Rollergames is a more confusing, more ambiguous game than it initially lets on. That confusion doesn’t stem from its rendition of beat em up tropes through a roller derby lens. If anything, that’s the easiest part of the game to understand. What’s more difficult to understand is what the game hopes to achieve through that combination. Everything the game does situates itself in this fuzzy space between reality and fantasy, performance and competition, borrowing what it needs from each to realize its unexpectedly appropriate vision. Although the game blends these categories for some other purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure or celebration of the things it remixes (although these are certainly part of what it does), the effects of these creative decisions defy simple judgment.
Before I go any further, I feel I should elaborate on what specifically Rollergames is based on. A TV adaptation of roller derby from the late 1980s, the Rollergames TV show was envisioned as a more entertainment-oriented take on the sport; likely because this would entice a larger audience. It’s best described as roller derby through an over the top dystopian lens. Competitors were expected to navigate all sorts of obstacles that wouldn’t appear in conventional roller derby, like a Wall of Death and a(n apparently real) pool of live alligators at the center of the ring for players to knock the opposition into.
As elaborate as all this sounds, the focus always remained on playing the sport. True, there were over the top stories and controversies surrounding individual athletes, but those stories weren’t like pro-wrestling. The athletes weren’t actors on a stage, and their stories outside the arena weren’t the main draw for Rollergames. Instead, their stories were more like what you’d find in any other sport: the ups and downs of their career (which team they’d changed to, why they weren’t allowed to play in this particular match) only drew interest because of how those developments affect the game*.
Rollergames the video game, on the other hand, is less interested in roller derby itself and more interested in the sensibilities and aesthetics this particular version of it adopts. A lot of that comes down to the context the game has situated itself in. It was one of several early contributions to the then-developing beat-em-up genre; it was contemporary to all the obvious entries like Final Fight and Double Dragon. So as much as I want to say the game flouts the conventions associated with it, whether they’re from roller derby or beat em ups, it would be more accurate to say the game reinforces them. Not only are the deeper appeals from each untouched, but this specific combination allows both to flourish in ways neither could on their own. As ridiculous as strapping roller skates to Mike Haggar may sound, those roller skates keep the action moving forward and emphasize a number of things, like the situation’s urgency or the heroes’ focus and determination.
Or consider the narrative contextualizing that urgency, that focus and determination. At first, it sounds like just another part of the game: the three “bad teams” have kidnapped the owner of the Rollergames and it’s up to the three “good teams” to rescue him. As soon as you start playing, however, it becomes clear that this conflict has left the bounds of the roller derby ring and bled in the real world (or its nearest equivalent, anyway). The bad teams feel a lot like crime syndicates, throwing incendiaries at you and doing everything in their power to threaten your life. And often the environments they hang out in reinforce their identities as criminals. It’s the typical “mean streets” depiction: your character wanders through broken down alleys, skating over cracked pavement and expecting danger to pop out around every corner.
From this it should be clear that Rollergames shares the same mistrust of modernity that characterizes its peers. It’s a mistrust the game strengthens with what it borrows from roller derby and through its own contributions. The former is probably the most immediately obvious. The Running Man-esque dystopian sensibilities are easy enough to recognize, and by presenting the world as an obstacle course, Rollergames can characterize the world as opposed to your very being. The latter category, on the other hand, is a little bit more interesting. Where the game uses somewhat conventional color schemes during play, the cinematic between stages consistently render the human characters in uncomfortable hues. There’s a strong emphasis on purples and pinks and greens and several other colors that have no business on human bodies. A sinister aura surrounds world and character alike, imbuing them both with an otherworldly alterity reminiscent of the color schemes in Black Dynamite or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.
At the same time, though, Rollergames modifies its source material in ways that appear downright absurd. As gritty and down-trodden as the world tries to be, the rollerskates you use to navigate that world (not to mention the padding and safety equipment worn on top of that) undercut a lot of the tension. Even supposing this wasn’t an issue, the world itself betrays its own purpose, either by committing too heavily to its role with self-spilling oil slicks and people who throw molotovs at you for no reason; or by bending itself to you in ways that wouldn’t make sense, like jumping over spike pits and across precariously perched platforms. In the end, both problems lead to the same result: the world becomes a sort of game the skaters choose to participate in.
This model of the world isn’t in itself a problem. In fact, I’d previously praised Lieve Oma for its interpretation of that model. Yet Lieve Oma was clear on this point. For Rollergames, this is the most confusing aspect of the game because I can’t tell what exactly the game means through any of this. There’s an obvious tone of admiration to the parody: the absurdity never outright mocks the things it depicts, and in the end, our heroes definitely succeed in defeating the bad teams and rescuing the league’s owners.
But what are we to make of all this? After all, we’re put in a situation where we don’t really know what the world is. It’s not quite real, given how the environments are planned around your actions, but the implication that you’re travelling vast distances to achieve your goals means this isn’t quite a game, either. Rollergames so heavily blurs the line between cohesive internal reality and a performance of that reality that it becomes impossible to tell where the game is in relation to either. With this uncertainty established, we can’t know what impact, if any, our actions leave on the world. We’re denied any straightforward answers, like the catharsis of contemporary beat em ups or the nihilism of Super Smash TV.
What are we left with? It’s hard to say. It’s very possible that there is no definite meaning to be found in Rollergames. Instead, it may expect us to navigate for ourselves a thicket of ambiguities with no idea what to expect on the other side, if indeed there’s something there at all. However, I don’t see Rollergames as the kind of game that would stop here. This much we know about it: its world has a sinister aura, the main characters oppose that, and the game ultimately accepts the value of their fight, even if the wider meaning behind it may never reveal itself to us. Maybe it’s enough that the heroes and the player guiding them find personal value in their actions. Maybe those actions don’t have to leave a definite impact on the world for them to matter.
Or maybe Rollergames’ rejection of the “playing games doesn’t matter because they’re not real” argument is pure coincidence, and this really is just a beat em up where the main characters wear roller skates. I’m inclined to believe that’s not the case.
*I guess the one major exception would be Lebron James’ decision to change teams in 2010. In this case, though, it was the sheer scale of the decision and the actors involved that allowed it to change into something else altogether. In all other cases the general rule holds up.