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Interestingly this was also the golden age of Japanese RPGs. Of course these games weren’t created to reflect or respond to a youth that saw itself in crisis, but they were stories of small-town kids who start out powerless and are given a purpose. In the end, the RPG hero confronts The System -- The Man, a god or a “Mother Brain” machine entity in order to save the world, keep it pure. I think RPGs were so big back then because all 90s kids were searching for a sense of power and self-discovery in what they saw as a world well out of their hands.
As “alternative music” went mainstream and became a commodity, though, a lot of the heroes of grunge wore the crown of fame poorly, warring with record labels and ticket bookers, sabotaging awards shows and even openly hating fans. I actually think some of the controversy about Phil Fish is an interesting signpost of a creative medium in conflict with product culture, where people want to make things and share them but don’t necessarily want to be in the customer service capital-B business.
Meaningful entertainment doesn’t take well to being commoditized, and that’s important to remember in the context of conversations about what the games industry “owes” players, about the parameters of the product or service we’re being provided, or how we expect creators always to be in service to us, to be “professional.”
The thing I treasure about the music of the 90s is that we felt we knew who these bands and songwriters were. We watched them struggle in public, followed them through a body of work. Even when we didn’t like them, we felt part of what they were making. Bands I hated in my youth now sound like warm, resonant touchstones to me now. The grunge aesthetic was about not caring -- slacker clothes, unisex flannel -- but oh, how we cared.
It was no golden age: It fetishized eating disorders and drug abuse, and all that angsting had a bleak survival rate. Eventually, “Alternative Nation” died with MTV, as the counterculture became as commercialized as everything that it was trying to protest: If it weren’t for Pearl Jam, we’d have no Nickelback or Creed, for one thing.
But I could still assemble, out of the media I enjoyed in the 1990s, something to give my kid, if I ever have one, to tell her who I was then. Mixtapes, movies. Games? What games could I give her to tell her who I was or what was happening in the world when I was her age? Would there be anything in the games that are on shelves now for my kid to relate to at all?
But that’s because for games, the 1990s are kind of just beginning. We have the opportunity to pioneer and to celebrate and to be welcomed and comforted by a visible, meaningful counterculture. There is one very important part of history that I’ve skipped over, and it’s that before Nirvana, before all the sensitive, brooding Grunge Men from Seattle, there was something else.
At the beginning of the 1990s the Christian pro-life movement had really started to enter public conversation. AIDS frightened people in the 80s, and in the 1990s the effort of religion to punish what it saw as deviancy of any kind -- and women, as religion usually punishes women -- began in earnest, alongside high-profile sexual harassment cases in the news.
I was too young to be much aware of the news then, but I remember that at the time powerful women began to appear in the pages of my rock music magazines. In the Northwest, the Riot Grrrl movement was beginning, with bands like Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill sowing an indelible impression on the music scene in the area.