At the turn of century, humanity began to panic as the future loomed.
Oncoming and unavoidable, the year 2000 was poised to be a time of great change, but much to our chagrin, it was a twist of fate that we had built our lives around such fragile technological marvels that would ultimately prove to be our own downfall. In our relentless pursuit of efficiency, systems built to house information containing dates would only register two numbers: the last two digits of the calendar year. As 2000 rolled in, a sudden fear began to arise that computers for governments or banks would be unable to distinguish between 2000 and 1900, causing irrevocable damage to our infrastructure and usher in an apocalyptic calamity.
These prophetic notions were predominantly held by the fringe of scientific research and society, exacerbated through outlets rapidly cycling through fear-mongering and misinformation. As society questioned the ability of corporations to address the issue in time, the Y2K fervor was the perfect encapsulation of a decade built upon pop culture that pushed hard into a fantastical vision for the future, with contemporary industrial design becoming the turn-of-the-century realization of what sci-fi had promised us in decades prior. Truly, the Y2K Bug is something of our society’s first watershed “cyberpunk” moment, with the misguided and shortsighted actions of the government and faceless corporate entities serving to endanger humanity, alongside an ever-growing online meta-verse, and the push towards a forward thinking “futuristic” visual zeitgeist.
No outfit is more well known for the boundary pushing work of what is now referred to as “Y2K Aesthetics” then The Designers Republic. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the group had worked on a mind-boggling amount of artwork for album covers, creating the iconic parody of the Pepsi logo for Pop Will Eat Itself and eventually working for the label Warp Records which would eventually get their work attached to artistic giants like Aphex Twin. From there, the group would work on what is probably the most important touchstone for this aesthetic’s legacy in video games: 1995’s Wipeout.
Further iterations on the stylistic trappings of Wipeout would pervade games throughout the early 2000s. Intentional or not, the design of titles such as Jet Set Radio or Lumines embraced the futuristic heart of tDR’s work on Wipeout and explored it past the initial influence. The Dreamcast in particular was the harbinger of the trend, with many of its games featuring artistic styling that referenced or evolved from the groundwork initially laid by tDR.
While tDR originally chased anti-capitalist ideals, that too, was eventually co-opted by consumerist culture, with their work moving on to things like designing Sony’s failed cyberpet AiBO. There’s an argument to be made by someone far more knowledgeable about the design world of the 90s that they also essentially laid the foundation for Apple’s coloured iMac, with sleek design and vivid colours that popped. Following the adage encircling PWEI’s logo, “Sample It, Loop It, Fuck It and Eat It,” their aesthetics became the sampled substrate of a trend that has played out into the current day.
Adjacent to vaporwave in a lot of ways, the “Y2K Aesthetic,” however, goes in an opposite direction from the cynical nature that vaporwave represents despite the consumerist nature it wound up becoming emblematic of. While vaporwave utilizes sampling of things once corporate controlled or incredibly mainstream in order to twist it into the avant garde and surreal, the stylings of Y2K in contrast hold on to more optimistic notions. This is evident through and through in CROSSNIQ+, an upcoming game from developer Max Krieger (@MaxKriegerVG).
Feeling like a long since forgotten Dreamcast game, CROSSNIQ+ proves to be the heir apparent of the era it emulates. With menu designs that seem like they’re pulled straight from a tDR stylebook, the game not only champions a burgeoning artistic movement but incorporates a fiendishly addictive puzzle mechanic that quickly becomes impossible to put down. As it says on the tin, CROSSNIQ+ is about creating crosses on a grid by lining up one of three colours in an intersecting row and column. Pulling on the “simple to learn, hard to master” school of thought, it elicits strong “one more time” energy, hooking you in to try again and again. The pulsating soundtrack is strongly reminiscent of the UK electro texture layered behind Wipeout, creating an atmosphere that eases you into “the zone” much like Lumines does, facilitating a zen state the player falls into using the music and straightforward, focused design.
Reinforcing the optimistic ideals of the turn of the century, CROSSNIQ+ features a cast of characters that come across as not only chipper, but manage to be progressive as well, having a character simply drop their pronouns during your introduction. Interactions between the cast in the Versus mode flesh them out as happy-go-lucky, upbeat, and easy-going. The game in of itself feels breezy, lighthearted. It’s easy to jump in and out of, and never feels like it puts pressure on you.
In a lot of ways, the game represents what defined the movement of Y2K Design: Between mankind and technology, there’s a beneficial relationship that serves to further our ability to empower individuals. CROSSNIQ+ looks forward to a bright tomorrow, and as Krieger says himself, the Y2K style “saw the everyday person as being in control of their lives, privacy, and image with the help of tech, not in spite of it. These were all mere dreams and visions of the future in the late 90’s, when tech was a long ways off from allowing some of the y2k’s fantastic tech concepts from being remotely achievable.”
Even its emulation of “feeling like a Dreamcast game” is intentional. For Krieger, the system was something remembered alongside Y2K, its release around the turn of the century embodying the ideals of the zeitgeist. It featured broadband access and large-scale, social, accessible experiences like Phantasy Star Online, plus the VMU was something never quite seen before (or since). While he admits to not having played it until later in life, its library and aesthetics complimented the general pop culture of the time in marketing, creating a formative sense of the “future” that is in turn championed by CROSSNIQ+.
In isolation, CROSSNIQ+ is easy to pick up and enjoy, offering a challenging puzzle game alongside extremely enjoyable artwork and writing, as well as an infectious soundtrack. However, one would be remiss to not scrutinize it further, and appreciate the nuanced commentary inherently baked into it. CROSSNIQ+ isn’t simply pop art, utilizing style and philosophy for marketing purposes; no, it instead distances itself from falling prey to poptimist critique wrapped up in rose-tinted nostalgia by being built with the intent of furthering the Y2K Paradigm. Max himself refers to the advancement of technology in our modern day as the end goal of what was started back then, empowering each of us more than we ever could have been with the implementation of tech at the time. He says, “so many of those tools are within reach of everyday people – what we need to put them to use is a vision of the future that emphasizes harmony between tech and the human experience, and revisiting the y2k aesthetic and its philosophy is a good place to start.” Perhaps the best place to start with this revolution is within the simplicity of CROSSNIQ+, and the warm embrace it offers.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.