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Games

The Next Great Setting for Video Games? Pre-Broadband Internet.

A new breed of games seek to explore the web that was.

by Zack Kotzer
Dec 6 2016, 5:00am

Video games can take us all over the place: the strange far reaches of space, famous historical battles, anime witch schools, and any combination of the three. For a new generation of game developers, the question emerges of where they'd actually like to go back to.

Nostalgia—that comfort food for the soul—beckons them to a primordial version of the platform we're now bound to: the world wide web. An internet without social media or a name for memes. An internet that was more exclusive, uncurated, and had lower stakes. An internet that thought midi files were close enough.

A wave of upcoming adventures are very interested in exploring those heady, hopeful days.

Shigesato Itoi's own nostalgic Earthbound is the inspiration for Ackk studios' YIIK. In that classic RPG opening, a meteor crashes in the dead of night, awakening a small town in their pajamas. In the PAX demo for YIIK, Episode Prime, something also stirs up a small town. A web forum, ONISM1999, is blowing up with reports of a ghost spotted in a cavern just outside the 'burbs, and immediately every youngster is out hunting for the paranormal.

A colorful, turn-based RPG, YIIK is a series of spooky investigations through mazes, puzzles, monsters and weirdos. In the demo, you play as Alex, Vella and Claudio, who fight with vinyl records, keytars, and hacky sacks, respectively. Each attack and defense pulls up a different mini-game, similar to Paper Mario, and the game's geeky, referential aesthetic is hard not to compare to Scott Pilgrim. While the game's aesthetic draws from a mix of 90s nerd culture inspirations, the plot has very precise origins.

Before Reddit's armchair detective agency, or the fleets of Twitter correctors, the internet's tall tales had longer legs. Allanson fondly remembers Ted's Caving Blog and a story he couldn't remember the details of, but described it as a "great House of Leaves-esque" fable of a man who tried to eat a house.  

There's another, much more tragic story that weighed on the YIIK team's minds when crafting the tale.

Central to YIIK's main mystery (and tied to the early game's specter sighting) is a woman who vanished from an elevator, seemingly yanked into another dimension. It's reminiscent of the real life disappearance of Elisa Lam, last seen in 2013 "acting strangely" in the elevator of a Los Angeles hotel. Twenty days after disappearing, her body was discovered in the water tank of the same building. The coroner declared it an accidental drowning, with Lam's bipolar disorder considered a contributing factor.

Some rabblers believed Lam was performing a ritual called "The Elevator Game," a process to cross over into another dimension by travelling to a sequence of floors in an elevator, which doesn't really make sense, but the concept is catchy. As usual with supernatural conspiracy breeding, no official explanation resolved many of the loose ends of Lam's death. The incident reminded YIIK's creators of the kind of those bogus ghost stories that used to thrive online.

"The death of Elisa Lam has bothered me since it happened," said Ackk Studios co-founder Andrew Allanson, "I feel like there still hasn't been a great official story about her... I remember on local news they reported it from the gross out angle because people drank water that a corpse had been floating in. That's unfortunate, but what about the poor girl who died? It's easy to say she was off her meds, but why can't people think a bit more about her as a person?"

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Header and all YIIK screens courtesy of Ackk Studios

YIIK is an homage to a more whimsical web, one where, according to Allanson, "everything was real, no matter if it was a hoax." Reading those bygone bump-in-the-night forums was sort of like reading gothic lit like Otranto and Frankenstein, exploring correspondences from a supernatural parallel world.

YIIK centers around the ONISM1999 blog, which will update with more supernatural threads as the game progresses. "Picture The X-Files," said Allanson, "if The X-Files were all online and you could read them, and check them out. Some end up being stupid, but others end up moving the plot forward."

That internet is gone, or at least, the scope is so radically different now. Internet affairs aren't limited to the internet anymore. The conspiracy culture that established itself online, long before the rest of the world plugged in, has spilled into the mainstream. It's easy to feel a pang of sentimentalism for the web that didn't matter, especially since digital spaces emit a sense of permanence, like every animated gif loop will inherently outlast you.

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Anthrotari screen courtesy of Biggest Robot Productions

There are other games that return to a reimagined "old web," like YIIK does. Last year's Emily is Away was a gem of a text adventure, presented in AIM chat windows you might've poured your feelings into in during Jr. High. It's disarming in its familiarity, and hits you right in the soft bits.

The upcoming Anthrotari will similarly take players back to the 90s cyberspace through the perspective of a queer furry roleplayer. Broken Reality is a first-person adventure through old chat rooms that takes more of the vaporwave route, an aesthetic that pulls from a bygone era of file sharing and jpeg compression.

Jay Tholen, creator of the recent Dropsy, already announced his next venture, Hypnospace Outlaw, which is currently being Kickstarted. Like ReBoot before it, Hypnospace envisions the web as a constant battle between agents of chaos and order.

"Moderating Hypnospace is a low paying job and Enforcers are kind of required to be jerks," Tholen told me. "The entire post-Windows 95 era of the internet being accessible in an incredibly user friendly way is the biggest inspiration. It felt pretty wondrous just trailblazing your own path and finding special things you could be sure very few other people have seen. "A lot of the mythologization that happened with computers/video games in that era is also an influence. For example, flicking the cursor around really quickly will actually cause some processes to load faster in HypnOS. Also, the Hypnospace Highway looking approximately like what everyone in the late nineties imagined when they heard Information Superhighway."

Tholen said that taking the GeoCities look makes the game feel more personal. The criminals of Hypnospace should ring a bell: sleazebags, hackers, adware and those rogue toolbars your parents had a knack for collecting. The citizens of Hypnospace are the early web pilgrims trying to figure out where they fit in this new world. Looking for communities, trolling other users, posting sappy song lyrics hoping their crushes will take notice. It's a digital world filled with conspiracy theorists and dead pet memorials, presumably adorned with the pixelated rose and candle gifs we all know and love.

The most modern influence is the presence of corporations and brands, who try to slither in and adopt the spaces of regular users, as they have in recent years. These advertisers will attempt to manipulate the cyber-laws while the Enforcers are still writing them. Tholen, who says he's not a fan of one government or benefactor scripting the laws of the web, said Hypnospace's world has a dystopian sense of authority. The player takes the role of an enforcer, trying to keep the peace in strange cyber-times.

"I think I'm trying to highlight the sort of alternate persona that people develop when they spend a lot of time online," said Tholen.

Becoming accustomed to contemporary user behavior forces you to reexamine the internet's less savory corners. "Some loud cocky jerk may be miserable and hurting in their daily life," said Tholen, "maybe some unmerited kindness could push them in a better direction? Maybe they wouldn't expect that? The game will play with that, and hopefully cause second-thoughts about unleashing harm on people who can't really be known through an avatar and a few 144 character posts."

While jerks abound in every era, the internet has unmistakably. Its early adopters and impressionable youth might not have seen that coming. The root mannerisms, performative persona, trolling, and conspiracy brush fires remain, but the frivolity it was treated with now seems like a mistake.

And so, a new nostalgia has formed around the fun and fancy free web, which maybe wasn't better, but had much less outside influence. A modern Norman Rockwell would paint a dancing CGI baby. And the beat streets of the 70s and 80s and the wars of the 30s and 40s—which games have repeatedly explored—are being joined by a new point in history: the late 90's internet for nerds.

"There was something holy about the loading time," said Allanson. "An image or a website took a time commitment. You selected it, and you waited. You had to find value in it. I think it was a bit like mini hype with every click. Kind of like how we have teasers for teaser trailers now, we had this absurd wait for a new Majora's Mask screenshot, or an Earthbound guide. It made that information seem more important."