Matt talked about The Witcher last week, which got me thinking about other video game series that fit the pulp aesthetic. Rather than do a deep dive on one series, and because I am far more familiar with older video games than modern ones (LA Noire, for instance, is one that probably deserves a whole column, but I haven’t played it), I thought I’d do some capsule reviews of a bunch of different styles of games from various consoles and computer systems. No such article could ever hope to be even close to comprehensive, so I’m going to stick to four game series that I’ve played a lot of and loved immensely.
Zork Series – Zork is an interactive text adventure game that was first published in the late 1970s. Although Colossal Cave Adventure is recognized as the first interactive fiction game, it is little more than its name lets on. Zork is something more. It’s a mashup of genres set in a world not entirely dissimilar from our own. As the hero of the story, you “Get Lantern” and “Hit Thief with Sword” while you explore the Great Underground Empire, which starts below a white house with a mailbox in front of it. There is a lot of humor, but the game is essentially puzzles, fetch quests, riddles, and a few fights that move through a mixed sci-fi/fantasy land. Modern gamers would probably balk at a text only adventure, but I remember playing on an old Commodore 64 when I was a young teenager. There have been multiple other adventures including some 360° video exploration point-and-click games in the style of Myst. One of those, Zork Nemesis, is one of my favorite computer games ever made. It’s the story of star-crossed lovers, murders, and an investigation into their deaths. For a Zork game, it is strangely dark with some black comedy elements, including a joke-telling decapitated head. Clues are found epistolary style as the player pieces together a noirish story. The payoff leaves a little to be desired, but the darkly comic tale is certainly worth exploring.
Metal Gear Series – Metal Gear was first written for and played on Microsoft-coded MSX computers before being ported to the wildly successful Japanese Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom) and American/European Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The game series, developed by the now famous and hugely influential Hideo Kojima, deals with the political, moral, and social ramifications of technology, genetic engineering, war and peace, and vengeance. At lot of the gameplay is stealth-based, where your character tries to sneak around guards in order to investigate the whereabouts of weapons and people. It has elements of spy noir as well as some definite action sequences. Kojima’s initial goal was to create a pastiche of 80s action movies, the pulp fiction of its day, but the series shed some of its tongue-in-cheek humor as it went on. While the original Metal Gear game seems positively primitive and cryptic by modern standards, it almost single-handedly created an entire genre of video games, with new games of the stealth-action genre being produced even now on modern consoles.
Fallout series – Fallout is a computer game created for Windows computers in 1997. It’s an ostensibly open-world role-playing game system developed by Interplay that takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Much of the fashion and references are to space-age science fiction of the 1950s-era cathode ray television and nuclear duck-and-cover style. The player takes the role of a Vault Dweller, a young man or woman who was raised in a nuclear fallout shelter that has begun to malfunction. Through exploration, diplomacy, and violence, the character looks for a Water Chip (or doesn’t, if the player seeks to go away from the main storyline) to fix the shelter. There are clear references to movies like Mad Max, to Atomic Age fears of mutant humans warped by radiation, and to old horror movies about rampaging giant insects, among other callbacks to golden age sci-fi and pulp. Some of the imagery is reminiscent of Flash Gordon, Blade Runner, WarGames, and Forbidden Planet, among other properties. More recent incarnations switched to first-person view and incorporated more shooting/action elements, which was polarizing for fans of Fallout, to say the least. In any case, the original and its first couple of sequels are games I still play from time to time today, each time trying to get through a different storyline.
Bioshock series – Bioshock is a first-person shooter sci-fi horror series directly inspired by golden age pulp fiction and the free-for-all Objectivist writings of Ayn Rand. In the original game, the player takes on the role of a man whose plane crashes near a lighthouse that houses a secret. It’s actually the surface connection between regular civilization and the undersea city of Rapture, a city built on Libertarian ideals that has since fallen into warring factions because of genetic engineering gone awry. It’s a lot to unpack, and the game has a deep, engaging story of one man’s rise to power, and the corrupting influence that power has on him. Like many role-playing focused video games, it has epistolary elements, in the form of notes and audio tracks found all around the city. By injecting himself with some of the gene-editing cocktails, the character develops pseudo-magical powers, and also comes across a whole host of weaponry from wrenches to grenade launchers. Like Fallout, the visual aesthetic takes its cues from history and historical visions of the future. However, instead of taking inspiration from the 1950s, Bioshock reaches further back in time, to the 1920s—the era of art deco, jazz music, the Lost Generation, and the golden age of radio—when pulp was just reaching its audience. The first sequel takes place in the same city, following a different character, but largely hits the same notes. The second sequel, Bioshock Infinite, shifts locations to a floating cloud city, and takes its inspiration instead from the late 1890s. The main character in this game is a Pinkerton, as Dashiell Hammett was before being a writer, deepening the Bioshock connection to pulp and noir.
These are all action-oriented games that hit upon the political and moral concerns that much of the best pulp fiction does. The theme of the age of rayguns and nukes, of fears over science and the exploration of forgotten, hidden cities, runs through each of these series in various different ways. While they don’t necessarily scratch the same itch as a collection of Black Mask issues might, they are all indicative of the reach pulp fiction has. I’ve even seen it said recently that video games are the modern pulp fiction. There’s certainly evidence to point in that direction.
Incidentally, all of these games are still playable (though some may seem more like a chore than entertainment for modern audiences), and most of them are legally obtainable. Some need an emulator if you don’t have a console (like the MSX or NES), but the computer games can be purchased at places like Good Old Games (GOG) or on Steam. The original text-adventure Zork and its sequels, since they’re not at all code-heavy, are easy to find and playable in browser windows. If you like that and also tabletop roleplaying games, I recommend you check out Memento Mori Theatricks Parsely line of games, especially Action Castle.
 Zork figures quite prominently in Ernest Cline’s book (and in-production film) Ready Player One. Kids who grew up in the 80s should definitely give the book a read. It is not the greatest science fiction book ever written (and it’s not really pulp), but it is fun. I actually recommend the audiobook version read by Wil Wheaton over the text version if you have Audible or a local library with good audiobook selections.