Game Pile: Arcade Spirits

If we conquer the winter, the grasshopper lives, and denies the ant his shabby victory.

Arcade Spirits is a Visual novel by Fiction Factory, written by Aenne Schumann and Stefan Gagne according to the credits on the opening screens. Set in an alternative cyberpunk ‘around-about-now’ in a world where the videogame crash of 1983 didn’t happen, it casts you as [PROTAGANIST NAME HERE] as you stumble out of unemployment through the guidance of a superintelligent sentient AI in your phone, for a bold adventure in Managing Small Workplace Problems.

As far as the product as a product goes, as far as this Visual Novel you can buy goes, this game is a very strong Game Out Of Ten. This is a Visual Novel, and if you know that genre you’ll know the basics of the formula are really quite skeletal. You’re involved in a pretty linear narrative made up of text blocks, with directed backgrounds and actor entities moving on screen to make. The rest of everything else, really, is systems, flags and variables behind the screen to track whether things were done or not earlier on. This isn’t even necessary – some visual novels literally are just forks of written narrative that split off from one another, and never need to track variables or flags. At its tightest, a visual novel can be incredibly cheap to produce, with one simple linear interface that does nothing strange and uses a tiny number of still images to construct its narrative, characters, and space, and Arcade Spirits is kind of the exact opposite of that.

Without ever stepping out of the model of Things Visual Novels Do, this game packs pretty much every single added element you can get. There’s some voice acting (though it’s not fully voice acted), the interface is customised in a lot of different ways, and there are all these things that visual novels can do to save effort that, over time, accumulate and look cheap… but this game pointedly does not do. Reactions are timed well, avatars move and react in thoughtful ways, camera angles are chosen based on the emotional weight of a scene, and there are a decent variety of interesting splash graphics. In as much as these things are things you can comment on, Arcade Spirits is a very well made, very polished, very thoroughly constructed Visual Novel.

It’s long, too – by the standards of visual novels, this game actually took me a few days to get through. There just is a lot of text to read and it takes a lot of time. I’m really not wild about that, but knowing this is a game that wants to tell a story of a time and not just a story about basically, the two simplest plot beats of a romance, it makes sense. This game isn’t just you finding love from a menu, this is a game about living a life and following an actual story with a plot and an antagonist and complications and stuff and tries to fill itself out. It’s structured almost like a Pixar movie:

“Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”

I think I know the genre well enough to recognise the work of people who like visual novels, versus the work of people who have heard of visual novels. On the simplest level of ‘hey, does this game work, and did you like it and would you recommend people try it?’ yeah, absolutely, all the pieces fit together and it has a coherent narrative that you can pick your way through and its own personal philosophy. It feels like it’s doing a lot to please a lot of people, it has a variety of bodies and personalities you can learn about without necessarily feeling like the game is trying to coil around your choices.

There’s an aggressive amount of work done to make the game accessible and approachable. All the entry-level mistakes for how these games push people away are addressed, and bonus, the deliberate inclusion of pronouns in the character customisation pushes away people who you would regard as… uh… shitheads? Which means this game establishes its position up front. Good stuff there.

So, if that’s all you want, ‘does Talen recommend Arcade Spirits?’ then yeah, absolutely, if you think you’ll like it looking at it, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not invested in the type of game it is, this is a really high-quality version of it you can use as a leaping in point. Everything that goes into making this game is a very good version of what it is.

Now, did Talen like this game?

Euuughh that’s kinda messier. Let’s try circle around on that.

Originally when I started taking notes on this game, when I failed to click with the original vibe, I thought that what I should do is look at the game in terms of the Caillois-Enslin model of game engagement. Caillois thinks that games have inherent reasons to play them, and that people play them to engage with those surfaces, which is hilarious when you start to look at the ways people refuse to play games ‘properly’ and house rule things.

The model nonetheless breaks down into the ideas of games in these five categories:

  • Agonic games, games of direct competition
  • Aleatic games, games of uncontrolled chance
  • Ilinx games, games of a loss of control
  • Mimicry games, games of impersonation and identity
  • Rhythmos games, games of intersection of systems

I thought at first there was an interesting idea with how Queen Bee relates to optimising games and gameplay, how her play is primarily agonic. Then there’s Mimicry, that Ashley represents, with her cosplay and conversations around identity. Teo brings in Ilinx, with the idea of losing yourself in the rhythm, playing in a way that short-circuits the mind in a rollercoaster of sensation. Then you have Naomi, whose vision of games is as much about the ways they work and the ways they make themselves work, the rhythmos of the machinery. And Gavin and Percy are capitalists, so who cares.

(I’m kidding, don’t worry.)

This model works reasonably well if you want to just throw the dice out there, but I would be surprised if any intention was paid to this idea for the making of it. It’s not like it’s necessary, and sure, I could expand on each story and show you the ways these ideas work. And maybe if I’d dropped the game early, and worked with my premise that this format is to use games to talk about anything, then that’s where I’d have stopped.

Here’s one of the other things, something I didn’t think would be a thing but which very much showed itself to be many things as I played this game. Stefan Gagne is someone whose amateur work on the internet in fanfic spaces and the like has been around for going on twenty five years. Stefan Gagne was one of the cool kids at the big table I sat near in those days of Ranma 1/2 fanfiction that gave me stumbling steps on to the internet.

Uh.

Yeah, token Ranma 1/2 mention. Though Gagne I remember more for Slayers fanfic, Improfanfic, most notably, ULTRA.

What this means is that there’s a lot of stuff here that, while definitely quirky, has a feeling that I, nostalgically, can’t help but think of as being ‘Very Stefan.’ This isn’t a knock against his work! He’s really good at this particularly deliberately quirky voice, a voice that feels a lot like – and I say this with no idea where Stefan came from, just that he’s in America now – an American who didn’t click well with local comedy but loved Red Dwarf and the works of Terry Pratchett. This can come through in the extremely specific (the back-and-forth of Ben and Matt’s wordplay, for example) and the extremely broad (Gagne’s work has been pretty much consistently operant around taking an absurd situation as seriously as possible).

There’s a clear and deliberate use of character voice; every character stands apart from one another, you can’t reasonably mix up the way different characters talk with one another. There’s a point where three characters have a conversation with one another, and they all have the same name and ostensibly the same core personality and yet all three of them are clearly distinct.

This does mean that a lot of characters are very funny and very interesting and in different, isolated ways. It’s not even as simple as ‘hey, here’s this archetype, knock yourself out,’ because of the routes I played, each character showed that there was some detail about them that undermined that idea of how the archetype formed, while still being completely coherent with them.

There are some affects that don’t land for me, because nothing will. For example, in his introduction, Gavin pretty much just straight up lays out the explanation of the game’s themes and the point of the location like he’s handing out a study guide, and then also describes himself in a phrase that’s extremely practiced and reminds me of wannabe Youtube Sleuths who describe themselves as ’empaths.’ like I get it, this is a space that wants to get the narrative moving as quickly as possible, it’s not like it’s a bad thing to do it this way, it just makes Gavin feel like someone that I immediately do not trust.

This is because I am suspicious of anyone who wants to volunteer to me, quickly, the way they see the world. It’s a format problem, really. The game has to get you on board with these characters quickly, it’s not their fault it comes at the expensive of making Gavin seem like a ding-dong.

Distinct character voice, interesting characters, meaningful reactions to things. You could do a lot worse than play these games to learn how to get better at writing characters in Visual Novels.

If you remember me talking about Ai: The Somnium Files, you might remember me saying that the game pulls over in the middle to give you a lecture about the meanings of a character’s name – that the game has this sort of fundamental sincerity about itself, how it wants to make sure it absolutely is holding the point it wants to club you with in two hands. Well, Arcade Spirits is less subtle, but well, you know what we say in these parts.

We know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.

In the middle of Arcade Spirits, there’s a point where the game pulls over and decides to sit on the side of the road as it hammers home its thesis statement about games, and arcade culture and life in the form of uh, fighting ghosts inside an urban legend videogame called Polybius. Now, for those of you who don’t know about it, Polybius is basically a creepypasta about ‘what if the CIA was using videogames to recruit teenagers,’ which ha ha, of course not, that’s how the US Military recruits, not the CIA. But don’t worry, it involves a good dash of German, because that leads to spooky sounding words.

But in this section of the game, you have what amounts to a dream sequence powered by a ghost videogame, that wants you to make moral choices or tell it how you’re feeling (“that makes me feel angry!”), and finally have a chat with an actual honest to god Ghost (but, you know, not a Ghost Ghost, just a ghost like the other ghost you see later in the game while you think you’re dying, don’t worry about it, you’re fine).

The actual exchange though, struck me, looking at it. It was the closest I could find to the game about game arcades presenting a thesis statement about games. The idea that someone could play games too much, that games were somehow important, very important as a shared cultural thing (based on how Naomi talks about them), but also, the haunting question, what if games, but too much, which isn’t a point that rings loud to me. It’s worse too because it says what if games, but too much (as long as you have a giant pile of money and a haunted CIA brain mashing machine) which like, I don’t think the actual tragedy there is ‘she gamed to death’ as much as ‘a CIA superweapon killed her, and we’re treating that like it’s her fault.’

There is a tragic irony in that this game takes a break to say ‘why not play games forever’ as if that’s haunting, as if it’s something you can get lost in.

It puts me in mind of – and yes, if you know me, take a drink as I bring it up, – Bernard Suit’s The Grasshopper: Life, Games And Utopia, which gives us our leading paraphrase. There’s this idea of pursuing your dreams and not being satisfied with merely being happy and content, and how there’s a natural growth and invocation of success that comes from the ongoing time at the Funplex. There’s an inextricable link between the incremention of careers and the improvement at a job that’s seen as the alternative to… what? Giving up?

I don’t mean to sit here all Invisible Bullets and sneer at this game for having bad politics because it frames getting a dream job full of friends and family as being a good thing. It is the way it is. But it made me look at the world of it, and ask the question that you’re meant to ask that hey, is it okay to always be playing games? It’s interesting, because it means this story is not so much about games, not games as they’re played or how people play them or even what playing them is like, but about people who care about Arcades. It’s a hit of nostalgia deep into the vein, for a thing that still exists just not here.

Myself, I think games are good. I think people getting to play is good. I think that if the world could choose how much play we have versus how much work we have, I would imagine the optimal would be for there to be no work, and just play. That nobody should be doing jobs that they didn’t find fun, that nobody should be trying things they don’t want to do. When technology progresses past a certain point, there’s a lot of types of ‘work’ that stop being necessary, stop needing to be incentivised the way they are.

The world of Arcade Spirits is rich and full of mysterious powers. There are sentient AI that want to make people’s lives better and there is, hypothetically, justice for evil. There’s no reason for anyone in a world like this to have to suffer, to have to be denied and reliant on the works of the weird and wealthy. Yet in this same space, running an Arcade is more important than anything that the Arcade lets you do. And in the end, you are also beholden to someone with more money than you to make your dream happen.

It’s not an inherent evil of the game or anything. I certainly wouldn’t tell the game it ‘should’ be different.

But it is a bummer.

Still, why was it so hard for me to play this game? Why did I feel, at the start, like I wasn’t going to romance anyone and yet didn’t pick the aromantic option? That’s a weird thing to do, isn’t it?

It’s not that I don’t think the characters are romanceable. Every one of them has some interesting traits that make them desireable, or interesting, or charming, or Gavin. There’s a lot to like in all of these characters, and I am glad I did do the Ashley romance when I did – because it gave me insight into the character that feels, on the one hand like it’s a spoiler to discuss, but which also feels like it’s worth mentioning as a type of representation for those young queers out there.

I think in the end, though, part of it is that I can’t get over feeling voyeuristic in this game. I can’t feel that I’m the character that I’m meant to be piloting, like they’re not someone I can inhabit. I joked last year that the iconic millenial was someone who likes naps and want to die but that’s not what informs this character. Instead, it’s depression in the face of a gig economy and a sense of perpetual failure. I think that’s part of the engagement axis for this character – you need to be able to tap into that feeling of millenial despair, the feeling that the world has it out for me, and that’s it.

I think I’m not like that. I don’t think I’m nostalgic for the days of arcades, for a childhood before It All Went Wrong, because I never had that. I had a very different childhood. Arcades were something kids with money did. Games and arcade cabinets were something that asked a dollar of you a play and that was so much money, to me. They were always these endlessly showy games of a totally different type to the ones I played. There’s a weird little irony that two arcade games that I never played during my childhood, the things that made me think ‘oh yeah, that’s something I wish I could try,’ were brought together in a game called Pong Kombat.

Which was developed by Stefan Gagne when he was a teenager.

Part of what I try to do with this blog is to clearly communicate about games as myself; that you can know what I like, and you can recognise the way you react to the things I tend to like. That means that, in this kind of game, where I have to centre myself, I get to look even more intently at the things I mean when I talk about my feelings about this game. Part of that is going to be about showing you how I feel, how the game makes me feel about something that’s explicitly meant to be romantic, and that means, how I feel about the thing that the game tells me I get to be as a romantic subject, and how true that can feel to something I personally can inhabit.

It’s weird, isn’t it?

I am part of the interface.

Why do I play?

What can I pretend to be?

I like this game a lot more than I liked playing it. I like what this game wants to be more than I liked trying to be myself in it. I like these characters much more than I liked the world they have to live in. And I don’t regret the time spent on this game, not one moment.

But christ it was hard.

Oh and you go get the game on Steam and Itch and I recommend it.

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