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Nostalgia & Heritage

Nostalgia in the games industry can play an important part in upholding gaming heritage, and can benefit the future generation of game designers by preserving genres and design philosophies.

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 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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