Notes on Signed by ’89: Stuck in the Groove

Signed by ‘89 by Tim Knauf is a short, comedic adventure game made in virtual console PICO-8 for #LOWREZJAM2018. It follows the story of Petra, the guitarist of a four-person rock band who, along with bandmates Jen (vocalist) and Vin (drummer), has revived the group in the hopes of getting signed before the end of the year so that their bassist, Johnny Gherkin, can avoid being sent to military school by his stubborn father. The goal is to attract 200 new fans to the band, and eventually land a record deal—-a tall ask for an unknown indie band, but doable within about a half-hour.

The game looks like something you might play on a ZX Spectrum, with its bright, pastel palette and blocky figures that only vaguely resemble the things they are meant to represent, and the premise is reminiscent of a buddy comedy from the era it’s set in. As Petra, the player is tasked with far more than just playing guitar. Your obligations extend as far as writing all the songs, printing and putting up all the show flyers and booking all the shows at the only venue in town. More band manager than mere guitarist, you are responsible for basically aspect of the band’s progress, represented as a list of band statistics you can view by pressing X on your keyboard. Everything else is achieved by pressing Z and movement is controlled by the arrow key

Despite the opening text explaining the plight of Johnny Gherkin, he quickly falls into the background of the game, which mostly follows the actions of Petra. Aside from one bit of dialogue, Johnny doesn’t really have much of a presence in the game at all. Instead, Petra is busy moving between a handful of locations on the game’s minimap in order to fill up the band stats—money, inspiration, tightness, “OK” and “Rad” songs, and fans. These are all represented numerically, sometimes in weird ways. For example, “inspiration” can be gained after earning enough money (by playing shows) to purchase an album. Listening to this album will cause your “inspiration” gauge to fill up to a number, which can then be essentially spent by writing songs on Petra’s guitar. Depending on how much inspiration you have and how lucky you are, you may be blessed with a “Rad” song, but more often than not you’ll end up writing an “OK” one. The “tightness” stat, which increases by practicing with your bandmates and decreases after playing shows, can be buffed by purchasing a cool jacket from the same shop you buy the inspiring album, the flyers you put up around town, and everything else.

Signed by ‘89 is very charming, but it’s not without its flaws. Primary among them is the stability of the build—the game nearly froze at various points, especially when I did anything outside of the browser window, such as change tabs. At one point, I hit Print Screen, causing the game to freeze indefinitely and forcing me to restart. This was an annoyance, since the game isn’t long enough to require a save function and isn’t short enough to not be kind of a pain to have to start all over again.

As for the length, there’s a degree to which Signed by ‘89 sets up a really dramatic, high-stakes premise (your friend is going to be sent to military school! To save them you’ll have to pull off the nigh-impossible!) and then isn’t really equipped to deliver on it. The map is very small, the game is very short, and the process for achieving the required 200 fans before enticing the record label rep to visit the venue is repetitive and offers very little adversity. I appreciate that this game was made for a jam and was likely subject to limited development time and manpower, but as it is it feels like playing a demo of a larger game. In it I spy the seeds of a greater adventure, one that maybe expands the map, throws more wrenches in the write song-practice-play show-repeat process, and involves the other three members of the band more intimately in the story.

All that said, I think Signed by ‘89 is a creative concept with a cool aesthetic made with an unusual tool. A modern game of this type might be made in something closer to RPGMaker, but I appreciate how much the nostalgic ‘80s aesthetic offered by PICO-8 matches the era-appropriate premise. I also enjoy the use of audio in a game that’s very much about music: there’s actually very little of it, save for the catchy little chiptune tidbits that beep through your speakers whenever music is being played. There’s a lot in Signed by ‘89 to find endearing, and while I think it’s limited in certain important respects, it hints at greater ambition for its developer that I hope will flourish in the near future.