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Grunge, Gangs, And Cages: Games That Capture The ‘90s

by Joseph Knoop on Nov 15, 2015 at 07:45 AM

Grunge and a distinct lack of glamour aside, the ‘90s were a time of rapid advancements in technology and media. Phones, television, films, and plenty more began to make the first steps towards our modern hyper-connectivity, but are still strikingly tied to the decade.

The video game industry, no stranger to capitalizing off of nostalgia, ignores this decade in favor of so many others. Games like Far Cry: Blood Dragon evoke the neon fury of the ‘80s, while the upcoming Mafia III focuses on the 1960s in a not-so-fictional deep south. Though many people might still consider the ‘90s far too recent to wax nostalgia, a number of modern games capture the decade in all its analog glory.

Gone Home
Developer: Fullbright
Release: August 2013

What do you do when you unexpectedly return home to an empty house, the lights are off, and there’s no note? Of course, you whip out your smartphone and give mom a call. For Kaitlin Greenbriar, no such option existed in 1995, when cell phones were still a luxury and some still had cords. Returning early from a trip abroad, Kaitlin is forced to comb through her family’s new home in the rainy woods of Oregon to discover just what happened to everyone.

Through a series of clues found around an aging mansion, Kaitlin learns that circumstances caused her younger sister, Sam, to befriend a strange girl named Yolanda “Lonnie” DeSoto, a good-natured army brat that plays too much Street Fighter II at the 7-11 after school. Sam borrows a copy of the game from the “weird” neighbor boy to practice, but still ends up being brutally defeated. Kaitlin goes on to learn how the girls bonded over movies and music inherent to the ‘90s, including Pulp Fiction and bands like Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy. Both bands were actually part of the riot grrrl scene, an underground feminist movement that addressed numerous women’s issues through aggressive grunge and punk rock music during the decade. Wrap all that up in a typically plaid, angsty package, and you’ve got a game that couldn’t happen anytime other than the ‘90s.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Developer: Rockstar Games
Release: October 2004

No series has garnered more disdain from parent groups or politicians than Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto. Between all the heinous crime and murder the series receives so much attention for in the media, one can be forgiven for forgetting each installment's colorful social commentary through radio chatter or more overt fixtures in each world.

Though it’s at the very tail end of the game, which takes place in 1992, one of San Andreas’ largest missions embroils the whole city of Los Santos in chaos ripped right out of the history books. Officer Tenpenny (played by Samuel L. Jackson), the crooked cop who’s hounded player character CJ from the very beginning, is acquitted of several charges, prompting the city to riot in anger. The player must continue to navigate the city while random pedestrians run through the streets, cars recklessly speed by, and countless vehicles catch on fire.

In many ways, this mirrors the actual Los Angeles riots in the spring of 1992. When a jury acquitted four officers of maliciously injuring a black man named Rodney King, thousands of Los Angeles residents began to riot, leading to six straight days of widespread protests and violence. While police aggression was a common issue for ethnic communities in the area, the Rodney King case is regarded as the first time it was caught on tape. Over 53 people ended up dead with over an estimated$1 billion damages. 

While Grand Theft Auto has become more overt about its cultural satire (IV waxing poetic about immigrant refugees lacking opportunity and V taking on modern Hollywood and Wall Street), San Andreas found the series taking its first baby steps into outright message-making. Police brutality, violent gang dynamics, and the general inescapability of poorer urban culture were all touched upon in ways that made the game more impactful than another stock rags-to-riches gangster saga.

WWE 13
Developer: Yuke’s
Release: October 2012

Here’s a challenge: Try chatting with someone who’s been religiously following professional wrestling for the better part of their life. Inevitably, you’ll hear wild tales of a forgotten time, when steel chairs connected with skulls, blood flowed more frequently than a heel ran his mouth, and thumbtacks were just how you warmed up on your morning body slams. Stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and D-Generation X became known for their anti-authority attitudes, fighting against the establishment for the heart of the audience.

The “Attitude Era,” as it was known, ended when circumstances forced the WWE to reevaluate its entire image. The true reasons are hotly contested, but suffice it to say that competition between the WWE and its rival, WCW, forced both parties’ hands at amping up the excitement and carnage, eventually leading to the oversaturation of multiple plotlines, the loss of multiple stars to Hollywood or injuries, and fallout from the integration of the WCW’s less marketable players.

But that’s not the point in WWE 13, which allows you to relive the era’s most glorious rivalries, horrific injuries, and absurd victories in one cohesive timeline. Using the real audio recorded during show intros and announcer commentary, most matches reward or require players to mimic the highlights of each match. Notable examples include the 1998 Hell in a Cell match between the Undertaker and Mankind, in which you can recreate the moment Undertaker, unplanned, throws Mankind from the top of the cage onto the announcer’s table, nearly killing the wrestler. This is, of course, before Mankind got right back up minutes later to climb back to the top. There’s also Steve Austin’s rise to prominence at Wrestlemania XIV in 1998, fully ushering in the Attitude Era with a win against Shawn Michaels via assistance from Mike Tyson.

Emily Is Away
Developer: Kyle Seeley
Release: October 2015

As technology developed at an astonishing rate, the rise of instant messaging sparked off a whole new generation of self-conscious teenagers and college kids. Technically, Emily Is Away is stretching the definition of a “‘90s game,” but considering that instant messaging services like AIM and PowWow began in the mid-‘90s, we’re setting our concerns to AFK.

Over the course of five in-game years, players live out their relationship with a young girl named Emily, strictly through simulated IM chat windows. From the moment you boot up the game, sounds you thought you’d never have to hear again ring out, like the symphonically dull Windows XP theme or the startling new message notification. You can even pick out your favorite user icon like the Blink-182 logo. It’s okay to cringe. We won’t judge.

Navigating your relationship is relatively easy; you only ever have three dialogue options to choose from (“Coldplay sucks,” or “Brad is a d---” are popular options), but the game forces you to type random keys in order to simulate the experience of methodically determining every word you use in the hopes of getting along with Emily. This is especially impressive when the game calls for more sincere depictions of young love in the age of IM’ing. Choose to reassure her that she means the world to you, and instead of typing out “you are my best friend,” the chat window begins to delete the sentence in favor of “you’re one of my best friends.” If that doesn’t capture a poetic sense of youthful awkwardness, then perhaps the conclusion will, which perfectly conveys that futile sense of disinterest when allowed to treat real people like they’re just another username.

Her Story
Developer: Sam Barlow
Release: June 2015

Set in 1994, Her Story walks players through a murder mystery framed through seven interviews with a young woman. Sections of the interviews are scattered throughout a police database, forcing players to cope with the aging directory in order to find missing segments of a larger story that will help them piece together their own conclusion. Players enter keywords they think may pull up additional footage, and can then tag them for future reference.

The plot of Her Story could have been set during any recent decade, but it’s the experience of digging through a mid-‘90s infrastructure that captures the uncertainty and frustration of solving a deadly serious case in an age of rapid advancements in technology. The futility of sorting through keywords in a time when SEO sounded more likely a Britpop band than a search engine algorithm is unique to the decade. Numerous real-life cases like the one in Her Story have gone unsolved or wrongly settled, a fact that films like David Fincher’s Zodiac explore.

In terms of gameplay, Her Story also takes direct inspiration from FMV games (like Night Trap or Phantasmagoria) made popular on home consoles in the ‘90s. Actress Viva Seifert lends her skills to the troubling character of the interrogated woman in each recorded video.

In keeping with the ‘90s PC aesthetic, Her Story also includes a mini-game called “Mirror” that closely resembles the classic Minesweeper. Hey, even cold-case investigators need to take a break every once in a while.