The various things I’ve said about the new console generation and their respective hardware gimmicks might have given you the impression that I’m some kind of stubborn aging neophobe who insists that everything stay exactly the way I like it forever. Nothing could be further from the truth, say I. I am fully aware that all things must go through a constant sequence of change and evolution, it’s just that I can recognize an evolutionary dead end when I see one. But just to even things out properly and argue on the side diametrically opposed to neophobia, I’d like to talk to you today about nostalgia.
Nostalgia has been with us since the dawn of time, from the first time a caveman realized that Mrs. Caveman’s fried lumps of meat weren’t quite as nice as the fried lumps of meat they’d had the previous evening. Nostalgia is not a bad thing. It may even be an essential thing. He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it, as I’m sure you know. My concern is that we are living in a time in which that phrase has been modified: “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it, as is everyone who remembers the past as well. Constantly.”
Nostalgia is based on the fallacious notion that things were better in the past. They weren’t. You were younger, more innocent, less exposed to negative news reports and with a child’s inbuilt sense of loyalty, and so you remember it more favorably than it was. Trends show that things have always been on a steady pattern of improvement, with regards to technology, awareness of societal issues, equality, and the reduction of crime and global conflict. There may be more reportage of unpleasantness nowadays, but that doesn’t mean there was less unpleasantness in the past, just that we now have access to wonderful technology that allows more information on unpleasantness to be spread around.
There’s no harm in escapism, and basking in an idealized view of something you’re probably remembering wrong is no less valid than any other fiction. The playing to youthful memory effect is why nostalgia is so indelibly lodged in popular culture. The film industry seems to have mined out every last scrap of good feeling anyone might have had for the 1980’s, and video games are in an almost constant state of nostalgic navel-gazing.
But what you also must realize is that there is good nostalgia and there is bad nostalgia. Bad nostalgia sometimes goes by other names, such as “conservatism”. The desire for things to stay the same, unmixed with people and concepts from outside our comfort zone. Nostalgia is a string to the bow of everyone with an anti-progressive agenda. They can use phrases like “Traditional values” to add a facade of quaint, down-homey charm to their knee-jerk hatred of the outsider.
Don’t you remember a time when things were better? Back when it was just all us normal people and before your adorable children turned into hideous resentful teenagers? Things have only gotten worse since then, haven’t they. And now there are all these gays and immigrants and sexually free-spirited women around. I wonder if that’s entirely a coincidence, rhetoric rhetoric oppress oppress.
As lovely and warm and comfortable as nostalgia can be, let’s not forget that to dwell on an imaginary happier time is to retard progress. That’s one of the many things I don’t understand about the US. It’s always positioned itself as a melting pot nation, bring me your huddled masses and all that bollocks, where anyone can come and build a new life from nothing. But in practice, all anyone seems to want to do is cling to the past. They refer to themselves as Irish or Italian despite having spent less time in Europe than a fucking Canadian moose. And they hang onto all their distrust and insecurity for people from different Old Countries who do exactly the same thing.
And while popular culture has always been heavily influenced by nostalgia, it’s been pretty seriously getting out of hand in gaming lately. There’s been a string of remakes of early-to-mid 90’s PC games, Indie gaming is rife with chiptunes and pixel art and Nintendo’s sort of run away and hid in the cupboard where it keeps the SNES’ bloated corpse. And I place the blame for it all squarely at you, the audience, refusing to budge from a comfort zone. Well, not just you: the fact is, you’re being encouraged to stay in that comfort zone by the usual bastards who want all your money.
I think Kickstarter is one of the troublemakers. It’s a system wherein people are asked to pay for something based solely on a description, and in that environment, nostalgia is king. Projects that pledge to recreate old games you used to like are virtually guaranteed to make the money back. And through that process you can see microcosmic examples of nostalgia becoming a conduit for conservatism and mistrust of the outsider. Look at all that retardation that surrounded Mighty No. 9 when the community of backers threw a collective shit-fit over the controversial hiring of a community manager who – through either being a woman, a feminist or a non-Megaman fan, depending on who you ask – committed the sin of being NOT ONE OF US. So everyone pointed and screeched like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
But even outside Kickstarter we live in a time that has never been more obsessed with asking people what they want with every painful step. What with ‘early access’ and the endemic leaking of details to gauge audience reaction. And we all know by now what happens when you ask people what they want, don’t we? They say they want the same stuff they already like. Culture is less and less about art, of creators making what interests them, and more and more about cynically making whatever has the bigger guarantee of money. Not that that’s anything new, but the trend of turning game design into a conversation that we’re all involved in results in bland design-by-committee being taken to a whole new level.
It’s simple enough to understand the difference between good nostalgia and bad nostalgia. Good nostalgia merely evokes the past. It uses our fond memories as a sort of lubricant for the new stories and new ideas it wants to convey. Bad nostalgia seeks only to recreate the past exactly as it was, brick by painstaking brick. Then it wants only to sit in what has built and stay there forever. With a large supply of canned food and a gun.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.