I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I’ve faced down demons, giants, advanced alien species, and thanks to Japanese RPGs, I’ve attacked and dethroned my fair share of gods. But this year, Arcade Paradise encapsulated how sometimes, the smaller stakes of interpersonal conflict and intergenerational relationships can make a more memorable antagonist by feeling relatable and grounded.
Arcade Paradise spoilers follow.
Arcade Paradise’s story begins very light and unassuming. As a young college dropout named Ashley, you occasionally get voicemails from your father, who put you in charge of a laundromat. There’s some mild signs of strife between you two and slightly snide comments about how this job will help teach you some responsibility, but on the whole, it seems no more strained than any typical parent-child relationship.
As you delve deeper, you also start talking with your sister, Lesley, who works at City Hall. She serves a gameplay function by getting you licenses to expand your business as you slowly transition your floor space from a laundromat with some arcade machines into an arcade with a few laundry machines. But your chats with your sister start to unpeel another layer, as she hints at how her own dreams fell by the wayside in the name of responsibility and success–as defined by your overbearing father. A government job wasn’t really her aspiration, but she aimed to be the good child, to fit into a mold, and she relishes giving you a leg-up on pursuing your own aspirations and maybe sticking it to your dad a little, right under his nose.
Then, the turn. Without your knowledge, Lesley had been greasing the wheels with bribes at her government job to get you the proper licenses, and now they’re asking questions. Your father is furious to discover you had been sneaking around behind his back, and even more so, that you were breaking the law. To protect your sister, you fall on the sword. You claim it was all you, and she wasn’t involved. He immediately shuts down the arcade, puts all of your hard-earned machines up for auction, and gets you a soul-crushing job at his meat-packing plant to pay off your legal fees.
Arcade Paradise makes a point of illustrating the weight of mundanity in work in two phases. First, when you start at the laundromat, your arcade machines aren’t making nearly enough money, so you need to do other tasks like providing laundry services and taking out the trash to earn enough to upgrade your business and buy more machines. As you get more arcade machines and afford more upgrades, that work falls away and you settle into a more comfortable rhythm. That comfort makes it that much more impactful when you suddenly find yourself at an even more dull, repetitive job, sealing boxes at the plant… one after another, for days.
And while you find yourself back in this awful moment of boring, repetitive work, you can hear the voice of your father chewing you out over the years. He shames you for your math grades, for wanting to learn animation, and for your work ethic in general. He blithely suggests this is what he had always expected from you, and that you dragged down Lesley with you. I felt an intense pang of empathetic pain at that. If the narrative power of games lies in putting you into the lives of other people, it’s easy to feel a resonating hurt when shown something so vicious and personal. As Ashley, I hadn’t actually cut corners or broken the law, but here he was stating very plainly that he always knew deep down that I would, and that his favored child wouldn’t have if not for my influence. Ouch.
Ultimately all is well that ends well. You find your way out of the soul-crushing meat-packing job thanks to the friendships you cultivated in your arcade business. You get to create your own happiness doing a job that you love and that you’ve built yourself with your own two hands. Your father even gets a reconciliation of sorts, with a final voicemail that attempts to make amends. It was too little, too late for me–I wanted nothing to do with the man at that point–but your mileage may vary. But in creating an antagonistic relationship that felt so human, it made the catharsis of the ending that much more meaningful. When you finally complete your business by replacing the sign on the door, it really is a place of peace and fulfillment–a paradise of your own making.
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