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Nostalgia & Heritage
by Tom Battey on 07/28/14 03:03:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

As part of my ongoing musings on subject of nostalgia in game design - hell, I've probably written enough of these that I can get away with calling it a 'series' by now - I've been thinking a lot about the benefits and the disadvantages of designing a game around a feeling of nostalgia.

It's been pointed out, rightly, by many that nostalgia can work as a crutch for designers - by adhering to a template set out by games of the past they can sidestep a lot of the responsibility to come up with engaging game mechanics and systems. They can tap into a pre-existing audience more concerned with re-living the aesthetic of their youth than seeking new gaming experiences.

These are valid criticism of nostalgia as a design practice, and there are many examples of cynical nostalgic design out there. However, today I want to talk about what I consider an important benefit of nostalgia in gaming culture; that nostalgic design helps preserve the heritage of the games industry that might otherwise be lost to new generations of gamers.

Nostalgia - Broken Age
Double Fine's Broken Age is widely credited with kick-starting (ha) the old-school Kickstarter revival project.

Games are a primarily technological medium, and technology is inherently progressive. Designs are continuously iterated upon and discarded in favour of better, slicker, more robust models. This gifts us with an industry with incredible forward momentum; the 20 years that separate Doom and Call of Duty: Ghosts is a tiny space of time when considered against progression in other artistic mediums, yet enough time to render the first-person shooter genre almost unrecognisable.

There are, however, casualties to this rampantly progressive industry, in the form of entire genres that are discarded in the ruthless forward-march as they fall out of favour with the mainstream. The text adventure, the isometric roleplaying game, the side-scrolling platformer, the survival horror - all once popular genres that have fallen out of favour as games technology has progressed.

There's a market aspect to this as well; advances in technology have caused the average cost of making a game to increase, so games publishers have understandably become more risk-averse when it comes to greenlighting projects. The result has increasingly been that only genres that are seen to comfortably sell to the burgeoning mainstream audience are seen to be a worthwhile investment - publication of 'mid-core' titles, those only likely to sell to a moderate or niche market, has pretty much dried up.

It's to be expected that certain styles will fall out of favour as a medium gets older; it's the same with any other artistic medium. We don't see many black-and-white noir films in the cinema today, and millions of teenagers aren't flooding the concert halls to hear the latest classical orchestral composition.

However, in these mediums the old forms are at least preserved, whether in archives, on DVD, in galleries or online. They are studied by students of art, techniques are brought forward to influence modern works, and mistakes are analysed and learned from. The same is not true of videogames. No medium so wantonly squanders its heritage the way the videogame industry does.

Nostalgia - Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight - it's the game we'd have instead of Mega Man if the NES was a relevant platform today.

Technological advancement (and at this point I'm aware that I'm coming across as a right technophobe, but bear with me) makes it increasingly difficult to access older games. Finding hardware capable of running old cartridge or tape-based games is difficult and expensive, and the flimsiness of these storage mediums means finding a working copy of a game as young as fifteen years old can be an arduous task. Even if people wanted to study dormant or departed genres, the limits of technology makes it increasingly difficult for them to do so.

So what does me harping on about heritage have to do with nostalgia and design, you ask? Well in recent years we've seen a resurgence in supposedly 'dead' genres, thanks in large to the development of low-cost, low barrier to entry development tools like Unity and Gamemaker, as well as non-conventional funding platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Double Fine's Broken Age is perhaps the best-known example; starved fans of the point-and-click adventure genre sent the Kickstarter project soaring far beyond it's $400,000 funding goal back in 2012, and revitalised an interest in the point-and-click genre. The recently released - and widely beloved - Divinity: Original Sin from Larian has done similar for the isometric RPG, with inXile's Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera further proving the demand for this once dead genre.

Nostalgia - Divinity Original Sin
Divinity: Original Sin successfully brings the isometric RPG up to date with a combination of modern and retro design principles.

Examples are everywhere. The free to use, coding-free Twine has brought the humble text adventure sharply back into relevance, and indie darlings from Team Meat's Super Meat Boy to Yacht Club Games' recently released Shovel Knight prove there's lots more fun to be had from the side scrolling platformer than simply replaying Super Mario World over and over.

This is all, of course, great news for fans of those classic genres, but why should people in the general design community - and, for that matter, anyone born after 1990 - give a damn? Well, I'm a firm believer that anyone working in an artistic medium can learn important lessons from studying the origins of that medium, and the same is true of videogames.

I've encountered a few game design courses in my time, and on the whole a majority of the material on these courses is drawn from games released in the last 5-10 years. I understand that some of this is to do with a desire to keep graduates focused on modern and future design trends, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of it has to do with the difficultly of (legally) securing copies of classic games for students to play.

There is a lot to learn about core game design in the purity of those classic games, lessons that are much easier to define and teach in an 8-bit game than in a modern shooter/role playing game hybrid. And while it might be tricky to secure copies of Mega Man to teach a classroom of students, it's now very easy to acquire copies of Shovel Knight, a game that uses the same key design principles and maintains the purity of the 1987 classic without being chained to old hardware.

As an added bonus, Shovel Knight is a better game than Mega Man too. Someone on a recent Gamers With Jobs Conference Call (and I can't remember who it was, but if someone feels like reminding me I will gladly amend) likened the development of Shovel Knight to 'sending the best designers of today back in time to work on a classic NES game.'

As the medium has grown older, designers have naturally gotten better at designing games. What this means is that more than simply reviving dormant genres, the best of these nostalgia projects are injecting a freshness into them by applying refined modern design practices to a classic retro template.

Nostalgia - Grim Fandango
The recently announced Grim Fandango remake will allow a new generation to experience a genre classic on modern hardware.

This makes it easier for the students of today to be able to better understand why these types of games were popular in the past. With games like Shovel Knight and Divinity: Original Sin, they can experience the appeal of these classic genres without having to struggle through the arbitrary and often unfair design of coin-op inspired platformers or the overly obfuscated interface design of classing top-down roleplaying-games.

What this means, ultimately, is that the designers of the future will go forth armed with knowledge from a much broader spectrum of gaming history rather than from only those genres currently in mainstream vogue. I believe this will lead to better, more informed game design, and we have in part the old-guard of retro-focused developers and their nostalgic fans to thank for this.

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.


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Comments


Leonardo Ferreira
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I appreciate the intention of the article, since I also see there are postivie sides in nostalgia beyond being just a selling point, but I have to disagree with some of the propositions. Games like Shovel Knight, Super Meat Boy or Cave Story simply could not exist in the NES age, since there are the product of constantly evolving design sensibilities and discussion throught the years. Also, one could see the strong influence of contemporary games designs and experience in these titles, to the point they are very much an experience that could only appear today. To judge them only by their retro visual aesthetic is to ignore the most important part of game design, which is the playing itself.

Also, there is another troubling thing in the suggestion that re-releases are positive element for preservation, when in fact, in my opinion, they are actually the nostalgia cash-ins. You mentioned in your article the hardships of finding copies of Megaman for a classroom of students (which is kind of absurd, due to the digital nature of videogames), but this highligths a larger problem of game preservation in the industry. Re-releases only happen with select games (the compilations of Megaman for the Playstation 2 comes to mind, as well as ports for the WiiWare and the iPhone), with the intention of generating revenue for the owner of the brand, and in most cases the original developers don't see a dime. We are seeing this changing slowly, but only in the PC field, with GoG and Steam; if I want to search for and obscure title for, say, the Atari ST or the Commodore 64, I would have to resort to emulation. Which, despite being a legally grey area, does a much better job of preserving games history than big corporations.In that light, I honestly think that the ethics of game preservation should be rethought, especially for reasearch and education purposes, not just commercial.

Kevin Fishburne
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I agree with everything you say here except I think you misunderstood the author's assertions about Shovel Knight. Tom said, quoting someone else, that Shovel Knight was like "sending the best designers of today back in time to work on a classic NES game." So, yeah, Shovel Knight couldn't have existed back then due to the fact that modern design sensibilities hadn't yet occurred, but time travel solves all problems. The time travelling devs would still have their modern sensibilities while beating their head against the NES walls.

As far as the ethics of game preservation, I say educators and anyone else concerned should do their duty through civil disobedience. Just break the law. It's there to serve us, not the other way around.

Lucio Gama
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Actually, most of the new games wouldn't exist for a much simpler factor: hardware limitations.

Today games keeps the look - but they don't factor for sprite limitations (some old machines could only render so much things on screen at once, NES included) or even memory or processor speeds contraints.

So no, going back in time wouldn't make the game work on older hardware :)

Tom Battey
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While I'm all for institutes of education just going ahead and teaching using emulators - that is, after all, the best way to experience these games in their purest form today - that's not going to happen due to the dubious legality of education. Something like Shovel Knight is perhaps as close as we can get, short of actual re-releases / remakes of the original games.

And I agree that a game like Shovel Knight couldn't have actually existed back on the NES - both for design and technical reasons. However, that game is clearly beholden to the NES design methodology. While it couldn't have existed back in the NES era, it also couldn't exist today if the NES era hadn't occurred.

With regards to re-releases and remasters I have a mixed opinion. I'll admit I'm a sucker for the HD rerelease. Part of it has to do with the fact that non-HD games look like balls on a modern TV, and on a good port the modern hardware actually enhances the original experience; see Shadow of the Colossus' far more stable framerate on PS3, for example.

It's also a convenience thing. Would that I had the cabinet space to keep my PS2 plugged into my telly and the shelf space for my PS2 library, but I don't, so being able to all 3 Devil May Cry games on one disc certainly appeals to me.

There are also remakes of mulch older games that I'm really looking forward to, like the Oddworld redux and the recently announced Grim Fandango.

On the other hand, however, the HD port has become something of a cheap cash grab for certain publishers; look at the horribly optimised Silent Hill Collection from Konami. I'm also much less happy about the idea of paying again for games like Tomb Raider, GTAV or The Last of Us, games released less than two years ago.

However, I absolutely can and will exercise my right to not purchase these rereleases, and I do see how they can be good for people who only own a PS4 and not a PS3, for example.

On the whole I agree that we need to think much more carefully about persevering games heritage, but if publishers are going to do it via re-releases, then as much as that can be seen as a blatant cash-grab, it's better than nothing in my book.

Wylie Garvin
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"While I'm all for institutes of education just going ahead and teaching using emulators - that is, after all, the best way to experience these games in their purest form today - that's not going to happen due to the dubious legality of education."

I don't think that necessarily follows. I don't deny that our ridiculous copyright laws are a huge chilling effect in this area, but seriously -- What game publisher would have the balls to sue a college professor for violating the copyright of 30-year-old videogame software for educational purposes? And even if the risk of such a lawsuit was considered high, there must some educators out there who would do it anyway. It is clearly the right thing to do.

If preserving our video game heritage legally is too impractical, then we should do it anyway and to hell with the legality. Teachers must be allowed to teach, and now that perfect preservation of our culture's important digital artifacts is possible (even easy), it would be ridiculous to let them be lost just because of the copyright laws of the day.

Tom Battey
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Absolutely. I'm in no way arguing against the use of emulation in schools, I think it's a great idea. The practicalities of it are a bit more complicated due to lots of legal red tape, but the sooner we figure out a way to do it without educators having to stare down lawsuits the better.

Sam Stephens
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"Games are a primarily technological medium, and technology is inherently progressive. Designs are continuously iterated upon and discarded in favour of better, slicker, more robust models."

Although computer technology is the medium for video games, games themselves are not inherently technological. I believe our grasp of gameplay greatly exits outside of the technology that facilitates it. Therefore, the "death" and resurgence of once popular genres can't be attributed solely to technological advancements and nostalgia for that technology. The potential to innovate these genres (shoot em' ups, flight combat, adventure games, etc.) using new technologies has always been there. These types of games continue to be pretty popular in Japan, so even the notion that they have ever gone away isn't exactly true. Likewise, the stuff we are getting now like Shovel Knight and Mighty No. 9 have quite a few modern design sensibilities and aren't so limited by technology as NES games.

You could argue that most of the people making these "old school" video games are independent developers who lack technological resources, but I have always attributed this to AAA developers' common fixation on cinematic presentation and world building (which indeed require a lot of technology) over exploring and building upon gameplay tropes.

Kevin Fishburne
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I think the resurgence could be caused by a few things.

First, gamers who played classic games are now old enough to be in a position of power and influence in the industry (as consumers or creators), so the desire to recreate the magic of their childhood play experiences could be a factor.

Second, with the proliferation of indie games, YouTube Let's Plays of classic games and the ease of emulation and DOSbox, newer generations of gamers unfamiliar with the classics are realizing that many classic games are actually still pretty awesome and a welcome alternative to the AAA cinematic roller coasters they're accustomed to.

Third, a backlash against the momentum of technological advancement, which led to the industry-wide belief that what is new and better should be used without regard to gameplay context or franchise/brand expectations. Once 3D became mainstream it was difficult for studios and their publishers to see that anything else was acceptable. 2D, or even a 2D presentation of a 3D scene, was looked on as a step backward. Studios failed to see that the platformer, shoot 'em up, etc., and their basic mechanics were valid and marketable independent of available technology. Modern developers, particularly those less bound by corporate stakeholders (indies), now have a less tech-lust-fueled perspective and aren't afraid to borrow liberally from the past.

To give you an example of point three, I was at a conference in Atlanta many years ago and the studio lead behind Metroid Prime was giving a presentation. When it was Q/A time someone asked him what he thought about fans who felt betrayed by the series departing from its platforming roots and going first person 3D. I don't remember the answer, only that it was extremely rude and dismissive, as if only a child or a fool would ask such things.

Lucio Gama
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I think the article overlooked one key factor: 8-bit / 16-bit style games are almost like books - they leave room for imagination, which the player "fills in" with his/her mind.

For example, take a look at my "Escape from Alcatraz" game (http://alcatraz.icongames.com.br) - 150k downloads and counting - and people loving the game! The graphics are dead simple (I made the game by myself, in 30 days), but with the story, with the music, it creates the correct environment and mood to sink the player into the experience.

Also, 8-bit graphics are cheaper, easier to make (compared to AAA 3D models), and even if you're not too good at drawing it, you can "get away" with plenty, which is a perfect solution for indie developers everywhere.

Tom Battey
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There's lot more I'd like to write - and one day I will - about the benefits of a deliberately ambiguous and obfuscating game. I believe that just like in prose and film, leaving certain elements of a game up to a player's imagination has the power to make your game far more memorable.

Minimalist art is one way to do this. I mean look at Minecraft; that's a game literally about using your imagination and it looks like it could've been made in 1993 - and last time I checked it was doing pretty well.

Kevin Fishburne
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I agree with that. What makes books so powerful is that they convey just enough of a skeleton that the reader is unconsciously forced to project their own personality and knowledge to build flesh around it. The more detail provided the higher the risk of the reader failing to connect with the scene or characters. This applies to video games and film equally.

Something related I noticed is that high fidelity graphics are like a habit-forming drug; the more provided the more you want and the less special they begin to seem. The textures are never high enough resolution, each curved surface begins to seem more angular, and that lush grassy field slowly begins to look like a bunch of repetitive billboards. Good graphics are never good enough, as your tolerance increases faster than the advance of technology.

Then there's the rookie mistake of inconsistent fidelity. If half the game's assets look like 1995 and the other half look like 2005, people will say the graphics are amateurish and shitty. Make ALL the assets look like 1995 however and somehow everything's okay. It's interesting how people's minds interpret game assets with respect to fidelity. There should be a book about that. :)

Wylie Garvin
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"It's a curious thing about our industry: not only do we not learn from our mistakes, we also don't learn from our successes." -- Keith Braithwaite

(said about software in general, not just games .. but there's certainly some truth in it)


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