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nostalgia: noun, a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.
I've written about nostalgia in games a few times before; once when considering how picking up a new take on a beloved genre can feel a bit like coming home, and again - a little more forcefully - when the validity of obvious nostalgia projects on Kickstarter was brought into question.
But at risk of writing pretty much the same thing over and over again - perhaps I'm getting nostalgic for my own articles now - I've been thinking more about nostalgia in games recently. Perhaps it's because I'm at a time in life when the lure of older, simpler times is particularly strong, or perhaps it's just because I've been playing the HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a game that can instantly transport me back to being a carefree thirteen-year-old.
There's something special about diving back into a game you know and love well. It's not unlike re-reading a beloved book or returning to a favourite childhood film. It's a feeling of comfort, a bit like belonging.
I also find I'm able to relax more with a game I'm familiar with. There are certain stresses to picking up a brand new game - a new control scheme to master, new vocabulary to learn, a new world in interact with. It requires quite a lot of mental focus. You might not notice it most of the time, but if I've had a particularly long day and want to unwind with a game, I often find it hard to play a new game. I don't have the mental energy to pay attention properly, so my interest wanes quickly.
- It seems bloom lighting is all that's required to make me play through an entire 30+ hour game again.
I don't have the same problem with a game I'm familiar with. Wind Waker doesn't stress me out because I know exactly where I stand with it. I'm familiar enough with its mechanics and visual grammar that I can play it on a semi-autopilot and let my brain unwind a bit. It's pleasant, rather than exhilarating, and there is something to be said for that at times.
Games are by nature transportive. Much is made of 'immersion', a game's ability to absorb us into its world. And sometimes, the world we want to be transported to is one from when we were a little younger, a little more carefree.
It's natural that sometimes we'd actually prefer to play something we've played before than something completely new. It would explain the popularity of HD remakes, as well as the success of those divisive Kickstarter projects that seek to revive old gaming properties.
There's a powerful draw to nostalgia - and it's possible to design nostalgia into your games, even if you're not directly remaking an existing game. Certain design choices can make players familiar with the format feel more comfortable with your game before they've really spent much time with it.
The most obvious choice is your aesthetic; by choosing to use pixel-art, for example, you're directly referencing a specific era of game history. Your choice of art style alone can conjure a feeling of nostalgia in a player, and will alter a player's expectations of the game before they've even started playing.
But your mechanical choices can factor in to a game's ability to play on nostalgia as well. I grew up playing Japanese RPGs on the Playstation, so when I play a game like Ni No Kuni or Bravely Default I feel a strong pull of nostalgia. The simple act of having the screen swirl and place me on a separate battle map ticks a comfort box inside my brain. Line up my characters down one side of the screen, the enemies down the other, present me with a multiple choice menu and I've already settled into comfortable battle rhythm. I know this formula, I know these mechanics, so I'm able to relax.
- Nostalgia, incidentally, is also how Square gets away with crap like this. I never said it was all good.
The design and structure of your game can have a similar effect. Put me in front of an impassable object with a clear indication that I don't yet possess the gear required to advance and I recognise the structure of a Metroidvania-style game. My familiarity with and recognition of this formula influences how I will continue to play the game. Now that I know what to expect I'll switch my pacing accordingly, taking more time to explore and getting less frustrated at my inability to make straightforward progress.
One should be careful how much one relies on nostalgia when designing a game, however. By making a deliberately nostalgic game you are making a decision about your intended audience. The more your game seeks to evoke a sense of nostalgia, the more it requires your player to be familiar with the designs you are referencing.
To use the examples above, while I immediately understand what's required of me when presented with a classical JRPG turn-based battle screen, the same screen might seem illogical and terrifying to someone not versed in the genre. Without proper instruction and guidance, a lot of new players will be put off by the seeming complexity of such a system. Likewise, while I'm comfortable with the need to explore and poke at walls in a Metroidvania-style game, players not familiar with the genre might find themselves lost, confused and frustrated.
Generally, the more your game uses nostalgia as a design tenet, the harder it will be to sell the same game to novice game players. It's impossible to design a game that appeals to all audiences, everywhere - one day EA will realise this and the world will be a better place. It's a choice you have to make when coming up with a game concept - do you want to rely on the nostalgia of existing gamers to sell your game into a pre-defined audience, or try to create something new to try to lure in a new audience?
That's not to say you can't design a game that is both nostalgic and welcoming to newcomers. It's something Nintendo do better than anyone else in the industry - all of their games are capable of transporting a hardened Nintendo fan back to a period of their youth, yet are also designed in such a simple and accessible way that they are welcoming to new players. Whether it's your first Mario game or your twentieth, you're still going to have a great time.
- Mario is one of the few brands that trades frequently on nostalgia, yet remains accessible to all.
It's a difficult balance to find, and doing so consistently is what makes Nintendo's designers among the best in the world. A safer bet is to decide early in development what the appeal of your game is for your audience; are you tapping into a rich vein of nostalgia in people who have played games for years, creating something that feels like a well-loved artefact even when it's brand new, or are you creating something new and exciting and challenging for an audience that's less pre-defined?
Both are completely valid design decisions. I tire of the debates about whether innovation is a more worthwhile aim than channeling nostalgia; as far as I'm concerned both are worthwhile and necessary pursuits. These are also not the only two options a designer has, a binary choice between an 'old' audience and a 'new' one - there are seven billion people out there and they all have different reasons for finding something appealing.
- I really, really don't need to spend my money on this...but ungh, the feels.
But me, I'm prone to nostalgia, and there will always be a part of me that just wants to play Final Fantasy IX over and over again, if only because sometimes I'd quite like to be twelve again. So if you can conjure up that feeling with your game design, then you'll have my money, and I think I can safely say I'm not alone in that. Now I'm going back to staring at that FFX/X-2 HD remake on Amazon, hovering my cursor over the 'buy' button and feeling conflicted.
Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.
His latest novel, the sky pirate adventure Into Uncharted Skies, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store.