‘Arcade Spirits’: The video game equivalent of a beach read

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – For those who carry fond memories of basking in the backlit glow of arcade machines, Arcade Spirits will elicit some warm fuzzies.

This visual novel written by Stefan Gagne and Aenne Schumann is about the ups and downs of a staff working to keep a small-time arcade afloat.

The game, which was recently released on consoles, plays on nostalgic feelings with knowing references to game culture while speaking to the economic anxieties that underlie so much of modern life.

Arcade Spirits tells the story of Ari Cader, a 20-something (you can choose Ari’s pronouns at the start of the game) whose post-adolescent life has been marked by financial hardship.

Owing to an unstable upbringing – punctuated by frequent moves and her parents slide down the economic totem pole – Ari has adopted a philosophy of apathy. “Going with the flow” is the favoured catchphrase she uses to temper her ambitions and protect herself from disappointment. It’s also a way for her to come to terms with what she calls the “Cader family curse” – her notion of implacable destiny.

At the start of the game we find Ari, who has just lost another job, in the small apartment she shares with her friend Juniper. Eager to see Ari overcome her fatalistic despondency, Juniper advises her to download “Iris”, a digital assistant, to help with her job search. After securing her permission, Iris sifts through Ari’s personal data to gain a sense of her interests and motivations and recommends that she apply for a job at an arcade. As it happens, some of Ari’s favourite childhood memories – from before her parents’ fortunes took a nose-dive – were of sinking quarters into arcade machines with nary a concern for the future.

A scene from ‘Arcade Spirits’. PHOTO: PQUBE

Heeding Iris’ advice, Ari wanders over to the Funplex, a scrappy arcade situated along a strip mall. At the arcade, which was founded in the 1970s and is mostly a haven for retro games, she meets Francine, the Funplex’s octogenarian proprietor. Francine leads her through a gentile job interview – “If you were a dinosaur, what dinosaur would you be?” – and eventually offers her an entry-level job. Ari’s duties include watching over the establishment to make sure that customers are happy and not engaging in unruly behaviour as well as helping them to redeem tickets for cheap prizes. Francine tells her that while the Funplex can provide a steady paycheck, the employees who thrive there are those whose dreams align with working at an arcade. Over the rest of the game’s eight levels, the narrative explores the trade-offs that arise with following those dreams, where reality is capable of turning them to ash.

If players choose to help Ari fight for her dreams – at different points she can give up on them which ultimately results in a Game Over – they’ll encounter the diverse set of employees and enthusiasts whose lives converge around the arcade. Each of these characters has their own struggles. Gavin, the Funplex’s business manager, has a cold demeanour which belies his concern for his fellow employees. Naomi, the arcade’s technician who keeps the games running, is more at home with her soldering iron than with new people. Ashely, the Funplex’s other floor attendant and costumed mascot, is bubbly and artistic though uncomfortable in her own skin; she excels at cosplay. They, as well the Funplex’s regular patrons, can be romanced if one wishes.

As Ari takes on more responsibilities, Iris records her conversational choices and calculates which traits most exemplify her. Different conversation options are pegged to different character attributes such as gutsy, quirky, kindly, steady (prudent), and basically (as in basic – a person who sticks with the most pedestrian options.) Raising specific character attributes closes off some conversational branches, so the story invites multiple playthroughs.

Though the story moves around to different locations, many static images are numbingly repeated. The art style, unfortunately, is not strong enough to bear such repetition. The story, on the other hand, held my interest in part for its levity and willingness to look at some of the downsides of gaming, like toxic players. In different ways, Arcade Spirits also raises the question of whether the Funplex’s most devoted patrons would be better off if they spent less time gaming. Accordingly, there is a note of ambivalence in its overall celebration of game culture which adds a welcome counterpoint.

Arcade Spirits is the video game equivalent of a beach read. It is charming, relatable, and knows its audience.