What to play: Beyond ‘198X’s’ love letter to video arcades, how games shape our worldviews
Booting up “198X,” a 1980s-stylized genre mash-up, I knew I was in for a heavy dose of nostalgia, as well as perhaps a romanticized view of the arcade.
No, not the modern, 21-and-up, craft beer-focused bars with a curated array of old coin-op machines, but the messy, maze-like spaces that utilized way too much ultraviolet lighting and where I was once forced to ration my quarters. Another round of “Pole Position” or a candy bar for lunch?
What I wasn’t expecting was an underlying sense of loneliness, as well as the confusion, anxiety and general unease that permeate adolescence, all of which “198X” so lovingly and carefully brings to the fore. Those feelings never really go away, of course; they just become masked by the belief that someday we’ll have it all figured out.
So “198X” definitely made me nostalgic, but I wasn’t sentimental over the games or culture of another era.
No, what I missed was an overriding sense of fear and excitement for the possibility of the unknown, which the game creates by focusing on a character, Kid, who longs for the escape from suburbia offered by both the lights of the big city and the malleable worlds of video games. Age, experience, disappointment, reality — all of the above zap such feelings from us. But what’s made “198X,” developed by a small team in Stockholm, linger long after its short play time of a couple hours is the way in which the game explores how interactive experiences shape our worldview.
‘198X’ never abandons its thesis that there’s poetry in video games, their imaginative worlds a gateway to self-discovery as potent as any other medium.
A narrative adventure in which we experience heavily condensed versions of arcade games — a beat ’em up, a racing game, a ninja game, a sci-fi shooter and a role-playing-game — “198X” impresses in the fluidity and the diversity of its offerings. The games are generic enough to stand in for whatever you may have grown up playing, be it “Double Dragon,” “Out Run,” “Wizardry” or just about anything within those genres, but they’re also more than capable facsimiles. I spent a good hour, for instance, simply trying to get the timing and patterns right amid the slice-and-dice acrobatics of the side-scrolling ninja game.
But “198X” isn’t a simple celebration of the ‘80s aesthetic, in vogue these days with the likes of “Stranger Things,” “Bumblebee,” and the upcoming “American Horror Story: 1984.” Its pixel art is gorgeous, with details down to the puffy orange foam on headphones and its emphasis on neon as a contrast to the drab cookie-cutter homes and as a beacon into something unknown. As Kid, voiced by Maya Tuttle, experiences the difficulty of growing up, be it feeling like an outsider, navigating family drama or simply trying to make sense of the first signs of a crush, “198X” uses its retro games-within-a-game as metaphors.
Some are relatively simple. Young and coddled by the familiarity of suburbia, the urban brawler represents the fears and danger that may or may not exist beyond the walls of our home. But when Kid, whose gender is undefined, falls for a punk rock girl who appears unattainable, the racing game turns into an endless drive on city highways, a plea to be somewhere and with someone else. What was once a mini-game with timed trials evaporates; any sense of competition disappears as “198X” turns into a cinematic experience and Kid narrates a dream of embarking on a more personal quest to explore and learn from heretofore undiscovered people, places and cultures.
While Kid may have at this point graduated from childhood games, “198X” never abandons its thesis that there’s poetry in video games, their imaginative worlds a gateway to self-discovery as potent as any other medium. The masks, the skeletons and the bamboo forests that Kid’s avatar explores in the ninja game make it clear there’s plenty to see and hear beyond whatever worldview we grew up with, and the claustrophobic dungeons and more complicated spells and battles of the “Dungeons & Dragons"-influenced role-playing game force a more existential battle: figure out this new language or give up and return to what we know?
Kid moves forward, but even as we hunt for the three dragons we must slay, we hear judging voices — parents? teachers? bosses? — telling us to grow up, to give up, to stop making things more complicated and to stop pretending we know better. But we press on and keep playing; “198X” is a reminder that interactive texts, while not necessarily any better or worse than anything that’s come before, can just as thoughtfully show us that there are vistas yet to be imagined.
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