Comedic predator/prey relationships are a dime a dozen in cartoons – you’ve got your Tom and Jerries, your Sylvester and Tweeties, your Chicken Hawk and Foghorn Leghorns, your Elmer Fudd and Bugses – come to think of it, nearly all of them are Looney Tunes cartoons. But it’s always been the fatalistic struggle of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner that fascinated me most.
Their struggle was one removed from civilising influences, and yet the ‘wily’ Coyote relied on technological wits over animal cunning to pursue his quarry. Still, with two mute opponents (save for the Road Runner’s signature “beep, beep!”), their eternal conflict was no less primal. It’s interesting, both as a parody of traditional “cat and mouse” cartoons, and also as a triumph of physical over intellectual prowess – ‘brawn over brains’ is a philosophy learnt in the schoolyard, not taught in the classroom. As a nerd, I could taste the bitter frustration of Wile E. as he worked tirelessly on master plan after master plan, only to have them unfurled so effortlessly by that near-oblivious bird. School teaches us that success is the product of hard work; the Road Runner teaches us that speed and the mere semblance of confidence are all that matters when the chips are down. More traditional “cat and mouse” cartoons left me in doubt as to where my sympathies should lie, but in Road Runner it was always clear: the Coyote is us, and the Road Runner is a violation of everything that is good and just (i.e. a jerk).
In the videogame…not so clear. The first mistake was to make the game incredulously hard; the second (in light of the first) was to make Road Runner the controllable character. I am firmly convinced that the only way to complete this game is to memorise every square inch of each level. Road Runner can barely run two in-game metres without being stabbed, skewered, flattened and generally obliterated by traps which, as far as I can discern, appear at random. This was presumably a measure taken by the developers to mitigate the kind of scenery chewing inherent in games with super-speedy protagonists. While the game is aesthetically a pastiche of references to the cartoon series, it ultimately suffers a crisis of context for all of these reasons. You are Road Runner, and you must, through continual trial and error, survive multiple pummelings from a hideously overpowered Wile E. Coyote. The sympathy has been shifted from the Coyote to the Road Runner, and that, my friends, is a direct violation of Road Runner Rule Number 10, and I quote:
“Rule #10: The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.”
~ Chuck Jones, creator of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times Of An Animated Cartoonist