Brief notes on peak nostalgia: Stranger Things, Oxenfree, Retrolympiad

‘Borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties’ LCD Soundsystem

The last few weeks have been pretty much peak nostalgia across my media consumption — global politics and global turmoil notwithstanding. Its been Stranger Things on Netflix, The Avalanches and SodaJerk, followed by some time spent with Oxenfree, followed by the Retrolympiad at ACMI, and lastly catching The Cure playing in Melbourne. Basically most of the 1980s in a fortnight.

Let’s start with Stranger Things, one of those ‘Netflix Originals’.

First 8 minutes of Stranger Things, 2016, Netflix

Right from the ‘airport horror fiction paperback’ typography, the period-perfect soundtrack (quickly fan-assembled on YouTube, and apparently soon to be offically released too), the homages to virtually every film and TV series in its sci-fi/horror/teen genres of the era — it is series that, like those of the era, rolls along on a rickety narrative, somewhat shaky characters, but ends up being a lot of fun. As someone who remembers sitting as a teenager reading Stephen King books, listening to similar music, the series also triggered memories of horror movie slumber parties, Dungeons & Dragons, exactly what it is supposed to do. One of my DJ friends remarked that Stranger Things plays like a classic hip hop album — one that makes you dig for the sample sources, trace leads in the liner notes, explore lyrical references — ‘deep pastiche’.

Isn’t this the kind of curiosity that a museum exhibition is meant to evoke? Nostalgia is usually thought of in slightly negative terms, but in this case, perhaps like a good museum experience, the line between pure nostalgia/kitsch and something more is quite blurred. Or perhaps it is that each ‘trail to be followed' has just enough ‘knowing legibility’?

In a related vein — and related time period, Sydney-based SodaJerk’s pastiche, The Was, that takes the new Avalanches album and deftly edits it into a 13 minute media collage is likewise much greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, SodaJerk’s work eclipses the album itself, drawing the viewer/listener into deeper/darker territory than the more superficial, albeit pleasant, nostalgia of the album.

Soda_Jerk vs The Avalanches ‘The Was’ (2016)

Moving pictures 1, pure audio 0.

Returning to Stranger Things, Jacob Janerka has made a homage to the show as a simulated GIF of a scene reminagined as a point-and-click adventure game. So onwards to Oxenfree.

Oxenfree trailer (2016)

Oxenfree is similar and bears many of the same references and tropes as Stranger Things and its media retro-verse. One of this years better indie game titles, its a game heavy on dialogue in which you and your teenage friends explore an island full of mystery and timeshifting weirdness. The dialogue drips with teen nostalgia — small rivalries, truth or dare — and as you play through the game it plays like a slowly unfolding Choose Your Own Adventure book. The slow but rewarding pace of gameplay reminded me a lot of The Last Ninja, a classic Commodore 64 arcade adventure, but there are plenty of stylistic nods elsewhere.

The Last Ninja (Commodore 64, 1987, System 3 UK)

Hand drawn backgrounds bring the different sections of the mystery island to life while also economising on ‘location to location’ travel times — also enhanced by the almost continuous dialogue between the onscreen characters. There are time loops opened by tuning a radio and winding a reel-to-reel tape, and a storyline equal parts Goonies, and vintage Twilight Zone. It has been fascinating to watch waves of nostalgia wash over the indie game world in which pixel art becomes not only a more affordable option for smaller companies and solo game developers, but also carries with it such a strong signifiers of Gen X memories.

It was Retrolympiad last weekend at work (ACMI). A throwback to the era of early sports arcade games and a time when the Olympics was ‘different’.In the final years of the cold war, and coming after the 1980 Moscow Olympics, boycotted by the US and many others, the LA Olympics in 1984, boycotted by much of the Eastern Bloc except Romania, was a major television and highly ‘branded’ event. Still it feels quaint in comparison to the hyper-commercialised, brand-managed Olympics of the nineties and two thousands.

Track & Field (arcade, 1983, Konami)

Against this global backdrop, 1983 Konami released Track & Field, the first of a new generation of sports titles. This was the era of Gyruss and Scramble, but also Don Bluth’s laserdisc titles Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, the great sitdown arcade titles Star Wars & Spy Hunter, as well as classics M.U.L.E and Lode Runner. Anyway, Track & Field brought a real simplicity combined with direct, ‘performative competitiveness’ to the arcade. There was no joystick, just three buttons — two for movement, one for ‘action’. This was the advent of ‘button mashing’ — where players would furiously pound L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R to have their pixel athlete run, interspersed with the action button to jump over hurdles, time their long jump leap, or throw the javelin. Then suddenly these games were everywhere. By the time 1984 rolled around, Konami followed with a sequel called HyperSports. Then came the blocky home computer versions like Activision’s Decathlon, and in the UK, Daley Thomspon’s Decathlon.

Summer Games (Commodore 64, 1984, Epyx)

Most important was EPYX’s Summer Games which started one of the most lucrative and acclaimed early series. Summer Games spawned a sequel, Summer Games II (1985), then Winter Games (1985), World Games (1986) and the smash California Games (1987). The backstory to the production of these Epyx games provides a good insight into how video games were designed, developed, and distributed in the 80s. My dad bought home a Commodore 64 on the back of Summer Games in 1984 — which is probably the main reason I do the work that I do now.

Hundreds of thousands of joysticks were destroyed as a result of these home titles. Quite the intersection of interaction design and industrial design.

The 1988 Olympics brought another wave of these titles but during the 90s these types of games faded as did arcades themselves, replaced by increasingly complex multi-button beat-’em-ups and Dance Dance Revolution (1999)at the performance end of things.

On stage comeptitive gaming at Retrolympiad, ACMI, 2016

At the Retrolympiad event there was quite a gathering of tribes. Commentated gameplay relayed to the big screen recreated the buzz of competitive play. And the late night winner of the Track & Field contest was able to draw on his skills honed growing up with the game in a caravan park — smashing everyone else’s times with a blur of muscle memory. These games still hold up quite well, graphics and all, as they are pure interaction design. Simple and effective gameplay, finely honed to suck as much loose change out of your wallet as possible in the 80s, and a direct precursor to the game mechanics of contemporary freemium games.

So what of game preservation? Retrolympiad used MAME and several other emulators to make gameplay possible — in the service of triggering these nostalgic memories. Combined with Xcade arcade controllers, it was about as close as you’re going to get to having a ‘true’ experience of these titles these days.

The Cure, Disintegration, 1989

And The Cure? Well, with a setlist of mostly Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987) and Disintegration (1989), its hard to get past the memories of the final years of high school with its heartbreaks and mixtapes, and the shimmering wow & flutter of both. Still, hanging out in the crowd watching indie dads with their teenage daughters sharing a moment of cross-generational knowledge made me wonder what those touchstones from the present that will have similar resonance 25+ years later might be.