The first thing you’re likely to notice about Socket’s title screen is probably going to be the background. A mosaic of warped clocks Salvador Dali style, it’s clear that the artists are communicating a basic time travel motif. However, anything beyond this fact refuses to make itself known. We can’t know how time travel will inform the game to follow because those facts aren’t apparent and the game refuses to offer any kind of explanation. Instead, it continues bombarding us with symbols that refuse to connect: a duck, an electrical outlet, the title itself (Time Dominator 1st in Japan), etc. What we end up with is a chaotic soup of imagery, one that disorients us and frustrates any attempt to make sense of all this noise.
As indirect as this sounds, I feel it’s the best way to describe Socket to anybody who hasn’t played it. The game itself is a fairly basic platformer that emphasizes dashing through mazes with reckless abandon and collecting electric bolts to keep the eponymous robot duck’s energy meter from draining.
Just like the title screen supplies us with a ready-made framework for understanding it (time travel), so too is the game willing to eschew any kind of individuality that we might more easily interpret it. Every aspect of its design so proudly embraces the platformer ethos of its era that the only way we can understand the game is through reference to other platformers. The easiest example is Sonic the Hedgehog, considering everything it borrows from that series: the speed, the attitude, the color scheme, etc. Yet it’s far from the only example. The energy system (in which time and the protagonist’s life energy are collapsed into a single measurement) traces it origins back to Adventure Island, and Socket may have borrowed a few inflections here and there from Aero the Acrobat.
Moreover, I have a hard time believing all this is coincidental. Looking at the history behind the game’s developer, Vic Tokai, it would seem that understanding the contemporary game scene is a necessary part of their design ethos. After all, many of their games prior to Socket clearly signal their effort to fit into whatever the zeitgeist was: The Krion Conquest, Kid Kool, Psycho Fox, the Japanese version of Decap Attack, etc.
But even among its peers, Socket stands out; not because it tries to do anything different, but because it commits to the Vic Tokai ethos far beyond the point it’s supposed to. The game is so invested in borrowing and remixing contemporary trends that it loses sight of why it’s borrowing and remixing. Thus it remixes these elements to the point of emptiness, where all we’re left with is the fact of remixing. It’s a performance of tropes divorced of any context and undertaken for its own sake.
This means that any context Socket invokes is going to be insufficient for understanding it. It’s the sort of game that defies easy interpretation, not because of its complexity, but because it demands a particular understanding of it and then instantly rebuffs said understanding all in the same moment. Although there are obvious references to Sonic’s environmentalism sprinkled through Socket, without any knowledge on the latter’s part that environmentalism was part of the Sonic ethos, those references really only function as references to themselves. Similarly, the energy system in Adventure Island was originally coded as a struggle for survival, one that Master Higgins could heed or ignore at will. Socket, by contrast, alleviates so much of the system’s pressure that it strips that system of its meaning without offering another to replace it. What this leaves us with is an irreconcilable tension: we can’t say the game is merely a modification of what came before it, but neither can we say that it’s completely removed from those influences.
What, then, is Socket? At least for me, it was a surreal and very confusing game. Playing it, I always felt like I should stop analyzing my own experience and just accept things as they come, but even this Socket was willing to complicate. For every level that’s just an absurd blend of elements aiming at nothing in particular (and there are many such levels), I can just as easily point to one that’s more coherent, E.G. an evocative/symbolic interpretation of a given theme.
I wish I could call this delightfully spiteful, and attribute all this to a conscious effort on the game’s part to complicate its own genre. But again, I don’t see the level of intent that would allow this view to make sense. The game’s idiosyncrasies are more often the result of its failures than they are of its successes: gags that don’t work quite as well as they should, various colors clashing for attention, level design clumsily slapped together in the hopes that one part will actually work, etc. Depending on how you look at it, this leaves us with two interpretations for Socket. The first is a sort of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” situation, where the game comports itself with pride all the while oblivious to the embarrassments that are all too apparent to spectators. The second is that in its failure to conform to the standards it’s established for itself, the game actively questions those standards in a way it hadn’t anticipated.
More optimistically, we can say that Socket is to a certain extent aware of these Dadaist leanings and tries to give them a new emphasis within the body of the game. Admittedly, this interpretation relies heavily on paratext (the game itself never mentions the plot points I’m going to discuss), but it’s an interpretation that may better take into account how Vic Tokai navigated their various influences in making Socket.
We begin with a simple hero story: the Time Dominator is leaping across different eras of history to achieve some evil ambition, and Socket has to follow him through time to stop him from realizing that ambition. We’re told that Socket is part of a time traveling police force, but his image betrays that description. Between his red baseball cap, striped T shirt, baggy red shorts, and youthful (adolescent?) appearance, the hero we’re given looks more like an amateur, completely unrelated to the conflict at hand and possibly ill prepared to address it. We’re not even sure if he was given a choice in the matter, but regardless, he goes (or is made to go) through with it.
To this accidental beginning, the journey that follows adds feelings of disempowerment and alienation. The narrative flow shares a few similarities with Super Bonk, as both center heroes who are constantly whisked away to fantasy worlds and thus are consistently outside their element. But where Bonk finds liberation of letting go of a singular identity to match his increasingly nonsensical world, Socket’s identity is preserved across worlds. And if these worlds aren’t completely apathetic to his existence, then they mark him as Other and refuse him any opportunity to exercise his own identity. Where can he plug his tail into in medieval, classical, or prehistoric times? How does one even make use of electricity in these contexts?
The answer is one doesn’t. The most Socket can do is collect lightning bolts to survive, his acts of subsistence constituting a minor rebellion against the worlds he’s been thrown into. This is hardly something he can take pride in, though. Subsistence offers him little else to hope for, and the world around him makes as much sense now as it did before. In other words, it’s still a nightmarish mess of things neither he nor the player can hope to make sense of.
Perhaps this is why the High Speed Area interludes between eras feel so much more cohesive than any other part of the game: because Socket has finally found somewhere he can fit in. Unfortunately, closer inspection would reveal that he’s fit in not by embracing anything related to his own identity, but by adopting another’s (namely, Sonic’s and his emphasis on speed) that would both allow “him” to fit in while forgetting the impossibility of his own efforts to find a home for himself.
Socket’s story, then, is one of a character forced into a fight he has no relation to and to which he has little to contribute. Forced to fight on terms not his own, the eponymous hero ultimately ends up alienated from himself. Such a narrative has no reconciliation to offer him; no cathartic moment wherein he recovers that identity he once lost. Before Socket lie two choices: embrace another self and forget one’s despair, or try in vain to assert one’s identity (whatever that may be) on an uncaring world. Judging by the lack of a Time Dominator 2nd, one can assume a similar choice lay before Socket the video game, too.
It’s common in video game criticism for a writer to begin analyzing older games in terms of whatever trends were dominating at the time. In fact, it’s a theme that’s present throughout a lot of my own writing. For a lot of games, this poses a number of risks, one of them being that we risk interpreting a game as nothing more than an instance of the trend we’re discussing. With Socket, I’m not sure what risk (if any) there is in approaching it like this. The game requires knowledge of contemporary platformer trends to make sense of it, but its failure in regards to those trends leaves them insufficient for understanding it further. All I can say with certainty is the weak conclusion that it illustrates both the necessities and pitfalls of a historical approach to interpreting games.