Virtua Mall is a colorful video game escape to the past fueled by two local musicians

The Virtua Mall video game is a neon temple dedicated to community, complete with the cornerstone businesses that brought in stragglers and strollers during the real-world mall boom. There’s a movie theater that plays local music videos. There’s the arcade where you can drop a few quarters and blast aliens. There’s a club that hosts hologram performances. In the game, it seems like a perfect place for cyberpunk mallrats of a cleaner, brighter future to come together.

by Alex Galbraith
October 13, 2020

Like the terraced and escalator-assisted malls it’s aping, the Virtua Mall’s nostalgia operates on multiple levels.  

The new video game from Gabrielle Washington and Dexter Gilmore (of Sexy Dex & The Fresh fame) manages to implant sense memories of times that never actually existed. From the moment you wash up on the shores outside the gleaming cathedral of consumerism, the neon aesthetics and glistening vaporwave soundtrack let you know that you’re in a fully realized rendition of the future, from the vantage point of the not-so-distant past. The synth subgenre is the imagined pop of a future that never was, the sort of thing that the cool kids would be listening to on the sidewalks outside of Epcot’s golf ball.

MORE: Sexy Dex and the Fresh are as chaotic and funky as the city they call home

The mail itself imagines what would come of our late-capitalist outposts In the post-scarcity world of Star Trek. Rather than the grim and picked-over look of our own malls, the Virtua Mall is a neon temple dedicated to community, complete with the cornerstone businesses that brought in stragglers and strollers during the real-world mall boom. There’s a movie theater that plays local music videos. There’s the arcade where you can drop a few quarters and blast aliens. There’s a club that hosts hologram performances. In the game, it seems like a perfect place for cyberpunk mallrats of a cleaner, brighter future to come together.

Viewing the past through hot pink-colored glasses isn’t necessary to enjoy the game, however. Though the yearning at the heart of the game is layered — missing the past where malls were bustling, where friends could hang out for no particular reason, where we could go to malls at all — you don’t need to think like a 5D chess player to enjoy the Virtua Mall. It was built out of desires that are relevant to the here and now, ones that can easily be grasped by anyone who wants to walk through the automatic doors. 

Washington and Gilmore conceived of the mall while hosting their regular, music video livestream event The Chamber. 

We were just thinking of ways like how can we make this more interactive?” Washington said in a recent talk with Very Local. “We just wanted to get it so it was more engaging with our audiences.”

“And we weren’t probably going to play shows for a long time, also,” Gilmore added. “I think that was a huge catalyst for having a different way to experience live music, experience it in a way that felt like you were actually there.”

Gilmore had some experience in building Flash animations, and had attempted to make games before, but neither of them had built something on the scale of Virtua Mall before. The pair spent a lot of time working out the concept and scope of the mall, figuring out how to build the individual activities in a way that would feel like an actual mall. They landed on a movie theater for music videos, an arcade for games, a club where players can DJ using the mall’s premade soundtrack and space for virtual performances. 

“It was like going to an actual mall,” Washington said.  “What stores do you see? What things do you see at an actual mall?  I remember when I was younger, I always loved going to the arcade. There’s always a movie theater.” 

Of course, the primary purpose of malls was to sell things. And that’s definitely available inside the Virtua Mall. Visiting a kiosk inside the mall allows players to select and purchase music from Virtua Mall’s contributing musicians.  

The fountain-filled spaces of   the last great mall boom and the video games of today have something in common. They’re always thinking about expanding, whether via new storefronts with hastily thrown up signs or DLC and patches. So it goes with the Virtua Mall, which hopes to add more music, an expanded arcade,  performances from different independent artists, stores full of merchandise and even an art gallery in future updates. 

Washington and Gilmore’s ultimate goal, however, is to turn it into an actual communal space. They hope to get the game on its own server so that players can meet and mingle the way they would at gallerias and esplanades in the past. 

 “It will feel even more like a mall. We’re trying to get on a server so people can play at the same time, Gilmore said. “We want to have a slew of different artists, each time we release a new version of it, to make each release feel special.” 

Virtua Mall is currently available here and its soundtrack can be found on Bandcamp.

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