It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
We live in a time where an abundance of media is nostalgic for the 1980s. Some of these works are steeped in specific cultural references to the period, like Ready Player One, which used viewers’ positive feelings about the time as a sort of crutch to get them to feel good about the work itself. Others, like the art in Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop or the film It Follows, play on this nostalgia to twist it into something else. 198X is more the latter than the former. It’s effectively an interactive movie, one where the interactivity is both diegetic and important to empathizing with the character.
198X is the story of Kid, an androgynous high school student who lives in the suburbs of the City called Suburbia. Kid sees themselves as something of an outcast, and somewhat stuck and purposeless at this point in their life. It is then that they stumble on an arcade in the basement of an abandoned factory that is full of the coolest of the uncool: Geeks, nerds, skids, wannabe rappers, and burnouts. The games there become a form of escapism for Kid, a way to immerse themselves in something where they don’t feel so trapped in their life.
The story is conveyed in gorgeous pixel art vignettes of Kid’s life at home, at school, and walking around Suburbia. The pixel art used in these scenes doesn’t look like what games looked like in the ‘80s, but rather matches more with the animation of the attract screens an arcade machine would show to entice someone to come play it. These scenes are narrated by Kid as they try to explain their world view and express their feelings as best a teenager can. The voice acting and writing both perfectly walk the line of a disaffected philosophical teen without it becoming too much of an annoying shtick or making them feel like a 1980s edgelord.
Between these story scenes are the times when you, as Kid, play various games in the basement arcade. None of these are real games, but they are all homages to classics like Streets of Rage, Outrun, and R-Type. Much like the pixel art of the vignettes, the art and animation in these games is phenomenal. There’s a higher fidelity to the art and animation then actual ‘80s arcade games, though it isn’t jarringly obvious. The games look the way you remember them, not the way they really were.
What’s particularly interesting about these games is how they are deployed narratively. They work thematically to bridge the story between the non-interactive scenes. Going into each game, you have a sense of why Kid chose to play this game at this particular moment, and beating a game sets the tone for the scene to follow. It’s this aspect of 198X that I find utterly fascinating, because it has you engaged and immersed with these games in just the same way that Kid is. It uses them as a way to connect you to this character interactively through a shared experience, even if you didn’t grow up in the ‘80s, which in turn makes it easier to sympathize with Kid.
It almost feels like it shouldn’t work, that there should be more dissonance between the moments when it jumps from watching the story unfold for Kid to when you are playing these arcade games. Nothing in their life lines up with them beating up street thugs or blasting away space aliens in asteroid fields. And yet it works. I think much of that is because the games thematically fit into the narrative, but also that the games themselves are actually fun and fairly challenging. Not so hard as to be frustrating (thanks in part to Kid’s seemingly infinite number of quarters), but just enough that an average player will need to focus their attention. And however long or short it takes to finish them, or whatever the outcome, it further informs your understanding of Kid and immerses you in how they feel when playing these games.
There are many video games that have taken storytelling techniques from other mediums, especially film, so I found it surprising as I made my way through 198X that it’s more of a movie than a game. 198X finds a way to add interactivity to a linear narrative, interactivity that not only helps the audience better understand the story and characters, but also creates a meaningful difference in the experience between someone playing it versus watching it. That’s not something you can say for a lot of storytelling in video games.