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By 1990s, the devouring aspiration of the 1980s had left a lot of people feeling adrift. Young people in the 90s had all the comfort and stability bought by their parents’ striving and climbing -- and perhaps ironically, it bought us the leisure to have existential crises. We didn’t necessarily want the Buns of Steel, or to Get Into Business. A lot of media began to emerge throughout the 90s that posed an interesting question: If I reject this System, then who will I be? And what if I just… do nothing?
Popular films of the age, like Reality Bites, or Slacker, were about the rebellion of not climbing, of rejecting corporate culture, The Man, The System. The youth was interested in the quiet revolution of figuring out who we Really Were, and what we Really Wanted. In the post-80s economic quietude of the 90s, the youth were able to say, “hey, give me a minute, man, I wanna, like, feel my feelings.”
We watched My So-Called Life, the first program we’d seen illustrate the life of a teen not as a romantic after-school special, but as a complicated identity quest. The mall formed an odd suburban mecca -- the only thing to do in any given small town, a locus of ennui, a temple to The Man. Like Beavis and Butthead, we drifted around with willful numb detachment, disparaging everything.
Depression and boredom were in vogue. Romantic heroes were all dead guys, and all love was tragic, as in films like The Crow, Interview With The Vampire, or Baz Lurmann’s trendy re-imagining of Romeo & Juliet.
And then in 1991, a blurry, lo-fi music video came out, featuring a strange young guy with his hair in his face like he didn’t even want to be on camera at all. The band played a song in a desaturated gymnasium, a mockery of prom. It was Nirvana doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song they’d go on to call the “anthem of a generation.”
At first blush the lyrics seem like general nonsense (“I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us”), but if you take a step back, they make a strange kind of sense, like a Magic Eye poster: It was like frontman Kurt Cobain was looking to the hyper-capitalist, superficial excesses of the 1980s that his generation had been handed, and sardonically quipping, “now what?”
Nirvana had just three band members and played sloppy music -- rock opera fans in my high school would try to discredit the band’s sudden popularity by claiming “anyone could play” Nirvana songs. And it was true: Having never played music before in my life (or since), I got a guitar for my 13th or 14th birthday, and I played Nirvana songs. I sucked, but it was awesome.
That same year, Guns and Roses released two albums called “Use Your Illusion I & II,” massive and overwrought and lacy, iconic of egocentricism and excess. The track I remember best was “November Rain,” some nine minutes long, featuring a wedding (and Stephanie Seymour in a tasteless gown), a funeral, and Axl Rose moping around a grand piano. It was huge.
Yet it was Nirvana with its stripped-down aesthetic and nonsense lyrics, that would primarily usher in the 90s, leading to no end of feuding in the media among Axl and Kurt, a war of opposing ideals.
It actually reminds me of some of the simplistic ideological tensions that often appear to be going on between old-guard game designer dudes and indies today: The indies look at the industry and see The Man, and the industry simultaneously wishes it could be as cool as indies, and resents their freedom, alongside the headlines they keep reading about how indies are going to end up making more money than them.
Kurt took his own life in 1994, and many people my age and older, up to a point, remember where they were when they found out. These days kids coming of age don’t really know who he was, or why anyone cared about Nirvana’s weird, scratchy little songs. But he was a generational voice.
Who is the Nirvana of video games? I don’t know if there’s a perfectly-fitting answer to this, but it’s a thought-provoking question: Is there a creator who took one look at the climate and then changed it forever, where you will always remember where you were when they burned out? Is there anyone in games you can tell your kids about when you’re old and uncool?
Of course, it’s simplistic and inaccurate to say that any kind of movement began solely with Nirvana. At the advent of the 90s, musical protests against the status quo were happening everywhere thanks to the flourishing of the underground do it yourself scene centered around the Pacific Northwest -- perhaps not coincidentally, as it rains all the time there and seems like a really good environment to nurture the age’s beloved depression and discontent.
I know I played more video and computer games than ever during the 90s, but I can’t say I remember too much about them -- the boys took over the computer labs, occupying all available stations for hours to glaze out silently in front of polygonal shooters, so my friends and I paired up over adventure games.
I have clearer memories of Aeon Flux, a surrealist animation that aired late nights on MTV: A woman heroine grotesque as a spider, who refused to titillate without complications. She was alienating and unsettling, but the show was powerful. By contrast, games offered Lara Croft. Many women talk about how empowering they found Lara in the 90s, but I don’t really buy it: She was rich, and powerful, but never allowed to be so powerful she couldn’t end up on a sticky dorm-room poster.
By the time I entered high school in 1994, Pearl Jam was huge, a band fronted by shy, fame-averse Eddie Vedder, who seemed as if he mainly wanted to sing about global issues, his relationship with his mother, his discomfort with guns. During a live nationally-televised MTV performance, he famously scrawled pro-choice messages on his forearm -- and this was no underground band. They crushed the charts with a song about depression and suicide.