I’m an avid reader of Edge, so it is inevitable that I have read many things written by Leigh Alexander, and a common theme emerges with an overview taken of her work for Edge: the importance she believes nostalgia to play in the actions of game journalists, developers and the community at large. As much it would be ridiculous to imply that the fond reminiscing of how one spent their youth plays no part in choices pertaining to careers and pastimes, the degree to which Alexander places import on the “playing-child” of people in gaming community is a little hard to swallow as well.
When we were kids, games fascinated, inspired and intrigued us, acting as windows into other worlds. […] Every single one of us has at least one story about how a game saved a summer, created bonds between friends, between parent and child. We learned the power of this medium in ways we’ll never forget, and in ways that still motivate us today. It comes as no surprise, then, that nostalgia and gaming culture have always gone hand in hand.
– Leigh Alexander, Fond recollections of what made us start gaming are what keeps many devs and journalists in the industry, Edge 245, October 2012, Future Publishing, p. 34
Alexander does touch on something that cannot be denied here: a love for the medium may well be instilled from the experiences that one has with it (in fact, I’ve even admitted that as a personal reason for me loving Crash Bandicoot), but it does not follow from that, as she seems to contend, that this sense of nostalgia caused by loving memories is what makes the gaming community stick with gaming. By this sort of reasoning, it would follow that someone who had become a vet having seen a childhood pet suffer horribly, giving her a great passion for improving the welfare of animals, would have gone into the field of veterinary science and continued to practice it, in spite of any setbacks such as (for example) accusations of negligence solely for the wish to do her best to prevent other animals suffering in the way hers did. Of course, this would not necessarily be the case: our vet could stay in the field for the financial security it would afford to her, or perhaps due to a sense of lost, wasted time if she were to quit having gone through so much training to get to where she is. It is a bit of tortured simile, but the core point is true and our vet does have a parallel with the gamer: the investment of time in their passion. While they both have an event of incitement to their respective passions of veterinary science and gaming, in seeing their pet suffer and having some sort of bonding experience over a game, this event does not have to be what sustains the passion. Both the vet and the gamer spend time, money and mental exertion on their passions, and to expect nostalgia to account for such continued expenditure seems improbable.
The problem with her claim about nostalgia above is its strength: the way in which we learned the medium may still motivate us to partake in it, but not in the way that Alexander seems to expect. By appealing to nostalgia, she seems to imply that it is the memory of the given instance of bonding that sustains the passion: the memory of, say, only being able to beat that part ofContra in co-op. This moment, while perhaps pivotal in sowing the seeds for the passion of gaming, is hardly likely to be the first thing thought of when someone thinks of why they love games. The importance of the token instance is overrated by Alexander, with it being more likely that the rewards for co-operation in video games are to be cited: the typical causes of the passion. The first token experience of the type may be what starts the passion, but it will be recollection of the type of experience that sustains the passion. Surely, if that were not the case, one’s passion for video games would necessitate the repetition of the original experience for its sustenance.
One of the great things about the indie dev community is how consistently it finds ways to reappropriate and reinvent classic forms and styles, favouring traditional aesthetics and arcade-style difficulty levels.
The statement itself is something that I do not disagree with: it really is wonderful to take in the charm of indie developed games, with such developers generally having more room to be playful in their designs. The assertion that Alexander makes with regard to the reasons behind the aesthetic and gameplay choices in indie circles is, however, troubling. There is no prima facie reason to believe that these choices are down to a hankering for the “good old days”: taking Jamestown as a example, indie games generally have less cash to splash and time to spare on expensive graphical toolkits and the like (Jamestown was funded with the three developers’ savings), with modern free tools tending to be geared more towards 2D graphic development (Microsoft’s XNA, used for Jamestown, being an example: its 2D ability is a fair step above its 3D), and the arcade-style difficulty is a sign of a trend that even applies to non-indie developers. FROM Software’s Dark and Demon’s Souls have been critically lauded for their incredible difficulty: given that indie developers are gamers themselves, and are working for themselves, they would be more likely to answer the call for greater difficulty than larger publishers’ commissioners. In short, these design decisions are not so much about nostalgia as practicality and providing what they feel that players would want in a game – their is likely to be a disjunct between corporates and indies in that regard.
On the “dark ages” experienced by adventure games once developers discovered full-motion video, Alexander writes:
Very few make it through all [of the disappointment of poor games] without having had a deep love for the medium instilled within them at an early age – nothing less than those pure memories of discovery and joy could sustain us. Often, I think most of us work so hard because we’re trying to love games again the way we did when we were kids.
– Leigh Alexander, Lessons for the new breed of adventure games, Edge Online
Startlingly honest though this may be, it seems an overly harsh view on the state of games now. There are things to be griped about (DLC, for example), of course, but there are in any field: passions are not the sort of thing that need to be kept alive solely by recourse to memories of the thing that one is passionate about. If I love Edam, for example, to the extent of being passionate about it, I will most likely like most hard cheeses. Of course, I will prefer Edam, but this does not mean that a piece of cheddar will not sustain my passion: I know that I would prefer Edam, but the cheddar is sufficient to sustain my passion of Edam, as a cheese. Similarly, experiencing games that are not quite as good as previous games we have played will naturally not be as satisfying, but they will be sufficient to remind us of our past passions and sustain them until we can be satisfied once again.
Nostalgia is no doubt an important part of how we quantify what makes us love things: there is no way that we can have passion without some experience that incites it – we are undoubtedly tied to our past. Whether this singular experiences and their recollection account for our continued passion for things, however, is less certain. I would say not: there are too many new experiences of the type that start our passions for us to rely on old tokens to maintain our interest. Games will always have elements that remind us of why we love them: they cannot be games without them.