The Bloody Eighties: How A Violent Neon Decade Influenced Video Games

Joel Harvey

“Reese rolls like a cat and comes up firing.

A burst from the Uzi rakes the bar where he stood.

An orgy of shattering glass.

Total pandemonium.” – The Terminator

The above extract, if you didn’t know already, comes from the script of The Terminator. James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi classic is considered highly influential to the world of cinema.

But the stylistic violence of the film – the “orgy” and “total pandemonium” of brutality – became a cornerstone of many films throughout the eighties. And this style didn’t just influence the film world, it also played a part in defining the video games that we play today.

The Hurtful Eighties

Stylised cinematic violence didn’t begin in the eighties, the blood first started to be shed back in the seventies. The rise of the auteur director – Martin Scorsese in particular – heralded a new, hyper-violent age of film, with movies like Taxi Driver playing their part. In the finale of this savage 1974 parable, we find the anti-hero of the story, Travis Bickle, launching into a one-man killing spree of low-life criminals. It’s a bloody and violent conclusion, one which would be used as a template in the decade that followed.

Hollywood would lavish itself in more gore in the eighties. But unlike the seventies, Travis Bickle was no longer playing the anti-hero, he was the hero of the story. Films like Rambo, Die Hard and Commando, portrayed the idea that this weaponised one-man army was a champion; that he was the guy we should be rooting for, as he mercilessly rips his enemies to shreds with gun-fire. This kind of visceral assault of violence became a defining trope of eighties films. And it was something that the gaming world wanted to emulate too.

Video game designers looked up to cinema, of course they did. Out of all the cultural mediums, films were the closest blood relative to gaming. Early games were targeted at young males; an audience that many developers lazily assumed were more interested in playing violent video games than anything else.

As a result, the worlds of film and video games merged as the stylised shoot-outs of cinema, became the gameplay norm in gaming. Early action games, such as the run-and-gun classic Contra, would simply replicate action films like-for-like.

But as we moved into the nineties and the new millennium, video games morphed into something more distinctive. Something more… eighties.

You’ve Gotta Shoot Straight!

The stylistic violent films of the eighties (most of which were sci-fi flicks) were visually stunning. Cameron’s Terminator and Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop pulled you into a cyberpunk, graphic novel-like world – ones where machine gun fire would light up the darkness and reflect off the steel machinery that lived in the shadows.

This was pure tech-noir violence; artistic and bloody, and all wrapped up in a futuristic bow. But it was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which would prove to be the biggest inspiration to gaming.

The character of Deckard in Blade Runner would become the archetypal gaming hero. He was seen as the perfect fit for being a video game world protagonist; male, largely silent (well, if you watch the director’s cut he was), and with a sense of detachment about the world around him. And since then, many video games duplicated him as a hero and invoked the style of Blade Runner; Deus Ex, Flashback and Syndicate, to name but a few.

Unfortunately, the gaming world can’t always shift from an idea once it adopts one; change doesn’t come easy in video game design. This Deckard-esque protagonist became a regular staple of video games for many years. The gruff, emotionless, white male would be a lazy blueprint hero for game developers who became reluctant to change things up. Why take a risk, after all, when the same formula has worked for such a long time?

Things have started to shift in recent years though, and developers have begun to create heroes that everyone can identify with. Not just grumpy white males.

Neon is the New Black

Although gaming has evolved in the 21st century, design choices still remain firmly in retro gear. With audiences becoming more nostalgic for the eighties, and many designers being born in that particular era, video games look more like violent eighties films than ever before.

We’ve had the Scarface of gaming, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – a game heavily borne from gangster films set in the decade. Then there’s been the absurdly fun, eighties action-film parody of Broforce. And with Dennaton Games’ incredible Hotline Miami games, we’ve found the true, psychotic spirit of stylish eighties violence. These games practically ooze the decade from their DNA, as you brutally murder your way through a maniac’s blood-soaked neon world.

Of course, video games may start to lose this particular style trope as we move further away from the eighties. But it’ll be hard to wash the dried blood out of gaming’s clothes, which has been leftover from a decade of stylized violence.