‘Keep your politics out of our games.’ Behind the fretful plea (one which has recently become something of a placard slogan, waved at game developers by those who want games to offer only retreat from the real world, not a reflection of it), is the belief that a video game can stand apart from the context in which it is created. The argument collapses when you consider the myriad ways in which time and culture infuse every aspect of a video game’s design from a technological standpoint.
Take the Double Dragon series’ trajectory through the years. Its debut, which features American twin martial artists, Billy and Jimmy Lee, mowing their way through oncoming ranks of shuffling street thugs, appeared in arcades in 1987. The game’s design and challenge was a result of this specific context: a two-player (designed to physically fit a two-player cabinet) beat ’em up which ramped up the difficulty after the first stage or two in order to maximise the machine’s profits – albeit while letting players feel as though, with time, effort and enough financial investment, mastery was within reach.
Sequels followed, each one blossoming with yet greater numbers of colours, sprites and animations, as the underlying technology grew deeper and more fertile. In 1994, as the scrolling beat ’em up genre’s popularity began to wane, the fifth game in the series, Double Dragon 5: The Shadow Falls, became a one-on-one fighter — an attempt to mimic the success of Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 (closely followed by another one-on-one fighter for the Neo Geo). At each step, the series was being nudged, not by an artist’s vision, but by the external influence of market force and fashion. By the time of the 3D revolution in video games, some believed that the scrolling beat ’em up was due its first nostalgic revival. Technos, however, had gone out of business, leaving other companies to test the theory (as Square Enix discovered, with its lavishly produced The Bouncer, the appetite was mild).