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Games

All Brown Everything: What Video Games Have to Say About the 1970s

The 1970s are no more, but playing games set in that decade depicts a time of murder, economic hardship, and international tensions.

by Paul Rose
Nov 10 2015, 5:46pm

A screenshot from 'Interstate '76'

I was born in 1971, when the world was brown. Brown trousers. Brown sandals. Brown wallpaper. Brown sofa. Brown Austin Allegro. At least, that's how I remember it. Looking back now at the decade now, it seems to have been a depressing era, all miner's strikes and Vietnam War guilt. Picket lines snaking around braziers. National Health glasses and Edward Heath.

Disco and glam rock always seemed to me like a misguided attempt to titivate a botched dessert with glitter, until punk came along, stapled it to a cat, and kicked it over a wall. And just when things couldn't get any worse, Margaret Thatcher ascended to power with a sibilant hiss of contempt.

For better or worse, it's where I came from, and I have a fascination for the era in which I skidded through my formative years. It is, of course, also the decade that video games were born, but Pong (1972), Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979) actually tell us little about the 1970s. If you happen to be an alien anthropologist arriving on earth in 1980, you might come away with the conclusion that the human race was fixated with table tennis and gripped by extra-terrestrial paranoia.

However, given the unrelenting bleakness of the decade, it's a surprise how very few games have delved into it.

Activision's Interstate '76 and Vigilante 8 games of the late 90s were both set in an alternate 1970s, where the real world's energy crisis had reached a point of no return. In our universe, oil exports from the Middle East trickled away, and choked Western economies as their own oil production peaked.

In Vigilante 8 and Interstate '76, a multinational oil consortium conspires to cause the collapse of the USA. It was a gritty backdrop to a game that was essentially about driving around destroying other vehicles. A number of 70s archetypes appeared as characters, including a Las Vegas high roller, a paranoid FBI agent, an alien-obsessed hippie conspiracy freak, and a disco dancer.

A screenshot from 'Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes'

The Metal Gear franchise spans decades, and three of its installments take place in the 70s: the PSP's Portable Ops in 1970, Peace Walker in 1974, and The Phantom Pain prologue Ground Zeroes is set in 1975. Though it pays lip service to the Cold War paranoia of the time, little in Portable Ops feels distinctly of its setting. Peace Walker is set in Costa Rica, but doesn't go out of its way to reflect the country's prosperity of the period.

Ground Zeroes is more of its era, as the player once again assumes the guise of Snake in order to infiltrate an unofficial American base on Cuban soil. But it's fair to say that Metal Gear, on the whole, is set in a parallel universe that only superficially resembles our own—it's a place where it's perfectly acceptable for people to have a name like "Hot Coldman."

Yet another alternate 1970s is seen in Westwood Studios' tongue-in-cheek real-time strategy epic Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, released in 2000. Following the events of its 1950s-set (or thereabouts) predecessor, Red Alert 2 finds players either repelling a Soviet invasion of the United States or taking charge of the very same operation from the opposing side.

Rather more grounded is The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, from Polish studio The Astronauts. Released in 2014, it's a sublime paranormal mystery, set around an abandoned Wisconsin town of 1973. The lack of mobile phones and flat screen TVs are two indications that we're not in the 2000s anymore, but the game also touches on the tough economic times of the era. The town of Red Creek Valley was left deserted, following the collapse of the local mining industry.

A screenshot from 'Driver: Parallel Lines'

Driver: Parallel Lines is set in an open-world New York City of both 1978 and 2006 (its year of release). Famously, Manhattan was a dangerous place in the 70s, with tourist trap Times Square a long way from the Disney-fied playground that it is today. Most jarringly, it features the World Trade Center complex, which—obviously—was five years gone by 2006. While using the same basic street layout, for the 2006 section the game closes off the WTC with a glass wall. Interestingly, it also reflects my own brown-tinted memories of the 1970s, adopting a sepia-toned aesthetic, while the noughties are brighter colors.

One of the more interesting depictions of the 1970s can be found in one of the most obscure games you're ever going to find on eBay. Leading Company was never released outside of Japan, though appeared on the Super NES, NEC PC-9801, and the Sharp X6800 in that territory. It was a strategy sim that foreshadowed both the burgeoning VHS industry and the rise of the corporate yuppie. Players were tasked with researching VCR technology, and introducing it to Japanese consumers, without your company going bankrupt.

Curiously, three of the games that most feel like the 1970s I recognize aren't even set in the decade, and were released some time apart from each other.

Sony's Heavy Rain was a somber interactive drama for the PS3 (and, soon, the PS4), and though set in 2011, its direction and story feel borrowed from 1970s detective (neo)noir. The story—the hunt for the Origami Killer—seems to take inspiration from the real-life case of the Zodiac Killer, who is believed to have murdered as many as seven people in the late 60s and early 70s in California, while taunting police with a series of cryptic letters. The case remains unsolved.

A screenshot from 'Heavy Rain'

Skool Daze, which came out for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 in 1984, depicts an average British school of the sort I went to. There are blackboards rather than interactive wipe-boards, and kids armed with catapults and peashooters rather than iPhones and selfie sticks.

This year's Assassin's Creed Syndicate might be set in Victorian London, but the scenery evokes a London that I grew up in. There were enough red brick warehouses and gasometers around in my youth that it's impossible to not feel a pang of nostalgia. They're all gone now of course; the warehouses are luxury apartments, and the gasometers were knocked down to build new Waitroses.

The 1970s are no more, but playing games set in that decade depicts a time of murder, economic hardship, and international tensions between the East and West. Maybe the more things change the more they stay the same—you can change the date on the calendar, but you can't change people.

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