I was never cool in school. That’s not just the first lyric of Ben Folds Five’s “Underground,” it’s a fact. I didn’t fit in with any particular group, and when I did hang out with other kids, I always felt like I sort of accidentally slipped in undetected, and that I didn’t really belong there. Acceptance always seemed either artificial or acquired through happenstance. No one was hanging out with me, so much as hanging out in a group that happened to include me.
Games-as-interactive-stories have never appealed to me. As much as I love the strange and unique, the idea of playing what looked like it an interactive movie didn’t seem like a worthwhile use of my time. However, 198X sets a tone from the very beginning, and manages to maintain it throughout, even with five jarringly-different arcade-style levels breaking up the game’s story.
Modern popular culture would have you believe that being a nerd (or a dork, or whatever term you identify most with) in the 1980s was some sort of badge of honor, or something you strived to be, when in my case it was simply who I was—who I still am. There was, and still is, no quiet dignity to it. You were an outsider, and the world—and everyone in it—strove to make sure you were boxed out at every turn. 198X, the story driven arcade mash up, captures this feeling of alienation in a way that is so universal, I feel like anyone could identify with it.
In order for a story this sincere to work, you have to feel what the protagonist feels. I felt The Kid’s isolation. I was that kid. Being a misfit in the 1980s wasn’t something I strove to be, it’s just—again—who I was. It wasn’t cool to be an outcast. It was cold and alienating. Lonely and sad. You can call it cliché, but this game captures the mood so well it affected me emotionally several times as I played it.
198X is set in Suburbia, outside of the City, and is the story of a nameless protagonist called The Kid, your average alienated teenager, who wanders the streets at night unsure of their place in the world. One night they enter a dark alley and discover a haven inside an old warehouse they were told to avoid, an arcade. It is here that they escape their ordinary life through video games, and find others just like them.
In front of these machines stood some of the coolest uncool people I had ever seen. They were the freaks, geeks, the misfits, the outcasts, the real rebels, part of something the outside world could not understand.
The accompanying synth music—alternatively tragic and uplifting—is wonderful, and is made all the more powerful when married with Maya Tuttle’s debut performance as The Kid. Her tone gives the game a sincerity necessary for the story to work.
As the story progresses, The Kid will play through five different arcade genres: The beat ’em up, the shoot ’em up, the racing game, the ninja game, and the RPG (arguably not an arcade style game, but it’s execution was so spellbinding I dare anyone to quibble). The interesting part is figuring out how each level parallels The Kid’s own human experience. What’s even more interesting is the fact I suddenly care about a video game character’s human experience? That’s not me. I believe it’s perhaps due to the fact that I identify with the lead character.
I, myself, transitioned from unattractive loser to middle-aged mediocrity so fast I barely noticed the shift in how I practice my own self loathing. All joking-the-pain-away aside, we all feel isolated and alone at times. We don’t have to be the archetypal loner the game portrays to understand it.
I don’t want to give the impression that 198X gets quite this deep with it’s own story, but I was drawn into the story because it brought out something in me. The game has no agenda, no flashing neon sign telling you how to feel, it’s a simple tale that is simply universal.
A Story in Five Stages
The gameplay sections are almost inconsequential at times, such as the game’s introductory level that is basically level one of any coin-devouring beat ’em up you’ve ever played. Not being a huge beat ’em up fan (outside of that Scott Pilgrim game that came out a few years ago) I didn’t mind that the experience was fleeting and lacking necessity. That’s not to say the stage isn’t expertly done. The controls, visuals, and gameplay are all spot on, it’s just that you probably won’t revisit it once you progress past it unless you want to rewatch the story segments that accompany it. The level that stands out the most for me is the third one, aptly named The Runaway.
The Kid, standing outside high school, observes as a flashy black sports car drives by. That short scene leads into The Runaway, the “racing game” level. It’s basically Out Run with a dash of Rad Racer mixed in.
198X also begins with The Kid riding the subway, so it’s natural that seeing cars causes them to dream of taking to the open road. The Runaway begins in a barren desert, with nothing of interest to see outside of the occasional billboard that (as far as I can glean) seems to be an ad for cigarettes featuring a highway patrolman and a llama. As the checkpoints progress the road narrows and the traffic increases as everyone is funneled down the same narrow path.
If you manage to progress far enough, you reach a checkpoint where you are granted an insane amount of extra time. You emerge from a tunnel, no longer in the desert, with only the endless City night sky before you. The lanes open up, spreading six across. Eventually you realize the gameplay and story have converged. You still control your vehicle, and you’re still racing, but the danger is gone. Cars can be easily avoided and you are free to reach maximum speed (255 MPH). Eventually the narration kicks in and The Kid talks about how the concept of driving towards something is the most appealing fantasy of all.
As the timer ticks down, you see the highways signs overhead repeat themselves. Straight ahead is the City. There are no off ramps to the left and right. NO EXIT. In the waning moments as the timer approaches zero you access a bridge, about to enter the City—but you run out of time. Your car sputters to a stop, the level ends, and you wake up in bed, so close to your destination, but never reaching it.
Once More With Feelings
I often have a recurring dream—or nightmare. I start somewhere with all of my friends, but almost immediately lose track of them. I usually spend the rest of the dream wandering around trying to find them, becoming more panicked and frustrated as I go along. I’ll often wake up with a headache from clenching my teeth, the anxiety I normally feel in my waking life having bled into my dreams.
The way The Runaway plays out, it feels a lot like that dream. Speeding towards uncertainty. I’m older now. I know I have friends and people who love me, so why are my emotions and thoughts still operating on a high school level? I recently remarked to a coworker that I am enjoying my 40s because it’s the first time in my life I don’t feel like a 19 year old pretending to be an adult. While this is true, I still have lingering feelings of sadness, self-doubt, anxiety, and even anger about so many things. We may get older, we may get wiser, but some things imprint on us early on, and the best we can do is deal with them the best way we know how.
While 198X is a simple tale of escapism via the medium of video games, I think it’s a powerful one. The fact that it strips away all the unnecessary noise and gets to the heart of human emotions is what makes it that way.
The One With All the Dragons
For every level that feels covered in metaphorical meaning, there are levels like “Shadowplay,” which reminds us that within us all there lies the heart of a tiger ninja. Or something. Honestly, “Shadowplay” was probably my favorite level to play because it was the toughest and fastest-paced, but it had next to nothing to do with the story, outside of The Kid saying the word “shadow” right before the game segment begins.
The same can also be said for “Out of the Void,” an old school shoot ’em up, that doesn’t tie into the story on a thematic level, but is a quick, fun trip through an entry level Gradius, or R-Type style game.
Then there is the final game, the dungeon crawler Kill Screen, that had me transfixed as I wandered the corridors that visually mixed console generations together to create a truly bizarre experience.
Anyone with experience playing RPGs will be able to cruise on autopilot, while Kill Screen itself seems to be fighting against you. It alternately blames you and apologizes to you, often speaking to you like a parent. As you attempt to slay the three dragons within the blue-lined dungeon, the game tries to unfairly whittle away your options, leaving you with no choice.
The game ends leaving many things unexplained, and it should be noted that 198X only clocks in at a few hours max. It is however meant to be the first of two parts, so the fact plot points don’t get fully explored is disappointing, but not unexpected.
And Introducing Maya Tuttle as The Kid
I had the opportunity to speak with Maya Tuttle, who made her debut as The Kid, and got some amazing insight into her performance.
25YL: As a child of the 80s, I found the game to be an experience more than a game. The art work, the music, the story, and your performance bring it all together. We’ve all been through those rough formative years, and I feel like the game made a strong point to make Kid universally relatable. Was that a conscious choice on anyone’s part?
Maya: Yes, this was definitely a creative choice made by 198X‘s director, Tobias Bjarneby. My voice has some naturally androgynous characteristics, which was part of why I was chosen for the role. On top of that, Tobias actually pitched my voice down ever-so-slightly in post, so what you hear in the game is a pitched-down version of my natural voice. It adds more ambiguity to Kid’s identity. I worked back and forth remotely with Tobias for months on all of Kid’s lines and was happy to give as many takes as he needed to get the pace and feel he was looking for. Tobias shared with me one of the inspirations for Kid’s delivery: Giovanni Ribisi’s opening narration from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. There’s this numb nostalgia to his voice. There’s attitude yet melancholy.
25YL: Have you played the game?
Maya: I haven’t yet because I don’t have a PC, but I heard that it recently came out on Nintendo Switch! So I will be playing it soon.
25YL: Are you a gamer? If so, what games are you into/currently played/loved in the past?
Maya: I love open world games with an engaging story and in-world history. The most recent game I played through was Red Dead Redemption 2. I was completely addicted and would sit down nearly every day to play. Roger Clark’s voice acting as Arthur Morgan was incredible! I aspire to bring life to a character like that. I’ve never had a game make me cry, but RDR2 certainly did that. Another favorite of mine is Fallout 4. My husband and I bonded over Fallout 4 and even had the main theme played at our wedding by a string quartet, ha ha. I love the aesthetic and feel of that world—and I really enjoy games where you can build and customize your home base/settlement. I love watching Fallout settlement builds on YouTube. Oh, and of course, Skyrim!
25YL: Can you tell us anything about the next part? It’s no secret that the game is part one of two and I’m interested in exploring aspects of the first game that were merely touched on, such as The Kid’s crush at school, and further exploring what actually happened in regards to The Kid’s parents.
Maya: I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t know much about what the future holds myself! All I know is that more is coming.
25YL: What are you working on now? What would you like to do in the future?
Maya: I recently finished doing some voices for the new Final Fantasy VII remake that they just announced for an April 10, 2020 release! I voice several minor characters involved in quests, as well as some more atmospheric voices. Current characters I voice are Jessie in Brawl Stars, Nakak in Warframe, and Stella in Invector. In the future, I’d love to do more video games. The worlds these storytellers and artists create are so detailed and enveloping, it’s the ultimate comfort escape after a long day. It’s important too for everyone to have a respite like that, you know? I like being a part of making those worlds come to life. And just because I’m a super fan, I’d LOVE to be in a future installment of Fallout or Skyrim.
To Be Continued…
I want to thank Maya Tuttle, who was charming and accommodating, and for giving insight into her performance that I felt reinforced my own feelings about it. Plus, I was really happy to see she is working steadily, and will be in Final Fantasy VII, which I’ll be covering.
This might perhaps be the longest write up I’ve done for such a short game, but I loved my time in 198X, and will certainly visit it again.