In this series, we’ve had the opportunity to see how nostalgia has been utilized as both a conscious and unconscious tool in video game design. We’ve taken a look at how specific games utilize nostalgia to create an experience, as well as different properties of effectively utilized nostalgia in games. In all of these, we’ve taken an analytical lens to what games have done with nostalgia in the past--but what about the future of video game nostalgia?
Nostalgia is a relative term, particularly when it comes to video games. For one person, nostalgic games might reference Atari game properties, while for someone else, 64-bit graphics. Games like Undertale, Shovel Knight and Five Nights at Freddy’s are known for utilizing nostalgia to create a powerful gameplay experience. But what does the future of nostalgia look like?
Currently, nostalgic trends focus on the late 80s and early 90s (nostalgia, like fashion, runs in thirty-year cycles, particularly targeting audiences in their 20s-40s. Shows like Stranger Things invoke our nostalgia of E.T., Dungeons & Dragons, and wood-paneled basement interiors. Stores like Hot Topic stock t-shirts of 90s Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network cartoons. Disney is currently pumping out live action remakes of all their 80s and 90s hits. But this definition of what constitutes as “nostalgic” will shift. In the 80s, the 50s diner aesthetic was nostalgic. We are already beginning to see Dreamcast/PS1 era graphics utilized in indie games for nostalgia factor, and it’s likely that will only increase as we enter the 2020s.
While nostalgia for specific eras can function as a trend, as we’ve seen in this series, it can also be used to create a purposeful, unique and meaningful experience for players. Keeping this in mind, we ask: how might nostalgia be utilized in future games? It’s hard to say the specifics, but looking at some effective uses of nostalgia in the past, we can imagine how future games may utilize the same properties of nostalgia in the future.
Good games have an experience at the root of them, many times a nostalgic root. Satoshi Tajiri created the original Pokemon game, influenced by his experience bug collecting as a kid. Shigeru Miyamoto made The Legend of Zelda, channeling his childhood experience of exploring caves. He wanted to recreate this experience for children playing video games, who may not go outside and explore caves. The loss of physical cave exploration fueled a nostalgia that resulted in The Legend of Zelda, a game with a landscape that has now become nostalgic for those who grew up playing it--and the lineage of nostalgia continues. Even contemporary examples can show their root in nostalgia. Undertale started as an Earthbound game, and the heart of Toby Fox’s nostalgia for Earthbound is still evident in Undertale’s bones. It’s exciting to imagine how this chain of love letters might continue in the future. Which games will be considered “nostalgic” twenty, thirty years from now, as well as what properties or activities?
While old games had challenging gameplay for a variety of reasons, players who grew up with “Nintendo hard” can find similar gameplay nostalgic, and long for games that don’t “hand-hold” players. Newer games like Dark Souls and Eve online appeal to “Nintendo hard” players due to their difficulty and the high stakes of loss. Fire Emblem Shadows of Valencia was a reboot of the first Fire Emblem game, removing many features developed over the franchise to return to the original difficulty of old FE games. As someone who fell in love with Fire Emblem starting with the Gameboy Advance games, and became completely addicted at Fire Emblem Awakening, I had grown accustomed to more contemporary FE features and found the difficulty of Valencia frustrating and at many times arbitrary. At the same time, I had trouble just “giving up” on the game. My frustration made me stubbornly determined to beat it, a feeling I hadn’t felt for a game in a while. So while I disliked much about Valencia, it also made me weirdly nostalgic--and I imagine for many die-hard FE players, it very successfully met their expectations to return to more challenging FE gameplay. Games like Shovel Knight, Celeste and Super Meat Boy further reinforce the demand for challenging gameplay. Will this idea of “Nintendo Hard” phase out of nostalgia, becoming a property of games that ebbs and flows, or will other games create new definitions of nostalgic challenge, like “Dark Souls” hard? Games like Baba Is You show a trend towards a variety of different definitions of “hard” gameplay, making their players problem solve in new ways with different tools than they may be used to using.
As was discussed in the FNAF article, nostalgia can be used as a tool to create a certain atmosphere, or to purposefully recreate an experience. Games like Beat Cop use nostalgic aesthetics to not only set us in place and time, but to also make us think about violence in a new way. If Beat Cop had hyper-realistic AAA graphics, it might desensitize us to the constant barrage of violence that beat cops encountered in the 80s. While Petscop is not technically a game, its use of Dreamcast-era graphics combined with its inspiration from real-life events creates an unsettling juxtaposition between a cute Tamagotchi world and an unsettling dark reality just underneath the surface. Its absence of game mechanics invokes the nostalgia of “creepypasta storytelling” as well. If we were able to play and verify the bizarre experiences in the game, it would remove the tension and fear and empower us. While Thimbleweed Park might initially seem like an imitation of Monkey Island with its graphics and mechanics, it revamps the point-and-click genre through clever twists on the verb system, as well as adding a hint system to make the game more accessible to a wider range of play levels. How will future nostalgic games implement nostalgia as a storytelling tool? Games like Night in the Woods thematically express a disillusionment with nostalgia and the past, which may lead to a larger number of games playing with this reverse-nostalgia perspective. Games like Emily is Away Too use the nostalgia of early 2000s AIM chats to tell a story in a new and unique way, and many other games use the format of contemporary cellphones for players to learn about a character’s world. Her Story’s sole gameplay mechanic is in the form of keyword searches, resulting in each player discovering the narrative in a different order. What media that we use now in the everyday will become a future nostalgic storytelling platform?
Nostalgia already is being used as such a vibrant tool in the indie game development scene, and it’s exciting to think about how future games may use similar principles in crafting nostalgic games. As we enter into nostalgia for the late 90s and early 2000s, I’m excited to feel the same urgency I did as a gamer then; despite my janky N64 controller and the loud buzz of my CRT TV, I felt a stubborn need to collect every banana and coin in Donkey Kong 64, and no matter how many times I fell off a conveyer belt with Diddy Kong, I kept climbing back on.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is about a girl whose life is narrated as a text adventure game. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.