From Guitar Hero to Gone Home, Nick V. takes a look on punk culture in video games
Almost since the likes of the Ramones put on leather jackets, figured out they couldn’t keep up with the musicality of classic rock, made up for it by playing the simplest music at fast and hard as possible, and were dubbed “punks” for it, the refrain from the press has been “punk is dead”. The claim persisted through the ‘80s while hardcore dominated and developed the underground scene into what would become alternative rock, and even after punk joined the mainstream spotlight along with the ‘90s alternative explosion, it was just seen as proof that the ideologies that founded the scene were gone.
And now, nearly half a century after its founding, maybe they’re finally right. There are no prominent up and coming “real” punk bands to speak of, no parental groups raging against the “decline of Western society” due to loud, fast rock music, no police breaking up the shows. Just aging rockers doing what they’ve already been doing for decades and aging fans still showing up to hear the songs they love. Hardly a threat to the establishment.
In pop culture, it’s become almost a complete non-entity, former Pussy Riot members rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite and guesting on House of Cards aside. And video games? Hell, if you type “punk video games” into Google, all you get is some dude who remade classic 8-bit games in his favorite punk rockers’ images and called it Punktendo. Where’s the representation, gaming industry?
Ironically, punk and video game culture have seldom crossed paths in any meaningful way. I say ironically because the two scenes have had a lot in common and have practically grown up together. Deemed socially unacceptable by liberals and conservatives alike, it was nerds and outcasts that made both cultures and the fan crossover between the two is not insubstantial. But it wasn’t until the last two console generations that I’ve finally begun to see punk make its way into mainstream gaming in drips and drabs.
The ‘80s were filled with visual stereotypes as countless beat-em ups featured mohawked punks to wantonly murder, but where can one find a game that at least attempts to give some genuine representation to one of the most influential movements of the twentieth century whose ideologies and practices still persist in various forms of art, activism, and entertainment to this day? Well, I found five. It ain’t much, but it’s something. Dye up your liberty spikes and crank this shit up, because I’ve found evidence that punk is still alive in modern gaming, if just barely.
“That one is predetermined
That one, it finds another.
This one comes in one window
Sliding out the other.
We need an instrument
To take a measurement.”
Guitar Hero is the rhythm game smash hit franchise whose thoughtfully diverse setlists have made playable to countless gamers rock classics both iconic and obscure. It had been done before, but never like this. The style and sheer quality of music involved eclipsed all other rhythm games at the time and kicked off a craze that would eventually lead to the oversaturation and decline of the genre. But when it was hot, it was hot, and it has made a modest comeback recently along with its equally great sister franchise, Rock Band .
There is no sojourn through rock history that is complete without a tour through punk, and Guitar Hero has always obliged. Characters like Judy Nails and Johnny Napalm delivered playable punk aesthetic and attitude while the setlists often went above and beyond. The legendary Sex Pistols, who haven’t released a proper album in literally forty years, got together to re-record not one but two tracks for the series and other classic bands like the Stooges, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Donnas, Bad Religion, MC5, Generation X, Misfits, and Dropkick Murphys have been included along with the likes of, the Offspring, Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World, and Rise Against to make for a pretty solid cross section of punk culture from a musical standpoint.
“Big Brother, he is a watching
Watching me and you.
Big Brother is a-watching
And he’ll know your every move.
They’re really really gonna do it to you
Just wait and see.
They’ll be telling us what to do
And they’ll want us to die laughing.”
One of 2016’s breakout gaming experiences was also one of the only ones to portray punk culture in a meaningful way. Orwell is a unique story experience that casts the player in the role of the titular author’s Big Brother, altering the concept to be more in line with modern politics and further blurring the lines of morality as you snoop in the lives of private citizens in an attempt to stop a series of terrorist bombings.
Rather than a celebration or even positive representation of punk, the game portrays the culture in a refreshingly objective manner. As a government agent tasked with investigating terrorist acts, you have to look at the vocal anti-government scene forming before your eyes and try to decide how much of it is bluster and how much represents a real threat. It’s a fascinating conundrum that I imagine the people in charge are dealing with all the time.
In the ‘80s, police violently dispersed punk shows as part of their routine and bands like the Dead Kennedys and Suicidal Tendencies were harassed and investigated by the FBI for their anti-authoritarian lyrics. Tasking the player with investigating the members of a punk band, whose leader is often quite forceful in his political condemnations, made for a very interesting experience playing from the other side of the fence. Orwell itself represents the ethics of punk as a minimalist independent game that made up for what it lacked in resources for flashy graphics and scintillating gameplay with creativity and a strong message that allowed it to make the very most out of what it did have.
“Early man walked away
As modern man took control.
Their minds weren’t all the same
To conquer was his goal.
So he built his great empire
And slaughtered his own kind.
Then he died a confused man
Killed himself with his own mind.”
The Shadowrun franchise is very much a product of the same horrific policies that helped give rise to the hardcore punk scene. While the media declared it “morning in America”, unprecedented numbers of homeless people filled its streets as poverty ran rampant due to our newly minted economic policies of taking money from the poor and middle class to give to massive corporations. The dark, cyberpunk dystopia where dragons rule the world behind corporate governments pitting the poor against one another by paying them to sabotage the competition as the only possible means of income is as inspired by 1980s America as it was by the fantasy and science fiction genres.
In 2013, a wonderful thing happened. The unique RPG franchise came back to video games after years in hibernation to erase the mediocrity that was the baffling 2007 online-only shooter from our minds. Shadowrun Returns’ Kickstarter was such a success that it has spawned two sequels, and the first, Dragonfall, further proved that the developers understood the roots of the series by bringing punk ideologies into play in a way that I’ve never seen in video games before. It was also one of the best tactical RPG’s I’ve ever played in both story and gameplay.
Shadowrun: Dragonfall puts players in the seldom explored vicinity of post-Awakening (basically, a magical apocalypse) Berlin, where the government has collapsed following an anarchist revolution, leaving it known as the Flux State. The people within are left to their own devices and they like it that way. As a shadowrunner living in an anarchist community, you get to see firsthand how this is working out as people pull together to withstand the encroaching influence of the corporations in a place where punk is now the law (or lack thereof) of the land.
Dragonfall puts a former punk rock singer in your crew, which makes for an even more direct connection to the culture, and along with the franchise’s classic punk-influenced aesthetics it makes for a pretty cohesive representation of the scene and its values. It’s also one of the only games where I’ve actually felt compelled to argue with a fictional character about philosophy as one of my go-to runners criticized another character as a community leader when anarchy is supposed to be about not having leaders. No, stupid, anarchy is about not having institutional governmental authority. A true leader earns willing followers through deeds, not by enforced mandate. Anarchy is freedom, authority is oppression. Fuck you.
“You’re a big girl now
You’ve got no reason not to fight.
You’ve got to know what they are
Before you can stand up for your rights.
You do have rights.”
At first glance, this indie walking sim wouldn’t appear to have much in common with punk. The deafening silence and foreboding atmosphere as you piece together the events of the game’s story by exploring an abandoned house and its contents is a stark contrast to the loud, fast, angry nature of punk music. While the game got a lot of attention for its portrayal of LGBT issues, let’s be honest: that’s hardly a novel thing anymore. Only really noteworthy if you’re desperate for attention on the internet and seek to get it by making the same old meaningless noises at each other over whether gay people should exist, as if whether people should be allowed to be people is something to argue over. Punk fought and won that battle long before the internet began using peoples’ continued obsession with other peoples’ genitalia for clickbait. What is unusual -and perhaps a first- is Gone Home’s portrayal of the ‘90s riot girl (or “grrrl” if you want to make it seem like you growl when you talk) movement.
For those not in the know, this feminist thing; it’s not new either. The roots of modern feminism are possibly best explored starting with the riot girl scene, which stemmed from women banding together to make punk shows better places for the ladies. Punk was already more accepting of women than other scenes by its very nature, but there was still room for improvement. Bands like Bikini Kill had all of the sound and fury of their male counterparts and would request that the rowdy men up front make room for the ladies, who had often been relegated to the sidelines at male-dominated rock shows. And it worked. Turns out a little assertiveness and the ability to rock goes a long way.
Back to the game, as you explore the house and rifle through the belongings of your character’s absent sister, you find a lot of classic riot girl fliers and zines ripped straight out of the ‘90s. And if that isn’t cool enough, you can actually activate tape players (the nostalgia!) and get blasted with legit punk rock from the likes of Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. So as a work of interactive fiction, LGBT-themed art, and a small window into a seldom explored aspect of the feminist and punk rock scenes, Gone Home is a memorable experience.
Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland
“Doesn’t understand why you’d wanna walk.
Ain’t got time to sit and talk.
Used to be just like you and me.
Now he’s an outcast of society.
Beware, he’s possessed to skate.”
As big as Guitar Hero in its time, the Tony Hawk: Pro Skater series suffered a similar fate after similar mismanagement from Activision. It wasn’t the first skateboarding game by a longshot as classics like Skate or Die and 720° nicely offered up some punk aesthetics beyond giving you something to punch in the ‘80s, but Tony Hawk certainly brought it to another level and a massive audience on the PlayStation. And it was the first game I’m aware of to really emphasize the connection between punk rock and skateboarding (the two scenes are practically synonymous irl) with a selection of underground punk songs on the soundtrack.
Taking it a step further beyond mere sight and sound, American Wasteland added a story and an open world to what was pretty much a pure gameplay franchise before that point and it included aspects of skatepunk like graffiti tagging, fanzines, and the communal anarchist nature of the community. Skating or walking (as if) around a virtual LA blasting tunes from the Misfits and Black Flag and trying to earn enough to get to the next skate competition is about as skatepunk as you can get. The game’s back cover art was a blatant reproduction of the Clash’s iconic London Calling album cover replacing the guitar with a skateboard.
So yeah, there is punk rock in video games. And as long as there is punk rock anywhere, it ain’t dead. All it takes is a group of people who want to play fast, loud, uncompromising music about what they think, the freedom to think it and play what they want regardless of popular trends, and some other people who feel the same and want to listen to them play it. You may not see it on TV. You may not hear it on the radio. But it’s always going to be there. One of punk’s defining moments for me was the late, great Wendy O. Williams’ final prophetic declaration as she dropped the mic on the career of one the most underrated bands of all time, screaming “I’m inside your DNA. You can’t make me go away.” Indeed, it’s always been there. Even when you couldn’t see, hear, or feel it. And it always will be.