One of the oldest rules in advertising is that you don’t sell a product – you sell an idea. Sometimes that idea is simple: You can sell bacon with the idea that “bacon is delicious.” But sometimes the idea on offer is something harder to grasp – something that cannot be bought for any price. In the videogame industry, as with any entertainment industry, there are the usual suspects. Sex sells, of course. Violence sells. But there’s another idea that’s even more prevalent than these old standbys – the idea of youth. Not youth as an age, or as a state of mind, but as a commodity.
I can say this with confidence, because I know a little something about youth. I wasn’t always in the videogame business; I used to be in the youth business.
Years ago, in order to supplement my lousy income as a student, I took a job writing advertisement copy for the internet, which is a polite way of saying “spam.” I was advertising a line of wrinkle cream products and skin moisturizers. And though my ads were destined to end up in junk folders or deleted without a second glance, I was determined to be the best damn wrinkle cream spam writer in the business … because a guy’s gotta dream, right? So for my first batch, I consulted efficacy studies and test reviews, and filled my ads with terms like “psoriasis” and “lanolin” and “epidermis.”
These were sent back to me with a quick note from my employers, saying that I should remove all the “science” words. They weren’t selling science. They were selling youth. In case I got stuck, they provided a friendly list of words that I should use: “Better!” “Newer!” And best of all: “Younger!”
My ads made the internet just the slightest bit worse for everyone, and for that, I’d like to say that I’m sorry … unless you were in desperate need of softer, more radiant skin. But one lasting effect of my ad copy days has been a mindfulness towards all the ways that “youth” is commoditized. Sometimes, like with wrinkle cream, it’s in full-blown snake-oil mode. But other times, it’s just an idea, albeit a powerful one. In my current gig as a games critic, I notice the videogame industry has embraced the idea of “youth” as a whole.
In a lot of ways, today’s gamers have access to the games of their youth like never before. Nowadays, we have the trappings of childhood at our fingertips. Classic older games remain accessible through re-releases, ports and emulation, or are made new through reboots and remakes. Vintage games can often be found online, making even the rarest titles accessible to anyone interested enough to track them down. There are projects that take this dedication to the past a step further. Consider the growing number of “demakes” that reproduce popular games through the formalistic conventions of earlier systems, such as the 8-bit Shadow of the Colossus found in Hold Me Closer, Giant Dancer, and Team Fortress‘ pixelated reinvention as Gang Garrison 2. Similarly, painstakingly “retro” enhanced remakes like Konami’s Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth and Capcom’s Bionic Commando Rearmed maintain the art, music and graphic conventions of earlier titles, but tidy them up for a new audience.
All of these games are oriented against the past in one way or another, either by giving players access to the games they played in their youth, or by extending that past to include games that did not or could not exist at the time. Instead of growing out of youth, we remix and re-master it. Rather than resembling that old quote about how growing old meant “putting away childish things,” today’s gaming landscape exhibits an eternal childhood that grows with us, with no signs of going away.
None of this is meant as criticism. I’ll gladly repurchase any game if it means more or simpler access. I love Konami and Capcom’s new-as-old games, and the best demakes reimagine their source material so spiritedly as to rival their originals. It’s tempting to assume that gaming has succeeded in perfectly commoditizing youth, and achieved an ultimate sort of mastery of its own past. But sometimes it isn’t so easy, and tacking down the past can be more elusive and more ephemeral than we might expect. In some cases, it is not a question of access, but of experience.
I remember speaking with a friend of mine, the most accomplished World of Warcraft player I’ve ever met, and I asked him what he wanted out of the game. Yes, he was guild lead in a powerful and successful guild with a number of server-wide records. Yes, he had crushed all opposition in the arena and earned the highest ranking gear. But at some point, it had stopped being fun for him. He said, “I would give all my top gear away, I would give away everything, just to be a noob running around the starter zones again.” He didn’t want to strip off his gear, but his experiences – to “unplay” the game, and see it again as if he was young.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. What he was asking for was a do-over; not to do it all differently, but to do things again for the first time. And similarly, all this rehashing and remashing is evidence of a games medium that is wistfully mindful of its protracted youth. This is the “Better! Newer! Younger!” that I mentioned earlier. There should and will always be new and better games, but we’ve moved past the point where games broke new ground effortlessly.
We’re at a point when Capcom can offer us Mega Man 9 or 10, but not Mega Man 1 or 2 – despite how much they resemble each other, they have different histories. The former are careful, studied, and were labours of love. The originals are original in the truest sense – they have nothing to look back on, and nothing to live up to. Between the two, there is a crucial difference in expectation: An original must be something new, something unstudied, something we haven’t seen before. A remake must be more of the same.
In some part, this may be why youth and nostalgia work so well as a marketing device. It’s far easier to do something that’s been done before than break new ground, especially when catering to an audience with a larger library of games to sample from than ever before. Some markets never run dry – there will always be people looking for more of the same. While this is no crime in itself, especially if “the same” is something excellent to begin with, it does open the possibility of becoming derivative, or played out. There is that faint praise ushered toward this sort of fare, offered by Abraham Lincoln: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” Now, my history is a little shaky, but I think he was talking about Ms. Pac-Man.
There are ways of countering this back-leaning impulse, transforming it into something new or productive. Some games, like Braid, embrace nostalgia as theme and motif, examining the literal and symbolic ways we push backwards into gaming’s collective past. There continues to be games that break new ground, giving us new genres to explore and new conventions to study. Just as demakes playfully posit a past that couldn’t exist, there will always be games that remind us that they could not have existed ten or twenty years ago. They use this communal history to push towards the new and unexpected.
In these ways and more, the games industry is doing fine. And neither is there any threat of somehow “running out of past,” because this, too, is relational. Youth may be an elusive commodity, but it is perpetually restocked. As long as people are playing games, there will be new gamers with new relationships to their games, bringing their own expectations and experiences. Today’s games may be tomorrow’s classics, setting the standard for another generation.
The people who have it difficult are those looking to games for something that they’ve lost, or have left behind. For better or worse, we may be the most moved by the games of our childhood, and, no matter how far we look, there’s no getting that old feeling back. Despite a games medium fixated on the past, despite having newer and better access than ever before, there are certain retro moments that we’ll find in no new game under the sun – the experience of learning to jump over that first goomba, the moment we heard the first chords of our favorite game theme, and those awkward moments getting our hands around our first controllers. These things, however important they may be, are not contained within any game, but in us. We can play, and replay, but we can never unplay.
Despite our best efforts, we have to learn that lesson learned by generation after generation: We are only young once.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where everyone has soft luxuriant skin thanks to our range of excellent products! What value! To read more about wrinkle-free skin care, visit www.kingandrook.com without delay!