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Opinion: In search of 'intelligent nostalgia' Exclusive
Opinion: In search of 'intelligent nostalgia'
September 12, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

September 12, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Games have a fascinating relationship with nostalgia culture. We gravitate toward evergreen retro style, canonize designers of decades past, and persistently cling to our memories of the experiences that shaped our childhood. Legions of fans seem more prepared to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII than they would be to list ten games that released last year.

Today's successful designers are liable to list their precedents, not their contemporaries, as major influencers. That's not unusual in any discipline, of course. But I've had a hypothesis for a while that an intense focus on recapturing childhood has been among the most significant driving forces in the games industry -- both for good and for ill.

It's widely known that timeless ideas about adventure, exploration and childhood play have inspired some of the games that became permanent classics. Everyone's heard the lore about how Miyamoto's work, particularly the Zelda series, was inspired by his childhood explorations into caves.

And childhood relationships to games are most often what inspire us to a lifetime of fandom: I also learned as a child to connect the sense of adventure, discovery and inspiration of early gaming to my experience of the world. Stories about memory and sentiment are virtually the spine of non-traditional game writing. When writers want to explore personal feelings in connection with games they often start with their childhood -- or they write about gently welcoming their own children into the world of gaming.

Meanwhile, today's adults talk about something lost in that transition to adulthood. Most say we have less time than we once did to spend hours in imaginary worlds. Many of us are too worn by the actual burdens of the real world to take on additional, fictional occupations. Others construct arguments, some of which are actually quite convincing, that games have lost their ability to tease our imaginations in the way that they could when they were simpler, constrained by graphical and technical limitations.

zelda.jpgYet as adults we remain fans of games, in part perhaps because there's that flicker of hope that drives us to believe we can recapture that magic-feeling, transcendent personal relationship we once had with the medium. Certainly that's not the solitary driving force, but it's hard to ignore the nagging sensation that it's a significant one.

That rear-facing urge exists strongly for developers too, many of whom are most influenced by lifelong favorites, working on teams with colleagues who like the same kind of games and systems they always have. Many I've spoken to say they're driven by the urge to make the kind of games that will touch young people's hearts the way that their memorable games once touched theirs.

This childhood-chasing hasn't always had a positive influence on game culture and industry. At worst, it shoulders some of the blame for the mainstream industry's broad adolesent streak, where playing soldiers against a backdrop of nu-metal and gyrating bikini girls is marketed as "cool" "tough" or "adult". At least, it constrains innovation, especially alongside an economic environment that favors proven properties over new ones -- the common ambition is to work on an aged and beloved franchise, not to invent something completely new.

The mantle of emotional arrest that overhangs game culture also constrains perception about gaming as a hobby. No matter how the industry expands, and no matter how many people devotedly play all kinds of games without particular comment or emphasis, the wider media still perceives it as the pastime of adult-children, of "wacky" sorts that struggle when made to leave the apartment.

There's nothing wrong with making games for kids, teens, even for the kind of young man for which we've always made them. But as the critical discussion around games increasingly shifts toward how to recalibrate our attention in order to also serve and interpret games that could be immersive, impactful experienes for adults, we'll need to find practiced and sophisticated ways to look forward, not just back.

Yet there's an interesting caveat: Some of the most timeless games are about childhood. Recently I re-played the classic ICO as part of the year-old HD Collection. Definitely it's the sensitivity toward portraying the character's child-like innocence in a plausible way that gives the game its universality. ICO can be loved by anyone at any age, because of how strong its creator's memory of the details of youth seems to be.

Similarly, although Miyamoto may be among the best-known examples of a designer inspired by his own childhood, nearly all Nintendo games are for anyone and everyone because of that pure, ageless feel joined with clean and inspired design. There is something precious and evergreen we may be able to find by reaching into our past. Whether we succeed may depend on what, exactly, we're searching for.

There must be such a thing as "intelligent nostalgia," a conscious memory-mining that doesn't just happen because of visual fashion trends or the stubborn refusal to depart the familiar. The creators that are best at curating the influences of their own history selectively stand the best chance of inspiring the creation of games that reach broad audiences in gennuinely meaningful, lasting ways.

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Ryan DesJardins
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I still get that magic transcendent feeling from time to time, the only thing that has changed is where I find it. I used to get it from JRPG's; I'd get lost in the narrative and character interactions for hours and hours and I wouldn't really ever want to leave. These days I can barely stomach a JRPG, even an ostensibly good one, for more than five minutes.

As we mature our experiences and lifestyles cause our tastes to change (at least they should, in my opinion). I find it sort of befuddling when I hear of a 30 something gamer who may have children, a career, a mortgage, so on and so forth expects video games to affect them emotionally in the same way it did when they were a child. I would rather embrace whatever new inspiration or emotional connection I can forge from new experiences than try to recreate the past.

I do not enjoy Dragon Quest anymore, at all, but whenever I step onto the SSV Normandy, or find myself bouncing on a mushroom on another quest for the Trine, my heart and mind feel lighter. The past is important, and we learn and evolve from it, but we can find our magic moments just as well in the present and future.

Matthew Weise
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Arguably ALL media makers are motivated by a desire to re-create, for a new audience, experiences like the ones that shaped them. In that sense game makers are no different than anyone else.

The problem with games, I think, is that a lot of developers imitate the more SUPERFICIAL elements of the games that made them, rather than the essential, experiential aspects which are more likely to transcend a generational divide.

This is why I never understand derivative game sequels as "catering to fans". I'm a fan, and what I loved about the original is that it surprised me. By doing "the same thing again" a sequel is paradoxically *not* doing the same thing again, if you follow me.

Nostalgia is a fine a noble motivation for creative work, but it transform it into innovation one *has* to really dig underneath the surface of their nostalgia and really find the deeper elements that created the experience, and this often has nothing to do with whether the game had magic, robots, etc.

m m
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Re-creation is a hallmark of human story telling, though. We have ALWAYS reworked our stories and legends through time. There's certainly nothing wrong with capturing the spirit and flavor of past triumphs. The issue is with modern execution. When your priority is spending 3/4 of a studio's budget on graphic design instead of gameplay mechanics and story telling, right there you've got your problem. When you've watered down your trade to the point that only 13 year olds could find it intellectually and artistically stimulating, right there is your problem. (Not that every game must be a master work of artistic integrity, but it's sad we no longer strive for even bare basic competency)

And the biggest problem with this scenario is that it's near impossible to correct it. The industry now caters to people without the experience to appreciate sophistication of any variety. We were all like that when we were young. But us 30+ gamers had the benefit of an industry that actually had to be good to sell a product so we got groomed and the medium matured with us. But when the primary dollar is coming from people who are neither being groomed nor possess sophistication, there's no financial incentive to do anything but churn out cookie cutter eye candy. It's a one way street and once you allow your medium to go down, there's no turning back.

Don't believe me? Turn on a radio lately? Have cable?

Luke McMillan
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Great article. Nostalgia is something that I have looked into previously. Here is an article that I wrote which looked at the correlation between year of birth and nostalgic preference in games...

Interestingly, similar studies have been undertaken in relation to popular music, but to my knowledge not much research has gone into the games and nostalgia (yet).

Although I wouldn't say that my own research was conclusive, it did demonstrate the power of nostalgia within gaming culture.

Jonathan Jennings
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For me the greatest nostalgia test is to either pull out the old black label discs or the cartridges and fir up the games on them. It does always intrigue me though how when returning to older titles you never can bank 100% on what the experience will be like. I fired up my nintendo 64 a year ago and man I had trouble with the ocntroller! which is funny because this is a console I played not even giving the control scheme a second thought for a period of 5 years.

I think a big part of it is games were simpler and we expected less from them. now games are jampacked with lots of content but sometimes having a lot to do doesn't make up for having just a few very well executed aspects. I think a excellent example that Dario listed is demon souls. I think in 10 years i will play demon souls ( hopefully there is a way to play online then) and i will enjoy the game just as much if not more then i currently do . Demon souls came out and could have doen a lot but what it provides is little to do but very focused.

or maybe i'm wrong lol. I know for myself because I was growing up with certain games they mean a lot to me only because i identify portions of my life with them but there are others which i can pick up and essentially turn me into a little kid again because of just how much i enjoy hem. i know in my case defining the difference between being nostalgic towards a game and a game just being good is kind of hard to express

Alan Saud
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To me there isn't a thing called 'intelligent nostalgia'. Nostalgia doesn't make people like games, it is just people's fantastic memories of an earlier game.

m m
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The only reason nostalgia flourishes in gamer culture is because modern gaming is such a load of shit. I hope EA and Activision choke the ever loving hell out of it. I hope it collapses as an industry, smoldering in the piles of it's own mismanaged priorities.

Fat chance, but a man can dream.

They've learned from the music industry, only too well: Latch on to a popular concept devised by artistic/intellectual superiors, chop away the class/technique/creativity/and hard work that made it so special, slather an oily coating of pop culture (electronica in music, shooters in games), and make sure it's accessible to even the most degenerate of uneducated minds. Now that the product is fit for mass consumption, the industry will forever be the money slave to 13 year olds who have no concept of history or class, and thus, will gladly lick up what ever $60 slop is shoveled into their over privileged maws.

Michael Joseph
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this is off topic but

"September 12, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander"

appears very tiny in my IE9. Any chance of making it easier to see the date and author of the article? I liked it before when it was under the title of the article :/

Kyle Holmquist
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I really liked your article, Leigh. Very insightful.

To add to what you're thinking, I believe games are simply coming into their maturity as far as an art form. If you look to film and television, you can see the same exact style of nostalgic progression that games are currently undergoing. Think of how slightly older films constantly attempted to re-capture that intense moment of film immersion in which the audience connects with the characters in a very deep way, or is otherwise moved by a particular scene. These works and people are heavily influenced on their youthful experience of cinema, as it was a huge thing for people of our parents' generation. Eventually, however, cinema came into its maturity and was able to create the works that we know today as being incredibly powerful works of true art. To reiterate, I believe this is what games are going toward. As a young indie game writer, that is where I'm trying to take the game I'm writing for at the moment. I want to help games do this, but moreover I want games to immerse the player and deliver them a unique intellectual, emotional experience, the same way artful films and books can.

Thanks for writing this article :D