Everything in pop culture builds off what came before. Source Code is where Playboy explores video games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
The past is, as they say, prologue, but nowhere is that more true than in video games. Taking inspiration from all sources, games have long struggled to find their own voice while mimicking those of other mediums. A perfect example of this is the sudden wash of games based heavily on the nostalgia and style of Golden Age science fiction. This isn’t a particularly uncommon theme to use in games—it fits perfectly in so many ways—but something seems to be in air to make the Golden Age more appealing than usual.
New games are swimming in the style of science fiction that developed out of the World War II era, with its cinematic height in the 50s. Looking back, we tend to associate this era with an endless procession of terrible, cheesy no-budget monster and flying saucer movies. It’s easy to forget that sci-fi luminaries like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury started out back then.
Genre fiction, especially sci-fi and horror, act as mirrors to the emotional climate of a culture at any given time. Coming out of World War II, America was a contradiction of elation and paranoia. Humans were ushering in the nuclear age and science, in one form or another, was mainstream, causing both celebration and fear. Science fiction picked up on all these things.
Nuclear devastation started a whole new subgenre of giant monster movies, from Them! to Godzilla. Hitler became the model for every cheap dime store sci-fi villain and humans were starting to seriously consider the idea of a future with rockets to the moon and flying cars. That future was covered in shiny chrome and strange antennas, but sat atop an underlayer of fear of the unknown. Moving from the great victory in Europe, America became obsessed with the Soviet Union, communism, and the red scare. McCarthyism threatened to unhinge civil liberties, suggesting anyone—from your neighbors to family members—could be the enemy.
So, basically, aside from the focus on saucers and chrome, not much has changed really. But, from a modern perspective, it seems like a simpler time of black and white morality, and exceptionally cool, optimistic style.
It’s that last thing—style—that people are really attracted to when they clothe a game in Golden Age attire, but also the emotional resonance they personally feel for the genre. “I think that these kind of movies are characterized by this particular mood, maybe a bit naive, simplistic and ingenuous,” Fabrizio Zagaglia, the creator of Albedo: Eyes from Outer Space, told me. “But full of mystery, astonishment…a sense of amazement that is difficult to find in the modern ones.”
SCIENCE FICTION, DOUBLE FEATURE
Zagaglia created Albedo almost single-handedly, as a homage to the films he loved. The result is an intentionally B-movie-style adventure where you play as a hapless security guard in a secret research facility gone awry. The game has a little combat, but mostly focuses on using items to solve obscure puzzles. The dialogue and voice acting are cheesy and there’s a heavy focus on aliens with one huge eye and lots of tentacles (all staples of the genre).
The ambience of the game is dead-on for what Fabrizio was after, even if the interface and pacing are more than slightly clunky. The look and soundtrack nail the style, and it’s an intriguing take on using a classic theme in a more modern way.
The Earth Defense Force series (most recently available on PS4 and PS Vita) has been using giant radioactive ants (and other bugs) to create an absurd action fantasy for several years now. Mindless, simple, and explosive, the game is straight-to-the-point shooting amid a city invasion of overgrown insects done up in an intentionally retro style.
Developer Clapfoot’s Fortified! uses the classic 50s look to creates a fairly simple multiplayer-centric action game. Fortified! focuses heavily on the look of alien invader films of the era, especially in regards to flying saucers, robot invaders, and its atmospheric use of extremely long shadows. The concept is straight out of history: when aliens invade, only four pulp-inspired heroes can stand up against them.
There’s the rocket scientist sporting both her trusty jet pack and a bazooka, the square-jawed Captain and space man, and men-in-blackish secret agent. All have unique abilities that can turn the tide of battle as players also lay down stationary artillery guns (and other military emplacements) to aid their defenses.
Taking a similar route to applying a distinctly 1950s look to multiplayer action is Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2, which features hilariously cartoonish battles across arenas that include 50s-era burbs and other related locations. The game’s heavy visual focus on perfecting the goofy look of old monster and sci-fi movies adds an enormous amount of entertainment value to the otherwise familiar combat action, making it one of the most distinctive online games around.
But no series has capitalized on the threat of nuclear doom that was a constant worry in the ‘50s more than Fallout. The era of cars with fins, art deco TVs and bomb shelters provides the perfect backdrop for Fallout’s mix of humor and horror. Even though the bombs in the game’s apocalypse didn’t actually fall until well after the 1950s, every bit of style from Fallout is modeled after the unique sensibilities of the time.
From old tube-based TVs, monitors and radios to the wreckage of future-retro cars, Fallout takes place in a universe where the 50s went on right until the end. Fallout 4, in particular, devotes a heavy focus on the paranoia of the era, where a shadowy organization steals citizens in the night and infiltrates settlements by replacing settlers with cyborg replicants.
This concept was especially popular in the “better dead than red” Cold War of the ‘50s, where the classic novel and film Invaders of the Body Snatchers (among others) was as much a parable for the times as chilling science fiction.
No game in recent memory embraces the style of classic sci-fi B-movies like The Deadly Tower of Monsters. Framed as the DVD release to a lost “classic,” Deadly Towers displays its influences with pride. The game is like a trip through time to a greatest hits of classic B-movies, complete with stop-motion animated giant gorillas and the electric monsters from Forbidden Planet.
It offers up incredible attention to detail when paying homage to not just the overall genre, but the actual special effects methods those movies pioneered. The end result is an otherwise fairly standard, but fun action game that is elevated by its clear love for the subject matter. It even includes amusingly spot-on “director’s commentary” about the original (and completely fictitious) production of the movie it’s pretending to be.
All these games use a beloved bygone era known for its very specific and unique style in slightly different ways, and in each case they’re made better by this stylistic choice. The reality of the era might be far more complex, but nostalgically there’s a simple, almost wholesome appeal to this Golden Age of science fiction that marks a refreshing change of pace against the current backdrop of dirtier, grimmer sci-fi that has defined the modern age.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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