PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Awakening to the 'American Dream'

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.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.