I didn’t like reading for long stretches of time as a kid, but I could play videogames for hours. Around this same time, I found out that I could read continually — sometimes for hours on end — if what I was reading was about videogames.¹
When it became evident last year that I’d be stuck indoors for a while, I decided to get back into PC gaming. I’d built my own rig some years ago — it seemed very impressive, spec wise, at the time, but since its construction the performance had mouldered until it could scarcely run DOOM Eternal (or any other post-2018 game) at its lowest graphical settings. I spent way too much money upgrading that ancient machine in 2020, initially playing a few big-name, AAA releases in 4K, only to taper off and spend the bulk of my pandemic playing every strange, crusty, absurd-looking indie game that I could get my hands on. In the process, I’ve unearthed some gems that I’m going to recommend to you.
Each game on this list presents itself as a simulation, a categorization that can bring to mind images of Microsoft Flight Simulator, which the bulk of gamers will likely find as dry as the Atacama. These five games are nothing like that. Instead, they are traditional game types — one is an arcade game, others are adventure/role-playing games, and still more are covert horror games — all consciously wearing the costume of simulation. Each is framed within the confines of a computer’s operating system (you’ll notice parodic sendups of Windows 95 abound, across games), where you are simultaneously the irl² player of the game and the user of the operating system within that game’s world/narrative. The digital framework (a given computer’s operating system) that used to solely be a means for users to run applications or play videogames has, here, become the gameworld itself (who needs Azeroth when you’ve got Windows?), acting both as an environment and as a character all its own.
You boot up the game and you’re presented with a text-based interface (no graphics) and your first task is to navigate the purely textual menu and figure out how to boot up the game within the game, spelled (in chubby, ASCII³ letters) BuddySim1984. The teaser trailer for BS1984 features what looks to be an old Amiga or Commodore personal computer, making what you’re playing a fictional cousin to games like Pac-Land, Paperboy, and The Secret of Monkey Island (though it released somewhat later, in 1990).
The game’s all-around nested structure makes the narrative feel like a time travel game without the time travel: you go from playing digital versions of paper-and-pencil games such as Hangman, to a text adventure similar to Zork or Hunt the Wumpus, to a top-down adventure game with fleshed-out, pixelated graphics. Through these changes in graphics and playstyles, the player experiences more than a century’s worth (when including paper-and-pencil games) of different approaches to game design in a relatively compact amount of time (the game takes only five-or-so hours to complete). This is all wistful and melancholic within the context of the story, where the game’s narrator/dungeon-master, your titular digital Buddy, creates these varied games and graphical advancements exclusively for you, the player, in an attempt to earn and retain your friendship. He wants nothing more than for you both to be as thick as thieves, and it’s heart-wrenching/pathetic to read his pleas (if and when you wish to take a break) for you to, please, continue playing.
BS1984 is basically a horror game, making it an ideal pick for YouTube let’s-plays.⁴ I see some amount of symmetry between a game where your only friend is interned within a computer, and the YouTube/influencer culture I grew up in the midst of: a lot of kids I knew when I was younger retained pretty scant friendships in their real lives, but had (what they perceived to be) meaningful connections on demand — at the click of a button — with their favourite streamers/let’s-players (which connections were, in reality, hollow (or, at least one-sided)). While you won’t necessarily get beaten up or socially cast out for being a gamer or ‘nerd’ today (as opposed to the highly stigmatized and cliquey reality gamers faced in the 80s and 90s), gaming culture can still yield strong feelings of isolation. The “1984” of BuddySim’s title is incidental to the narrative’s setting alone. Its themes are still relevant — we’re still just as lonesome, seemingly in spite of our endless interconnectivity.
Maybe five minutes into playing this, I realized what the game was beneath its faux-Windows sheen: a sort of sadistic variant of Atari’s classic 1972 arcade game, Breakout (which has been remade and ripped-off so many times that you may well have played it — perhaps on your phone or as a minigame in another, larger game — and never realized it. If you haven’t played it, it’s essentially one-sided Pong). Your objective in P95 is to fill up your loading bar.
That’s the whole game.
Of course, doing so quickly and efficiently, while heeding the game's many secondary objectives (closing pop-up windows, completing rotating challenges, etc.), allows you to upgrade your in-game PC’s components and, every so often, even upgrade your computer’s operating system (every consumer-grade version of Windows has been parodied here, as well as some select Macintosh operating systems). While Buddy Simulator 1984 basically plays its retro setting straight, Progressbar95’s mythologizing of an era of technology demarcated from our current era by screeching dial-up internet and enormously tedious user interfaces yields such deviously fun opportunities for gameplay — using endless pop-ups, the animated paperclip ‘assistant,’ a trashcan that needs to be constantly emptied or else it gets fuming mad, and so on, to create a cohesive (and fun) experience — that it’s easy to forget just how annoying their real-life equivalents were in their heyday.
Everything does seem a little malevolent⁵ in P95. The moment you start the game and are presented with a DOS⁶ screen featuring a list of all the operating systems you can boot with, the only sound you can hear is the whirring of a fan and some occasional faint beeps. It’s minimal and unnerving. Something as simple as the cheekily retro skin the game wears — the literality of it all, where you’re spending every moment gradually filling up a meter, just waiting for one of many loading bars to reach its completion, only to go ahead and start over again — can feel crushing, even a little existentially queasy. Like, ‘what exactly am I doing with my time’ is something I wondered more than once, as I poured far too many hours into this game than its review required. Yet, what you’re doing is really no different from any other gaming experience — you’re completing objectives, you’re progressing. The game fills the player’s time with simple, fun mechanics, just like any good arcade game should. The only difference, here, is that eventually you’re seeing everything as an extension of that loading bar, where gameplay is some perpetual state of waiting, of liminality, of uselessness.
But, hey, at least you can unlock innumerable in-game wallpapers that look identical to that Jazz Solo Cup design!
In Buddy Simulator 1984, we observed a pretty straightforward progression of gameplay styles — from simulated pencil-and-paper games, to a text adventure, to a more recognizable top-down adventure game. Not every game treats genre and gameplay so linearly, however. The conventions that have traditionally defined and divvied up videogames — sometimes into larger categories; other times into smaller, even microscopic sub-genres — are disappearing and recombining all the time. Genre is quickly becoming an obsolete concept.
Kingsway plays remarkably similar at times to the text adventure segment in BS1984, where (in Kingsway) you’ll navigate interactions with cloaked figures you pass by on a deserted road, or explore a decrepit house you stumble upon in the woods, by choosing one of several actions as presented in text prompts (e.g. “approach” the roadside wanderer or “avoid” him, “open [a] chest” or “go back” and secure the rest of the house).⁷ These text-based interactions are nested within any number of different computer windows, as Kingsway, similar to Progressbar95, presents its gameplay within an ersatz Windows interface: your inventory is in one window, your character screen is in another, your world map and email (navigation and quest log, respectively) are again two more, and so on. Combat transpires within these windows as well: an enemy’s attacks will pop-up in new windows that gallingly glide across your screen as you’re trying to click on a potion in another window while simultaneously scrambling to block said attack, the button for which will be inside yet another window, which by this point in the battle is more than likely buried underneath several more windows that have just popped up, and you will surely close something of importance as your fingers tumble across your desk in an attempt to mitigate all of these disasters. If your character dies, you must create a new one and start again from the beginning — I learned this the hard way, after a breezy 4 hours of dungeon crawling, when a Royal Guard decided that I didn’t need my head anymore.
With all the features I’ve described, Kingsway is an RPG⁸ with ample text-adventure elements, wrapped up within a fake operating system. I can’t help but wonder if games like this (and all of the other numbered entries on this list) come close to outright breaking the concept of perspective in videogames. Point-of-view is pretty straightforward: if there is any reference to the narrator within the narration (through, e.g., the use of “my” or “I”), then you’re in first-person; if there isn’t, then you’re in third; if the narrator is speaking to the reader (employing the word “you” where “I” ought to be), then you’re in second person. There are other point-of-view twists, but this is the gist of it all, and these boilerplates have so far corresponded well to videogames — first-person shooters, for instance, are pretty self-explanatory, as are the third-person camera options in series like Forza or Super Mario (and, perhaps RTS⁹ games, where you’re ordering all manner of little units around, might fit the bill for a second-person perspective).
What, then, are these games that simulate operating systems and internet browsers? In Kingsway, you are looking down at your character, not out of their eyes — this should be third-person. But, you’re not really controlling the character so much as directing them — more like second-person, then. And yet you’re staring at all the game’s action through a simulated computer’s operating system, and every other time you click on a desktop icon or open an email you can hear your fictitious hard drive briefly chugging in the background, alluding to the computer (and the room it resides in) that’s always just outside of your vision.
Really, these games are all in the first-person, and you are the protagonist of each, with eyes permanently set forward, unable to look away.
All impartiality aside, this is by far my favourite game on this list. Even when compared to the rest, Hypnospace Outlaw is taking its role as a retro internet simulator the most seriously. While the game’s narrative is science fiction (people, in Hypnospace, are so crazy for the internet that they need to keep browsing the web in their sleep, using a dream-supplanting apparatus that, surely, couldn’t have been FDA approved), the experience of playing the game is no different from how I remember surfing the internet (radical) in the early 00s: the webpages are mostly text-based, with hideous fonts and color-contrasts that make your eyes bleed, and there’s music coming from somewhere, but everything on the webpage is always dancing with GIFs and so it’s pretty much impossible to tell what’s interactable (and might silence the music) and what isn’t. I’m conflicted about this era of the internet — I want to defend¹⁰ it, even though it is indefensibly ugly, and I want to say that the bludgeoning variety of emerging .coms and assorted blogs were somehow superior to our contemporary barrage of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, even though, in reality, they both waste your time about the same amount: 100%.
Your role in the story is that of an Enforcer (a content moderator), who is given rules regarding which kinds of behavior are permissible and which (like harassment, copyright infringement, etc.) are not. What makes Hypnospace Outlaw a treat is that since it’s a videogame and everything is curated, it’s actually way more fun to play Hypnospace than it is to actually surf the net in real life. To begin with, the music is far catchier — it should be noted that every game on this list has had terrific music, but Hypnospace stands out for including such earworms as the Hot Butter Ice Cream jingle and Counselor Ronnie’s Snub the 'Nub' (Anti T-Nub Rap). This pairs well with the exploratory and self-motivated gameplay, as you’re encouraged to take your time while browsing an endless succession of webpage links, descending deeper into people’s various blogs and coming to know their relationships with other members of the e-somnambulant community, as you remain eagle-eyed for any rulebreakers along the way.
Like other point-and-click adventure/puzzle games where the player is given a role of relative authority (Papers, Please and Mind Scanners both come to mind), the narrative’s favourite thing to do is implicate you in ethical gambles, where you’re forced to make decisions that will make you feel wretched while simultaneously rewarding you. These moments where you police and pacify the variously wacky denizens of Hypnospace tend to feel dreadfully reminiscent of our post-2020 reality of online disinformation and the spectre of increased moderation. Within the context of Hypnospace Outlaw, at least, I didn’t feel a whole lot of guilt about such censorship (Moderation — ha! As if there’s enough censorship in the world to straighten out the internet): I was a corporate stooge whose job it was to maintain Gumshoe Gooper’s status as a lucrative piece of intellectual property, sure, but it occurred to me that the 1st grade teacher who is posting her students’ drawings of Gumshoe (which I’m getting paid to report for copyright infringement) is scarcely going to care that strangers on the internet (who are SLEEPING and won’t even REMEMBER) will be unable to see said drawings. If anything, with one less option at her disposal, perhaps said teacher will encourage young Gloria (age 6) or little Jenny (age 7) to iron out their line work and seek a home for their artwork elsewhere, perhaps in some hip gallery for minors, and not on the internet, which is and always will be a virtual Gomorrah.
Say this obscure genre of Internet and/or Operating System Simulation were to continue into the future. What might that look like, a game that replicates computer use now or in the decades to come?
Broken Reality depicts such an internet as totally immersive. Equipped with a bright yellow thumbs-up and a digital katana for dispatching viruses, players must navigate the various three-dimensional stages of NATEM, a chatroom/shopping mall combo where your overall goal, between various puzzles and side quests, is to accrue as many likes as possible. Other users stand around and — even though they’re already immersed in a digital world — unblinkingly stare down at their phones, making up crowds of users whose only dialogue consists of memes/platitudes and gloating about one’s tiny successes (and then bemoaning how they’re never really quite successful enough). The low-polygon world of NATEM is a vaporwave desert, complete with furniture and colour palettes ripped out of a Memphis Group catalogue, where every bit of dialogue is an ipse dixit, and every interaction is transactional — the perfect setting for an adventure game (like Stacking or Maniac Mansion), but not exactly somewhere you’d like to hang around for long.
Regarding future representations of cyberspace, clearly reality shows no sign of avoiding its being merged with technology-plus-the-internet, having the one indistinguishable from the other, the latter deforming the former, and so maybe we can imagine the future of reality as being defined by the reality of technology — I’m speaking, of course, of bugs. My reality under this pandemic’s various lockdowns could be defined as buggy, since, as a result of upgrading my PC, I’ve spent over 13 months diagnosing bugs, trying to deduce which programs are the cause of bugs, trying to arrest whether my RAM¹¹ arrived in the mail busted or if I’d simply forgotten to plug in one of my graphics cards’ innumerable cables, and every time I looked up from my computer there would be a tiny brigade of earwigs wriggling across the ceiling above me, as centipedes descend the walls and fruit flies hover in front of the window, blocking out the sun. These above games simulated the reality of learning and adjusting to the internet, which was not a linear progression — from imperfect interfaces and features that culminated in the creation of something as useful as, say, AirDrop (which, while a staggering decade old now, has proven itself to be an indispensable real-world tool (in Hong Kong and elsewhere) for resisting authoritarian regimes) — so much as it was a collection of seriously wobbly first steps into humanity’s future, as we birthed not some soon-to-be bionic Adonis but one great big bug, with no personality or identity other than what we gave it, that blunderingly careens from wall to wall, existing as a research tool and home banking aid in one decade, and then as an endless media feed of performative identities that users passively stare at and feel (not enough) shame for in another. I’m confident that future meta-representations of technology-plus-the-internet in videogames will look less like Hypnospace Outlaw or Broken Reality and more like Aliens: Fireteam Elite, as we become swarmed with bugs — millions upon aleph-null quantities of bugs — and no amount of thoughtful diagnoses or strategically sealing cracks or concentrated shotgun blasts will stop them, but we’ll continue laying down suppressive fire anyway, as we hastily retreat, beseechingly staring at a hallway’s far-off bend, hoping that the exit to this level is just beyond.
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