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The Value of Nostalgia in Design
by Tom Battey on 06/23/14 01:35:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

nostalgia: noun, a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

I've written about nostalgia in games a few times before; once when considering how picking up a new take on a beloved genre can feel a bit like coming home, and again - a little more forcefully - when the validity of obvious nostalgia projects on Kickstarter was brought into question.

But at risk of writing pretty much the same thing over and over again - perhaps I'm getting nostalgic for my own articles now - I've been thinking more about nostalgia in games recently. Perhaps it's because I'm at a time in life when the lure of older, simpler times is particularly strong, or perhaps it's just because I've been playing the HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a game that can instantly transport me back to being a carefree thirteen-year-old.

There's something special about diving back into a game you know and love well. It's not unlike re-reading a beloved book or returning to a favourite childhood film. It's a feeling of comfort, a bit like belonging.

I also find I'm able to relax more with a game I'm familiar with. There are certain stresses to picking up a brand new game - a new control scheme to master, new vocabulary to learn, a new world in interact with. It requires quite a lot of mental focus. You might not notice it most of the time, but if I've had a particularly long day and want to unwind with a game, I often find it hard to play a new game. I don't have the mental energy to pay attention properly, so my interest wanes quickly.

Zelda Wind Waker HD
It seems bloom lighting is all that's required to make me play through an entire 30+ hour game again.

I don't have the same problem with a game I'm familiar with. Wind Waker doesn't stress me out because I know exactly where I stand with it. I'm familiar enough with its mechanics and visual grammar that I can play it on a semi-autopilot and let my brain unwind a bit. It's pleasant, rather than exhilarating, and there is something to be said for that at times.

Games are by nature transportive. Much is made of 'immersion', a game's ability to absorb us into its world. And sometimes, the world we want to be transported to is one from when we were a little younger, a little more carefree.

It's natural that sometimes we'd actually prefer to play something we've played before than something completely new. It would explain the popularity of HD remakes, as well as the success of those divisive Kickstarter projects that seek to revive old gaming properties.

There's a powerful draw to nostalgia - and it's possible to design nostalgia into your games, even if you're not directly remaking an existing game. Certain design choices can make players familiar with the format feel more comfortable with your game before they've really spent much time with it.

The most obvious choice is your aesthetic; by choosing to use pixel-art, for example, you're directly referencing a specific era of game history. Your choice of art style alone can conjure a feeling of nostalgia in a player, and will alter a player's expectations of the game before they've even started playing.

But your mechanical choices can factor in to a game's ability to play on nostalgia as well. I grew up playing Japanese RPGs on the Playstation, so when I play a game like Ni No Kuni or Bravely Default I feel a strong pull of nostalgia. The simple act of having the screen swirl and place me on a separate battle map ticks a comfort box inside my brain. Line up my characters down one side of the screen, the enemies down the other, present me with a multiple choice menu and I've already settled into comfortable battle rhythm. I know this formula, I know these mechanics, so I'm able to relax.

Final Fantasy All The Bravest
Nostalgia, incidentally, is also how Square gets away with crap like this. I never said it was all good.

The design and structure of your game can have a similar effect. Put me in front of an impassable object with a clear indication that I don't yet possess the gear required to advance and I recognise the structure of a Metroidvania-style game. My familiarity with and recognition of this formula influences how I will continue to play the game. Now that I know what to expect I'll switch my pacing accordingly, taking more time to explore and getting less frustrated at my inability to make straightforward progress.

One should be careful how much one relies on nostalgia when designing a game, however. By making a deliberately nostalgic game you are making a decision about your intended audience. The more your game seeks to evoke a sense of nostalgia, the more it requires your player to be familiar with the designs you are referencing.

To use the examples above, while I immediately understand what's required of me when presented with a classical JRPG turn-based battle screen, the same screen might seem illogical and terrifying to someone not versed in the genre. Without proper instruction and guidance, a lot of new players will be put off by the seeming complexity of such a system. Likewise, while I'm comfortable with the need to explore and poke at walls in a Metroidvania-style game, players not familiar with the genre might find themselves lost, confused and frustrated.

Generally, the more your game uses nostalgia as a design tenet, the harder it will be to sell the same game to novice game players. It's impossible to design a game that appeals to all audiences, everywhere - one day EA will realise this and the world will be a better place. It's a choice you have to make when coming up with a game concept - do you want to rely on the nostalgia of existing gamers to sell your game into a pre-defined audience, or try to create something new to try to lure in a new audience?

That's not to say you can't design a game that is both nostalgic and welcoming to newcomers. It's something Nintendo do better than anyone else in the industry - all of their games are capable of transporting a hardened Nintendo fan back to a period of their youth, yet are also designed in such a simple and accessible way that they are welcoming to new players. Whether it's your first Mario game or your twentieth, you're still going to have a great time.

New Super Mario Bros U
Mario is one of the few brands that trades frequently on nostalgia, yet remains accessible to all.

It's a difficult balance to find, and doing so consistently is what makes Nintendo's designers among the best in the world. A safer bet is to decide early in development what the appeal of your game is for your audience; are you tapping into a rich vein of nostalgia in people who have played games for years, creating something that feels like a well-loved artefact even when it's brand new, or are you creating something new and exciting and challenging for an audience that's less pre-defined?

Both are completely valid design decisions. I tire of the debates about whether innovation is a more worthwhile aim than channeling nostalgia; as far as I'm concerned both are worthwhile and necessary pursuits. These are also not the only two options a designer has, a binary choice between an 'old' audience and a 'new' one - there are seven billion people out there and they all have different reasons for finding something appealing.

Final Fantasy X/X-II HD
I really, really don't need to spend my money on this...but ungh, the feels.

But me, I'm prone to nostalgia, and there will always be a part of me that just wants to play Final Fantasy IX over and over again, if only because sometimes I'd quite like to be twelve again. So if you can conjure up that feeling with your game design, then you'll have my money, and I think I can safely say I'm not alone in that. Now I'm going back to staring at that FFX/X-2 HD remake on Amazon, hovering my cursor over the 'buy' button and feeling conflicted.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

His latest novel, the sky pirate adventure Into Uncharted Skies, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store.


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Comments


Christian Nutt
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Have to say, Wind Waker is still lovely even if you're not nostalgic for it. I never found the time to play it in 2003, and played it for the first time last fall when the HD version came out. Super duper good.

Tom Battey
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It's amazing how fresh the game still feels today. Part of it's the art style, which is timeless and charming, but also design-wise I don't think anyone's bettered it since - including the later Zeldas. It's a true classic.

James Coote
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"or are you creating something new and exciting and challenging for an audience that's less pre-defined?"

It doesn't follow that new control schemes or mechanics necessitate a challenge to the player. In fact, a well designed game or mechanic should be easy to learn, hard to master, and so be accessible to the widest range of people (even if it's the theme/content of the game that lacks universal appeal).

I never played Zelda or JRPG's when growing up, and I find the trend towards nostalgia games increasingly alienating. Sure indulging once in a while in comfort food of game design is fine, but it's happening too often. If we continue to do it as a collective, the medium will never move forward, and gaming audiences will become ever smaller and more insular.

Scott Sheppard
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I'd like to be the one that points out the counter to this. But before I do, I want to also say that I agree that nostalgia games can be alienating. I don't (and never have, really) played games enough to master them. It's just not my thing. But when nostalgia games come out, they tend to focus on the hardcore fans of the genre, because the creators and early adopters are just really skilled at those types of games. I just can't get into them.

That said, my counter point is that It's not really that big of a deal. There are players/designers that crave new things just as much as players/designers that crave nostalgia. There's a place for both.

Deciding that Chess shouldn't be sold and redesigned over and over is not a bad thing. New ideas come from those exercises. But before those new designs branch out, there's another great replica of Chess made.

Games, movies, books, etc. can be iterative and nostalgic. Just like fast-food can exist. If you don't want it, there's always somewhere else to look. Even if the mainstream is all looking the opposite direction as you currently. Maybe you'll be lucky and find views aligning somewhere down the road... maybe not. No biggie really.

James Coote
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"There are players/designers that crave new things just as much as players/designers that crave nostalgia."

I disagree. Too few game designers are making new/original games and genuinely experimenting/exploring within the medium. Instead of encouraging more of that, we're glorifying the past.

Meanwhile the vast majority of players do not crave nostalgia. The hardcore are the minority.

Tom Battey
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When I say challenging, I don't necessarily mean mechanically challenging - more just thematically challenging, in that it's trying something genuinely new rather than relying purely on nostalgia for its appeal.

I don't believe that a focus on nostalgia is holding back the development of games - sure, it would be if EVERYONE were designing around nostalgia, but there are plenty of people designing on the avant grade right now, and there's room for both approaches.

That said, designing purely for nostalgia's sake creates an insular culture loop that's not really benefitting anyone. However, as Scott points out, it is possible for a design to be both iterative and nostalgic - and I think the best 'nostalgia games' have to have something to offer a new audience as well.

Fabian Fischer
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For a designer, triggering feelings of nostalgia in players can be a tool to cloud their perception, to prevent them from realizing flaws in the design. Players are biased towards liking things they liked in the past. Even if, as a player, your understanding of the art of game design has evolved a lot, you still WANT to like something that you liked ten years ago. Thus, the design decision to include something in your game just for the purpose of causing nostalgia seems kind of devious to me. If you made something of value in itself, you don't need to trick people into liking it by invoking feelings attached to some other thing that they liked before. I think, if you want to appreciate a game for what it actually IS instead of attaching arbitrary and imaginary values to it, it's valuable to train yourself to notice and further purge yourself from this feeling as much as you possibly can.

Another side-effect is indeed the feeling of "already knowing how a game plays". When you play a new game, there are certain phases. At first you have to grasp the rules, and how the mechanics even work. That's usually a rather painful and slow learning experience. After that, the "mastery phase" can start, where you're gaining understanding of the system's intricacies rather rapidly. That's what we often refer to as "fun". Anyways, a method of getting rid of the first phase is to just repeat the same design over and over. We see it everywhere in third-person action adventures, puzzle platformers, first-person shooters etc. They are heavily copying each other's design, to the point where it's just a matter of working through a list of check boxes and then maybe adding a gimmick here and there to seem "unique". By doing so, you can indeed almost completely get rid of the first phase. But in consequence, you also purge your game from most of its systemic interestingness, thus heavily devaluing the second phase, which should be the core of the experience.

On the topic of "relaxation": Yes, we all need it from time to time (although if one needs it every day for 5 hours, then I think it's a safe bet that one probably has severe problems in one's life). However, we need to be aware that it's merely a hygiene factor (speaking in terms of Herzberg's "Two-Factor Theory"). That means that it makes negative values go away. You're stressed, so you use "easy" games that almost play themselves to get rid of it. However, just satisfying hygiene factors arguably won't lead to self-fulfillment of any kind. What you then need, once you're back at "point zero", is actual positive value. And that's what you won't get from something that's only just relaxing. Appreciating a new design, and thus a learning experience, takes effort. Just as understanding a really complex movie or piece of music takes effort (in contrast to the "easy listening/watching" stuff). (More on this: http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/4/4/a-defense-of-gameplay-pt
1.html)

The only positive I can see is if your past games have created a theme in themselves. Theme helps players to understand a game's mechanisms. The fact that "the sword fighter" can hit adjacent enemies is easier to grasp than "the round stone can remove directly adjacent stones, while the square stone...". A game's theme is the usage of the players' common knowledge to better explain the game's mechanics. Now if your previous games maybe created a "universe", you might as well use thematic elements from that to do so. However, don't use them just because you have them! Never let theme guide your design. You will end up with random or semi-random mechanics. Think about what mechanisms your game really needs - on its own. And then you can think about whether you could maybe use some thematic element from a previous game to explain them.

Tom Battey
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It's an interesting question - how much should we rely on existing tropes in design to lower the learning curves in games? The advantage is obviously that it lets people familiar with the format get right into the higher-level play without having to learn a whole new control scheme, for example, but it's incredibly alienating to newcomers.

The modern FPS is a great example - if you can play one, you can play all of them, but if you've never played one before, the learning curve is nearly insurmountable.

It takes an extremely capable designer to build something that enables new players to learn its systems completely from scratch whilst still allowing complex high end play.

Larry Carney
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I would rather game developers fetishize nostalgia as a way to trigger the Pavlovian response of when to press the controller and feel the same thrill as when first stomping on a Goomba or knocking off an Octorock than all these tedious and immersion breaking tutorials that treat me as a player as if I were still eight years old but seek to insult me by doing so, not reward me with those warm fuzzy feelings.

Scott Sheppard
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Little Inferno?

Larry Carney
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I have yet to try that out. Is it as good as I have heard?

Scott Sheppard
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It's fun for sure. Dark, cynical, and introspective in the way that only 2D Boy can do.

Sam Stephens
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"I also find I'm able to relax more with a game I'm familiar with. There are certain stresses to picking up a brand new game - a new control scheme to master, new vocabulary to learn, a new world in interact with. It requires quite a lot of mental focus. You might not notice it most of the time, but if I've had a particularly long day and want to unwind with a game, I often find it hard to play a new game. I don't have the mental energy to pay attention properly, so my interest wanes quickly."

I can certainly understand this. Games are challenging and wouldn't be very compelling otherwise. However, there is great value in that stress. We have to work for it. Relaxing is fine, but designers who try to make "relaxing" games are denying players a more engaging and meaningful experience.

That being said, there's plenty of value in replaying familiar games. I've played through Wind Waker several times and it always finds new ways to challenge me.

Tom Battey
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Oh, I agree - I'm all for games being challenging, most of the time. I do think there is a place for deliberately relaxing games as well - but at the same time revisiting a game you're familiar with is great for when you just want to relax with a game.

Tielman Cheaney
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Nostalgia works for me, but only with games I actually played back then. I loved Mega Man 2, I can still play it today. I didn't get to play the first few Zeldas, and when I try to emulate them now they don't hold my interest.

New games built with nostalgia-evoking 8-bit graphics will live or die, to me, on how fun the gameplay is now. We're so saturated with "retro" that I tend to ignore that type of art direction and skip the video forward to watch the mechanics.

Tom Battey
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My introduction into games came after the 16-bit era had effectively been left behind, so I struggle to get into games that aggressively channel this era - I really can't get into any Mega Man games, for example, or the pre-LTTP Zeldas.

Having said that, I have a huge soft spot for great pixel art - I'm all about the art style, but I generally need mechanics that are a little more humane than traditional 8-bit and 16-bit games to get really invested.

Jennis Kartens
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For me, other factors have added to the "nostalgica" I am fond of by now. Mainly the shift towards consoles and the design descisions that came with it and were not alligned with the PC versions.

I have no problems getting into new stuff. In fact I am kind of late when it comes to the turn based genre. A decade+ ago, I had no patience to get into that kind of gameplay, now I do enjoy a lot of games in that genre.

Due to transitions for a bigger "market" a lot of things I'd consider "must haves" for a game were lost in the progress. We had to deal with safe areas, a FoV of 60 or below, not many things to change for your personal experience as well as a lot of forced gameplay instead of self directed one. Especially in shooters.

And while visuals evolved, as well as technology in general, stories and worlds kind of devolved even. I like to think of a lot of earlier (action) games like B-movies from the 80s. They all had their silly stories, but because of technical limitations (often) and the emphazise more onto the actual gameplay, it feels like they are not to be taken that super cerial as modern games tend to present themselves.

Aspects like these drive me back to older games more I think. I love modern possibilites, and I think quite a few games make good use of it, but a lot don't - or not to the fully extend. Focusing on the wrong side of things. Also some genres kind of died out.

That said, I think it's not always just the comfort of the things you know (though, of course it plays its role too)

Tom Battey
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I do think a lot of the draw of nostalgia in games has to do with dissatisfaction with current trends in the market - I know at times I feel like all the things I like about games have been left in the past, and this leads me more and more to wanting to revisit those experiences.

Of course there are plenty of games that come out which prove me wrong - great modern games that appeal perfectly to my tastes without having to tickle my nostalgia muscles at all. I do tend to find these games come increasingly from the idie/mid-tier scene, rather than AAA, but when the games are this good that's fine with me.

Kevin Fishburne
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Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake is a bit of a crutch, or as someone else mentioned here a clever way to entice players into playing what may otherwise be a mediocre (or worse) game. On the other hand, there is nothing more satisfying than playing a game that takes things that worked in older games and makes them work even better. In that case, nostalgia isn't the point but a side effect of the developer smartly borrowing from and improving upon past greatness.

Innovation and experimental new ideas can be awesome, but constantly driving oneself to innovate and create something truly new will eventually result in games so abstract and incomprehensible that they'll likely be relegated to a niche market, as many indie games are today. With the volume of "old" continually expanding, there is ever less "new" to be discovered without reaching farther than most minds can grasp.

Tom Battey
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It's important that we don't discard great pieces of design just because they're 'old'. Just like cinema, theatre and literature, gaming is a medium where certain tropes have become so for very good reasons - some of the solutions we came up with in the past may very well be close to the best way to handle that aspect of a game. Throwing that away just to create something 'new' would be stupid.

As a general rule (that I have made up) it's good practice to use proven methods as a framework for creating something new. If you have to recreate the entire rules of games every time you make a game, it's going to very hard to build something worthwhile. Not to mentions it's going to take a whole hell of a long time.

In short, yes, nostalgia for nostalgia's sake is not a great platform from which to build a great game, but neither is originality for originality's sake.


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