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The fabulous 50’s

I was reading the review of the E3 XCOM demo over at 8th Circuit and I got to thinking. What is up with all the games based on the culture of the 1950’s? First there was Bioshock, or was it Fallout 3? Either way, there are those two and now XCOM and an intriguing crime drama called L.A. Noir. The previous PC versions of XCOM were all set in 1999 or later so why does the reboot begin the 1950’s?

It’s not just the fact that these games are in the 50’s, three of the four are also alternative history dystopias. Bioshock is the very definition of a dystopia. Here we have an interpretation of an Ayn Rand utopian society which draws heavily from pre-war and post-war architecture to build a 50’s that might have been, only to see it crumble once the geniuses fail to continue to question their motives. Fallout also show us the remnants of an era that saw every starry-eyed idea of the 50’s come to fruition and subsequently melt away in the glow of a cold war gone hot. Who knows, maybe their MacArthur actually invaded China. From what we have seen from the XCOM trailers and releases, the game at least makes frequent visits to a fairy tale suburban setting that is  being literally melted away by an invading alien force with far superior technology. Rockstar’s L.A. Noir already focuses on the dirtier side of the 50’s with a dragnet meets crime comics concept. We can expect Rockstar to take us down a familiar path full of seedy characters and characterless dames.

For those of us for whom the 50’s are nothing more than a black and white fantasy we usually imagine a world where dad worked in the Mad Men office and mom baked cookies in her suburban home with a white picket fence while the kids played Davy Crockett with slingshots in the backyard. Of course there were also greasers and pink Cadillacs with huge fins and Rosa Parks. Ah, the simple life. No CFL lights, no cellular phones, not a single luxury.

Mom baking an apple pie in her 50's kitchen


So why do all these games seem bound and determined to take the naive simplicity I associate with the 50’s and bash it all to pieces? The idealic societies they represent before the player gets on the scene is being smashed to bits with a harsh and bloody reality. What is the purpose of using the 50’s as a game setting? So what is the developers’ obsession with this decade? Well, I think of the 50’s as this sterile post-war period where things were quiet and idealistic before the turbulent and confrontational 60’s. Setting a game in this time period allows developers to catch the unsuspecting public with their pants down and forces them to confront the dangers and break out of their comfort zone.

This seems to frequently divide the NPCs into panicked saps and cool-headed profiteers. The opposing forces are no clearer than the splicers and Frank Fontaine. As civil war brews, the splicers become more and more erratic and addicted to ADAM while Fontaine gets richer.

It’s also a way for gamers to interact with the destructive forces of tragedy without the need to confront the issues that causes us anxiety in modern society. That is to say, it allows us to play the hero or anti-hero. The effects of our mistakes, like letting the housewife be consumed by an alien blob, are not as immediate. We are in a position to combat invading forces without seeing our neighborhood destroyed. This is the polar opposite of Modern Warfare 2 where we fight through a Virginian suburb and witness the destruction of D.C. Something has not been seen since the War of 1812.

Of course there are plenty of people who enjoyed MW2 , though the large sales numbers most certainly relied more heavily on the multiplayer aspect rather than the storyline. You also don’t see too many civilian that your are charged with saving. Of course there are the countless Russians you’re asked to slaughter for no good reason, but that’s another matter. Games set in a time period that maintained an at times unhealthy fear of invasion and infiltration by a largely unknown enemy half a world away allow us to contemplate our current society’s fear of terrorism without it sinking into a politic discussion.

Roger Ebert stirred up the old videogame debate by declaring that videogames can never be art. What is art but a means of invoking emotion and contemplation? Will XCOM  rival the Mona Lisa? I am going to go with no on that one. But does that mean it is incapable of being a commentary on modern society? That remains to be seen.


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