With 'synthwave' genre, game makers are embracing the decade of hot pinks and endless cityscapes
No game understands the power of a beefy bass synthesizer better than Defragmented, released this past February. The indie-action RPG is built from the ground up on purple gradients and chilly neon. It's Blade Runner from a top-down, shoot-'em-up perspective. You're one man on a quest to topple a city-wide conspiracy, kicking cybernetic geeks off the street with tip of your Hailfire gun. On paper, it's inspired by the cheesy cyberpunk VHS flicks of the Eighties, but in practice it borders on satire.
Defragmented is part of a generation of games embracing the bold, hyper-saturated, vectorized version of the Eighties that exists in our heads. There's no official cultural nickname, but most people call it "synthwave." It's an aesthetic that gathered steam with the 2011 neo-noir epic Drive and the gloriously grubby 2012 video game Hotline Miami. A sleek, Reagan-less utopia, full of cliffside highways, hexagonal sunsets, and magenta video stores – it basically takes a few broad filmic touchstones and expands them into an entire aesthetic. There's a general cognitive oversimplification the farther we get from a period of time. The Fifties and Sixties are a blur of pompadours, milkshakes, peace signs and sitars. It's comfort food, a way to polish the past to distract us from a messy present. Thirty years later, the Eighties are getting the same treatment.
The first game to embrace the neon with a decent budget and major publisher support was 2013's Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, an expansion to the fairly sober Ubisoft first-person shooter franchise. Blood Dragon recast Far Cry's tropical island under a crimson sun. The very first level is a Predator homage, and the story is told through title cards you might expect from "All Your Base Are Belong To Us." At every turn, creative director Dean Evans and his team were building an indulgent, patchwork version of their own childhood.
"The shooter genre sometimes takes itself very seriously and its attempt to delivering a dramatic narrative is sometimes at odds with its comedic gameplay reality," he says. "[The Eighties] takes me back to a safe place. A time where my only worry was how long it took my Vic-20 computer to load or if there was enough ketchup for my chips. That decade and aesthetic still feels free and futuristic. It has this mix of comfort and optimism that's impossible not to love."
Evans adores this stuff, and Blood Dragon is his tribute; sewn from a childhood absorbing all the CRT-TV scanlines, darkwave, and malevolent artificial intelligence he could. But a surprising number of game developers working in that same pungent cyberpunk ennui don't share his heritage. Defragmented writer James Johnston was born in 1993, long after the boom that brought us Pac-Man, Defender, Galaga and so many other iconic games of the era, and a solid 12 years removed from New Order's first album. He's not pulling from a primary source, his information is borrowed, and it makes his perspective on the decade more mythic and less tangible. In a sense, he and his team have learned to imagine the 1980s.
"The Eighties were a spectacular time, you can't take one look at it and be like 'okay, I get it,'" he says. "What we did is try to make Defragmented it's own story. We still have plenty of neon, and we also have a lot of chiptune in our game, but chiptune was not an Eighties thing. I think we did a good job trying to create the new kind of Eighties."
There's plenty of contemporary art that reflects some authentic memories of the era – Halt and Catch Fire is a great TV show that captures the neurotic, unstylish personal computer boom. But it's telling that so many millennials are getting inspired by an antiquity that hasn't quite had its Grease moment yet – although Netflix's Stranger Things certainly comes close. These kids were born into a world full of corduroy-wearing dads proselytizing about the purity of Woodstock and CBGB's, but the Eighties are theirs to glamorize. Charles Blanchard designed Drift Stage, a searingly utopian arcade racer full of MIDI guitar solos and endless beaches. He's 25, but like Johnston, found some unspoilable hipness in an era that doesn't quite belong to him.
"The bold colors used in Drift Stage were meant to be a homage to the limited color palettes on old home computers like C64 and Amiga, which were often the first platform to revive ports of arcade racers," he says. "It's a very personal project that draws its inspiration from many, many sources. While I was born in 1991, I grew up watching reruns and syndicated TV shows from all eras, and the art style really reflects my personal nostalgia for that. The fact that it resonates with so many people is something that I can't explain, but am very grateful for."
The entertainment landscape in the Eighties was unabashed creative gold. No fear.
Most synthwave video games are coming from indie developers – small teams without the support of large publishers – and the lack of corporate involvement has kept these games remarkably thin on pastiche. Furi is an extremely difficult boss-battler with a killer soundtrack, ROOT is a tense, fully-vectorized first-person stealth adventure. Slipstream is basically a 2016 update of Outrun. Freshly minted genres are often so easily pegged. Wayfarers! Palm trees! Pinkish silhouettes! But right now creatives behind these projects all have unique, homespun takes on the same aesthetic.
It's hard to know how long that will last. Tonally, synthwave is teetering between a kind of serenity and hamfistedness. The willfully cheeseball 2015 short film – and then Streets of Rage-inspired game – Kung Fury double-fisted the lampoon with a time-travelling Hitler and a sloppy, exceedingly obvious David Hasselhoff music video. "There's no need to constantly wink and poke the audience to remind them about how 'wacky' or 'crazy' the Eighties were," says Evans. "Just be true to the unbridled attitude of the time period."
So far these game designers have avoided anything too ironic. Their love of this stuff might be strange, but it's also genuine. No sappiness, no Hasselhoff jokes. Just a celebration of the delectable, irreplaceable vibe of a hot rod, and a highway, and an artificial sun hanging above an indigo city.
"Nostalgia is both an interesting beast and a double-edged sword. To dwell in the past can be considered negative but I don't see why it can't be a positive emotion, a rewarding experience and a tool to engage people," says Evans. "The entertainment landscape in the Eighties was unabashed creative gold. No fear. It was a time that felt immune to focus groups where creators were in control of their creations without the fear of death by a thousand cuts. The summer of '82 will never be forgotten. And let's be honest, vectors and desert chrome are timeless wonders."