The Past is alive

Nostalgia for what is not lost

In the previous issue, I concluded on the point that whilst previously the prevailing wisdom was that “old things don’t sell” in the context of technology (and by extension videogames), today the narrative has changed.

This time I aim to examine this shift. How can we (players of videogames) be nostalgic for videogames that aren’t lost? I realise I am oversimplifying the issue here. As for many, there are certain videogames which may as well be lost for them due to the difficulty in obtaining not only the videogames themselves but also the hardware required to play them. In addition, videogame preservation is a real concern (I briefly mentioned last time how publishers have done a poor job of preserving videogames). However, we are currently in a time where access to past videogames (in some form) is greater than ever before.

Want to play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past? If you’re a Nintendo Switch owner with the Nintendo Online subscription then you can play it right now, along with a range of other videogames from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Then we have the current Xbox Series (Series X and Series S) consoles, which are able to play videogames from across the platform’s history going back to the very first Xbox in 2001. If you have a console with a disc drive you can even use the original discs (albeit to verify “ownership”, a version of the game still has to be downloaded).

This is in relation to accessing past videogames, but another part of nostalgia is the aesthetics from past videogames. Whether that be the iconic pixels, the chiptune beeps, bleeps, and bloops, or more recent low-polygonal 3D graphics and MIDI scores. These aesthetics for a short time had for the most part been replaced with “better” graphics and sounds. Yet, today, these are remarkably present. Sure, you won’t find pixel effects front and centre in the latest Assassin’s Creed game, but you also don’t have to look very hard to come across a wealth of games on any digital storefront with an abundance of pixels and beeps.

What we have to remember is those visible pixels and the two to three waveforms that comprised all chiptunes are originally the result of technical limitations of a specific time. Developers were making the best with what they had. It was not a choice. There will always be some kind of limitation that will impact the development of a videogame, although these days this is more likely linked to time and money (technical limitations will always exist, but they are not the main element they once were). What is of importance to note here, is that today there are many developers who have chosen to work with these limitations.

I am myself, a part of this with my decision to play around with making games for Pico-8 which is a “fantasy console” with the deliberate design of providing similar limitations to those from the 8-bit era.

There is understandable nostalgia for the aesthetics of videogames from one’s childhood, but those same aesthetics are becoming commonplace again today. For younger players today, that “retro look” is just another visual style found in videogames. Something they themselves have grown up with and perhaps look back upon fondly when they are older, again showing the significance of “relative nostalgia”. It’s all about when an individual comes across something, and not when it was originally created.

Does this mean then that a hauntological form has arisen in parts of the medium? In which contemporary videogames are unable to escape these elements of past videogames. Satiating the perceived desires amongst some players for a past they think is lost, but are actually able to reclaim via these almost simulacra of the past.

Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope employs a 1-bit art style. Visually the game looks from another era but playing it does feel like a truly modern experience.

I have not even mentioned the ontological murkiness that comes with remasters and remakes. Bringing to mind the thought experiment of The Ship of Theseus in which a ship that has all its components replaced can still be considered to be the same object. This is a topic for another time.

Will likely be a two-week gap instead of the usual week. My teaching schedule has been packed. *insert “but I thought teachers don’t work in the summer?” here.* It’s not going to get better any time soon. I’ve been enjoying writing these, but I also don’t want the quality to suffer. By making it fortnightly for the moment ensures that and still gives me the writing outlet that this was always there to provide for.

Also, I’ve done it again, mentioned “Relative Nostalgia” in the body of the text. I’ll stop bringing this up now. But, it does highlight the importance of this term for me.

What I’ve been reading online

Continuing this section, although I will clarify that the posts do mostly link to the theme of the newsletter/blog as a whole. However, if an article really jumps out and impacts me in some way, then I’ll likely post it.

‘Respecting retro game constraints in the age of remakes’ by Don Everhart for Polygon

I might be referring back to this article another time. It addresses the issue with remasters and remakes, somewhat in the vein of The Ship of Theseus in that how much can be changed and remain “faithful” to the original.

‘The original Final Fantasy shouldn’t be modernized’ by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi for Polygon

The experience described here regarding Final Fantasy does partly address the elements of relative nostalgia I mention above.

That’s all from me for another issue, speak to you next time in the following issue. Remember to subscribe for future updates and share with those who might also be interested.