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The Circuitous, Disingenuous Nature of Nostalgia in Video Games

“They want to turn your past into your future,” writes Jill Lepore in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Lepore was writing about Amazon, Google, and Facebook and their algorithm-driven data machines, but she just as easily could have been writing about video game developers big and small. Three notable releases use our past as grist for the nostalgia mill, churning up memories the way penguin parents pre-digest their young’s food. We players happily consume the reconstituted leftovers, all too happy to remember what once was. But as a new year turns over and we collectively look ahead, I’m stuck here wondering if games look backward too often.

Last month, Atari–that grandfather of game companies, whose youthful vigor once won championships but now is relegated to looking fondly at a filled but dusty trophy case of past triumphs–put out their latest collection of titles from their golden era of arcade and 2600 hits. Last week, Nintendo–expert purveyor of nostalgia the way a vintner captures and distills a soil’s essence in a bottle, knowing their audience of oenophiles lustily awaits the next drop–released “New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe,” the latest Wii U game offered new life as a Switch title. And this Thursday, Ackk Studios–who are not old enough to have earned a hyphenated parenthetical but are well on their way–put out “YIIK,” the one altogether new game in this list but one heavily inspired by both an old genre (Japanese role-playing game) and a past era (late 1990’s suburbia).

Apologies for the long and winding paragraph. But this is what happens when we continually reference the past. What should be linear becomes circuitous. Momentum stalls. Comprehension relies on pre-existing knowledge. Our connection to the new is unfairly forged by an understanding of the old.

I felt this disconnection while playing “YIIK.” And while I appreciate the chutzpah of its creators Brian Allanson and Ian Bailey who subtitled it “A Postmodern RPG,” I can’t help but think this attempt, to build a world from a pastiche of referents and symbols, damns the game to a hell of its own devising. At least it was hell for this player: I wanted to love the surreal environments and its quirky storytelling but could not. Why? Because I have no love for their chosen homage. I did not play these games they reference, nor did I see myself in this fantastical version of a young man growing up in the 90s.

Art can transport us and help us experience lives far from our own. But it can also be distancing and opaque, letting in only those who share the creators’ lexicon and carefully chosen cues. Video games rely on the player being in control; those that are built on a foundation of other, older video games risk taking that control out of the players’ hands before they even begin.  

Nintendo is the undisputed master of creating new works from old pieces. Their latest attempt, however, veers perilously close to self-parody. “New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe” is a port of a sequel to a reimagining of a game from 1985. Luckily, that original game is the ur-text from which nearly all modern games are derived: If you’re going to steal, steal from the best (and all the better if the best belongs to you in the first place).

The Wii U game steals well enough, providing a solid template for a new Switch game that is, in fact, six years old. Not much is changed; sometimes the smartest move is to stay put. But even the additions feel gratuitously self-referential: Toadette, a female version of the Toad character whose species was defiled and enslaved in the lore of the original SMB (literally the building blocks of the Mushroom Kingdom) can change into a character called Peachette, a diminutive version of Princess Peach, whose original servant was none other than … Toad.

This is the curse of success: How do you maintain a formula that was created thirty years ago? In 2012, then-President of Nintendo, the late Satoru Iwata, voiced this concern to the development team. “There are so many things that must be carried on in the classic 2D Super Mario action games that need to be taught,” Iwata said. “On the other hand, if there isn’t any freshness to it, they’ll get humdrum.” Somehow, through expertise, wizardry, and luck, Nintendo’s designers have toed that line between the fresh and the classic for nearly four decades. Their history is their greatest asset, and the main thing holding them back.

There was a time when Atari’s history was the entirety of the game industry. Now that history serves as a fond time capsule and warning: This is where we came from, and this is what might happen again. Playing “Asteroids” and “Tempest” on a television, miles away from their unadulterated arcade forms, still feels slightly crude, like pretending to fondle a picture of your crush from the old high school yearbook. “Atari Flashback Classic” is a compilation of playable memories. And maybe that’s enough. But if every game tries to reflect the past, there’s less effort paid in imagining the future.

Games aren’t the only industry fed by nostalgia. Hollywood is no stranger to remakes; last year’s “A Star is Born” was the fifth version of that story. But the original was produced in 1937. It took over eighty years to count a hand’s worth of rehashes. It only took Nintendo thirty-three years to produce seven iterations on “Super Mario Bros.” and that’s if we’re counting modestly. Can the nostalgia well run dry? Does placing players in control of a character make them more eager to run through the same halls than if they were passively watching the same film story or reading the same book plot? Such questions are above my paygrade. What’s certain is that where we come from will continually feed where we’re going; what’s not is how creators choose to acknowledge that history.

Nostalgia bends our attention backward in a way that refracts the past to make it knowable. But in the moment, we couldn’t know what was about to happen. Imagining a future can be just as troublesome, just as unfairly, impossibly inaccurate.

When Ackk Studios’ Allanson and Bailey were growing up, their favorite games revolved around some unknown dread that, if left unpurged, would annihilate the world. While fantastical cataclysms played out on their cathode-ray screens, a real unknown dread bubbled under the surface. This was the so-called Y2K bug, a would-be plague borne out of a fear that, at the strike of midnight on January 1, 2000, all computer programs would read [00] as 1900 instead of 2000. The alleged result would be endless and indeterminate mayhem: Banks would explode, Hospitals would erase patient charts, Dogs and Cats wouldn’t just live together but procreate and start unsustainable non-profit organizations…. The list of fears was vague and unceasing.

And then, of course, none of it happened.

There will always be different ways of repackaging yesterday. We won’t stop imagining what might happen tomorrow. Both are fraught with peril and loss. Maybe the better choice, then, as creators and players, is to seek out the surprise of an unknowable present.

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