Awakening to the 'American Dream'

by Aaron Poppleton

15 February 2011

A game doubling as vehicle for '80s nostalgia but with a twist. Sounds like my kind of party.

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. 
At this point, one can be forgiven for immediately assuming that the tone this game will take is a cynical one.  American Dream?  The American Dream has been dead for years, much of our media seems to say.  If it exists at all, it exists in a warped and terrible sense which is not worth chasing.  We have, after all, seen Wall Street.  We know how the story of a stock trader trying to make it big ends up—with its protagonist in jail or dead or having lost everything—but it teaches an important lesson about the dangers of excess.  American Dream continues this trend of pooh-poohing the excesses of the ‘80s, but its message is far less overt.  The message of American Dream is transmitted to the player through the gameplay itself, while the presentation—both the graphics and sound along with the few bits of text that flash across the screen—aids in highlighting that theme.  I recommend strongly playing the game (it is not terribly long) before reading further, as I’m going to get into the end of the game here, and it is probably better to experience the game before reading my own interpretations.

The opening of the game is almost threatening. The player is subjected to the “voice” of a bunch of silhouetted heads that flash in different colors, declaring: “YOU WILL BECOME A MILLIONAIRE” or “WILDEST DREAMS”.  After a few moments of this barrage, the protagonist declares “I will become a millionaire”, which sets up the obvious premise of the whole game.  It is significant that the decision to become a millionaire comes not as an original idea belonging to the protagonist himself but as a result of the assault of the social pressures symbolized by the empty heads.  It all feels very much like the player is being indoctrinated rather than coming to this decision on his own.  For someone going into the game assuming that it is going to be about the hollowness of the American Dream, it’s completely expected.  I’ll say that again: the player is probably expecting something bad to happen to the protagonist.  This is a game that plays on the expectations that a player brings with him, and this one is the big one.  The player expects that there is going to be a moral in this game, demonstrated at the end by some kind of karmic comeuppance.
The style of the game is very simple and, again, reminiscent of the sort of simulator one would find on a Commodore 64 or, perhaps, a slightly newer model of computer.  “Retro” might describe it, but “low budget” is equally apt.  The simplicity could be written off as a mere necessity, but it is more interesting (and probably more accurate) to assume that the spartan look is also there to make a point.  There’s nothing exciting about the graphical presentation, the four-room domicile is the only thing that is not just text on the screen, but it also doesn’t really look like anything.  The furniture is not stylized in the slightest, which is ironic since buying new furniture is a major part of the game (and indeed happens to be the only way to get to the goal of a million dollars with any sort of speed).

Behold, the frantic and exciting world of stock trading.

Behold, the frantic and exciting world of stock trading.

The money making portion of the game is represented by a simple text interface based that allows for the buying and selling of stock in various celebrities of the ‘80s, including Michael Jackson, Madonna, Rick Astley, Blondie, Mr. T, and Bill Cosby (the commoditization of celebrity in the game is itself a topic that almost merits its own discussion entirely, but we’ll leave it be for now).  When the player buys stock, the word “BUY” flashes in the background in a variety of colors, and when the player sells stock, the same thing happens with the word “SELL”.  These frantic flashing words communicate the frenetic activity that happens on the stock exchange floor, and the music that plays during the trading sections has an appropriately fast paced feel to it, with a repetitive bass line and falling melody.  As with the graphical presentation, however, the music is simple.  Spartan.  Seemingly unfit for a game about making your millions, assuming we’re really being honest.

The only other part of the game involves spending all that hard earned money in order to buy whatever is currently in style.  This seems to initially be a worthless diversion, but as the introduction informs you, once you clean your house up, you can have a party.  The parties are crucial to success in the game, as once several poorly drawn scribbles of people engaging in various hedonistic acts flash by one final man or woman will give a stock tip.  These tips invariably give the player one day to buy as many shares of the stock named as possible so that when the price spikes to incredible heights the next day, they can take full advantage.  The quicker that the player gets his home up to stylistic speed, the more parties that can be thrown before the trends change and the new style catalogue is released (the style catalogue itself is simply titled The Holy Bible).  Initially, this means that it is incredibly difficult to make any kind of headway on the market, as the tips may be for stocks the player cannot afford them because all of his money has gone to buying new furniture.  It all begins to feel a little futile, at least until the first time that you get a real good tip on some of the more expensive stock (like a Michael Jackson or a Madonna) and suddenly the game becomes laughably easy.  Spend the money updating your house and ride the subsequent wave of parties to success. 

The gameplay, which before that big breakthrough involves closely following stocks in an attempt to scrape together enough money to improve the home, now becomes laughably easy.  A million dollars shows up in short order, because when you can buy the maximum amount of available Michael Jackson shares and still have hundreds of thousands of dollars left over, do you really need to worry about that $5000 bed costing too much?  I got to the point where I could buy up the newest stuff as soon as the new catalogue released and party every night until the next catalogue released.  The game stopped being about strategy because the amount of money that I had meant that I didn’t need to care about anything else.  Losing the one strategic part of the game, however, left me with an empty feeling.  There wasn’t a challenge anymore.  It stopped being “fun”.

Once the player hits a million dollars, a simple little fanfare plays and some text appears on the screen.  “I became a millionaire”, it says, “And I did it doing something I loved”.  Then, the words “The End” appear and an almost funereal dirge begins to play.  It’s an anti-climax.  The protagonist, presumably, will go on doing the same thing, making more and more money and nothing bad will happen to him.  However, the lack of punctuation (no exclamation point at the end of the declaration that “I did it”, for example) or even celebratory music makes it seem like the protagonist is trying to convince himself and the player that this was worth the time that it took.  Sure, nothing bad happens to him, apart from a sense that the whole thing has been a waste of time. 

Now I don’t know if everyone who plays this game will have the same reaction.  That’s one of the interesting things about a game that is as bare bones and simple as this one.  It’s a simple game with a subtle message, and it is the sort of thing that I’d love to see more of.  Qunintin Smith’s article at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which brought the game to my attention, ended saying that it would be interesting if the game had been made on a bigger budget, but honestly I don’t think that a bigger budget was necessary—in fact, I’d go so far as to say that desire for a bigger budget is missing the point entirely.

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