I’ve always been fascinated by how games writers and players talk about nostalgia. To be more specific, I’ve been fascinated with the unspoken assumptions and limits regarding how people discuss nostalgia. It’s a topic I could write at length about, but to choose just one facet, there’s what games try to accomplish through nostalgia. It’s almost never just a call back for its own sake. Nostalgia is a powerful and flexible tool developers can use to relate to the present through what the past has to offer. Read Only Memories and (especially) VA-11 Hall-A, for instance, are creative endeavors: they invoke nostalgia to explore alternatives to the world we currently live in.
Retro City Rampage, on the other hand, is far more insular in its use of nostalgia. It has absolutely zero interest in exploring alternatives or evaluating what value, if any, the objects of its nostalgia have in today’s world. If anything, the game shuts down inquiry like this by shrouding players in a veil of ignorance. It overwhelms them with action and spectacle, and then asks them to affirm whatever value it’s already read into its own past. Far from being creative, Retro City Rampage is a meaningless celebration of destruction for its own sake.
If pressed to summarize the game, I’d ask you to imagine how Grand Theft Auto III would play if it were an NES game, because as simple as that may sound, it’s the most accurate description I could give Retro City Rampage. You’re dropped into a world not unlike Liberty City and are set free to do whatever your heart desires. You can steal cars; you can mow down innocent civilians (either with the car you just stole or with whatever weapon you have at your disposal); you can wreak havoc on the world; and should you find yourself longing for structure, you can accept a wide variety of missions that allow you to perform those same activities to complete a more specific objective. Theoretically, the ultimate goal of the game is to find the missing parts of Doc Choc’s time-travelling DeLorean so you can return to your own time, but this assumes the game has a plot structuring the action. The reality is that no such plot exists. In its place is an insipid collection of pop culture (particularly video game) references loosely connected into something resembling a narrative.
Given how prevalent those references are and how strongly modern styles of referential humor have influenced Retro City Rampage, I feel it would be useful to examine where that style of humor comes from before detailing how exactly this game’s sense of humor flounders. While parodies/homages/allusions/etc. have existed for as long as stories themselves have existed, this specific kind of humor traces its history back very recently, to the 1990s. This isn’t to say that previous decades didn’t see a hyper-awareness born from a world with a hyper-saturated media presence; just that certain developments finally made it possible to act on that awareness. The rise of the home computer and the Internet gave people wider access to the tools necessary for creating their own projects, and cable TV made it possible for television producers to target smaller, more specific audiences instead of trying to appeal to as wide a swathe of people as possible.
The results of these developments quickly became clear: awareness of media convention was turned into strength as works began to subvert traditional formulae, expose their artificiality, and strip them of whatever authority they previously held. Animaniacs achieved this by redeploying Looney Tunes’ “actors on a stage” approach to animation to make fun of the quirks and foibles of the contemporary film industry. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, meanwhile, lampooned TV talk shows by remixing celebrity interviews and 1960s animation to the point of absurdity. Eventually, though, referential humor would become part of the status quo it initially rebelled against. Hence we have things like Family Guy and Disaster Movie: media which stops at the act of referencing. which mistakes recognizing that a convention is at work for critically engaging with and questioning that convention.
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that Retro City Rampage exclusively uses this latter style of humor. Not a second goes by where the game doesn’t reference some movie or video game from the 1980s, and each reference carries with it a winking nod to the audience, as if to signal how above-it-all the game really is. At the same time, I find myself compelled to wink back in return; to confirm that yes, I understand this joke, am part of the ingroup the game identifies with, and thus deserve whatever adulations the game is willing to confer upon me.
But I refuse. Not only do I not identify with the group the game aligns with (more on that later), but I’m also suspicious of how self-aware Retro City Rampage truly is. For all the game’s posturing, it never thinks to modify a convention’s meaning or comment on it or do anything beyond point to the existence of other media. And in a way this leaves the game far behind the works it’s based on. It only ever borrows the overwhelming spectacle; it never borrows the traits that give them character and personality. This is why when the game briefly models itself after Super Smash TV, the proceedings feel hollow and devoid of life: because it never occurs to Retro City Rampage that the source material’s charm might lie beyond simply shooting crowds of people.
Of course, this is all assuming the game even wants to think of retro video games and the culture surrounding it in a critical light, which I very much doubt it does. It’s affirmative in nature. The game assumes some inherent value is present in the media it references and then proceeds under that assumption, never demonstrating why that media has value in the first place. I’ll admit part of that comes with the territory the game has chosen. One of the reasons why referential humor has become popular over the past few decades is because it’s thought to be inherently comforting. The media that’s being referenced is (thought to be) part of the average player’s/viewer’s/reader’s/etc. life experiences, providing them both a pseudo-community of other people who have had similar experiences and an entry point through which they can relate to this particular piece of pop culture.
Still, Retro City Rampage carries this logic significantly further than many other pop cultural works, and there’s one significant difference in how it uses that logic I need to address. Where most other works appeal to an actual set of experiences, whether they be the ones assumed to be present among the audience or those the creator has had in their own life, Retro City Rampage makes no such concession. Its appeals are all toward an idealized type of experience. To be more specific, the game isn’t so much nostalgic for the games themselves as much as it is the idealized conception they serve. I very much doubt that any one person could have played all the games referenced in Retro City Rampage during their childhood, let alone be profoundly influenced by every last one.
Moreover, nothing in the game stands on its own. Everything is merely a means to an end; a symbolic tribute to the collective identity these games were so instrumental in forming. The reference to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES is, in truth, a subtle reference to the Angry Video Game Nerd. Because his review style and his taste in games were so important to the creation of the gamer identity, Retro City Rampage feels that he deserves to be venerated somehow. Similar arguments could be made for the Destructoid and Phil Fish cameos.
How does this affect the way the game plays? There’s the obvious take-away of enjoying destructive acts for their own sake, a fact that Retro City Rampage has no compunctions about. If anything, it revels in that destructive nature and asks the player to do so as well, limiting all possible action to violent and flashy spectacle. However, I don’t think the game stops there. By choosing as its subject the idealized gamer, the game has severed whatever connection it might have had with reality, meaning it constitutes an escape into fantasy. As I was playing the game, I had a hard time feeling like the world I was presented with existed as an actual place. It was empty, hollow, utterly devoid of life. Enemy soldiers failed to notice me shooting them unless they saw me in the act. Likewise, the horn I’m allowed to honk while driving serves no purpose, as people never seem all that concerned with protecting their own lives.
Instead of attempting to capture some aspect of our reality, Retro City Rampage presents a senseless orgy of violence and action, made only to affirm the player’s inherent superiority over the world around them. If you were to judge the game along these incredibly narrow lines, then it would come out a splendid success. Nevermind the obvious irony that, from the start, the game has already decided how the player is allowed to participate in this world. What matters (at least in the game’s eyes) is that that player is continually assaulted with opportunities to see their power realized in the world.
The game’s willingness to subscribe to shallow design trends from the era provides ready examples of that. The invocation of open world freedom, for instance, allows players to create their own opportunities at will (or, more accurately, encourages them to seek out opportunities on terms the game has already engineered). Yet supposing the player isn’t willing or able to find those opportunities, then the game is more than happy to directly provide those opportunities itself. Several mission markers will always clutter the screen; clutter the world with content for content’s sake and prevent it from existing as its own space. Instead, the world is reduced to a constant flow of action for the player to partake in, like a more aggressive counterpart to Shantae. Overwhelming? Certainly. But given the logic the game operates on, this strategy gives the world an illusion of presence (by populating it with activities for the player to participate in) and ensures the player will never be at want for anything.
Most telling of all is the protagonist through which you access any of this content. His name, The Player, is meant both to connect with the person playing the game and to demonstrate his skills wooing the opposite sex, at least in theory. In practice, that latter characteristic never becomes relevant. The Player we know is a gleeful, nihilistic child. He’s somebody who engages in crime on a whim and only barely suffers the consequences of his recklessness if he ever suffers the consequences at all. Needless to say, Retro City Rampage isn’t interested in challenging or questioning this kind of person. If anything, he’s the ideal we’re meant to aspire to. More than that, even; we’re meant to relate with him and, therefore, to identify with the game through him.
Of course this raises an important question: why would I ever want to identify with a person like this in the first place? I’m absolutely not the same person I was when I played the games Retro City Rampage pines for. I’ve changed significantly. Even if I go back to those older titles, I’m not accessing them as the child I once was (the child Retro City Rampage wants to appeal to), but as the adult I currently am. Has the game made the same move forward with me? I very much doubt it has. Based on everything I’ve seen in the game – the sophomoric South Park style of humor, the empty challenges – I’m forced to conclude that its attempts at relating to the player are instead a steadfast refusal to mature alongside them.
Moreover, the game ignores the ways in which the industry around it has matured. The intervening time between 2001 (Grand Theft Auto III’s release) and 2012 (Retro City Rampage’s release) saw a proliferation of games that were just as aware of video game conventions as this was, but actively questioned the value the video game community placed in those conventions: BioShock, Nier, Spec Ops: The Line, Katawa Shoujo, No More Heroes, Hotline Miami, etc. In addition, the concept of gamer itself became heavily polarized. People either gravitated to violent extremes to defend a static image of what the game community should look like, or they left the space entirely out of frustration with its short-sightedness at best and justified fear for their lives at worst. Retro City Rampage’s decision to ignore whatever lessons these phenomena may pose, in addition to its own level of meta-awareness, amounts to a regressive and willful ignorance; one that aims to confirm whatever small-minded perspective it sees in its audience and insulate them from anything that would threaten to widen it.
Yet far from exhibiting the respect for the gamer identity it thought it was exhibiting, Retro City Rampage insults and condescends to anybody who would identify as such, even if it doesn’t realize it. The identity it holds up is that of a vicious, easily placated brute whose presence only ever manifests through action (never through thought). Not only is every negative stereotype of gamers as impulsive children who refuse to grow up or understand outside perspectives confirmed, it’s actively venerated. And while I remain unconvinced that games have always encouraged running away from reality over honestly engaging with it (I could point to examples to the contrary and the entire attitude feels rooted in a long standing suspicion of the arts and fiction), it’s that vision that’s driving the game into being.
I feel compelled to ask what the game feels is worth remembering about its relics and why they warrant being brought back as they originally were, but there are other questions that need to be answered first. Namely: is Retro City Rampage stubbornly rooted in the past? Or is it more interested in maintaining a particular status quo in the present? I don’t have any easy answers for these questions. So torn is the game between its imagined past and its secluded present that either possibility is equally likely. Not that either option could ever bother it.