This talk was originally given at Play By Play Festival in 2018.
Today’s topic is Gaming Nostalgia, and we’re going to be looking at nostalgia in games, but more importantly, how it is made, how it is used, and what it means. This talk won’t be about self referential nostalgia. I’m not interested in games making you feel nostalgic about older games, instead I want to take a broader, academic look at the study of nostalgia, it’s applicability to games, and how to can use it to analyze our medium.
So, nostalgia. I think everyone here has a pretty good idea of what nostalgia is. Or at least, what we generally accept it mean these days. But nostalgia has some interesting roots, so I’m going to do a very quick overview before we go on.
You may know that it comes from the Greek word nostos, which means homecoming. Pretty straightforward – nostalgia feels like home. It’s a return to something from the past, it’s like a big warm hug. It’s tied to your identity, your sense of place, your history.
What you may not know is the second part of the word, and the reason why it was coined in the first place. The second half of nostalgia comes from the Greek álgos, meaning pain. Nostalgia wasn’t even really much of a concept until a 17th century medical student coined the term. He used it to describe the very real and painful anxieties felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from their mountainous homeland. From the very beginning, nostalgia has been about pain. We’ll get back to this later.
And then we come to modern nostalgia. I lovingly and sweetly call this the “Hey, remember this!” type of nostalgia. You see something from your childhood in the 80’s and you go “Argh! My nostalgia” and a single tear rolls down your cheek. Then you go back to whatever you were doing and Buzzfeed has gotten some more ad revenue out of you.
This sort of shallow pandering is all over media today, especially because we seem to really love the 80’s right now? I’m not going to name any name but, Ready Player One, that sure is a thing.
Academic study of nostalgia generally splits things into cycles. There’s the 20 year cycle, the 30 year cycle, the 40 year cycle. It doesn’t really matter which one you want to adhere to, but it’s generally a case of people in times of discontent looking back to times that are perceived to be more prosperous and peaceful.
Games are, on the whole, too young for this sort of thing. But we have the extremely convenient structure of hardware cycles to use as a framework for our nostalgia. 8-bit, 16-bit, early 3D graphics, Flash games and so on. Nostalgia comes in waves, with each new creatively mature generation looking back into their own history to draw from.
So, now that we know what it is, we can look at how nostalgia is used in existing media. This will give us a good overview of how nostalgia can work before we get into specific details.
Nostalgia in media can roughly be divided into three types – restorative, reflective and deconstructive. They’re all pretty self explanatory once you know them, but let’s explore them together.
In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym defines restorative nostalgia as putting emphasis on the nostos part of nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia is affirming, it’s about returning to some sort of home, or some sort of better past state. This is the type of nostalgia that romanticizes the past, the good old, wholesome 1950’s or the free love era of the 1960’s.
Some quick examples of this are the fun poodle skirts and milkshake antics of the 1950’s in Back to the Future. Almost everything Bruno Mars has done lately, he’s covered the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s in his musical throwbacks. A lot of media right now references the over the top fun and retro-futurism of the 1980’s – films like Thor Ragnorok and games like Hotline Miami take all the cool bits of the 80’s and mash them together. Restorative nostalgia in media is a fun ride, with all of the clichés and references that give us the feels.
Reflective nostalgia puts emphasis on the álgos part of nostalgia, the pain and longing. Reflective nostalgia looks back wistfully on the past. It can often be reconstructive, wanting to relive moments that have already happened. Reflective nostalgia can also involve more introspection, it can question why we latch on to certain things in the past and what the passage of time means for our development as individuals and as a society.
Examples of this are Stranger Things and its self aware construction of a 1980’s that we wanted to have existed. The recent film Lady Bird is a dreamlike look back at the directors imagined teenagerhood in the early 2000’s. Another example of this escapist style of nostalgia are the Fallout series, and it’s loving, lingering rendering of the ruins of a mythic 1950’s consumer culture. A general fascination with abandoned and ruined places is also a version of reflective nostalgia.
Deconstructive nostalgia was not an original nostalgia type pioneered by Svetlana Boym, but instead a more modern category reflecting the changing nature of nostalgic media. Instead of being reaffirming or reflective of the past, deconstructive nostalgia is critical of the past and the emphasis or values we place there. If the media is still set in the past, it can have some fun nostalgic elements, sure, but the theme or narrative of deconstructive nostalgic media looks with a critical eye.
Finding examples of deconstructive nostalgia is a little harder, but I’d argue they’re becoming more and more prevalent with the self reflection and greater contextual awareness that comes from our massively interconnected mass media. The new IT movie doesn’t create a fun picture of the 80’s, and instead explores the paranoia around Stranger Danger from the time period, among other things. The Iron Giant is another film that does this, it’s version of the 1950’s is rife with anxieties about the Cold War and Communism. The American Dream is a VR game that has you solving everyday tasks in a 1950’s nuclear family with guns, contrasting the sweetness of a suburban family with the horrors of gun violence. Mafia 3 is set in the tail end of the 1960’s, and doesn’t hold back in its display of racism, poverty and crime that is a far cry from the popular swinging 60’s image.
These three broad types of nostalgia cover most of what we see in media. You might have noticed that a lot of the examples I showed were nostalgic for the 1950’s or 1980’s, due to the 30-year cycle thing I mentioned earlier. Nostalgia can be used in many different ways, and for many different purposes, but it nearly always provides a lens to look at the present with. This may be lamenting the loss of something, or that the past was better than today. It could be reflecting on what’s changed, or it could revere what was cool back then. Nostalgia can draw parallels with what’s happening now, or it can make us question our own past experiences. Nostalgia is a tool that can bolster the theme, narrative and play experience of a game.
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for how to talk about nostalgia, let’s look at how to make nostalgia, how to actually put it into our games. I’d argue there are two main ways this is done, through style and through craft. Let’s start with style.
Style is the easy one, it’s what you probably think of first when you picture anything nostalgic in media. Crafting nostalgia through style is the act of evoking nostalgia with the aesthetics of the text. In a film this might be having all your actors wear 70’s fashion, or having a fake film grain effect. Any stylistic choice, be it set design or post effects or cinematography, can be used to evoke nostalgia about a certain time. In games, we have the same thing. Having a particular art direction or use of certain assets in your game can create stylistic nostalgia.
Our good friend Cuphead here is an excellent example of that. The main reason its style stands out is because it perfectly apes the 1930’s animation style from so many years ago. Even if we personally have no nostalgia for that time period, the collective nostalgia surrounding that particular aesthetic choice still evokes similar nostalgic feelings in the player.
Other games that create nostalgia through style are Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’s cyber hyperreality of 1980’s electronics and mass media. Gone Home explores the average American’s home in the 1990’s with some teen angst riot grrrl thrown in for good measure. Emily is Away styles itself as a pixellated 2000’s operating system complete with MSN messenger. Sunset’s 1970’s bachelor pad was modeled off examples from issues of Playboy magazines and real life celebrity houses. Nostalgic aesthetics can be used to reflect a game’s theme, give it a stronger sense of time and place, and stand out from the crowd.
The second way we can evoke nostalgia is through craft. Whereas style is nostalgia created through superficial aesthetics, craft is the actual process of making the thing. Going back to film again as an easy example, some directors shoot on 35 or 70mm film. While this could be for aesthetic purposes, there is still a nostalgic element to using film instead of shooting digitally. And it doesn’t just have to be the physical production pipeline either – using nostalgic structural elements works too. Films these days don’t have intermissions, so when a director does use an intermission as a structural element, it stands out as something nostalgic.
Applying this to games is a little trickier than applying stylistic nostalgia to games. Games are already incredibly complicated to make, and deliberately incorporating obsolete technology and methods is…well, do that at your own risk. There are some games that have done this though.
Shovel Knight is a notable example. This game is a love letter to Nintendo Entertainment System platformers and similar games from the early 1980’s. The developers deliberately limited themselves to a much smaller colour palette and animation count to mimic the hardware of the time, and also used lots of tricks to get the most out of their self imposed limitations. They did make a few caveats, and the game itself won’t run on an original Nintendo Entertainment System, but they tried their best to stay true to the constraints of the time. By doing this, they created a game that has nostalgia built into its very core, and it shapes the entire experience of the player.
Examples of crafted nostalgia are much less common than stylistic nostalgia, but they are out there if you look. Alien Isolation uses 1970’s CRT screens that play actual video and Betamax footage. The developers transferred their video files onto the old tech and distorted them before re-importing them back to the game. Mario Combat is recent a game made for the Nintento Virtual Boy, a 1995 game console that was so bad it was discontinued after less than a year. And yes, the player is shooting Bowser with a shotgun in that screenshot. Even early 3D graphics get some love – Banned Memories has PS1 era graphics and is made in a game engine that doesn’t even have a 3D editor. Adding nostalgia through craft doesn’t have to mean adding it in the process either. Yooka-Laylee has many structural elements that are generally considered outdated, such as the quiz show interlude shown here. This type of nostalgia obviously has a lot of crossover with stylistic nostalgia, and usually leans much more self-referential than global. Using nostalgic elements in the very process of making a game can lend an air of authenticity to a game; it can almost wind the clock back and bring what we’ve forgotten within reach.
So how have I used nostalgia in my own work? The game I’m currently working on has the very inspiring title of Unfinished Chat Game, and is a narrative vignette game set on the internet of 2009. Most of the story is told through instant messaging and digging through various blogs and websites.
Why 2009? Since this is a somewhat inspired by a true story game it’s based on the actual timeline of my life, but the mid to late 2000’s seems to have been on everyone’s mind at the moment. When Window’s Live Messenger closed down last year felt like it was part of a larger cultural zeitgeist looking back on the 2000’s and how they’ve suddenly, inexplicably become the past to us. All of a sudden it’s 2018 and 2005 was not ten years ago.
Untitled Chat Game takes places inside a fake operating system, mostly modeled after an early version of Windows XP. Video games have a well documented love affair with fake operating systems. After all, they run on one, and all art eventually reaches the point where it examines its own medium. Operating systems are a space waiting to be manipulated, and our familiarity and expectations of them make them a perfect vehicle for whatever message a game is trying to tell us.
Lots of Operating Systems are restorative in their execution of nostalgia. I feel like you see this most often in the earlier DOS era systems. They’re the same consoles and chunky black and white font you expect, but they’re sleeker, cooler, easier to navigate. The nostalgic element to these operating systems is going to remind you of when you were a kid discovering the possibility and power of a computer and your control over it for the first time, and have you project that association onto the game as a result. At least, for a little while.
Restorative nostalgic operating systems tend not to draw attention to themselves. The operating system is simply a way to interact with the game; it’s the form that the UI takes. The game isn’t going to say much about the past that it’s referencing because that’s not where its focus lies.
Other operating system games are reflective in their use of nostalgia. This is where we start to see narrative and design call attention to the operating system and its temporal location. In many of these cases, the game is the operating system. The player is tasked with exploring the UI to learn more narrative clues, to better understand characters, or to find new parts of the game. In games that deal ion reflective nostalgia, the lens is turned inward to the guts of the software that’s powering it.
While restorative nostalgia may be more particular about the recreation and ‘authenticity’ of the fake operating system, reflective nostalgia starts to take stylistic liberties. Operating systems become less about pure recreation and more about evoking the right tone to support the narrative. They’re still recognizably tied to a time and place, but they’re allowed to grow outside of that.
There aren’t that many operating systems that deal in deconstructive nostalgia. This is a trope that is usually found in horror games, like Pony Island there. These operating systems have no interest in authenticity or indulgent recreations. They don’t want to reflect on the past so much as they want to take it apart into discrete pieces, and ask questions about why this is happening…and then probably make you cry.
By taking apart the very fabric of the game – the software it’s ‘running’ on – they create a gamespace that is unnerving, without clear boundaries. We’re so familiar with operating systems because we use them all day, every day. So when we see each piece picked apart and scattered, like entrails after a bear attack, it makes us very uncomfortable. Without a safe place to hide, the player is forced to question their reality in the game, and the relationship they have to the bit of nostalgia in front of them.
At the moment at least, Untitled Chat Game lies somewhere between reflective and deconstructive nostalgia. Much of my inspiration came from the calming, feminine operating systems of Cible and Lost Memories Dot Net, but the game also has a bitter, cynical edge. Now it’s time to talk about Vapourwave!
First, a very quick history of Vapourwave for those of you who might not know about it already. Vapourwave started as an ironic, joke subgenre of electronic music that used smooth jazz and elevator music along with distorted and chopped up samples and recordings. It was memes. The cover art for these fake but also real albums was a really weird mix of glitch art, 1990’s web design and classical high art, along with nostalgic and pop culture references.
Vapourwave spawned a whole bunch of subgenres of its own, and also influenced Cybertwee. Cybertwee is the name of an art collective and movement started in 2014 by Gabriella Hileman, Violet Forest and May Weaver. Their manifesto proposed a feminine, romantic and cute intersection with technology that was equally as powerful as the masculine and gritty cyber future we were all promised. The phrase ‘cybertwee’ has since been used to describe the defiantly feminine and unabashedly pink in technology and games.
And what does all this have to do with nostalgia? The Vapourwave and Cybertwee aesthetics both draw from the same well of 1990’s and early 2000’s technology nostalgia that Untitled Chat Game does. By juxtaposing the trash glitch art and early 3D of a cyberfuture that never lived up to its promises with the high classical art of the past and emptiness of pop culture icons, they alienate the mundane and familiar, creating a slightly uncomfortable space.
Looking at these screenshots from the game, it’s recognizably Windows XP. I followed the same style lines in the original Windows XP UI – the chunkier rounded buttons, the barely there outline and dropshdows on everything, the use of gradients. But it’s cute Windows XP, its pink and purple, and it looks a bit like an alien landscape. It’s a fever dream of an operating system .
It’s inviting enough that you want to explore it, to stay and look around a while. By giving players enough of a guiding light with its familiarity to the real Windows XP operating system, but with its visual approach being ever so slightly off, it invites reflective nostalgia. Most of the game is spent digging around on blogs and websites and in folders. The hazy past of trying to find information amongst the half broken links and locked Livejournal accounts looks back on the online culture of the early 21st century and how we interacted with what we had. But as I said earlier, there’s a slightly bitter, cynical edge to the game, and that’s where it sometimes forays into deconstructive nostalgia.
The core theme of the game is, hopefully, going to be disappointment. The main character you play is trapped – trapped in high school, trapped in a fashion rut, trapped in a country at the bottom of the world. And although your computer, in theory, gives you all the freedom of the internet, it traps you too.
Online stores don’t ship here, the internet is slow or outright doesn’t work, your laptop is shitty and can’t run anything. Links are broken, loading is slow and try as you might, you can’t quite see through the hazy fog and grasp at something that you’re sure is exciting and will turn you into someone cool. The operating system’s broken, decaying edges stop you from fully experiencing anything, even if you somehow escape.
Of course, none of this is particularly realistic. The edges act more as gating mechanisms and an antidote to scope creep then reproductions of actual bugs and bottlenecks. But do we want authenticity in a game like this? Do we actually want a slow, temperamental desktop? Or do we want the fantasy?
Nostalgia and fantasy go hand in hand. When we picture the video games of our youth or the consoles and computers we played on, or our childhood bedroom we grew up in, we’re indulging in a fantasy. Fantasy is the idealized, the opposite side of the coin to reality and potential disillusionment.
Indulging in a fantasy this all encompassing means walking a fine line between keeping the fantasy alive, and being repulsed by its reality. The occasional error message, or the hint of a glitch can gave a fake operating system an exciting spark, but do too much of it and we risk the frustration of reality surfacing. Any media set in a past time risks wearing out its welcome or creating friction between what we want to be true, and what was true.
And why do we love these fantasies so much? We indulge in nostalgic fantasies that reflect what we want to think of ourselves. They let us see ourselves as the effortlessly cool hacker, we can taste the tentative bravado of teenagerhood, we can be the kid who knows everything there is to know about 80’s pop culture and save the world. We can place ourselves in a more innocent time, an age of romance or chivalry or prosperity, whatever we feel is lacking in our current lives. Nostalgic fantasies can be collective and shared by a generation or a particular societal group, or they can be personal to just our own experiences – but they are something we all buy into. The nostalgic fantasies turn into power fantasies.
The ghosts of the past and its ideals will always haunt us. Nostalgia is particularly powerful in that it’s made up of everything we’ve half remembered and long forgotten. But when we use nostalgia in the art we make we have a choice – we can hold on to the fantasy of the past and the power that it gives us, or we can embrace the pain that comes with facing up to reality.
I hope that over the course of this talk I’ve given you some idea of how you can use nostalgia in your own work. Think about the three types of nostalgia we see in media – restorative and affirmative nostalgia, reflective and introspective nostalgia, and critical and deconstructive nostalgia. Wield them effectively and judiciously, and don’t be afraid to mix them up. Think outside the box when it comes to creating nostalgia in your work. Stylistic nostalgia and crafted nostalgia both offer their own benefits and shortcomings, and don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And finally, think about what nostalgia says about you, and your work, and your player. What ideals does it represent, what fantasies does it dance with, and what, if any, realities will it serve up.
Anatomy of Nostalgia Films: Heritage and Methods by Mark LeSuer
The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym
The Modalities of Nostalgia by Mike Pickering and Emily Keightley
Irony, Nostalgia , and the Postmodern: A Dialogue by Linda Hutcheon & Mario J. Valdés
Stranger Things, IT and the Upside Down of Nostalgia by Lindsey Ellis
Breaking The NES For Shovel Knight