Happy 4th of July! Sun’s out, firework displays everywhere, and what better way to celebrate than with the release of Stranger Things 3!
But it is also the release of something that got far less attention – Stranger Things 3: The Game – available on PC and Switch (which is how I’ll experience it), with an upcoming mobile release planned.
Now, this is the first day this game is out. Really, I’ve only dipped my toe in Hawkins, but I can say it’s got a kick-ass 90s beat-em up style graphics, and the promise of further game-exclusive ‘secrets’ to be discovered; no doubt tying into the series proper.
This got me thinking about the Netflix phenomenon and how the games better tie-in to the narrative and experience of the Stranger Things fandom.
“DOC. WE GOTTA GET BACK TO TO 80S!”
I should begin by saying the 80s is in, and it’s BIG at the moment. We got returns to Stephen King’s It, Star Wars made a comeback, and remakes like Ghostbusters and this year’s Child’s Play have given us real return to pop-culture on this particularly vicious 30-year cycle.
Aesthetically, we see a ton of 80s influences in original concepts. Thor: Ragnarok took a loads of inspiration from the 80s in terms of music, editing, and aliens, and Spielberg’s Ready Player One saw a dystopian society immersed in a virtual reality of pure childhood nostalgia – with more 80s Easter Eggs than you could possibly imagine.
Then we have Stranger Things. The Netflix original series is a mix up of everything 80s. Video game consoles, Dungeons and Dragons, kids on bikes, etc.
It’s everything from E.T. to Nightmare on Elm Street.
There have been a couple of theories about why this is happening, but I believe it has to do with comfort in the familiar. Social media has transformed how we live our lives, and things are most politically uncertain world.
As a society, we’re increasingly moving beyond materialism to a more experience-driven economy.
This is what I find so interesting, philosophically we aren’t looking to materialism and Reaganomics. In Britain especially both political parties have become noticeably less business-focused, and I can’t see anyone identifying as a Thatcherite … but they will quite happily check out the MCU’s Thor: Ragnarok for that sweet 80s synth.
Media especially has taken a weird turn.
It’s less VHS and DVD and more Netflix and Amazon. We don’t go out and buy the media we consume, it’s all part of a larger online service that algorithmically suggests what we might like.
As for tie-ins, that’s an entirely different matter. Originally, you might get a straight-to-video sequel, a TV series or even a video game – unsurprisingly, these weren’t great quality.
Back to the Future is a good example of this kind of marketing, and a good point of comparison.
Following the success of the Sci-Fi comedy, we then got two sequels back-to-back, a TV series (with anthropomorphised Doc. Brown dog?) and some truly, truly abysmal NES games.
It was the mania era of marketing. Something was big, and creators would milk it for all it’s worth.
This approach won’t fly now. Instead, you need an hook to win-over the experience-savvy Millennial; something other than just squeezing an IP for all it’s worth.
Now, imagine my surprise when Stranger Things gave us their first retro-style game.
I had to check it out.
STRANGER THINGS: THE GAME
The mobile game was honestly a brilliant move on behalf of Netflix. Stranger Things revels in 80s nostalgia, so why not give us a tie-in? It doesn’t get much more 80s than that!
As for the game itself, it does a good job recapturing that old-school top-down adventure. You start off as Hopper, and slowly add the other characters to your party; each one with their own special move and gameplay mechanic.
I personally enjoyed using Mike’s bike to explore the virtual Hawkins the most.
I’m also a sucker for aesthetics and designing the app to look like an old-school video game cartridge didn’t hurt.
As for the plot; it’s fine. It takes place between series 1 and 2, with the boys going missing and further exploring the Upside Down.
It’s revealed that Nancy actually went to the Upside Down by herself, believing she could find Barb – something that I’m not sure was really ever brought up in season 2.
At the end, it’s revealed that the Upside Down is seeping into the real world, with gates appearing around town and a Tentacle Hydra that needs to be vanquished by our suburban heroes.
It’s good for a story in itself, but it isn’t necessary for the full Stranger Things experience.
That said, I appreciate the creative team giving us a time and place to put the characters. Eleven for example is only reunited with the gang during the events of season 2; secretly living with Hopper.
So having her unlocked only after collecting all the in-game Eggos is a good way to respect that narrative – that, and she is kinda overpowered; really designed for the post-game.
Of course, you can view this as just a way to tide fans over between seasons, but it’s done well.
The retro 8-bit aesthetic goes great with the nostalgia of the series and makes the tie-in game feel all-the-more interconnected.
For a more in-depth review of the game mechanics, I’d recommend checking out this review from Pocket Gamer.
Before I dive headfirst into Stranger Things 3, and Stranger Things 3: The Game, I wanted to address some of the other tie-ins that this franchise has explored.
Firstly, there is a ton of merchandise. Funko Pop figures, T-Shirts, Retro-style posters. This is to be expected, but I did want to address it.
I think it was Hasbro’s Eggo card game that nearly broke me. I think it’s because it’s a demigorgon combo of nostalgia, Kellogg’s advertising, Netflix advertising, and a limited-edition Stranger Things promotion … and also a game.
If I were to put anything in a time-capsule to explain to future generations about our current fixation on immersing ourselves in the 1980s, it’d have to be this.
But … this sort of thing does feel more at home here, given the blockbuster era of the series.
There is a comic book mini-series as well by Dark Horse comics. This is a retelling the events of the first series but from the perspective of Will trapped in the upside down.
I personally liked this tie-in. It doesn’t add too much to the Stranger Things lore, but does a good job adding a new perspective.
Most recently, we have the Fortnite x Stranger Things crossover; with portals to the Upside Down appearing in-game, and even the Season 3 Ice Cream parlor, Scoops Ahoy, making an appearance … because why not?
If Fortnite can have Thanos, why not Scoops Ahoy?
Again, a pretty cool promotional move.
I only feel that I should mention these to show just how deep the Stranger Things market goes, and how it’s transcended beyond Netflix into just about every aspect of pop-culture; games, merchandise … Eggos. It’s inescapable.
AN INTERACTIVE FUTURE
It’s no surprise that online services are looking more and more to interactive media; not only for promotion, but to give something more to subscribers.
Google is going to be launching Stadia soon – a cloud-based game service for its monthly subscribers, and of course Netflix is doing the same.
Between Bandersnatch functioning as a proof-of-concept for choose-your-own adventure stories, and the simultaneous release of Stranger Things 3 and its companion game, we’re seeing a greater market convergence than ever before.
And with that, comes potential establish a concrete narrative between platforms.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a 4th of July to spend binging on Netflix and Eggos …