Shopping for the Apocalypse: Malls in Video Games, Then and Now

mall1.jpg

With the holiday shopping season in full swing as Christmas looms just two weeks away, this seems like a good time to reflect on consumer behavior and culture and what these things have to say about us and society. And of course, the role and context that shopping and malls in particular have within video games.

In many parts of America, once-illustrious corporate retail behemoths slouched then crumbled due to economic and cultural shifts, with one anchor store after another closing like a snake shedding its old skin. Tens of thousands of square feet lay barren with VR arcades providing a little revitalization, but the former zeniths of consumerism are being turned into everything from data centers to new high schools, and even senior housing if they’re not demolished.

To get TOTALLY meta on your ass in a piece about malls in games, this also seems like a good time to mention Bloomberg even commissioned a short game just this year about the mallpocalypse.

But in other parts of the country and world, the constant bleating from newspapers and magazines about malls coughing out their dying breaths seem ludicrous. The first suburban-style indoor mall in the Bronx only opened in 2014, and it continues to grow and get more visitors every year. It’s impossible to get an outbound bus from that side of Co-Op City that doesn’t resemble a sardine can regardless of what time of day it is. Mall of America is still the largest mall in the nation that gets 40 million visitors every year with one-third traveling over 150 miles to get there. These mammoth spaces don’t seem starved for cash or foot traffic.

How does this translate from games of olde to today?

Prominent Portrayals of Malls in Games

Given that I was raised on adventure games, the Galaxy Galleria in Space Quest IV is the most prolific memory I have of going to a mall in a game. Say what you will about how easy it was to die in the zero-gravity skating part of the game, this entire segment perfectly encapsulated the aesthetic of how we all thought the future was going to look in 1990.

Space Quest X.png
30-something me still wants every single outfit in this room, and to go to a store and/or nightclub that looks just like this.

30-something me still wants every single outfit in this room, and to go to a store and/or nightclub that looks just like this.

Space Quest IV was a brilliant kitchen sink of sci-fi tropes and intergalactic adventures and translated these elements to a mall beautifully. The mall looked sizable but not cavernous from outer space, and the breadth of the areas you actually got to enter and interact with didn’t fill me with that “I wish I could go to this place and interact with it!” feeling I’d usually get playing other Sierra adventures. To the younger players, it also felt pretty emblematic of being dragged to real-life malls with our parents: you’re wandering around with no pants and no money. You’ve got your standard collection of stores and you can’t leave the mall or else the Sequel Police would kill you on sight, but to my eight-year-old brain this read as “Roger died because he can’t shop.” Much older me says “Woah, Roger Wilco was pretty anti-capitalist. Why wouldn’t he be after all he goes through over several games?!”

The Galaxy Galleria stands out the most to me personally, along with a lesser-known edutainment title called Math Shop where you serve customers with the power of arithmetic in a mini-mall setting. But those are far from the only games well-known and obscure that contain malls where you use them for what’s mostly their intended purpose: to shop and browse goods or in the case of Math Shop, to work at those stores.

Exploration and having a large space to work with is usually why a mall factors into a game’s design, with Vice City, Left Behind, and Dead Rising coming to mind which serve as a stark contrast to the now seemingly ironically-named Galaxy Galleria. If these game malls aren’t gaping in size, they’re these scary post-apocalyptic settings that more or less fit in with mall management companies’ constant bemoaning in business news outlets. Night in the Woods also has a short sequence with the Fort Lucenne Mall that more or less fits this modern expectation where the characters comment that it looks like a ghost town because people are mostly buying online now.

While this whole “malls as a Mad Max setting” seems to be expected nowadays while older games showed malls as lively or just serving their intended purpose, it actually runs a little deeper than that. Some games that were quite ahead of their time. Did you know that long before vaporwave memes lampooned empty consumerist platitudes of the 80s and 90s then news outlets frothed at the mouth about malls falling face-first into their own gaudy fountains, Ubisoft’s Zombi had humble beginnings as a Dawn of the Dead-inspired action adventure in this totally desolate and zombie-infested mall?

mall2.jpg

The horror aesthetics aside where some element of desolation is expected, keep in mind that this game came out when mall culture was flowing into its peak. You had to go to a mall or free-standing shop if you wanted to buy anything, mail ordering wasn’t ubiquitous like Amazon and small businesses powered by Shopify and sundry. Even if you wanted to buy games, you were feeding those arcade machines quarters at the mall or some semblance of one like a parking meter long before words like “microtransaction” and “freemium” would muddy up linguistics. Or if you weren’t picking up the latest AAA thrillers from big box stores like Walmart, you had to walk into your local Egghead, Babbage’s, CompUSA, or Electronics Boutique which relied heavily on foot traffic from malls.

It’s interesting that of all the places zombies could’ve infested, the devs chose a mall. Zombi came out in 1986 around the time Reagan passed a massive tax overhaul similarly egregious to the 2018 tax reform with respect to it being this massive giveaway to the wealthy, a year before the infamous “greed is good” mantra was taken to heart after hearing it repeated by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. It was a fractured time when one group of people had an admirable amount of disposable income and blowing it at malls while others were turning to thrift chic because they were broke, and junk bonds were the equivalent of Bitcoin.

What the hell does all that have to do with using a mall in a video game? Well, it’s because mall culture and games culture have this strange duality and games totally serve as a window into that culture.

Mall Culture Then and Now

Let’s go hop into the Sequel Police’s time travel pod and go back to the 90s. Specifically, to girl games of the 90s.

Sierra games and Saturday morning cartoons were what I lived for every weekend and “girl games” were very slowly and awkwardly being introduced to computers and consoles alike at the time. While I don’t remember seeing computer games I played on TV, I do recall nonstop commercials for these board games that blatantly perpetuated gender stereotypes and encouraged materialism in young girls. I make that statement with one-third with nostalgic fondness for those saccharine neon pink game toys and game pieces, one-third with my eyebrow raised as an adult who lived through the Great Recession, and one-third fascinated as a game designer.

This is just begging to be made into bad vaporwave art.

This is just begging to be made into bad vaporwave art.

Buzzfeed already did a lengthy takedown of Mall Madness and other shamelessly gendered board games targeted at girls from the same era, and felt it was worth pointing out that this game likely contributed to further confusion concerning money management since you used both credit cards and cash to advance. But it’s worth pointing out this game and how it relates to these portrayals of malls in computer and video games that were still seen as a boys’ town so you had to inject a shopping mechanic to make it appeal to girls if you weren’t going to pinkwash the entire goddman thing.

Ironically enough both in real life and other media, going to the mall was seen as this very gendered thing: it was where every girl was expected to want to spend her free time. It was hurled as a pejorative frequently, like “I know Becky would rather be at the mall than studying for this test.” Simultaneously though, malls also served as a major social outlet in suburban areas that didn’t have anywhere else for young people to go. Despite the negative connotation from coding mall-going as female, mall managers and store owners saw their cash drawers steadily stuff and wanted to build on them as aspirational and social destinations. Malls became the places to be if you wanted to be seen or just drop all your money, and it’s no shock that a board game encouraging spending both dead presidents and plastic came out around this time. The economy was good (for some, at least) and it was all spend, spend, spend baby.

Contrast this to today where despite malls having booming growth in some areas like the northeast Bronx and east Asia, saying that you’re going to the mall doesn’t carry weight like it did twenty-some years ago. People of all ages are looking for different kinds of social spaces that aren’t necessarily predicated on consumerism. Bragging about expensive things you bought is done on Instagram or unboxing videos. Malls are dying in some areas but others have thrived by providing attractions and experiences that a few clicks on Amazon can’t offer. Samir Khan of SIR VR came on the Game with Your Brain podcast to discuss the success that VR developers and malls alike have had with using incredibly large spaces to create VR experiences people can’t replicate at home.

Zombi was a notable exception for showing a mall as this desolate place when spending time at the mall was seen as aspirational. A simple homage to George Romero or a bold statement on what constantly encouraging people to brainlessly spend would result in? I’ll let you decide that.

Malls as a Game Mechanic

Malls simply make sense from a game design standpoint in that you don't have to create a ton of assets to represent a large environment or the player character entering this colossal area. Having to create only one game room with a couple clickable hotspots, or maybe three or four rooms with small arrays and not having to create gigabytes of bespoke assets? Oh god, yes. You can also go the opposite direction and use a mall as this enormous open world and a way to people-watch not much unlike real life.

I was dragged to my mother’s monthly pilgrimages to Franklin Mills, now Philadelphia Mills, throughout the early and mid 90s and the leviathan space was laterally laid out opposed to the isometric view with multiple floors I’d seen in most other malls. Apparently, it was supposed to be lightning bolt shaped in honor of the infamous electricity experiment. I not only wished that the place had conveyor belt floors like in Space Quest IV, but realized that the lateral layout made it seem so much bigger than an isometric view built on height.

There were different color segments like green, red, and orange instead of floors and each one had distinctly different flooring and decor. To my overactive childhood imagination that was bored to tears on shopping trips, it felt like exploring different parts of an adventure game.

Revisiting those memories made me realize it’s not much different than applying horizontalism in a game narrative, where you’re telling essentially the same story through different characters or paths, and it adds a different type of depth than simply making it longer with more content.

It was Ben Franklin themed complete with this creepy animatronic hanging head in the dead center of the mall, but the entrances were pretty cool. The red one had a Liberty Bell. Totally added to the adventure game element.

It was Ben Franklin themed complete with this creepy animatronic hanging head in the dead center of the mall, but the entrances were pretty cool. The red one had a Liberty Bell. Totally added to the adventure game element.

Malls in games can center around exploration, a place to just buy supplies, where the characters socialize-- the sky’s the limit. They can be areas you visit just once or function as an entire map of places to go where it’s a significant backdrop to the game or merely a place to get that one item or mission.

It’s still curious to me that two of the most profound examples from malls’ heyday are this bright pink board game employing a zenith of fiscal irresponsibility to advance and this seedy, abandoned maze full of zombies. No matter your shopping preferences and economic leanings, mall culture and the way it’s seen and works around games has definitely been a fascinating observation throughout the decades.