Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Games Go To Hollywood—we examine the terror prevalent in classic TV episodes about video games. This week, we look at Full House and “Stephanie’s Wild Ride.”
Full House, the ’90s sitcom about an extended San Francisco family—the Tanners—who live in a house—a full one—is probably best known as a show with an Important Message. Each episode had at least one scene where someone sits down with another family member to impart sage wisdom about growing up. Sentimental music plays, of course, the kind you might hear in a Hallmark Channel movie of the week or at your coworker’s awful smooth jazz quartet that you feel obligated to see live. This hugging-and-learning formula carried Full House through eight seasons of cultural ubiquity as part of ABC’ vaunted “TGIF” Friday-night lineup.
The main storyline of the eighth-season episode “Stephanie’s Wild Ride” focuses on the middle child of the Tanner household, a Jan Brady for the ’90s. Stephanie runs into some high-school boys at the mall and pretends to be older to catch their eye. They offer her a ride in their car and drive really fast. (Teenagers!) Later, older sister DJ learns of Stephanie’s misadventures and forces her to stay home as the hooligan teens go out and enjoy an evening of almost getting killed. Stephanie is pissed at her cock-block of a sister, until the car has an off-screen accident, and suddenly she’s appreciative. They share a tender moment. The audience lets out an “aww” as a brush with death brings us all closer.
But behind this tale of irresponsible motorists is a story of a more pernicious threat—one that tears the very fabric of the perpetually paper-thin Full House universe: video games. The scourge of the ‘90s, Dennis Rodman notwithstanding.
“Stephanie’s Wild Ride” casts games as an arcane milieu of terror and addiction. The B-plot kicks off when young Michelle fires up a new video game for her Super Nintendo that’s called something I can’t entirely make out over the girl’s adorable little kid lisp—translating from cutespeak, it sounds like Montazana’s Quest, maybe. The game’s premise sounds equal parts boring and claustrophobic: It involves finding three magical keys by traveling in a magical kayak and eating magical power biscuits, fighting giant wombats in the Pasture Of Lost Hope. It seems less like an actual video game and more like what an old man imagines those little rapscallions are playing nowadays, with the beeping and booping.
The game proves seductive. Michelle is settled in for a long play session when Uncle Jesse walks by—he’s the suave one—and decides to have a go. He’s hooked. Uncle Joey, the stand-up “comic,” comes along shortly after and rips the controller from Jesse’s hands. Danny arrives, scolds them for their obsession, notices a toxic waste spill in the game, and grabs the controller. Because he’s a neat freak, get it? Eight seasons, people.
The family is powerless in the face of the game’s charms; it’s a veritable electronic Arsenio Hall of charisma. Eventually Aunt Becky joins in, as does Comet the dog. Stephanie is off almost ending her life in a moving vehicle, and no one’s the wiser while enchanted jingle-jangle goes unclaimed. When big sister DJ calls the Tanner clan for dinner, the adults realize they should probably take a break—which means wolfing down their dinner to maximize playing time.
So the hook is set, but for the viewing audience, the draw of the game remains elusive, as it doesn’t register on the screen as anything more than background Space Invaders-style chirping. The specifics are scattered and confusing, existing only for dubious comedy value. (The “Pasture Of Lost Hope” is full of cow dung, you see.) But the game’s not supposed to be specific, because it’s a stand-in for an entire pop cultural phenomenon—one that does a number on the Tanner family. Their obsession culminates in a scrum over the gamepad. Michelle resolves the fight by yanking the cartridge out of her Super Nintendo (while the unit is still on—not advisable). The message of “Stephanie’s Wild Ride” is, this is what games do. They transform even responsible, safety-conscious adults into bickering idiots.
The episode played off the collective irritation of America’s Parents, many of whom had surely witnessed a similar mind-sucking transformation happen before their very eyes in their own, comparatively drab non-Full House universe. They only watched a few seconds of these games every so often—because let’s be honest, they didn’t give a shit—so they only saw fragments. No context. Like five random minutes of five random David Lynch films. Montazana’s Quest reflects that collage: Get the key by piloting the enchanted kayak; eat the power biscuit to zonk those wombats.
Full House was validating the concerns of Baby Boomer parents. Video games equal zombie children, simple as that. Kids, however, must have seen “Stephanie’s Wild Ride” as a grand “See?!” to parents who were quick to dismiss those Nintendos and Genesiseses. Maybe the oldies and the youngies could play together.
The episode’s uneasy generational cohesion doesn’t last long. Once the adults sober up, they slink off, leaving Michelle all alone with her game. She smiles, puts the cartridge back in, and prepares for hours of unencumbered joy, not so much as letting Comet place his paw in the general vicinity of the controller. The moment—thankfully devoid of poor man’s Kenny G—delivers the Grand lesson to the pre-teens who comprised the show’s target audience: Adults will never truly understand; games are for us.