Ah, the ‘80s. That magical time when men did lots of cocaine and women wore those suits with really big shoulder pads. This was the time of the stock trader, and it is this time that the simple browser based game American Dream seeks to take the player back to. It has a simple enough goal: become a millionaire by playing the stock market.
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The vocabulary we use to talk about horror games is inherently problematic because a single subgenre has become synonymous with the genre as a whole. “Survival horror” is widely seen as a synonym for “horror” in general, but the truth is that “survival horror” when used in this context is a very specific kind of horror game that really only existed in a very specific era of gaming.
There’s a lot of nostalgic baggage attached to the term “survival horror”. The two words speak to a distinct type of gameplay and atmosphere: tank controls, weak characters, poor combat, inventory management, fixed camera angels, obtuse puzzles, limited ammo, lots of loading screens, lots of running, journals that fill out the backstory, etc. This type of game was popular on the Playstation and Playstation 2 and was also the only kind of horror game that was readily accessible in mass market gaming. Since there were no alternatives, it was only natural to assume that survival horror was the only sort of horror game, and over time, this kind of thinking became entrenched in the fans of the genre.
BioShock 2 and its side story, Minerva’s Den, do much to expand Rapture’s universe. In addition to new technology and physical locations, they take the story into new cultural territory. Grace Holloway and Charles Milton Porter stand out as both the first major black characters in the BioShock universe. However, the two characters each have unique, multifaceted lives that prevent them from being cast as the token black people in a game dominated by white characters. At the same time, their racial identity informs their lives and connects them to wider historical events and cultural themes in African American history.
Issac Clarke may be the second most recognizable working class hero in video games. The obviously more iconic plumber and savior of princesses, Mario, comfortably garbed in overalls while cleaning pipes overrun by mushrooms and turtles would, of course, be the most recognizable. Intriguingly, though, and largely unlike Mario, Isaac is not a working man transformed into a fantastical hero. Instead, Dead Space is a game that finds heroism in doing real work.
Video games celebrate the state of the present. They’re always centered on the immediate action the player can take: where and how he moves and what result this brings. Games do not cue us to their pasts easily or frequently. Maybe the blank space will tell the player where he’s already moved in a Pac-Man maze or maybe finding a broken crate where a health pack should be reminds him that he’s already been past this area in Tomb Raider, but there is very little sense of an archived human history in these spaces. If nothing else, the past is hard if not impossible to access, seeing as the state of play resides in conflict with the immutable record.
Some games do indeed play with time, like Metal Gear Solid 3‘s unconventional game overs when you create a time paradox or many of Braid‘s platforming mechanics. But for the most part, video games are experienced in the present tense. Yet, I would argue, there are some games that strongly privilege the future state over the player’s current action, and these are usually the games that we find most difficult to talk about in conventional ludological terms.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Japanese role-playing genre.