For five minutes and thirty seconds, SEPTEMBER 1999 invites you to give up agency and surrender to the swiftly escalating horror.
In the found footage-style game from OK/NORMAL developer 98DEMAKE, players watch as the scene in the two hyperrealistic rooms around them become increasingly macabre. The whole game is presented in the aesthetic of a fuzzy VHS tape.
While exploring 98DEMAKE’s work, it quickly becomes clear that the developer has an affinity for the 1990s. In addition to the retro-inspired games, 98DEMAKE regularly uploads videos of modern games redone with PS1 aesthetics to his eponymous YouTube channel.
We spoke briefly with Toni Kortelahti, the man behind the moniker, about the process of creating those videos, the development of his games, and why the 1990s is a particularly haunting decade.
BD: On your YouTube channel, you upload ’90s-inspired re-imaginings of modern games like Minecraft, GTA V and The Last of Us. Your work as a developer, on SEPTEMBER 1999 and OK/NORMAL, similarly, has the feeling of watching a VHS or playing a PS1 game on an old CRT. What is it about the 1990s that inspires you? Is it nostalgia or something more?
Toni Kortelahti: I guess a lot of it is just pure nostalgia, but I also feel like the fuzzy low res look of a VHS tape, or the pixelated PlayStation look of OK/NORMAL, does wonders to adding a certain atmosphere.
Both styles obviously reduce the clarity of the image, which leaves more to the player’s imagination, since before you get close to objects, you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at.
In September 1999, the VHS look also brings an extra layer of realism to the already realistic graphics. It looks familiar (if you’ve ever watched a VHS tape that is), which makes it feel more real.
BD: Building on that, OK/NORMAL and SEPTEMBER 1999 are both horror games. This year’s Paratopic also drew on the aesthetic of the 1990s to create an unsettling experience. What is it about that era that works so well with horror? Does it work especially well with indie horror, where players are less likely to expect realistic graphics?
TK: As far as the PS1 look goes, it’s obviously far less demanding for the developer. If you build say, a house, in the PS1 graphics style, it’s going to be a few days of work to have a nice base up and running. If you build said house in a photorealistic fashion, it’s going to be at least a few weeks of work before you have anything resembling a realistic house.
It’s also just what I said above, nostalgia and that feeling of “what am I looking at here”. Gamers who played on the original PlayStation or N64, are a big crowd these days, and can appreciate the lo-fi graphics, in addition to feeling a special sense of dread — the kind of dread you felt playing horror games as a kid/youngster.
BD: Speaking of photorealism, as AAA games get closer and closer to bridging the uncanny valley, do you think something is lost? What do the fuzzy, polygonal character models of 1998 have to offer players today?
TK: Again, I’m gonna go with the feeling of “what am I looking at here?” The amazing visuals we have today leave a lot less work for the players imagination. You see a monster in high-definition, you see every nook and cranny, every little detail of the monsters horrifying deformations, and that’s it.
For example, when you saw the Licker in Resident Evil 2 for the first time, you went “What the hell was that thing?” You only saw that it’s this red, fleshly thing, and your imagination would start racing.
That’s some powerful stuff.
BD: Your first 98DEMAKE video—an evocative panoramic version of a scene from The Last of Us— went up about a year ago. Had you begun development on OK/NORMAL or SEPTEMBER 1999 yet at that point? Which came first, the 98REMAKE chicken or the OK/NORMAL egg?
TK: The videos came first. I never really intended to do as many videos as I did, and actual game development is more of what I really love doing.
The amount of attention the videos received was staggering, and really telling that there’s still a lot of love out there for graphics like that. Then at some point, when doing just the videos was starting to get a bit stale, I started development on OK/NORMAL.
BD: What’s the process of video creation like? Your videos often look like Lets Plays of old games. Are you building small playable demos each time you make a video or is it purely animation work?
TK: Most of the videos are just pure animation, either done in Blender or Adobe Animate. A few of the later videos — Mirror’s Edge, P.T. and Big Rigs — are all running in Unity, so they’re small playable demos that I’m playing while recording.
BD: The process of playing through SEPTEMBER 1999 is mostly wandering around a couple of rooms until the game moves you on to the next scene. What’s the desired effect from removing the ability to drive forward progress from the player?
TK: The initial idea I wanted to do with September 1999, was to create a found footage styled game. I looked at other games done in the same aesthetic for inspiration, but felt like they were far too “gamey” and that the VHS look was more of a gimmick, rather than an actual part of the gameplay.
Now if you’re watching a tape, do you have control over what’s happening on that tape? Obviously not.
However, given that this is still a game, the player had to have some role in the process, hence the ability to move around. If you choose to stand still for the 5 minutes and 30 seconds, it’s just a tape of someone filming at walls. If you move around, it’s something entirely different. This idea is something I want to expand on — giving the player a larger role, yet taking away the ability to consciously move the events in a certain direction.
BD: Building on that, you’ve tweeted about Steam reviewers complaining that your game is not, in fact, a game. Where do you think this impulse—to call something “not a game” if it deviates from certain norms—comes from?
TK: I, of course, knew this conversation would come up, just like it does with every “walking simulator” out there, but it’s still a stupid conversation we probably shouldn’t need to be having any more.
People are accustomed to games working in a certain way, being interactive and, most importantly, fun. To classify as a game, there, of course, needs to be a certain degree of interactivity, but that doesn’t mean having a gun, objectives, or collecting whatever it is you’re collecting. Games also don’t need to be fun at all.
If a movie isn’t fun, nobody’s screaming “This isn’t a movie!”, yet it’s a conversation that pops up all the time in video games.
If experimental games aren’t your cup of tea, that’s completely fine, but you shouldn’t try to cast them out for that. My game is just as much a game as the next AAA title — it’s just a different kind of a game.
BD: You released OK/NORMAL and SEPTEMBER 1999 in fairly quick succession, with the first coming in April and the second releasing in September. Were you working on them concurrently or are you just a quick worker?
TK: Both are fairly short games, and simple as far as the game mechanics go, so I guess I’m just a fast worker!
BD: Do you have any plans for your next project? Should players expect more 1990s-style horror or do you plan to go in a different direction?
TK: Players should expect something very similar to September 1999, but bigger, better and more fleshed out!
So stay tuned and stuff!
SEPTEMBER 1999 and OK/NORMAL are available now on PC via itch.io and Steam