Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dark Side of Nostalgia

There's a game that's been on my radar since first reading about it on The Verge last October. It's called Routine.

There weren't a whole lot of details released at the time, and from what I can tell now, there still haven't been, aside from a new alpha gameplay trailer that you can see embedded right above you. But from the information that has been fed, consider my interest piqued.

It's a first-person, sci-fi horror game about a derelict moon station that the player has supposedly been sent to investigate. The game features permanent death, forcing players to be always alert and mindful of their decisions. It also foregoes a standard heads-up display, meaning there should be nothing to distract the player from the immersion of the environment.

And, I must say, from the early announcement trailer to this newly released footage, it's the environment that has really captured my attention. The aesthetic of the game is built around a vision of the future circa 1983 or thereabouts—one in which floppy disks and other now primitive computer technology is the cutting edge. From the look of things so far, I'd say they've nailed it. It's in the gray computer consoles. It's in the boxy station architecture with the rounded rectangular windows and TV screens, the Spartan corridors decorated and sprinted into visual motion by way of simple, dark color stripes.

Many people have been quick to point out the recent surge of retro aesthetics cropping up in games. There's the Saturday-morning cartoon neon flair of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I've recently been playing quite a bit of Hotline Miami, which takes something like an artificial coke-addled memory of 1980s Florida to use as the backdrop for its—how to say it—ultra-pixel violence?

I think those are different from what's going on here. The retro look of Routine is neither parody nor abstract. It's a high-definition, totally realized and believable setting, and it strikes me as a brilliant move on so many levels.


Because, from a certain point of view, nostalgia in itself can be terrifying.1

Maybe it's because the era that's been so effectively encapsulated represents a time that I actually lived through, but I was also young enough that my memories are unreliable at best. I associate these aesthetics with my childhood and all of the confused and buried emotions that go along with it—the thrill of discovery (with a mind neither corrupted by nor enlightened with the perception of reality) coupled with the crippling urge to flee from everything dark or scary and simply crawl back into the womb. The fact that Routine borrows from the very aspects of 1980s culture that would most represent this convergence of real human wonder and dread—emerging computer technology—only serves to heighten the psychological tension.2

I listened to a 10-minute conversation with one of the game's developers from Lunar Software, and from the way he was describing things, it makes me wonder if there will even be a traditional win-state to the game. He at one point describes his vision for Routine as being more of an experience rather than a traditional game. They seem to be describing a built-in randomized structure, as if multiple players will end up uncovering different secrets and aspects of the moon base—suggesting that no one person will have a complete view of things. Will this be the Proteus of survival horror?

Maybe not quite, but I'm looking forward to whatever it will be. Even that depends on whether I'll be able to play the game—not just because it will need to be released for Mac (according to their Steam page, it will be). It's also a matter of whether or not I'll be able to face the horror. I've had my Humble Bundle copy of Amnesia: The Dark Descent sitting on my hard drive for months, but having seen prior footage and read some of the commentary about the game I haven't yet mustered the nerve to give it a try for myself.

Here's a last bit of interesting information. If you haven't yet watched the trailer, take a look now. It looks fantastic, yeah? It's actually being developed by a team of just four people—three full-time developers and one contracted sound designer. That's incredible.

Oh, and the game is also coming to the Oculus Rift headset, which I guess is pretty cool ... if you're into that sorta thing.

1. For a long time growing up, my sister and I used to watch The Price is Right every morning at 10 a.m. I loved that show—the set pieces and the tactile, moving nature of the individual games. And, come on, Bob Barker was the man. Later on, in middle school and high school, if I ever happened to be home during a weekday and I watched the show, it became slightly unsettling. It was years later and yet nothing had changed. It was like the reverse of cryosleep. Instead of returning from an interstellar journey, still young in body and looking out upon a radically aged world, this was like watching an anomaly of the space-time continuum—something forever stuck in a temporal stasis. As much as we think we might yearn for the past, there's a part of us that understands change as a natural process, cultural progress as a worthwhile ideal.

2. Take a look at the 0:35 mark on the alpha trailer. There's a robot that walks by that looks like an old Macintosh computer on legs, emitting the kind of sound you'd expect to hear from a battery-operated toy (remember that Electronic Talking Battleship game your family was probably too poor to own?). It's a perfect example of that horror and fascination all wrapped up into one package. Machines on the edge of both servitude and sentience. Childhood innocence turned to foreboding. This is not, of course, entirely groundbreaking. It's recapturing the same latent paranoia that fueled much of 1980s sci-fi cinema. The cool thing now is the ability to re-frame that paranoia given 30 years of hindsight.

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