Funny how humans move in cycles. Maybe it’s nostalgia that pulls old ideas back into the frame, maybe it’s the belief that new technology can improve on what has already been attempted, maybe’s it’s all of that and more.
Whatever the case, the hit show Stranger Things is a prime example of this desire to reanimate the past. It’s set in 1983, and the design, fashion, dialogue, music and overall vibe has been likened to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Stephen King novels, The Goonies, Alien, Freaks and Geeks and even Toto’s number-one hit “Africa.”
Games also loom large in the show. The kids of Stranger Things are avid players of Dungeons and Dragons, the wider plot itself mirroring the idea of leaving your “normal” reality behind and entering an altogether different landscape. The early ‘80s marked the birth of the point-and-click adventure, the likes of 1983’s Kings Quest setting the scene for genre mainstays such as Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion and Zak McKraken to arrive by the end of the decade. As with Dungeons and Dragons, these games allowed you to explore an alternate reality dense with characters and environmental detail.
From the multiple plot threads to the solving of mysteries, the jumping between characters and the audience being left in the dark, Stranger Things uses many of the narrative tools that early point-and-click adventures relied upon. Fitting, then, in our cyclical world, that the show should become the inspiration for the point-and-click adventure creators of today.
“1983 was a real seminal year for me, with E.T. having been released the previous fall, playing the Atari 2600 and biking all over our neighborhood,” says Steven Alexander, co-founder of adventure game studio Infamous Quests. “Stranger Things rang all of those bells in my head.”
"I thought it would be fun to make a retro style point-and-click adventure game based on what was going on in the show. While I’m watching, I’m thinking about what would make for good things for players to explore.”
So Alexander and his team made a Stranger Things game—a small single-location adventure in the vein of classic 1980s point and clickers. The visuals are pixelated, the music is minimalist and the dialogue is read rather than heard. It concerns the show’s Police Chief, Jim Hopper, searching the woods for clues as to the whereabouts of the missing Will Byers.
Clicking on objects in the environment and conversing with the deputies assisting you eventually leads to Alexander’s finale. The whole thing feels like something built as thoroughly on nostalgia as Stranger Things itself.
One of the reasons Alexander focused on the character of Hopper is because the actor playing him, David Harbour, is an avid fan of adventure video games. Given that Infamous Quests had already released a number of games in this vein prior to the launch of Stranger Things, Alexander reached out to Harbour through Twitter.
“When I started following him, he only had a couple of thousand followers and he tweeted something about loving point-and-click adventures. I tweeted back that my company makes these kinds of games, and he replied saying he thought they were awesome and then we started communicating after that. When Stranger Things took off, his Twitter account blew up, but he carried on taking an interest in what we were doing with our games.”
Having been inspired by the Netflix show to design a game around it, and knowing that Harbour enjoyed adventure games, it was decided that this incarnation of Stranger Things should focus on the character of Hopper. Even if the design failed, Alexander thought that Harbour might at least “get a kick out of it.”
With a team of three, the game took two weeks to make. Alexander took writing and coding duties, while Infamous Quests contributors James Mulvale and Jon Taylor-Stoll handled music and art, respectively.
The original design documents go well beyond the scope of the game in its current, one-location form. Alexander worked on designing different elements of the game in between Infamous Quests projects, coming up with a range of locations, working out how players might play using different characters whose stories eventually converge and how best to mimic the show’s set design in pixel form.
Reaction to the project has been startling, with Alexander receiving emails and messages across social media pleading with him to expand the game and build the remainder of what he has designed. But without official backing from Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers, let alone Netflix, taking the time out of his commercial work to build something without the guarantee of a return in income is perhaps not feasible.
Of course, Alexander would be more than happy to work on an officially licensed Stranger Things game. "Right now I know they’re developing a second season of Stranger Things, but I could only hope that if they wanted to make a game then they’d want to work with us,” he says. “Anyone in my position would want that. If they don’t want that, though, I’ve still made something that I like and seems to have made a lot of people happy.”
Alexander is philosophical in regards to the process of creating his Stranger Things game. The boundaries set up by working within a narrative written by someone else forced him to be more creative in determining gameplay solutions, given that there are certain elements that can’t simply be thrown away if the first idea isn’t working. “You have to deal with all kinds of problems that come up, as you can’t change the characters and settings you’re working with,” says Alexander. “It’s liberating to work within constraints that someone else has written sometimes because it focuses you and makes you think about the design properly.”
Embracing these constraints has come naturally to Alexander, given the events that he experienced earlier in life that eventually led to his career as a game developer. In his twenties he was a professional musicians performing on tours and working in studios. But that career was cut short when he was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease and told he needed a kidney transplant.
Having to be on dialysis three days a week meant that his life “went from 60 to zero real quick. I had a lot of free time and a lot of internet access, so I started getting involved with some game-making communities. I used to write games when I was really young on the Apple II and then later on IBM PCs, and I only stopped dong that when I started making music. When I finally went make to games I was starting out on the bottom rung and so I felt the restrictions that come with that and was able to understand the benefit of them when I decided to work on the games I have done since.”
Alexander’s wider experiences of game development adheres to the same cyclical nature of his Stranger Things game, then, with restrictions informing and dictating both his current designs and his initial entry into the industry. Mastery of the cycle, understanding its limitations and embracing them as a means towards greater creativity, has worked for both Alexander and the Duffer Brothers.