The first computer game I can recall playing was Target Renegade on the Amstrad. Essentially, you would scroll through various urban landscapes, kicking and punching other men (and some women) along the way. You had to walk through car parks, urban streets and snooker clubs(?!) using nothing but your fists and feet (and the occasional appropriated weapon; a baseball bat, chain, mallet and yes, a snooker cue) to fight your way to the end-of-game boss. A tried and tested format which became one of the most important computer game genres of the 80s and 90s.
Of the many scrolling beat ’em ups that adorned our consoles over those years – Final Fight, Streets of Rage (1 and 2, 3 not so much) and even Two Crude Dudes – there was a similar trope being played out. A violent crime syndicate had taken over the city, and a group of dedicated, tough and very talented mercenaries took it upon themselves to clean up the streets, and perhaps rescue a loved one along the way. Like other cultural artefacts, do these games (and the genre more widely) reflect their contemporaneous social trends and anxieties, in this case, US inner-city decline of the 70s and 80s and the rise of neoliberalism and ‘enterprising self’ as the mode of social progression?
The Warriors in 1979, Escape from New York in 1981 and even The Driller Killer in 1979; there was a swath of films around that time that depicted New York City as a socio-cultural wasteland. The city had been overrun with crime lords, and gangs roamed the streets in a Hobbesian dystopia of brutish urban life. These films and many like it of that time were riffing on the (often unfounded) fear that many people had of inner-city areas in the US. Seen as violent, lawless and largely of immigrant populations, these places were vilified in media narratives, preying on and exploiting ‘Middle’ America’s racial fears.
But while these films played out the dystopian vision of these inner-city areas, the scrolling beat ’em up computer games of the time where showing us how to combat this dystopia, but by drawing upon the prevailing ideological winds of a burgeoning urban neoliberalism. As Darran Anderson has argued about this very genre; “Reflecting a gamut of puritanical thought, including zero tolerance, prohibition and the broken windows theory, these games were an implicit condemnation of decadent cities”.
In reference to the Big Apple, Miriam Greenberg’s book ‘Branding New York: How a City in Crisis was Sold to the World‘ intricately details how in the 70s and 80s, the city’s government undertook very strict policies of zero-tolerance policing, privatisation, aggressive branding strategies and fiscal prudence to transform the city into the thriving, financialised, global city it is today. The uptake of these neoliberal policies by many other cities and governments all over the world characterised the political economic landscape of the 80s, and continues with some alacrity to this day.
One of the over-riding features of this neoliberal discourse is the emphasis it places of individual culpability, and the importance of self-reliance to “getting the job done”. And so it is with the scrolling beat ’em up genre; if you want to clean up the city, you have to do it yourself. Indeed, one of the very first of its type, Final Fight, typifies this approach. Released in 1989 by Capcom, Final Fight‘s story revolves around the former wrestler, now Metro City major Mike Haggar, who takes it upon himself to rescue his daughter Jessica from the clutches of the evil gang, ‘Mad Gear’, who have over-run the city by colonising the subway, the skyscrapers, the factories, the parks and the streets. You take control of Haggar (or Jessica’s boyfriend Cody and his friend, Guy) and work your way from the inner-city slums of Metro City all the way to the vertiginous heights of the end-of-game boss’ penthouse lair.
In some sort of violent neoliberal psychogeographic adventure in Chicago School Urbanism, you rid each city ‘zone’ at a time of thugs, prostitutes, knife-wielding hoodies and other bizarrely-dressed people. The city is devoid of any other social life; there are no other civilians, no police, no shops, no public services; the subway seems to be the only functioning civic architecture left in the city. Haggar ploughs his way through the city, embodying the aesthetics of utterly-ripped and ferociously strong white male corporeality that is so in-keeping with the contemporaneous ideal neoliberal subject; one that almost perfectly mirrored the Action Hero flick of the same time. In so doing, he was the perfect ‘progressive’ City Mayor way before the now trendy ‘devolved-urbanism-metro-mayor‘ debate was even a glint in the new urbanist’s designer sunglasses…
Another prominent neoliberal trait is the use of shocks to usher in paradigm shifts of governance to particular locales. That these Kleinian shocks have often brought about governmental reform towards privatisation, or more fierce forms of control is now firmly part of the social science zeitgeist; massive catastrophe’s closely followed by sweeping change was the hallmark of neoliberal expansion in the 80s and 90s. With the cartoon approach and down-right buffoonary of Two Crude Dudes, the ‘shock’ occurs in the form of a massive nuclear attack on New York City in 2010AD.
With the gang ‘Big Valley’ marauding at will, the US government hire two private contractors to clean up the city; it’s like ‘Blackwater: The Movie’ directed by Michael Bay. Part of the introduction (in the video above) states “these two men will be paid well [by the US government] for the job”; a pointer, if ever one was needed that in order to arrest urban blight, you must incentivise private involvement with financial reward. Once you have vanquished the ‘othered’, subtly-racialised, mutant-formed bio-weaponary of Big Valley, the end credits have the two mercenaries proclaiming “We’re heroes! We’ll be rich!”, which rather blatantly and unashamedly reminds us that it was (and still is) the lure of profit, fame and fortune that is the primary driver for intense urban warfare.
The Streets of Rage trilogy (albeit limping over the line with the turgid third game) remains one of the most playable of this genre. The first outing gave us the now familiar premise of a crime gang having taken over the city. This one though, as the opening credits tell us, has infiltrated the government and even the police. In such a position, the gang should resemble less a cadre of thugs and street-crawling nefarios, but a totalitarian, police city state. Indeed, the third instalment sees the crime boss ‘Mr. X’ undertake a series of false flag bombings to mask his scheme of replacing the urban officialdom with evil cyborgs (automation, anyone?) In all three games, you take control of ex-police officers and their close associates to flight your way toward Mr. X. In the first game, you can in fact chose to betray your fellow ex-cops and side with the evil crime lord; this ‘bad ending’ being one of the darker, more sinister easter eggs to grace the genre. The second game (and in my view, one of the most playable computer games ever produced) saw you having to rescue Adam, one the first game’s heroes and, aesthetically and narratively, drew much from Final Fight. One of the more famous aspects of the whole trilogy though was that in the first game, you could call upon your buddies in the police to roll up in a car and firebomb all the thugs on screen. In scenes eerily reminiscent of militarised air strikes in far-flung urban war zones, it allowed you, as a player, to be morally grounded in your position (albeit tenuously) linked to the police force, however into cluster-bombing they may be.
In all of these games and many others in the genre, the game sees you fight through the various stages and levels of the games hierarchy, climbing your way, often actually vertically to the crime lord’s final base. Such game design was ingrained in early 80s and 90s platforms; from Sonic to Mario, ‘levels’ were an important part of the compartmentalising of background, sprites, weapons, themes etc. But with these scrolling beat ’em ups, the progression ‘upwards‘ of the characters toward the pinnacle of the crime gang mirrored the prevailing vision of social order. Hierarchical thinking in companies, public institutions and government was dominant, with chains of command, line managers and bureaucracy often seen as decreasingly necessary and an impediment to progress given they shackled individual entrepreneurialism. To transpose these qualities on to a crime syndicate that you can eradicate by taking it on yourself shows how much neoliberalism was seeping into the cultural artefacts of the day.
Later, games ditched this format in favour of more immersive worlds, where the playing environment was flat; every place was accessible eventually, and part of the story involved exploring the multiple ways of traversing the world around you. Such a shift clearly mirrors the move from a more hierarchical form of governance in society, to a more networked approach that dominates 21st century urban geographies, and the ‘axiomatic‘ form of 21st century capitalism.
As a brief coda to the story to get you all thinking, it is interesting that all these games originated from Japan. The Japanese game makers no doubt consumed the same media of inner city decline in the West as we did, and created the ultimate immersive virtual antidote in the form of neoliberal allegories. Japanese cities at the time were not immune to anti-social behaviour of course, but is there a sense that in looking to the West for inspiration as well as markets to exploit, they saw the problem and the solution staring back at them?