March 2021Spectacle

A discussion on capitalist decay, digital aesthetics and virtual worlds

I don't think I'm alone in observing that the internet of today feels a bit broken. I remember looking at the internet as something that was vast and surreal. Today, it feels flat. I often find myself caught in a closed behavioral loop - cycling through the same series of websites and social-media platforms that seem to do little more than sap me of time, energy and creativity. When I came across Preserving Worlds, a new web-series produced by filmmakers Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil, I was reminded of that "old" idea of the internet as a place of freedom, creativity, community and independence that feels distinct from the way most use the internet today. The travelogue takes the viewer on an exploration of six nearly abandoned digital communities — virtual relics of an older form of the internet less plagued by the machinations of behavioral capitalism. The series emulates the low-fi aesthetic of its subjects in a way that will intrigue internet addicts, cunning leftists, twitchy gamers, digital artists, tech enthusiasts and decadent stoners alike.

The immediate connection between this show and socialism may seem obscure, but the series imparts important insights for those engaging in the struggle against capitalism. It’s exploration of complex (and often beautiful) digital spaces will aid those in trying to understand how cultural commons — communally, rather than privately, owned systems and spaces— are built, used and preserved. All six episodes of the series have been made available for free on MeansTV, a cooperatively owned, lefty-media enterprise that is attempting to put Marxist modes of production into practice.

The series is Derek and Mitchell's second work together. Their first, Sarasota: Half in Dream, contrasts the capitalist utopia which inspired the development of their hometown in Sarasota, Florida with the suburban decay which currently mires the town. The film is part-surrealist collage, part-documentary, and is packed with important insights about capitalism which, thankfully, never stray into revulsion or derision of suburbia.

Last month, I asked to talk with Derek and Mitchell about their work. Below is an annotated transcription of our wide-ranging conversation, which spans discussion of archival procedures, vaporwave and digital aesthetics, building out left-wing communication infrastructure, and more…


On Preservation and Digital Archiving

Gary: Just to let you know where I'm coming from, I help organize some folks within Metro DC Democratic Socialists. I’m mostly involved with our publications work, which helps publish content and share information across the chapter. But I also help out in building some of the different communications systems we use. At a larger level, what DSA is trying to do at the moment — especially post-Bernie — is build a political coalition that can grow the left, empower the working class and execute political operations that stab at structural capitalism on a mass scale. Fun stuff.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, and it's what really drew me to your series. I think that your exploration of digital worlds reveals a lot about how people connect and communicate with each other. And I think understanding how these systems work, is really valuable for people and organizers to understand as we are building systems that help people communicate and coordinate with each other.

All that in mind, I’d like to start by asking what drew you to archiving these worlds in the first place.

Derek: So I'm a librarian, and in the past have also had archivists’ roles — and there's really a lot of overlap between those two. I don't do software preservation right now, as part of my career, though I've dabbled in related stuff before. But I've grown up playing video games my entire life, including online games.

Digital preservation in itself is really difficult. If you think about paper or physical objects, they can survive when left alone under climate control for decades. You don't really need to do that much to keep them going. Although, if you have something that gets to be, like, 100 years old, obviously, you have to do a lot. But digital files, though, you're more likely to lose those in the space of five or 10 years if there's no active intervention done.

And when we talk about software, it's even worse because these are complex arrangements of digital files that need an operating system and hardware to run on. Not enough is being done to preserve these things. And on top of that, there's online games where the culture and the experience of playing the game — the relationships between people — are really important aspects of what makes them meaningful and culturally important. So even if you preserve that software perfectly, that subjective experience can be lost, right? So we're talking another layer of ephemerality on top of everything I’ve already described. So there is a high, high, high risk of not having any real historical documentation on this stuff. I think it's important.

I also think it's fairly self-evident that online games are a cultural force. There are a ton of people that have an intense personal stake in these games and have intense relationships with people they met through them. And these are complex systems, that in some limited sense, are trying to create worlds. And that can include things like economies that can be spun up rather quickly by developers and then become pretty complicated. And you can actually learn a lot from them. For example, there are economists studying online games. So there are certain ways in which you could really experiment with large-scale societal structural forces within online worlds, provided you have enough people, the servers and budget.

I think that historians in the future are going to be very interested in this. And we see with every new popular medium that the earliest examples of those mediums tend to be lost to history. The biggest example would be film, where a huge proportion of early silent cinema has just completely vanished. It just doesn't exist anymore. Right now, you could say this is especially the time to try and intervene. So this series kind of came out of that desire to do some of that preservation work.

We kind of envisioned this series as being a preservation action in itself, in addition to something entertaining that people can enjoy and learn from. So, you know, documenting that more subjective side of online games, using ethnographic kind of methods, like oral histories, videotaping what it's like to play the game, things like that.

Gary: I definitely see the value in that. And I share similar concern because we have a lot of digital records we try to preserve within DSA. It's really hard to store them. Many are sitting on some sort of Excel file or on somebody's hard drive. We have appointed folks who look after that, but I’m always anxious they are going to get lost.

Derek: Yeah. If you print out an Excel sheet, or a Google doc or whatever, it does seem like a pain in the ass. But if you tuck it in your closet, it's gonna last. Whereas if someone's Google account gets closed, or they lose the password or whatever, you could lose access to a ton of documents permanently. Or, you know, maybe the file format ceases to be readable in 10 years. If you don’t have the resources to commit to hardcore digital preservation, sometimes printing stuff is the best way to store all that information.

Gary: And there’s also the expertise side, too. Like, how do you find people who know how to open and operate these sorts of files? And there's the artistic side to all of this … as in, how you interpret the art that’s produced in those files.

Derek: I think it's a kind of folk art. If you look at these games people made using the ZZT editor, or Doom maps that people created, these are works of raw creativity that exist outside of a market context. People are just making these things for no real personal gain, except clout within their little sub community. Just regular people making stuff with the tools at hand and expressing themselves.

Gary: What digital places or games did you grow up in?

Mitchell: My background is basically as a filmmaker, animator. But Derek and I both independently played Warcraft 3 custom maps growing up. It was a big one for us, the tower defense maps and all kinds of different games within this engine that people came up with. I also remember playing Toontown Online — Disney’s World of Warcraft knockoff. I also really enjoyed old-school forums dedicated to custom Zoo Tycoon assets. I remember interacting with folks coming up with customized animals and objects and things.

Gary: I think a lot of folks in our age range had similar experiences with those games. I played a lot of Warcraft … maybe too much. I remember being a kid and overwhelmed by all the different custom worlds and variants developed there. I was also a big fan of Fire Emblem when I was growing up, and there were tons of fan mods built through emulators, and I remember being a kid contributing to these collaborative projects in small ways. All of that came back to me as I was watching your series. And it got me thinking about how I would even go about finding those sites and files again.

Derek: Ultimately, a lot of that preservation falls to hobbyists, to people who really care about the stuff. So much of game preservation right now is up to hobbyists, and piracy is a form of game preservation in a big way as well. So I really did want to highlight the efforts of fan preservationists and hobbyists. Sometimes archivists call them citizen archivists, people who don't have the master's degree or whatever, but are doing extremely important digital preservation work with the software games and communities that matter to them. And, you know, there's just not enough money going into academic archiving because we live in capitalism, and long-term preservation doesn't generate profit, most of the time.

Gary: Are there major institutions actually preserving these sorts of worlds?

Derek: The Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, does some great work particularly.

Gary: Wow, Rochester. A bit surprised they have anything going on up there.

Derek: It’s really cool. The museum is oriented around the concept of play and about the history of how kids and adults play. So they have a whole arcade that you can play in as long as you want. And they have the foremost experts in restoring old arcade cabinets there who are constantly acquiring and fixing rare games.

Stanford University has also done some really cool projects in computer history and video games. And I’m also very impressed with the work of Henry Lowood, who has worked on those projects. He's a computer and science historian who was a huge influence on this series. I was exposed to the idea of preserving the ephemeral and experiential side of online games through his research. The projects that I'm thinking of particularly were called … well, one was called Preserving Virtual Worlds — promise I didn't steal the name, it was a separate thing! — and How They Got Game.

Vaporwave and Digital Aesthetic

Gary: What initially pulled me to the series was actually the aesthetic of it. I think you both really tapped into that vaporwave, digital aesthetic that many of us are familiar with. After watching the series, I feel like you identified, in some way, the source of interest in that style through these worlds. Did you find yourself digging into that?

Mitchell: I would say very much so. I think the vaporwave, or “old internet” atmosphere, was absolutely something that we purposely tapped into.

I mean, that's one of my dearest, personal favorite visual styles. And I've read lots of think pieces and heard many people waxing philosophic on why that style is interesting to our generation. Part of it is likely because many of us were catapulted out of childhood very early on in the Bush administration.

And I think many are also attracted to it because it goes against a lot of what we see in the mainstream narrative. Everything nowadays is very clean, very polished. CG tries to make things more and more real every day. And we look at old internet stuff, stuff that we grew up with, and it's flying right in the face of that. It's very imaginative, it’s not trying to be real. And even if it is, it’s doing so in such a naive way with that fake 3D geometry, you know?

Gary: Absolutely. I’m personally really attracted to it. But it's also really hard to replicate. I play around with some digital art and trying to recreate that old style is harder to do in some ways. Especially as you start getting into pixel art and stuff, there's actually some complexity to it.

Mitchell: Yeah, you know, it’s a whole different level of craft that you don't have these days. And actually, a good example of that can be found in a website Derek made for the series. We tried to hijack that GeoCites kind of aesthetic — the cheesy looping GIFs.

Derek: I spent my whole winter vacation trying to make that. And let me say, if I were making a site like that in 1998, it would have been a lot easier. Today, you have to design these things to work responsively on different screen sizes and operating systems. It's almost harder to make a personal website today than it used to be. And I think that that's part of the appeal of vaporwave, too. It thematically harkens back to that old internet of the ’90s and the early 2000s. Where in many ways the internet was just a better experience.

There was a multiplicity of ways to exist and interact with people online compared to today, where everything's controlled by a few different Silicon Valley mega corporations. People could just make their own website on something like GeoCities. There were lower expectations, simpler HTML, a 13-year-old could make a reasonable looking website after school. I don't know, it's just, the old internet felt like a more democratic space in some ways. And it was wilder, it was less controlled in a way that I think people miss, and I think that part of the appeal of vaporwave is remembering that outdated utopian idea of the internet.

Gary: It's sort of weird, because the style projects an alternate, utopian future. But that whole aesthetic still feels captured in capitalist hell, right? I mean, that was revealed to me with the Second Life episode of your series.

Mitchell: Oh yeah. As I was looking for places in Second Life, looking for different environments. You can just use the search bar and keywords, and the only vaporwave-looking places that turned up were shopping malls and shopping environments. You see the clothing store and these shops, and it's like this double level of irony, where it's hijacking this aesthetic, which originally grew out of a critique of capitalism, and is now using it to sell you things inside.

Gary: I noticed that idea in the Sarasota documentary as well. I think what you both did well was not just portray that capitalist decay but explain what initially propelled people to build these places in the first place. Vaporwave in some ways is capitalism done right — like if capitalism produced the utopia that was marketed, it would be great! But you see the result of that system and all you see are these dilapidated suburbs. But what I enjoyed about Sarasota is that you found some beauty in that, and took the time to remind viewers that there are really good people still living there. It’s an important thing to remember because I know many times on the left we tend to just write off whole areas and societies.

Derek: Thank you for noticing that. And there really is a kind of through line with this series. In fact, the original Preserving Worlds short was going to be a scene in Sarasota. That's originally how we filmed it back in 2015. We did feel like there was a thematic connection, but we ended up cutting it. The through line being people using a space against its intended purpose. Exploring abandoned spaces and finding beauty and new meaning in them. It’s just that with Sarasota, we're talking about physical locations. And with Preserving Worlds, we're talking about digital spaces. But thematically, there was that connection.

Gary: It's very interesting thinking about suburban dystopia and capitalist decay. I grew up with a different idea of it growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, and there’s a lot of decay there, but it has a different vibe. An industrial, grayer sort of feel to it, I guess. But I got those same feelings watching Sarasota. It’s interesting to see these alternate presentations of a collapsed, capitalist society.

Derek: I went to school up in Rochester and it has that same sort of vibe as Trenton. That depressed, former metropolis feel. I mean, Rochester has a huge expansive subway system that is out of commission now, and people just walk through and explore illegally, and it's great. There’s all kinds of crazy graffiti in there.

Mitchell: With Sarasota, you get your imagination sparked by some of the abandoned spaces. And you see nature coming back. The same style is shown in Annihilation, coming from Florida’s subtropical environment.

Derek: It’s just a strange place. The ecology there is bizarre. And the way that it interacts with people trying to create these permanent cities on swamp land — it all really lends itself to a surreal kind of aesthetic.

Nostalgia and Reactionary Politics

Gary: So, getting more into the political character of the series, I’m really interested in understanding how these places perceive of politics. As you explored these worlds and communities, did you identify a sort of political character to them? Do you think you find these spaces lean more liberal or leftist, conservative?

Derek: It really depends on which group of players we are talking to, and I can’t really assign any of the specific communities to a clear ideology. But the people we talked to tended to lean more left — mainly because they were the people we wanted to talk to. But we didn't really interrogate the politics of everybody that we interacted with either.

With Worlds Chat you had these ex-4chan people that invaded and then settled in, but that doesn't really jump out at you. And part of it is almost certainly because we went to it after that initial wave. By the time we were exploring it was a few years later. And the people that had stuck around were really into the game itself.

Mitchell: I don’t want this to speak on behalf of an entire community, but these communities are built around an appreciation of very old, defunct games that are rarely, if ever, attracting new people. And that, in a sense, does lend itself to a certain air of inclusivity. You know, they are trying to be as big a tent as they can be. You can’t exclude people, because you don't get that many people.

In our interview with Liz Ryerson on the Doom episode, she talked about some of the politics in that world, and my memory might be off here, but I know she said with a disclaimer that for an online space that's centered around gaming, the moderators in that community were doing a really good job of making women feel included, making trans-folk feel included.

Derek: Though she did mention having experienced transphobia in the Doom community in the past. One theme that emerged is that some of these online communities have tended towards inclusivity, less prejudice or less bigotry over time. In the long span of these communities existing, they've trended towards the better.

This might be because people are maturing. When the ZZT community was at its height, it was majority teenagers and high schoolers. And so you had a lot of immaturity and misbehavior and bigotry at times. But nowadays, the ZZT community is not like that at all. I mean, they're all totally welcoming and friendly and mature, because it's a lot of the same people that have just gotten older. And also, who's interested in an old DOS game right now? It's going to be probably generally a little older, nerdier people. Although, nerdier folks are not necessarily more likely to be tolerant or friendly …

Gary: Yeah. I’m thinking back on the “gamergate” stuff, which has made me more cautious of online spaces. It's scary to me, because I think about how someone like Steve Bannon was able to identify these subcultures and channel the energy there and exploit insecurities to fuel some of the digital components of the Trump campaign, towards those right-wing ideologies.

That's some of the darker side of a lot of this world-building in these digital communities, although those right-wing spaces are definitely distinct from the sort of worlds you've explored, to be sure. But I think about how sites like Drudge Report and Breitbart were building these digital communities around hate and reactionary politics in the ’90s up to today. But you don’t observe these sort of groups active in or invading these spaces?

Derek: Well, I'm sure there are far-right communities in Second Life. There are also Marxist communities and anarchist communities as well. Where you have these big, gigantic worlds, you’re going to have people of different political tendencies that tend to group together. But as filmmakers, we were trying to focus on communities that we had some sympathy with. There are some documentarians that do amazing work in an antagonistic space where they're profiling people that they really don't like. But that's not really what I like to do if I'm going to spend the time to profile someone and do a documentary about them and get to know them.

Mitchell: And, just in terms of if we think there are right-wing groups jumping in and trying to radicalize these sorts of fandom communities, I don't see that happening. It doesn't make as much sense to me. Because, even though these games are about appreciating stuff that’s old, it's not really a reactionary mindset. As much as we complain about the internet as it is today, these complaints are distinct from the reactionary mindset of just wanting to go back. It’s more about asking, how can we make things better now? That’s present in a lot of the mindset of these places. It's more about being in the present moment and appreciating what this was, what it is now, and what it could be.

Derek: Additionally, if you had some right-winger come through, it’s going to be obvious to these communities. Like, who the hell is this person? Why are they coming in here and trying to spew hatred? They’re gonna get kicked out. When it comes to online communities, small, tight-knit communities like that are pretty healthy. And in many ways that can be a lot healthier than something like Twitter.

Communication Systems

Gary: Twitter's really strange. I still haven’t figured it out. This might be psychopathic but, I sort of treat it and use it like an MMO. Like World of Warcraft. A lot of it feels like combat. I mean, every week we see a bunch of people fighting with each other, and you find your party and join the fight. We see it even within our alliances on the left. I always hate it, but always find myself participating in it.

Mitchell: Like an MMO, it feels like there’s a bunch of optional side quests too.

Gary: Right? It feels like everybody's using it for different things that, in the past, you may have gone to some niche online space to do before.

Derek: It's very difficult to form bonds and connections with people you don't know on something like Twitter, where every single interaction is super high stakes, because the entire world could see it. And the way the platform is structured, it drives everyone into clout chasing. You’re always trying to get more followers, you're always trying to go viral, or just hit a bunch of people and get retweeted and such.

So, where everyone’s chasing their own objectives, it’s just not conducive to good conversation, or forming meaningful relationships with people. So it's a real shame that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are taking over. I guess Discord is a little better, because you can form small communities where people can actually get to know each other. But even then, you're still relying on the goodwill of the company, right? I wish that we could have more open source-style online communities, I miss old message boards, and not having the entire world looking at you. Some of those things exist, but it’s very sad to see that they've been crowded out in the online ecosystem.

Gary: That’s one thing I appreciated about the series, where you got to see this on display. When you’re exploring these worlds, you’re revealing these systems and styles of interaction that feel positive and productive. I think it’s a good model for how to build online spaces that are productive.

Within DSA, well at least our outfit in DC, we are trying to build independent communications systems. We have a whole tech and admin team, all volunteers, who are trying to build out these sort of distinct open source, technological systems to build something like that. That way, we don't have to rely on Facebook or Twitter to hold mass digital discussions.

But — and this is obvious — it’s really hard. And there’s some danger to it in that we’re afraid of siloing ourselves off from the rest of the world. We’re engaging in mass organizational politics here, right? But these systems sometimes are not readily available to the broader working class, and sometimes the ability to access them is trapped behind a layer of tech expertise.

Derek: Yea, it is difficult when you are trying to get your message out to the mainstream. You don’t want to silo yourself off in some private community that people aren’t going to see and isn’t interoperable with major platforms.

I think there's a lot of benefit to having a private community space that the public doesn't see, where people can interact safely and independently of a company controlling the data — a place that people can get to know each other and talk in a safe and private environment that is shared. But maybe there's a balance in having a private community space, in addition to a public layer where the same people can also be putting stuff out that the general public can see and kind of engage with. To me, I think that would be the ideal situation.

Gary: And, you know, I find myself relying on a lot of the artistic design of shows like Preserving Worlds or, like, vaporwave. When you have these sort of well-known art styles, you're able to create a frame of reference for people to engage with. Sometimes explaining these things to people can be difficult, but when you are able to explain this stuff using that sci-fi, vaporwave aesthetic as a bridge, people start to make the connection more clearly.

Mitchell: Yeah, that makes sense. In addition to what Derek was saying, I’m thinking back to the Second Life episode of our series, where we talked about the physicality of Second Life. Where you have an avatar and walk around and interact with a physical virtual space. There's a lot to that which is really appealing to me personally. It’s something that's so much nicer than those 3D chat programs. It’s different from being in Zoom calls all the time.

Last year, besides working on Preserving Worlds I was working on a separate show, and we would have corporate meetings all the time. And it's fine — it’s definitely good to have “face-to-face” interaction, but there's something about being stuck in this box all the time that is draining. Maybe thinking about those sorts of alternatives are useful. And, as you were saying at the beginning of our conversation about a building system that helps people come together. Just feeling like you have physical autonomy is a really good feeling. Though, I don’t know if you are going to make a DSA MMO.

Decay, Alienation and Capitalism

Gary: Did you see any common trends which suggest why these communities dissipate or decay?

Derek: Well, of course, one thing is how controlling the company that owns it is. If a game is dying, and fans are trying to revive it and keep it going and they get cease and desist letters stopping them, they are forced legally to shut down. We looked at City of Heroes, which was a super narrow MMO that had a big fan base. The fans ended up creating a covert fan server and were secretly running the game. They weren't even telling people. No one knew there was a fan server aside from the people that they invited specifically. And they ran this thing covertly for, like, two years. And, finally, someone leaked it to the press and the developers came down hard on it, and they were forced to shut it down.

But, basically, once it stops making a profit, if the company doesn't care for the people invested in it then it's not going to last. So that's the big one: just intellectual property law stopping people from doing fan preservation, which is all too common.

Aside from that, I think that fans or players being able to express themselves creatively in the game is a big thing that keeps people coming to it. Being able to make your own game and assets keeps the community going, because there's always new stuff being made, and enjoyed. And with things like Second Life and Worlds Chat, the ability to express yourself by creating your own avatar or your own location that people can visit, it just puts new energy into the game. It's this bottom-up approach, rather than top-down idea, of community building. I think that’s what keeps the community going over the long term.

Mitchell: One thing I would add to that, we definitely saw a pattern that most of these are free to play, free to join, free to create. The low barrier to entry keeps the communities active.

You see a bit of a counter-example in Second Life. Although you can create an account for free, but if you want to have your own environment, your own Sim, you need to pay. One of the big elements of the game is owning “property,” which you can develop on your own. But you need to pay monthly rent on that.

Derek: And when you stop paying the rent, all your stuff gets deleted. So people's favorite community spaces are going away all the time, because who wants to pay $30 a month to keep your digital thing up in Second Life?

Mitchell: What’s happening in Second Life is a good example of a place deteriorating. They are not growing, and those paywalls actively contribute to the deterioration and decay of these worlds.

Another example of this is in the ZZT episode. The sequel game had more features and was overall more fun. There was more customization and allowed users to create more content, and so on. But the twist was you had to pay to access the level editor, so it never caught on. The base of the ZZT community are those custom levels, built from the ground up. Many of the people who played those games were high schoolers and such, people with more time but no incomes. And building those worlds is what allows a base for these communities to form. So, as a result, you just find this formula, where the communities that allow users to create their own stuff, access for free, are the communities that were the most vibrant.

Gary: I think you see that in the “real” world too. The best cities are those that feel free and don’t feel too exclusive. It allows these creative communities to form that attracts life and energy.

I was thinking about that when I watched the Second Life episode. It actually made me anxious. You see urban decay in those virtual cities caused by over-inflated real-estate prices and a lack of common-space was causing these hubs to collapse. And I was just thinking about how we’re seeing the same thing in many real cities. In DC, we've been trying to pass rent control for, like, five years because the communities that are forming here just can’t afford to stay. You watch neighborhoods disappear and be replaced by some lifeless development buildings that no one lives in. It was bad before the pandemic but now you are watching social and cultural hubs disappear.

And as a result, some of the cultural communities, which tend to survive on limited incomes are being pushed out, too. So, it was scary watching that Second Life episode, I felt like I was looking at the future of my city. And I assume that New York and Boston are going through similar things.

Mitchell: I’m constantly gobsmacked every time I think about it because I moved to New York a little under 10 years ago, for school, and seeing just how much it changed in the past five years, in the past 10 years is wild. New York was already on that route. The pandemic just accelerated everything.

Gary: Yeah. I’m a bit inspired, though, because the left in DC seems to be united in a way that it hasn't been in a while. Now, especially, it's very interesting, because you have all these different groups of people coming together to fight capitalism. It feels diverse and well-reinforced. People realize they have a stake in trying to stop this system. And, that’s one thing I really liked about this series, is that it explained to a certain type of person who tends to exist online — well, nerds — it makes it really clear how capitalism works and how it threatens the things that we love. It makes it clear you can’t escape it, right?

Mitchell: Yeah. I'm glad to hear you say that. There's some parts of gaming culture, or whatever, that is rather reactionary. And, so, any inroads the left can take there is a nice thing. And that we have seen a lot of attention to the series from just general games people, I do hope that it can be some kind of outreach from the left into a very active cultural space that is unfortunately often pretty right wing.

Kicker

Gary: So, a last question, and this is just for kicks, really, but I’m interested to know what games you are playing now.

Mitchell: Well, I was gifted the newest Smash Bros. by my roommates. So I spent the customary, like, 24 hours it takes to unlock all of the characters. I was playing Outer Wilds with a friend.

Derek: That game is great.

Mitchell: Yeah, that's been a really fun one. There's also this site I used to go to quite a bit when I was killing time called Pokémon Showdown. It’s a way to play competitive Pokémon in that meta gaming community. There's a ladder and all that stuff. And they have different formats. So, you can either build a team or you can do random battle.

Derek: I'm playing too many games at once right now. But I am playing Chrono Cross, which I played in high school. I never finished it at the time, so, I'm going back to it. It got a bad rap at the time when it came out, because it was a really weird sequel to a very beloved game. But it has this melancholy kind of existentialist feeling to it. Like, your character almost died by drowning at age six … and then you warp to an alternate reality where you did die at age six … and now it’s 10 years later? That's high concept. It's very complex for a ’90s-era game. It did reach a little further than it could grasp, especially later in the game, but it is really good. It holds up pretty well.

I've also been playing Yakuza 7, which is really fun. How would I even describe this? It's like an open-world RPG thing that is really interesting from a political perspective. You're playing as a Yakuza guy who took the fall for someone and went to prison, and now he's in his 40s. And he's getting out of prison after, like, 20-something years, and he immediately ends up living in a homeless encampment. The game, surprisingly, humanizes homelessness and makes a big point about no one being homeless by choice. It’s way better than you'd expect for a Japanese RPG.

Mitchell: And I’ve got one more, actually. It’s called Verlet Swing, and you swing around a level with a grappling hook in a 3D environment. It’s like a physics-based game — a funny, action puzzle-type thing. But the main selling point is the vaporwave aesthetics that really gives it a good character.

Derek: I’m gonna shout out one more — now it’s hard to stop, isn't it? An indie game that I've been really enjoying called ZeroRanger. I think it's just made by one dude. And it’s just a bullet-hell, shoot-em-up. You have a little ship in the bottom of the screen. It's great. It has this amazing green and orange graphical style. I'm not hugely into that genre, but I've enjoyed stuff like that in the past. This one is very accessible, even as it's apparently referencing every game that's ever come out in that genre. Indie games are always great.

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