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The Two Faces of Nostalgia

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By Nelson Schneider - 01/27/19 at 04:22 PM CT

As gaming comes into its own as a mature medium, it is looking more and more to the past, as do so many other artistic media. Remakes, remasters, reboots – all are just euphemisms for ‘rehash,’ as developers and publishers struggle to come up with new ideas or even to iterate on existing ideas in meaningful ways. Nowhere is this love of hindsight more prevalent than in the now-fully-mature Independent games ecosystem.

I last looked at Indie games and the development thereof way back in 2012, shortly after MeltedJoystick first launched. Even then I was wary, as the movement was clearly a two-faced Janus, with the Good Face represented by labors of love and games that weren’t popular enough among the Mainstream audience to be profitable for “AAA” publishers, and the Bad Face represented by cheap, lazy, no-effort attempts to snag a few bucks before people caught on. Even in the concept’s infancy, Indie games and a ‘retro,’ nostalgia-driven yearning went hand-in-hand.

Nostalgia itself is a truly ancient concept, formed from two Greek words meaning “pain” and “homecoming,” with “pain” more accurately meaning “longing for” in this particular usage, and “homecoming” serving as the primary desirable outcome in various ancient myths, such as “They Odyssey.” It is a desire to be reunited with things that brought us joy in the past, but which have, for whatever reason, been absent from our lives for a significant period of time. Unfortunately, as Indie games beat the nostalgia drum more and ever-harder, it has become apparent that, like the Indie games movement itself, nostalgia is a two-faced Janus wielding a double-edged sword.

The Good Face of videogame nostalgia speaks to concepts that just aren’t done anymore, for no good reason. When 2D Platformers were out of vogue, it was clearly Good nostalgia that pined for them to return. Likewise, when “AAA” developers and publishers were content to treat “RPG” as a plug-in that could be used to improve other genres instead of a genre it its own right, Good nostalgia pined for the genre to return. A longing for bright colors, evocative pixel art, and the seductive wailing of beautiful chiptune/MIDI soundtracks – all of which reached a crescendo in the late ‘90s through the early ‘00s, before being essentially ‘reset’ with the advent of HD gaming – these are the positive aspects of nostalgia that drive the best Indie games.

The Good Face speaks, saying, “Back in my day, we had more good things than we have now.”

Then there’s the Bad Face of videogame nostalgia. This face doesn’t care about beauty or excellence – no this face is bitter and vitriolic, only desiring to make others suffer in the same ways it once suffered. The Bad face demands stupidly-high levels of difficulty and tedium in its games, because gamers of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Generations had to suffer through the experimental origins of the medium, only received one game per year at Christmas, and had to make due with the horrible games they had if they wanted to play any games at all. Anything less is mollycoddling blasphemy. In-game maps, checkpoints, save points, unlimited lives, HAND HOLDING! These are the worst things ever, and the only way we can be happy is if every game from here on out discards all quality of life improvements of the last two decades and becomes a Roguelike with poor, clunky controls and mechanics so opaque that even reading the manual a dozen times won’t help them make sense (but there’s no manual, so figure it out yourself!). The Bad face of nostalgia is the bitter old man, sitting in his front yard, yelling at the neighborhood kids about how he had to walk 20 miles to school every day, in the snow, with no shoes, uphill both ways. And he liked it.

The Bad Face speaks, saying, “Back in my day, everything was worse and required more struggle, but we liked it since we had no other choice.”

The truly strange thing about nostalgia is that it can even come to affect those who had no previous experience with the object of longing. I, for example, have found myself occasionally twinged with an unfamiliar longing when Chris forces me to watch some anime that takes place in a Japanese high school. The idealized version of friendship and camaraderie, and the obsession with school festivals presented in most anime makes the entire thing seem far more appealing than the rural, sports-obsessed, bully-riddled exercise in conformity that was my American public high school experience. But I know it’s all lies and propaganda, as Japanese high schools students have obscenely high suicide rates, because Japanese high school is essentially a pressure cooker of stress. When facts clash with imagination, facts win.

Unfortunately, many of today’s impressionable youth are falling into the Bad Face nostalgia trap because the bitter old man has managed to transform his suffering into something of a status symbol. The Bad Face feeds on ego and one-upmanship. Within a generation of new gamers raised on Trophy and Achievement-whoring, some are desperate to seek out new ways to ‘prove’ themselves, and they will do so by tackling self-abusive challenges. Sure, they may not be as good as grandpa, who once beat “Ghosts & Goblins” using a Power Pad, but if they beat “Celeste” or “Hammerwatch” with all the crutches turned-off, if they pour 1,000 hours into each ‘Dark Souls’ game doing New Game+ over and over, if they pound-down Roguelike after Rogue-lite, maybe, just maybe, they’ll earn grandpa’s respect.

Except they won’t. Bad Face nostalgia is cannibalistic, it is the Ouroboros devouring its own tail in an attempt to sate its hunger. It is the ascetic monk, flagellating himself over and over, simply because the pain is familiar. It is the gamer who spends time and effort, struggling with archaic systems that didn’t just disappear for no reason, but were actively supplanted by better, friendlier systems, who never stops to ask themselves, “Am I having fun?”

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