Beyond Synthwave: avoiding clichés in 1980s-set games

Garish neon lighting. Muscle-bound action stars wielding guns. These are just some of the clichés commonly associated with the 1980s – a decade synonymous with excess. Stock-markets surged. Shoulder-padded suits were cool for reasons long since lost to time. Bigger was better, and that ethos extended into every aspect of culture: economies, fashion, movies, music, and video games all coalesced into a dizzying spiral of materialism.

The 1980s is widely regarded as an era stuffed full of splashy, shallow thrills, so it’s little surprise that so many high-profile games set in that decade tend to highlight its shallowness. Such games as 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and, at the other end of the budget spectrum, 2012’s Hotline Miami, were both big hits, serving up depictions of the era that were respectively about amassing personal power and wealth, and simple, bloody vengeance. Those stories were callbacks to the era’s cinema, such as 1983’s Scarface or later entries in the Death Wish series. But while the self-interest that drove those stories no doubt reflected the prevailing mood of individualism that typified the eighties, they left little room for nuance. Rather than explore the 1980s in depth, they instead revelled in glossy, violent nostalgia.

Never has a ZX Spectrum loading screen seemed more terrifying than in Stories Untold

All surface?

In the years since, however, developers have attempted to present alternative takes on the decade. These titles chart less obvious paths in their quest to discover what else the 1980s has to offer beyond shallow satire. For Jos Bouman, the creative director of last year’s Lake, the aim of making a game that would allow players to relax made the 1980s a logical setting. “We established that we wanted to tell a story set in a world without mobile phones or the internet,” explains Bouman, part of the Dutch development team, Gamious. “Because of our age, it seemed logical to create a game whose setting we knew. A couple of people in the development team grew up in the eighties, and it’s a very interesting time – a watershed decade where we’d taken one step into the digital world while the other foot was still in the non-digital world.”

GTA: Vice City is a legendary title, but does little to scratch beneath the veneer of eighties cool

Lake is therefore the polar opposite of the 1980s depicted in Vice City: here, there are no guns, car chases, or neon signs. Instead, it depicts a charmingly humdrum, analogue world that’s far less hectic than our own. Instead of social media, there are answer machines. In place of Netflix, there’s a video store. Its story sees successful, 40-something programmer Meredith Weiss leaving her work in the city behind for a two-week holiday in her quiet, picturesque childhood town in Oregon.

Imagine Lake as a sort of zen GTA and you’re halfway there

There’s something comforting about trundling along in Meredith’s postal van, stopping to place parcels and letters in the hands of the local residents whom she gets to know as the plot unfolds. Where our contemporary existence is filled with increasingly inhuman transactions – contactless card payments, scrolling through emails, stilted conversations with robotic voice assistants – Meredith’s role as the local postal worker places her squarely in the lives of the local residents, and much of the game is about friendship and face-to-face conversation.

Some of the residents of Lake would like to get to know you better than others

Lake enables you to go back to a time where people really took more time to interact with each other meaningfully,” says Bouman. “We didn’t really set out with a mission to do this, but as the game developed, the difference between the way things were and the way they are now became clearer and clearer.”

In Lake, Meredith gives up the trappings of big city success to find a more peaceful existence

The old-fashioned notion of getting involved in the lives of strangers was an idea that Polish developer Pixel Crow wanted to explore in its own game. Released in 2017, Beat Cop is a detective adventure that sees you take on the role of 1980s New York cop Jack Kelly as he regularly patrols a single street, getting to know the residents and their daily struggles. As he does so, he slowly earns their trust – which comes in handy when he’s framed for murder and has to use his skills to find out who really committed the crime.

Lake harks back to a time when physical human interactions formed the foundation of relationships, including how you received your mail

Much like the postal service, law enforcement in 2022 is radically different from the 1980s. Remote surveillance, shrinking budgets, and targeted profiling has meant that policing has become increasingly faceless, with officers walking regular beats becoming an increasingly rare sight on modern streets. Pixel Crow wanted to tap into the gameplay potential of an old-school beat cop, whom players warm to through his interactions with others. “Even if our protagonist is just a dozen or so pixels on the screen, we want the player to get to know him, empathise with him, understand his motivations, and be able to guide him within this little simulation,” says designer, programmer, and studio co-founder Maciej Miąsik.

Just another day on the job for Officer Jack Kelly. Beat Cop packs a surprising amount of visual information into its sprite-based scenes

Again, there’s a contrast here to the gaudier, flashier violence of GTA: Vice City. Beat Cop finds humanity in what Miąsik describes as “boring, routine tasks” – handing out parking tickets, questioning witnesses, and arresting petty criminals. Like Weappy Studio’s 2016 adventure, This Is the Police and, to a lesser extent, Team Bondi’s 1940s-set thriller L.A. Noire, Beat Cop uses routine and repetition as a means of exploring and understanding the game’s world.

“Jack Kelly has more down-to-earth problems, most of which he has to solve by running down the street and almost losing his hat,” Miąsik  says. “In his world, there’s no place for stunts or spectacular shootouts, and there are a lot of boring, routine tasks that become a real challenge in the game, just like in real life.”

Figure it out

Although celebrated for its stylish adoption of eighties trappings, its plethora of map icons, waypoints and on-screen instructions mean few would accuse GTA: Vice City of leaving the player to figure out things for themselves. A game set in the 1980s it may be, but a game rooted in the design sensibilities of the 1980s? Not so much. One studio that’s explored the gameplay potential in blending an eighties setting with the decade’s unforgiving philosophy towards game design is No Code, the Scottish studio behind 2017’s critically lauded series, Stories Untold. In each of Stories Untold’s quartet of adventure puzzlers, the player finds themselves seated at a period-accurate computer, and is simply left to figure out where to go from there. It’s No Code’s contemporary take on that most retro of genres, the text adventure, albeit with an ingenious and terrifying twist: as you interact with the parser on the computer screen, eerie things begin to happen in the game world around you.

The interfaces you engage with become more complex as Stories Untold… unfolds

As a veteran of 8-bit text adventures himself, Jon McKellan, creative director at No Code, understands the satisfaction that comes from the genre’s lack of hand-holding – which is something that formed the nucleus for Stories Untold. “We loved this idea of being sat in front of a bunch of old equipment and being asked to use it, yet not really knowing how to [do that],” recalls McKellan. “And so the player has to prod their way around. With the exception of maybe Elden Ring and the Souls games, modern gaming doesn’t really let you do that anymore. Back then, games didn’t hold your hand so much, you really sometimes didn’t understand how to even play and you’d spend hours and hours trying to learn what the game actually wanted you to do. In modern gaming there’s only really the FromSoftware games that I can think of that buck that trend and say ‘you learn’, which is cool.”

Yakuza 0 basks in the bustle of bubble-economy 1980s Japan, with playable arcade machines from Sega’s glory days waiting to be tracked down

The first encounter in Stories Untold’s anthology of nightmarish tales seats the player in front of a ‘Futuro 128K +2’ – a nod to the ZX Spectrum. For any eighties Spectrum user who persevered through an hour of programming in BASIC, only to be met by the dreaded ‘syntax error’ message, a DIY approach to problem-solving, along with a generous dollop of resilience, was simply part of the fun.

McKellan once worked on 2014’s Alien: Isolation, so he understood the appeal of the grungy, lo-fi technological aesthetic seen in the film it’s closely based on, 1979’s Alien, as well as its potential as a gameplay mechanic. “Part of the puzzle should be trying to figure out if there is a puzzle, and what that puzzle is,” he says. “That’s a big part of what it was like to use games and computers back then. You didn’t have the internet, you didn’t have an easy way to figure out problems, you had to feel it out, and that’s something we wanted to get players back into doing.”

With its day-glo colours and straight-to-VHS trappings, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon offered a playful checklist of 1980s clichés

And while nostalgia will always be a powerful tool for creators to harness, especially in video games, Stories Untold also proves that a lingering affection for the 1980s and its chunky tech is something that can be used to unsettle players. “A big part of our game’s concept was to weaponise nostalgia,” says McKellan, “to take these things that some of us have grown up with, like Spectrum computers, and use that to lull the player, so the things you remember and have good associations with become a bit subversive and creepier.”

The Eighties reborn

The success of Stories Untold, Beat Cop, and Lake prove there’s an appetite for games set in the 1980s that go for more than shallow aesthetic appeal; as Bouman says of Lake, he and his team wanted to make an eighties set-game “that felt sincere”.

Beat Cop adopts the classic iconography of 1980s NYPD, seen in everything from Police Academy to Hill Street Blues

There’s also the argument that the 1980s has a texture and richness that video games have yet to fully explore – a sentiment echoed by Miąsik, who argues that more developers should try to “show the world as it is, not as we would like it to be”. He also believes
that depictions of the decade give developers the “freedom to address topics that are currently problematic”.

McKellan, meanwhile, agrees that while “pink neon grids and palm trees” are a likeable, immediately recognisable aesthetic, there’s far more power in presenting the 1980s as the decade actually was for the people who lived through it. “A lot of games present this neon, synthwave version of the eighties,” he laughs, “which is not the decade I remember. It wasn’t neon; it was pretty grim and grey, and football shorts were really small. I grew up in a north-east Glasgow council estate, and it wasn’t neon. I wanted to make a game that touched on that.”

Ultimately, if video games are going to be recognised as an art form equal to its older cousins, cinema and literature, then the medium’s period pieces need to be similarly sophisticated, whether they’re harnessing a bygone era for sincerity, subversion, or social and political commentary. In the two decades since GTA: Vice City skated the surface of the 1980s, however, Lake, Stories Untold, and Beat Cop prove that video game representations of the decade are becoming increasingly sophisticated, complex, and real.

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