Reality TV has become quite the bizarre facet of modern culture, hasn’t it? On the one hand, it can be seen as simple entertainment, watching “real” people engaging in “real” world events and dramas. But then there is of course a strange Orwellian trait to the sheer concept of watching “real” people for entertainment, despite all the inner workings and shady interlinks behind the scenes. There have been a few films and shows that tackle the subject, with some great like The Truman Show, and others not so much like Ed TV (remember that? No?).
American Arcadia might be one of the few video game counterparts to the likes of The Truman Show, and in all fairness, it has the potential to be a timeless classic.What is American Arcadia
Welcome to a world where reality TV has taken on a whole new level, with one show being the granddaddy of them all, American Arcadia. The most popular reality TV show in the world has created a retro-futuristic 70s metropolis housing thousands of citizens who enjoy a life of comfort and bliss and are completely unaware that their every movement is recorded and broadcast for billions to see.
While it may seem like the most idealistic place to live, work, and love, there is one big catch. There is no one central star of American Arcadia, unlike Truman of The Truman Show. Everyone is quite the literal star of the show, or their show to be precise. And like any TV show if the ratings go down to a point of bare public interest, then cancelation is on the cards.
And cancellation means an untimely death!
Meet every man Trevor Hills, just an ordinary dude who works in admin, looks after his turtle, and enjoys milk and cookies before bed. A very average guy who’s not a stellar ratings winner. And thus his turn for the chopping block soon approaches and unknowingly he almost meets his end… Until a voice from the outside world tells him otherwise. And so the escape from American Arcadia begins.
Follow Trevor as he traverses the beautiful and dangerous world of American Arcadia, and see all through the eyes of his helper Angela, as she tackles getting Trevor out alive, and also faces her problems on the outside world.Welcome, to the Reality show of TOMORROW!
The idea of a game being set within a reality show is an interesting one, as it could be moulded into any construct, be it something intelligent or strategic, or just a plain overblown shooter where scores and praise equal points. You could have the idea of a reality show where you as the protagonist are aware of the situation and thus can do what you please, diving into your deepest and darkest desires. Think Truman Show, but he’s a Homelander sort of guy, and be it in the fashion of 12 Minutes where you can do anything and everything your sick mind can think of.
But American Arcadia doesn’t (and thankfully for good reason) go that route, and instead what we get is a humble, yet very wholesome and vastly enjoyable adventure about reaching freedom. Trevor is a nice guy who one day is called to the boss' office where some strange shady men are waiting. The guise is that they’re “Travel Agents” and they accompany any lucky winners of a lavish contest, away to a tropical paradise. But it’s much more sinister than that (a bit like Michael Bay’s decent film, The Island).
Trevor is warned and makes the bold move to flee the scene and escape the gigantic dome which houses the show American Arcadia. Soon enough he makes leaps of faith across rooftops, over rail tracks, avoiding the Big Brother gaze of the show's producers and managers, and many more ominous obstacles. And yeah, this is the core of the plot, a hero's escape from the confinement of a secret prison dressed up as a TV show, and that of a hero helping make it so.
It is a simple story but does manage very well to remain engaging and thoughtful through many twists, turns and compelling revelations. Along with the fact this story is from two perspectives, switching between our brave running man’s venture to freedom, and the well-spirited and intelligent guidance of our helper. This switching perspective, along with plenty of neat trickery, visual flares, and rather a great pacing for those compelling story beats, moments of gravitas and the general lore make for a substantial and riveting tale.
At its heart, American Arcadia is a blatant satire of the corruption of media the capabilities of the behemoths in industry, and the extent of their ruthlessness for profits and gain. We see that so much now, especially in the software industry, with thousands of jobs being cut, just so an executive can get that second helipad for their mega yacht. And that ruthlessness and crudity is on full-blown display here, as the people of American Arcadia aren’t people, but property.
There are references to laws being passed to keep this so, activist groups looking to change the old warped mindset, and even cold-hearted characters who hunt down Trevor, shouting at him by his ID number, never by name. It’s incredibly clever, and for the most part, everything from these moments big or small, adds up to a gut-wrenching satire that while still quite extreme at the outset, the point of satire is that the truth is never too far behind. So I bought the corruption, I loved the lore behind the creation of American Arcadia and was vastly hooked on the tragic and darkly humorous overtones of bitter dystopian reality.
I will admit, that there were some thematic discussions, exchanges, and notions of “corporations = bad” that were much more on the nose, and in these instances, it felt way too blunt. It's not bad enough to make you groan and roll your eyes so far back you see your brain. But the times where the message was hammered in a bit too much didn’t match the more cleaver, undertones of the remainder. Even Walton, the company behind everything has a log very similar to that of Weyland Yutani.
Still, American Arcadia was immensely thoughtful with its story, and delivery and profoundly presented it all. You could easily enjoy this as a light-hearted tale for freedom and the small people outwitting the megalodons of media, with great characters, funny writing, and witty satire. Or you could peel back the layers and think about the impending and bleak Orwellian constructs that could soon become a reality.
I immensely enjoyed Trevor’s adventure, and Angela being his guardian angel, along with some great banter and interesting twists that did keep me guessing where the story was heading, with red herrings and all. There is also stellar voice work from Yuri Lowenthal (Spider-Man 1 & 2), Krizia Bajos (Cyberpunk 2077), and Cissy Jones (Firewatch).Go right to freedom!
Now for the main adventure and escaping American Arcadia’s majority takes on the guise of a side-scrolling platformer, with a lot of lateral thinking required. It’s very similar to games like Planet of Lena, INSIDE and Stela, where you as the protagonist must run forward, usually towards the right of the screen, and overcome various obstacles.
It’s a formula we’ve seen plenty of times before, but the formula itself can work wonders if there are enough interesting challenges, good pacing, enjoyable level design and much more. And thankfully American Arcadia does have many great gameplay elements to warrant this approach, along with a visually pleasing art style that made my adventure all the better.
The core of the gameplay loop is, of course, moving Trevor from point A to B, or getting him as far as possible to the right of the screen until he reaches his intended destination. Along the way, he will have to solve some light, but enjoyable puzzles, do the odd bit of platforming that can indeed result in death, and outwit security personnel in a daring chase. All of these events provide a good amount of lateral thinking, quick thinking and deep thinking, as each situation, encounter and chase all play out fairly differently. And that is the key strength to American Arcadia, along with the neat switching between characters Trevor and Angela.
As Trevor you will be doing a lot of heavy lifting and running, whereas Angela’s role is assisting in manipulating the environment through various security cameras and helping Trevor by exploiting her position as a worker at Wolton Media, and can slip by into server rooms, edit camera footage and provide key cards and other items to help Trevor along the way. It’s a great balance between action pack platforming, chase sequences and evasion, with a more thoughtful and calculated lateral deep dive. While the puzzles never present a brain-melting moment, they are vastly varied, and fun and allow the pacing of events to move along swiftly.
One moment Trevor will be chased by goons through a bus terminal, climbing through skylights, jumping over cars and moving across an active highway, while quickly reacting as Angela manipulates various parts of the environment to help out. Then you’ll be in full control of Angela who’s having to tidy up her apartment of incriminating evidence as her boss invites herself in to snoop around. Then switching things up Angela you have to answer security questions from a snooping chief of security while watching and moving Trevor past patrolling security guards in a different area.
There is a great mix of events, set pieces and puzzles which are always changing gears and mixing in new elements to keep the flow refreshing and enjoyable. I can’t fault it for its simplicity, as the variety makes up for this and presents many fun activities to play out. But I can see some people maybe finding the gameplay loop a little too easygoing. But the changing states, variety and story beating integrating into gameplay do make American Arcadia stand out and be thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.Overall?
American Arcadia manages to sneak in at the end of an already terrific year of gaming, and just add one more cherry on top of the cake. It’s a brilliant and memorising satire that looks good, sounds good, and offers a highly enjoyable adventure filled with varied problem-solving, and challenges to overcome in a host of amazingly fun ways. I loved the story of Trevor breaking free of corporate greed and malice while seeing the caring, and spy-like interactions of Angela, which together blended two very different stories, gameplay components and styles into a seamless and riveting experience.
I can truly say that American Arcadia is something special indeed for gaming, with its beautiful presentation, great gameplay and immensely enjoyable story, making it one of the best narrative-driven adventures this year, and for quite some time.
++ An utterly compelling story from start to finish.
++ Great variation of gameplay mechanics, set pieces and platforming.
+ Fantastic voice work, sound design and visual presentation.
- Some thematic elements are a little too on the nose.
- It might be too simple and easy for some players (but still fun).
The publisher, Raw Fury, kindly provided a review copy of American Arcadia.