Who controls the past controls the future.
-George Orwell, 1984
Happy today, NPCs!
Thanks for joining us today for another episode of the Anatomy of a Game Review series. The goal of this collection of articles is to attempt to (however clumsily) deepen the craft of criticism and invite critical, scholarly, academic, and historical disciplines into the field of games study and writing. That’s not going to appeal to everyone, of course, because we’re all different, but hopefully, it is something which at the very least gets us away from the game reviewer’s go-to “It just doesn’t work”. Our goal is to brighten the shadowy corners through the illumination of science (the science of criticism), and who would be against that?
If things like understanding what consumers of reviews look for and the structural uses of points systems interest you, then check out the previous entries in this quasi-monthly series.
So, onto the basis for this month’s entry! Special thanks to everyone who voted in our recent poll on Twitter and shared their thoughts! My thanks also to those who suffered through their notifications being blown up, something I’m determined to develop a reputation for, I guess.
This was yet another example of sharing our opinions only without having an argument. Can you believe it? That’s two times already in as many months and the topic was potentially even more controversial this time around. Checkmate, internet, you stupid idiot.
For those who didn’t get to participate or who had trouble keeping up with everyone’s replies, I’ve linked to the original poll and I’ll share my takeaways below.
A few takeaways I had:
- Many found choosing a specific decade difficult.
- The SNES was a fan favorite, which does my heart happy.
- I was personally surprised the ’80s didn’t get more love!
- There was some guilt expressed by those who voted for the 2010s, which may be due to the defensiveness of some retrogaming arenas.
- Favorite decades were directly tied to favorite games, not eras or advancements in technology or even primarily to consoles and systems.
- I like the point someone made: “Right now is the best time ever to be a gamer. If nothing else, it is probably easier to play games from the 80s and 90s than it was in the 80s and 90s.”
- Variety is a big benefit of the current era in gaming whereas some saw the rise in prevalence of the internet as a downfall in preserving the mystery of games.
- The 90s was the clear winner for favorite decade and reasons cited included the tail end of the NES, the birth of the SNES, the rise and fall of Sega, the genesis of true 3D with both PlayStation and the N64, the rise of handhelds, the console wars, great PC games, the arcades were still around. It was the best of so many worlds. What a time to be a gamer.
The big takeaway, the one thing that’s clearest, is that nostalgia is powerful.
Many commenters were upfront about it, but what is nostalgia? Should the critic be aware of the allure of nostalgia? I think so, just as the critic should be aware of their own biases.
Nostalgia combines the potential impact of several feelings: a sense of loss, longing, yearning, a sense of specific joy and pride. It can be happy or sad. Sometimes it even feels like both. It’s sentimentality for the past. Nostalgia is powerful because it often penetrates into our oldest memories and the deepest fundamentals of the people that we turned out to be
That explains why people so easily take offense when something they enjoy through nostalgia is defamed or bad-mouthed; nostalgia requires that the person with those sentiments makes a cultural statement of identity and ownership over something (a home, a place, a product, an activity). It explains why the results of the poll could be anticipated: “greatest” and “favorite” are often combined by some but ask what a person’s favorite is in any category and the pull of nostalgia is going to be present to some degree.
It also explains why retro gaming has such a large presence in the gaming scene today, why people are still playing, enjoying, creating content for, and talking about games that came out over two decades ago. Now to what extent nostalgia explains away the infatuation with retro classics as balanced against the assertion that those games have aged well and retain objectively good qualities is something that must be described per individual and per game, it seems. That’s a conversation for another day.
“Nostalgia” was a neologism first coined in 1668 by Johannes Hofer, a word for homesickness. It comes as a compound word from the Greek νόστος (nostos) which means “homecoming” and ἄλγος (algos) which means “pain, ache, grief, distress”. Nostalgia came to mean intense homesickness, originally made in reference to Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad.
I’m reminded of the closing song of the game Journey, “I Was Born For This”, which has as part of its translation: “To each his day is given, ‘Tis time that I fare from you, Lost is my homecoming, I was born for this”. These lyrics tell of the solitude and isolation of the journey, and the bittersweet memories of a home that cannot be returned to.
Next question(s): What purpose does nostalgia have? Does it possess a positive potential? The answer is yes. In fact, I came across a variety of writings from academics about the positive functions of nostalgia.
A 2014 article in Psychology Today by Neel Burton M.D. stated:
“Our everyday is humdrum, often even absurd. Nostalgia can lend us much-needed context, perspective, and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life (and that of others) is not as banal as it may seem, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been—and will once again be—meaningful moments and experiences. In that much, nostalgia serves a similar function to anticipation, which can be defined as enthusiasm and excitement for some expected or hoped-for positive event. The hauntings of times gone by, and the imaginings of times to come, strengthen us in lesser times.”
A 2008 article which appeared on ScienceDaily from the Association for Psychological Science entitled “More Than Just Being A Sentimental Fool: The Psychology Of Nostalgia” summarized:
“Nostalgia has a long history, being viewed initially as a medical disease, then as a psychiatric disease. According to a new report in Current Directions in Psychological Science, only recently have psychologists begun focusing on the positive and potentially therapeutic aspects of nostalgia. Research suggests that nostalgia can promote psychological health, including counteracting the effects of loneliness and providing us with a greater sense of continuity and meaning to our lives.”
Elsewhere, in a very long-form analysis of Chrono Trigger where I talked about objectivity, exaggeration, and nostalgia, I attempted to address the difficulties of the reviewer/critic when confronted by these things and how they can impact rationality. Of hype and nostalgia I said:
“I see the both of these like the two-faced Janus, Roman idol of duality, with hype facing toward the future and nostalgia facing toward the past. Hype is concerned with over-inflating the expectation, significance, and quality of an upcoming title before its release based on rumor, conjecture, and a lot of imagination. Nostalgia involves ignoring or actively forgetting the downsides and shortcomings of old experiences, especially the ones which made an impact on us during the impressionable years of our youth, occasionally drawing the ire of those who feel as if “their childhood is being ruined”. See? More hyperbole.
As confusing as you’d expect life to be if you had two faces on your head, attempting to surmount both hype and nostalgia can be bamboozling and require a lot of hard work. These self-inflicted, twin illusory states involve the glorification of experiences in our minds beyond what is reasonable or factual, and how can one be factual about sepia-toned memories out of our youth or about experiences which haven’t even happened yet?”
How? Well, you’ll just have to go read that “dissertation” to find out! There’s a much larger breakdown of these concepts there.
So what is the critic’s responsibility when it comes to nostalgia? Five things:
#1. Recognize that nostalgia is ever-present. There’s no getting away from it, just as there’s no getting away from one’s biases. This is a running issue in many forms of journalism, gaming journalism without exception. If you know a writer can’t appreciate a JRPG on a pre-conceived bias, then you’ll know to take their opinion with a grain of salt if you’re looking for an evaluation of a JRPG, especially if their opinion leans toward the uninformed rather than the informed!
#2. Recognize that nostalgia is not new. It’s a fundamentally human attribute we share with our ancestors. There’s been the suggestion bandied about that people are becoming more nostalgic as time goes on thanks to the growing efficiency of marketing and the increase in consumerism. While that may be true to some extent (have fun trying to prove it), nostalgia has been around for thousands of years. Experiencing nostalgia is something we’ve done as a species for millennia. In the Bible’s Numbers 11:5, the Israelites remembered even slavery with fondness: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” The 1788 Scots poem “Auld Lang Syne” sings fondly of “days gone by”. Nostalgia is a major theme in Homer’s Odyssey, where the concept of νόστος pervades Odysseus’ yearning to return home after the Trojan war.
#3. Because nostalgia is ever-present and because it is not new people who are nostalgic cannot have their opinions disregarded on that basis alone. If nostalgia is everywhere, then nobody’s opinion “counts”, right? Nostalgia may partially explain why someone likes something, but there’s still the task of digging deeper to see if there’s anything else fueling that appreciation. Merely saying “it’s just nostalgia” to explain why someone likes something seems lazy and rude to me. Not only does that depreciate the person’s past experiences in question, their validity and personal value, but it also ends the conversation. If it’s “just that”, then what else is there to say? Certainly, there’s nothing to say about the subject’s the intrinsic qualities, if any! They’re no longer discoverable because, well, it’s just nostalgia, after all. Really, “just” is a poor way to excuse something without having to work to disprove it.
Nostalgia does not automatically equal inadequacy.
#4. Be aware and honest about one’s nostalgia, which can skew critical evaluation toward favor or disapproval. It’s the duty of the writer (not the writer’s fans or following) to be transparent about what they favor and what they don’t, what they feel they’re most qualified to evaluate, and so on so that the reader can understand where they’re coming from. Critics can wield an immense power, I hope you believe that, so sharing your opinion and criticisms has value to it inasmuch as swaying another person’s opinion or changing their mind is a significant thing. Don’t take it lightly but be honest about your nostalgia.
#5. Stand on the facts. While nostalgia is always there to some extent, it is the privilege of the critic to find provable facts which exist beyond the reach of nostalgic bias. This is easier for some subjects than others: it will take a great deal more proving to found “Super Mario Bros. is the greatest” versus the relative simplicity of saying “Super Mario Bros. is a platformer”. This is all provided you believe in an objective reality we can all agree on to some extent based on our senses, of course. If not, I can’t help you there since you can’t even prove you’re reading this.
In conclusion, maybe you didn’t have a chance to vote in the Twitter poll yourself. Well, today’s your lucky day because I’ve created a new poll for you. What is your favorite decade of gaming and why? Let us know in the comments! The collection of data never stops. Just watch out for nostalgia.
In your service,
-The Well-Red Mage
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