Five more Twilight Zone episodes all gamers should watch
Last month, my deep love for Rod Serling’s iconic sci-fi anthology series The Twilight Zone led me to share a list of five episodes which I felt should be watched by all those who consider themselves to be gamers, mainly because they touch upon themes and ideas that are also found in various video games.
During my research for that first article, I discovered that the number of episodes which could potentially fit into my criteria extended well beyond five, so much so that I decided to go ahead and construct a second list with a similar theme.
Below, you will find five additional Twilight Zone episodes which, while all good on their own, should resonate with a particular strength to those who also fancy themselves gamers.
Much like several other Twilight Zone episodes, the season five episode ‘Steel’ is loosely based off a short story written by acclaimed horror/sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (the author behind I Am Legend), and that same short story also inspired the 2011 Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel.
Steel offers an interesting take on what Serling and Matheson thought the near future might look like, being set in the year 1974 (roughly 11 years after the time period when the episode was made) and featuring a world where boxing between humans has been outlawed in favor of prizefighting matches between humanoid robots (also known as androids).
The episode begins with the manager of one such robot, a down-on-his-luck former heavyweight fighter who goes by the name “Steel” Kelly (a nickname he earned from his boxing days since he was never knocked out), and his mechanic arriving in Maynard, Kansas for a scheduled bout.
Unfortunately, Steel’s robot, a weathered and beaten down “B2” generation robot named Battlin’ Maxo, has seen better days, and his mechanic is worried that Maxo won’t be able to deliver the long, drawn out match the fight promoter wants, especially since his opponent is a souped up “B7” which is likely to mangle Maxo within the first round.
Things go from bad to worse when, shortly before the fight, one of Maxo’s key components breaks, with no time to fix it. Desperate, Steel decides to disguise himself as Maxo and enter the ring, engaging in the ultimate contest of man vs. machine.
Steel’s determination and willingness to prove that he can beat a machine is something which I’m sure quite a few gamers can sympathize with. It can be frustrating to feel like everything is going against you, especially when that “everything” is made up of lines of code. Ultimately, Steel’s determination may be misguided, but that doesn’t make it any less admirable.
The Old Man in the Cave
Similar to ‘Steel,’ ‘The Old Man in the Cave,’ an episode which is also from the series’ fifth season, shows what the world may look like in the year 1974, but its portrayal is a much grimmer one. In the wake of a catastrophic nuclear war, mankind has been all but decimated, but a small group of desperate villagers has managed to survive thanks to the advice and guidance of a mysterious secluded being, the titular old man in the cave.
However, when a unit of brash and arrogant soldiers discover the villagers’ settlement, the true authority of the powers that be is called into question, proving that sometimes mankind’s greatest threat is itself.
If you’re a fan of Bethesda’s Fallout series, you definitely need to watch The Old Man in the Cave at some point. The plot of the entire episode could easily serve as a side quest in a typical Fallout game, with the player able to ally themselves either with the soldiers whose destructive actions are carried out with (somewhat) good intentions, or with the villagers who must place their trust in an enigmatic entity that may or may not have their best interests at heart. Hopefully if Bethesda is ever in need of ideas for the next Fallout game, it will turn to The Twilight Zone for inspiration.
A Stop at Willoughby
It’s somewhat appropriate that we have to go back to season one of The Twilight Zone to touch on the episode ‘A Stop at Willoughby’ since, unlike the first two episodes I discussed, it involves a trip backwards in time instead of forwards.
The episode focuses on a man named Gart Williams, an advertising executive who works for a prestigious advertising agency but who absolutely hates the hustle and bustle of his job and his life. His boss is pushy, loud, and overbearing, his clients are relentless in their demands, and his wife is cold and distant, unafraid to remind him that she only married him for his money.
The one brief bit of solace Williams can find is in the brief naps he is able to take during his train ride work commute, and it is during these naps that he suddenly finds himself whisked back in time to the year 1888 in a bright and sunny town called Willoughby.
The escapism that Williams craves (and soon finds) is, again, something which I feel a lot of gamers, myself included, can relate to. Sure, we each have our own reasons to play games, but whether we realize it or not, that escapist factor of being able to immerse ourselves in worlds not our own, however briefly, can be quite soothing, even if our idea of a fun game involves blasting aliens or fragging our friends.
I’m sure many of the more devoted gamers amongst us have their own Willoughby’s, games which they treasure not for their graphics or controls, but for the sense of familiarity and peace they offer while playing them.
A Thing About Machines
Again, much like ‘Steel,’ the season two Twilight Zone episode ‘A Thing About Machines’ is based off a Richard Matheson short story, presenting a cautionary tale about the consequences of abusing the things in your life that normally can’t fight back.
In the episode, viewers are introduced to a cantankerous and misanthropic food critic named Bartlett Finchley. As his TV repairman muses during the episode’s opening moments, Finchley has a severe dislike for any and all mechanical appliances and devices (making one wonder why he keeps so many in his house, but I digress), and he isn’t such a huge fan of other people either.
Finchley isn’t afraid to smash, shove, and beat any machine that displeases him, but soon his rage gives way to fear when he discovers the tables have been turned and the machines he has spent his life torturing are now deciding it’s time to give him a little payback.
Now, I’m sure most gamers are guilty of losing their cool a time or two and, as a result, have caused some damage to a controller or television set that they later wish they hadn’t (I cringe when thinking about how many controllers I broke when I was younger), so if anything, ‘A Thing About Machines’ could serve as a cautionary tale of sorts.
Not that your devices might one day come to life and attack you, but that unchecked anger pretty much never leads to positive results. If Bartlett Finchley had been able to just take a deep breath or two and maybe invested in a stress toy, he could have been spared the entire predicament he finds himself in, and saved himself a lot of money to boot.
The Brain Center at Whipple’s
‘The Brain Center at Whipple’s,’ one of the final episodes of the original Twilight Zone run which aired towards the tail end of its fifth and final season, remains to this day as, what is in my opinion, one of its most poignant. Like many other episodes before it, ‘The Brain Center at Whipple’s’ serves as a cautionary tale, one that is a bit more on-the-nose than episodes before it, but also one that is still enjoyable to watch.
The episode focuses on Wallace V. Whipple, the owner of the titular Whipple’s manufacturing company, a major conglomerate with operating plants spread throughout the United States. Whipple, a man obsessed with progress and streamlined innovation, has decided to replace the entire workforce of his main plant with a series of machines that need little upkeep, never take sick days or vacation time, and help Whipple cut production costs across the board.
His decision naturally doesn’t go over well with the plant manager, who argues that the efficiency of a machine isn’t worth as much as allowing men to work and earn a living, but Whipple ignores the plant manager’s complaints and carries on with his plan.
I won’t spoil the ending of the episode other than to say that Whipple gets his natural comeuppance, though not in the way that the viewer might expect. The reason why I think this episode is a good one for gamers is that similar themes and trends can be seen in the gaming industry of today.
While I doubt we’ll ever reach a point where video games are made entirely by machines, I do think it’s important to note that major video game publishers are more and more often “trading efficiency for pride” as the plant manager cautions Whipple at one point, chasing trends for a guaranteed buck rather than taking the time to make games that resonate on their own merits.
Such is not always the case, but it’s sadly becoming more and more frequent, and it is my hope that we’re not someday living in a future where most games feel as soulless and mechanical as the machines which Whipple believes serve as equal replacements for hardworking men. Such a comparison is a bit of a stretch, I know, but it’s one I couldn’t help but make given today’s gaming climate.