Practiced nostalgia – going back inside the game

Posted on 19/01/2009


Admitably it happens not that often that games actually manage invoking nostalgic feelings when we play them for the first time. The ones that arguably do that with planned regularity usually come from Nintendo and pull us in by those all-too familiar tunes Koji Kondo and his colleagues cooked up in the late 80s. Real nostalgia is something games can come up with like few other media, by actually sending the player back into a place he’s been before, by actually re-creating a familiar situation. Of course not in the way of just doing the same things a game series’ earlier iteration did, but by putting the player and the player character in the same spot so to speak.

The most prominent example of last year’s game avalanche extravaganza guilty of doing just that was of course Hideo Kojima’s game to end all games Snakes, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and it’s prominently featured re-visit of Metal Gear Solid’s (The Twin Snakes for those late adopters like me who only know the superb Gamecube remake by Silicon Knights) Shadow Moses Island.
In itself the Shadow Moses level was a perfect approach to in-game nostalgia, as this part actually used all methods available to a game as a medium to realize this trip to the past. First, at the beginning of the chapter, Solid “Old Snake” Snake dreams of hist past adventures on Shadow Moses, which is shown as a fully realized recreation of Metal Gear Solid’s first few minutes. ‘Fully realized’ actually goes beyond what many other games would do at this point, the player suddenly is handed over the controls over Snake’s dream, running around in a low-poly world of the past, which goes so far as to really ‘go there’, letting the player play through the first few minutes of the original game, including the original game play mechanics of the PS1 classic.

And that’s just step 1. It reminds us how far we have come with Snake, takes us back from the ultra high resolution game of the modern day back into the late 90s, when state of the art graphics had just taken a percieved step backwards from fluidly animated 2D to somewhat crappy looking ‘but it’s THREE DEE!’ 3D (okay, not entirely true, MGS1 was one step further from the really crude early 3d games but still closer to them then not). Most important to this part is the gameplay. The graphics are that of the PS1 original, not of the remake, and so is the actual control scheme and the core mechanics, there is no first person shooting, nor hanging from the ledges, it’s just that: The very, very basics. Yes, we did come a long way from that.

Then, after another lenghty cutscene and a game of avoiding blizzard-covered Gekko, we – Snake and the player – reach the heli pad, the place where it all began, the place we just saw in Snake’s dream. No longer in low-poly, but in fully fledged high resolution, though without any clone soldiers. Now this is a section where the game really comes together, and a real high point of the game. The music comes into play, the original tunes back from the original game, as well as some voiceover snippets from back then. Here the player and the character – assuming the player actually played MGS1 that is – have a real uniting moment, as fans of the series we remember the dialouge from that section, just as it’s played. But more than those active and passive memories, there’s the place itself to explore. The game really takes us back. We remember that there was a hidden passage there, including some extra pickup, we go check, and it still IS there. As is the old surveillance camera we so carefully avoided in the first game. It’s a moment akin to going back to the old playground we used to hang out as kids. And in it’s completeness, this bit from Guns of the Patriots is a rare moment in gaming, as it really goes that extra mile in order to take us back.
There are however other examples that work in a similar manner.

Probably the other big example that does this ‘going back’ in a similar manner is Silent Hill 3. The big difference however is, that in this game we do not revisit the titular town in the skin of the character we were here with before. Heather very much is not James. But the Silent Hill from part 3 is in fact the same Silent Hill we visited in Part 2. The Brookhaven Hospital is also the same, using even the same floor plan as before, albeit with some slight diffrences in which doors open and which don’t, similar to the way streets are randomly blocked in the town proper. Silent Hill takes the player back, being a one sided trip down nostalgia road, which doesn’t include the player character being down on the same level as the player.

The next example is actually in itself an exercise in nostalgia: It’s an arguable point that the actual protagonist of the System Shock games isn’t the player character, but the main antagonist, the mad AI SHODAN. So we experience another moment of protagonist-player union if we follow that line of argument, in the final levels of System Shock 2, when the player travels into what SHODAN calls “her memories” – a recreation of the first game’s citadel station, more particular, of the first game’s first moments. This however isn’t a version as meticulously recreated in all the details the Shadow Moses level was, but it’s enough to evoke that sense of nostalgia in the players who actually were around and played Shock 1.

Speaking of Looking Glass games, Thief comes to mind. Thief could have also included some real nostalgic moments in its three iterations, but did not. The City isn’t the same place throughout the different games, street layout varies, architecture and tech level does as well. It’s arguable though that it makes sense from an in-game perspective that Garret does live in a diffrent place in Deadly Shadows than he does in Metal Age, simply because his place was raided in one of Metal Ages earlier chapters. Also, with the engine jump from Metal Age to Deadly Shadows, including a similar level structure seemingly was no longer a viable option. Sadly I never played the very first ‘Dark Project’ dubbed game, so if there were any nostalgic moments between ‘Dark Project’ and ‘Metal Age’ they were lost on me.

Another Ion Storm Austin / Looking Glass / Spector game to actually go out and visit the past was Deus Ex: Invisible War, which had the player and the player character follow – among others – the protagonist of the first game to the starting point of the first game, which actually was fully recreated (and re-decorated), serving as stage for the final showdown.

Why is ‘applied nostalgia’ in games something worthy to think about?
It serves as a very strong method of identity creation across the titles of a franchise. Also, it’s something when done all the way through, that’s only possible this way in this particular medium. The player has a chance to suddenly feel “at home”, revisiting the past together with the character he’s playing with.
It’s something that can really add to a game series’ coherence, as a wonderful sort of narrative vehicle. Both Invisible War and Guns of the Patriots used the first levels of their predecessors to show how much time had passed since the players last visit to the place.
Also, more games should feature low poly dreams. We really have come a long way since then.

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