I recently [not recently – Ed.] spent a good portion of my Memorial Day weekend remembering our fallen soldiers by playing Burger Island with my daughter.
“Do you want a turn making milkshakes, daddy?” she asked in a cute manner.
“I will do it! I will do it for those that died at Normandy!” I cried.
And thus began my nightmarish decent into the maddening world of Burger Island.
Burger Island, I learned the hard way while simultaneously paying tribute to the ultimate sacrifice of others, is a lie.
The island in the title is not a gigantic delicious hamburger. It is not a Burger Island. The point of the game is not to gorge your stranded survivor on the island itself in the name of survival, slowly eating the very piece of juicy, flame-broiled land that also keeps you safe. You do not delicately balance the all-encompassing hunger of the main character against the need to stay afloat upon something, even if that something is food.
Burger Island is a lie.
I tell you this to warn you. Hope is a fickle beast capable of leaving you in the blink of an eye. One moment you sit upon your couch remembering all those who fought and died at Iwo Jima, the next you find yourself playing a game you didn’t want to play. Burger Island is not an economic simulation in the same vein of Tropico. It is not a middle-class land filled with artisans and craftsmen that you have to keep happy by building them Temples to their favorite types of shoes. Burger Island is a lie.
So what, then, is Burger Island? It is ridiculously monotonous and difficult for a cutesy Wii game. Ridiculous and monotonous is not a fun combination. It is a sadistic and vile survival horror game. Burger Island is not so much fun. You are a shipwrecked amnesiac who washes ashore on a random and nameless Pacific island. With no money, no identity and no future, you take a job in the food service industry making hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes for a bunch of impatient and needy assholes. At first, making these things is fun. Then, after the hundredth hamburger or so, you lose the love. Demanding jerks start ordering food faster and faster, unwilling to allow you even a moment to breathe.
Your main character falls into a deep sense of despair. Perhaps drowning at sea was a better fate than this. What kind of cruel god would allow a person to lose everything she has only to throw her into a life of ever-increasing stress making fast food for cheap jerk after cheap jerk? Existence becomes a race to make burger after burger after burger after burger so that one day this nightmare might end and Burger Island might be escaped. Nothing else matters beyond hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes and the tiny amounts of money they generate. Nothing that Bukowski has ever written comes close to matching the hollow sense of nothingness that comes with spending a few hours playing Burger Island.
Soon it becomes clear that Burger Island is some sick metaphor for Purgatory. You must have died on that boat when it sank. And though you can no longer remember it, you were apparently a sadistic rapist with a tendency towards animal cruelty in your previous life. Perhaps you were a serial killer who turned her victims into hamburger patties and milkshakes and then gave those hamburger patties and milkshakes to neighborhood children. To atone for these heinous crimes, you are sentenced to spend what seems like eternity on Burger Island. Every sin and awful act is repaid, one four-dollar burger at a time. But Burger Island does not pretend to even give you a somewhat fair shot at repentance and salvation. Nay, before even reaching the halfway mark on your long trek around the outside of Burger Island, you find yourself overwhelmed and incapable of pleasing the numerous customers who disdain and hate you while making so many demands upon you.
You are tasked with restoring order to an apathetic, uncaring universe. Simply making a hamburger is not good enough. Lettuce must go on it before tomatoes, and tomatoes must go on it before pickles. Any deviation from the norm is punished severely. Recipes are not guidelines on Burger Island, they are Commandments from the Lord Hisself. Experimentation and growth as a cook are not options. You have a recipe, follow it to the T or feel the wrath of Burger Island.
And those times you win, those few precious instances where you have satisfied enough hamburger-loving demons to appease a vengeful god, you still lose. For next is nothing but another round of more of the same, with more demanding and challenging recipes added into the mix to make things somehow even worse. Your path to redemption soon becomes nothing short of impossible.
You begin the game with five lives, a number high enough to bring hope that salvation is possible. Perhaps this judgmental god is more New Testament than Old. And as you absolutely steamroll the first few levels with the greatest of ease, your sense of inflated optimism grows. Success is possible! You can escape this. Then the game suddenly punishes you and you feebly watch those five failures melt away until you are trapped with but one last chance to make things right before you are condemned to Hell forever. Escape to a better place is nothing more than a delusion.
A more frightening and pessimistic game does not exist. Burger Island is somehow even worse than actually working in the fast food industry. I will carry the haunting scars of my experience on that tiny tropical slice of hell with me for the rest of my days.
My daughter does not yet understand, though, and I find her naivety and eternal sense of optimism charming. She thinks Burger Island is a lot of fun. Making milkshakes is her favorite part. Mine is pushing the power button and returning to a world that is somehow nicer and more forgiving than the one of Burger Island.
Perhaps the best game story synopsis ever put into words:
“You are a shipwrecked amnesiac who washes ashore on a random and nameless Pacific island. With no money, no identity and no future, you take a job in the food service industry making hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes for a bunch of impatient and needy assholes.”