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Unstuck in Time: What Video Games Have to Say About the 1980s

From "Vice City" to "The Phantom Pain," games have been looking back at the decade in fascinating ways.

by Javy Gwaltney
Oct 2 2015, 3:45pm

A screenshot from 'Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,' a game set in 1984 (via MetalGearInformer.com)

For most people, especially those who didn't live it, the 1980s are probably best represented by some twisted, thorny entanglement of Scarface and Miami Vice. Like San Francisco with the free loving 60s and Nashville in the 70s with its singer-songwriter renaissance, Miami is irrevocably attached to the hedonistic and xenophobic culture that was 80s America, a flashy epicenter that conjures up images of men in suits barreling down roads in Maseratis.

The 80s were, of course, bigger than Miami; but the city's love affair with cocaine and clubs like 1235, where music made by people who just wanted to have a bit of goddamn fun blared through the night, have cemented its place as the flashy figurehead of the decade. Sure, across the sea, Margaret Thatcher was terrorizing the poor and the USSR was invading Afghanistan, resulting in the murder and displacement of countless innocents. But none of that's particularly sexy, is it? Pop culture and myth always triumph over the dull and often grim specifics of history, and Miami in the 80s is just the right combination of seediness, tragedy, intrigue, and bright lights to serve as the ethos of an era.

A screenshot from 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City'

It's both fitting and somewhat disappointing then that video games, which have spent a good portion of their existence imitating movies and television, about the 80s often do little more than pay homage to the hedonism of that stretch of time in the same way that Michael Mann and Brian De Palma's work did. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was clearly designed to be a sandbox version of Miami Vice, just with you playing the role of a two-bit mobster instead of a detective. When it was released in 2002, the 1986-set game was praised as having one of the most vibrant and fascinating settings ever developed for a game, a sentiment that still rings true. When you weren't trying to earn enough cash to make your psychopathic mob boss happy by managing pornography studios and glam bands, you were free to roam the streets of the city, listening to Hall and Oates as you meandered in and out of night clubs and ice cream factories, perhaps even moonlighting as a taxi driver for a night (because why not?).

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Vice City remains one of the best open-world games ever made, not just because the amount of freedom it offered the player at the time of the game's release was astonishing but also because, unlike most contemporary open-world games, its openness made sense thematically. It gives you a giant virtual playground, designed to let you do what you want to do when you want to do it, and that fitted with the context of the era, one that produced works of fiction obsessed with the search of happiness in a world of decadence and excess. All the same, Vice City never rises above paying tribute to its influences. It doesn't ever muse on the cyclical tragedy of Miami's drug scene or the city's racism against Haitians and Columbians. But few would have expected it to. Besides being an 80s theme park, this is Grand Theft Auto we're talking about, a series that occasionally shoots for the stars (GTA IV's plot about an immigrant selling the remnants of his soul for a stability that doesn't exist is still a master class of writing in video games) but is mostly content to roll about in the gutter and tell dick jokes.

A screenshot from 'Hotline Miami'

Dennaton's violent indie darling Hotline Miami occupies a similar space. The open-world is replaced with a series of top-down gauntlets that punish the player harshly for their mistakes, but the adoration of 80s pop culture remains apparent, with enemies wearing Don Johnson's trademark suit from Miami Vice and the protagonist's ride being a DeLorean. Like Vice City, Hotline Miami doesn't ever engage its setting in an interesting way and instead break it down into a number of stylish props; it's ultimately window dressing for a game that's primarily concerned with letting you butcher well-dressed dudes in a variety of gruesome ways.

Interestingly enough it's games set in the 80s but not in Miami that tend to grapple with the era in engaging thematic ways, often connected to warfare. The dour aesthetic of Lucas Pope's Papers, Please, which casts you as an immigration officer working at the border of a fictional country in 1982, provides insight into an aspect of the era that games just didn't tackle before: the haunting experience of refugees displaced by the likes of the Soviet-Afghan War and the Salvadoran Civil War. Papers, Please doesn't put us in their shoes, but instead as the person who decides whether they get to cross the border and begin a new life in another country or be sent back in the direction of whatever made them flee in the first place.

Related, on Noisey: Ten Outsider Hardcore Bands to Know from 1980s America

A screenshot from 'Papers, Please'

Papers, Please is a game that exists in two distinct places, acknowledging both the tense paranoia of a post-9/11 world while also reflecting on victims of war in the time of the Berlin Wall, a place far removed from 1980s America's Caligulan deluge of material excess. It's a game that embraces grey scale misery, evoking the likes of Schindler's List and Bicycle Thieves, instead of Rubik's Cubes and power ballads and in doing so allows the player to take part in a compelling, fittingly unsettling story about displacement during The Cold War.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, incomplete as it is, also forms a worthwhile take on the effects of The Cold War era, letting the player take part in both the Soviet-Afghan War and the Angolan Civil War as legendary hero Big Boss. Boss carries a Sony Walkman with him that can be used to play recoverable cassette tapes containing 1980s hits like "Take On Me" and "Gloria." These tapes acknowledge that there is a world outside of the battlefield, far away from you and your fellow soldiers, where people are snorting, fucking, and dancing their days away with wild abandon while you and your lost boys, collected from the battlefield and convinced to fight for you, engage in military operations around the world.

Yes, it's infinitely amusing to sneak into a Soviet camp and knock out each soldier while "Kids in America" blares away, but there's also tragedy embedded in that player you're carrying around. It's a reminder of the life that Boss and his fellow soldier are exiled from, both physically and psychologically, as their existence is nothing but the battlefield. It's a surprisingly poignant detail, especially since it's common knowledge that many soldiers experience difficulties reintegrating back into society after service, one that makes great use of some songs otherwise dismissed as pop garbage.

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The Phantom Pain's open, mostly empty expanses also serve as a stark contrast to the populated and vibrantly colored spaces of both Hotline Miami and Vice City. Where those games attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the time, MGS V refuses to do so, instead turning an eye to a specific series of transformative, historical events that games haven't bothered addressing before in a critical way. Admittedly, the game's handling of topics like child warfare and traumatized soldiers is half-baked at best, but The Phantom Pain's presentation of deterrence theory—another major concern of The Cold War era—is rather sublime, letting players protect their bases by building nuclear weapons at a cost to their reputation and putting a lock on in-game content.

A nearly impossible scenario in which all players dispose of their nuclear weapons unlocks a cutscene that celebrates global disarmament, but the unlikeliness of such a scenario mimics the snail-like progress nations have made in the real world. In a way that recalls the 1983 movie WarGames, The Phantom Pain's disarmament component offers a look into the paranoid me against the world logic that lies at the heart of nuclear deterrence and the cost of that logic, which is a far more effective illustration of director Hideo Kojima's point than any of the lengthy anti-deterrence monologues in either Snake Eater or Peace Walker.

A screenshot from 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture'

As games move past their need to imitate previously established mediums to a T, more of them will cover topics they haven't touched before in genuinely fascinating ways. The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, released this summer, quietly takes on nuclear war anxieties through its unsettling absence of people and touches of science fiction, and is striking for its bucolic rendering of an apocalypse. But currently, most games that take place in the 80s—outside of the few exceptions above—don't really say anything about the era that hasn't already been said in movies or television. That doesn't mean that developers necessarily lazy or unimaginative, however—perhaps they're searching for uniquely gamey ways to express the joys and anxieties of that particular time in history that amount to more than an enjoyable if somewhat tacky memorabilia museum.

Perhaps in the future we'll have a game explicitly about the Chernobyl disaster, or one concerning the Madchester music scene, that uses interactivity in an advantageous way and focuses on topics that haven't been flogged beyond death. For now though, we have flashes of insight, even of genius in Papers, Please and Kojima's Metal Gear swan song, that hint at the promise that video games possess: as engaging pieces of entertainment that don't bow to pop culture, but instead grapple with the complexities of our past.

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