodies — is freedom, and you can feel it in every design choice. THPS’ building block function, the ollie, is executed by releasing the crouch button. Levels are laid out to encourage maximal combos: an endless chain of grinds and tricks that keep you aloft for as long as you can trigger them. Even the air gained from every halfpipe is a few feet above plausible.

Free Skate itself, I realized, embodied the essence of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and ergo the essence of skateboarding. What did skateboarders do if not challenge authority and make their own rules?

When the first tendrils of existential dread smacked you in your fat kid face, freedom gave you the tools to fight back.

I never stopped playing THPS, and I never bought a Controller Pak. I beat it, of course, years later, when my instincts and reflexes had become so honed as to make Career Mode an hourlong pursuit.

Later I went to college, where I studied the work of great existential thinkers like Kafka and Kierkegaard and wrote papers with names like “The Unknown World: Nabokov’s Perversion of the Heideggerian Model.” I majored in philosophy and was mentored by many wonderful professors, none of whom measured up to Tony — calm, caring, imperturbable Tony, who opened my eyes to the truth of living. Tony didn’t need to skate Roswell. Tony didn’t even need to skate the Mall. The Warehouse was good enough for Tony, as it was for any self-respecting skater who desired to remain true to herself.

In life, you had your board and the ground beneath it. Everything else was ashes and dust.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon