Last week IndieHaven’s Sheva Gunnery wrote an excellent article on the mining of childhood nostalgia and how it is important to see the forest through the trees when getting swept away in video games that promise a brief reprieve from adulting and invite you back to a simpler time in your life.  Sheva brings up a good point, but there’s something even stranger about the nostalgia-mining efforts of throwback gaming – that nostalgia might be more imagined than real.

We all know (or at least you should) that oftentimes we tend to look back at older video games with an added wistfulness for days gone by.  When you compare games of the past against games of today those of us pushing 30 or 40 are apologists for the shortcomings of games of yesteryear.  We argue that they “don’t make ‘em like they used to” – the “used to” being with shitty save systems and unintuitive design choices.  I won’t argue that there are classic games that still hold up today, but the general idea that video games have somehow taken a step backwards as they have become more enjoyable to a wider audience is a very “get off my lawn” argument.  Video games – on the whole – are better now than they have ever been.  They are more varied, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before.  

But why do we have such a strong connection to certain games.  How does our video games history align so perfectly with one another when there are so many variables?  Did we all grow up in houses with every game system available?  How did we all share the “perfect childhood” of games when our wallets were so limited?  Is it possible that sometimes we ascribe nostalgia to something that wasn’t even a large part of our childhood.  We remember something fondly that isn’t even our own memory.  Or we take a singular memory – a one-off moment – and blow it into something larger than it really is.

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I first noticed this behavior when my roommate was talking about watching live-event TV specials.  Ever since the widely maligned NBC airing of The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood, it seems there has been a revival of live TV musical action, with NBC and other US networks trying to get a piece of the high ratings these events bring.  In an age of on-demand television, it’s not had to see why these live events would be appealing to networks.  The concept that actors are daringly performing live makes the show something that is a must-watch, it wouldn’t be the same to watch the event on Netflixed or recorded on DVR.  Additionally, the shows have been bad enough to become appealing – urging friends to gather around the TV and see who can make the best joke about the appalling spectacle.  But these TV specials also lean on a sense of nostalgia.  They harken back to the idea that once upon a time these live-event musicals were commonplace, and families would gather around the TV to watch them.  This concept that the live-TV musical is a staple of the American living room is largely false.  These things didn’t happen when we were children, but it still feels like it did, as if it happened in every American living room and so it must have happened in yours.  

I had this same feeling while playing Tokyo RPG Factory’s latest game, I am Setsuna.  While I wish I was cool enough to say that I was conquering the generic steampunk/fantasy/weird-as-fuck worlds of JRPGs while I was in diapers, I didn’t discover the genre until I was in middle school – part of the curse of having an N64 and missing out on the plethora of the genre offered on the PlayStation.  I came to JRPGs the same way most people did – through Final Fantasy.  I played parts of VII, a bit of VIII , and a lot of IX (don’t throw things at me! I already told you I didn’t have a PlayStation!).  Most of the time these limited experiences came when staying a friends house and indulging in a few moments of the games before returning back to my N64 world.

The majority of my experience with JRPGs came after adulthood, as I played emulators in college and beyond (shhhhh! don’t tell anyone).  Yet, as I started playing I am Setsuna, it still revived a sense of nostalgia in me – a nostalgia that never existed.  I felt like a child again. When I looked down at my coffee table I half-expected to see an empty cereal bowl, the last fews drops of milk an off-white color from the dissolved sugar of the overly sweetened contents it had once held (most likely Frosted Flakes, I was a simple kid).  I could feel the gaze of my step-brother sitting next to me through space and time, waiting for his turn at the next checkpoint.  When I checked the time, I felt the rush of knowing there was only so much more time I could play before I’d inevitably be sentenced to the outdoors.  

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These memories weren’t actually part of my childhood.  Sure, a couple times my step-brother and I traded our N64 with the neighbor for his PlayStation and I could recall the days we spent playing Final Fantasy games (my step-brother renaming every character with some sort of swear word because he could).  But it would be completely disingenuous for me to say that the experience was some large part of my childhood or that I had dozens of formative memories with games that even slightly resembled I am Setsuna.  This is because, to a large degree, nostalgia isn’t based on actual experience we have, but collective experiences that we’re told we had.  We falsely remember things with devotion because so many other people do and we don’t want to feel different.

The hive mind of games can sometime cause certain experiences to become commonplace simply because they’re talked about all the time.  We all had Halo LAN parties, we all spent hours grinding through Sephiroth, we all actually think Link to the Past or Majora’s Mask is the best Zelda game, we all had a friend who broke Mortal Kombat when they got Scorpion’s “get over here” hook move down, we all know the secrets to Super Mario World, we all joined a Guild in World of Warcraft.  If everyone had actually taken part in the seminal gaming events we often prescribe to the entirety of gaming culture, the combined hardware would be staggeringly expensive.SETSUNA_Map_Exploration.0.0

Yet, I couldn’t help but feel these connections when playing I am Setsuna.  Am I some lame-o (I probably am, because I just used the word “lame-o”?  Am I just another pretender, conjuring up childhood memories so I can fit it with the cool kids?  *Gasp* am I part of the problem?  Well, that would imply that there is a problem with this behavior – and there isn’t.  What’s impressive about these phantom childhood memories, is that they transcend individuals and speak to a collective whole.  Just because I never personally experienced the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII is irrelevant, the plot point is a staple among millennials and an experience collectively shared by a generation.  I didn’t have to experience it first hand, I’ve lived it through the dozens of friends who have told me about it, who still give an exasperated sigh every time it comes up in conversation and go, “Yeah, man.  That got me.” In some ways, going back and playing these games, desperate for some kind of understanding, would only subvert the impact my mind has attributed to the moment – it couldn’t live up to the hype of being a cultural emotional cornerstone.

 

The reason I connected I am Setsuna to a childhood nostalgia that didn’t exist is because it did exist for so many of my friends.  Their memories, stories, and life has been shared with me enough that I connect to it even if it wasn’t my personal experience.  These days, it’s like we never left the playground, with social media we can still tell the same stories we used to share behind the swing sets and still connect to those stories through a shared interest.  Games like I am Setsuna would have felt uninviting when I was a kid, lacking in the experience of JRPGs, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore.  The game connects to a past I never had, but I still know exists.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • I don’t by this view. It’s become popular to say there is this thing called “nostalgia” and it’s tantamount to mass hallucination, or a halcyon-days mentality. The reality is that more likely more people than not, never talk about video games with acquaintances, much less gathered around a coffee table at a coffee house, or at some mythical diner, like something out of a 90s sitcom.

    The cold reality is, games aren’t that good to begin with, that’s why some people recall them wistfully, and that they don’t make them like the old days, because in the old days, games were made by big companies, and usually these games that people have fond memories of were made in Japan, because A) Nintendo resuscitated “video-games” after the crash that’s laid at Atari’s doorstep, and B) I actually don’t think Western games have a history of craftsmanship, and they are generally not fun, on just a baseline level, with very rare exception, they don’t hold broad appeal. Because the games tend to have come from Japan, that means only the ones deemed suitable for export made their way to people not in Japan, which means that you only get the highest quality products, that are basically like little jewels labored over by comparably vast companies, born of a culture that just seems to have fun in its DNA.

    The important point is, you see similar games made today, but generally by small teams, where the amount of experience and polish and regiment is not there. These old games are still objectively very good. I am not susceptible to nostalgia, and have a very pessimistic view of video games, but I still get the same amount of enjoyment, and I am still impressed by these old video games, I think to the same degree I was as a child more or less, but of course, the sense of scale and proportion changes. What was impressive then, is humdrum now. But they are still far superior products to the new games being produced today.

    Japan had a few really good generations, and its zeitgeist always lagged about a decade behind the west. When the west was in the 80s, Japan was in the 70s, and so on. Their luck ran out in the 90s. A generation came along that was more fan than innovator, that had nothing to draw from, which happens, and their entire cultural export sector tanked, and now it only produces highly stylized, deeply fetishistic materials, that do not have broad appeal. We don’t recognize Japan today as the Japan of old, and that more than anything is what confuses our compasses, causing us to question our “nostalgia.” Anyway, more than anything it’s the times that make a classic, not the people.

    If you cannot see these things of the past as superior in form, then you’re not seeing them objectively. We cannot recreate the conditions that created them now. Big companies have moved onto impossibly grandiose productions, and cultures are always in flux.