I bought a new video game system — a Playstation 5. This is a big deal, for me at least. I have never purchased a brand new non-Nintendo product. I have not owned a Playstation since 2003 — a trusty pre-owned Playstation 2 that I used primarily to play FIFA World Cup 2002.
- “Craig Sager” — Midaz the Beast
- “Junie” — Solange
- “Locust Laced” — Sleigh Bells
- “Birthday Girl” — Microdisney
- “Bruce Loves Big Star” — P.E.E.
- “Album of the Year” — The Good Life
- “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” — Kris Kristofferson
- “Never Say Never” — The Linda Lindas
- “I Took A Ride” — Caroline Rose
- ”Let It Grow” — Inkwell (w/ Talib Kweli, The Snaglepuss, Erin Baku, & Baba Israel)
- “Tessellate (Tom Campesinos! Remix)” — Tokyo Police Club
- “Runnin’” — The Pharcyde
- “Running with the Hurricane” — Camp Cope
- “ワイルド・デ・チョコボ (Wild de Chocobo)” — Final Fantasy VII Remake Soundtrack / Nobuo Uematsu
- “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” — Stephen Malkmus
- “Joanne” — Michael Nesmith & the First National Band
- “MacArthur Park” — Donna Summer
- “Black Star” (Live) — Gillian Welch
Video games used to be a major part of my life. I worked in video games retail from my sophomore year of high school through most of college — at a Best Buy as the on-site video game experts, and then at a series of Gamestop-owned properties (Software Etc.! FuncoLand!). I was THERE when the first Playstation was unceremoniously added to shelves, and then worked the launch of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation 2 and the XBox.
And, in the early 2000s, I kind of just … gave up on them. Until recently, when one very specific thing drew me back in:
My sweet longing friend. My muse; my cohort. Nostalgia kept tugging at me; reminding me. It whispered in my ear: “Remember that first Final Fantasy game?” “Remember Super Mario World?”
My children grew into near-teens, and nostalgia kicked into high gear. Everything old was new again: the Nintendo Classic, the Super Nintendo Classic. The Nintendo Switch was building a game library deeply rooted not only in well-constructed games that old people could play, but also games that catered to the lapsed adult: my generation, who cut their teeth in the 8-bit and 16-bit era.
And now I’m back. The Playstation 5 gives me the power to catch up — to see what the fuss was about, and to understand today’s modern gaming.
I mention this all because, from my point-of-view as someone who’s been exposed to 20 years of video game systems all at once, there seem to be two overarching themes in the industry: 1) perfecting systems, and 2) re-capturing nostalgia.
On one hand, the development of gaming engines has evolved to a point of complexity — every long-form game I’ve picked up has included a significant tutorial that reminds me how to perform basic motor functions. Each game builds off the last, and the good ones improve the process.
On the other hand, many games are designed to recapture a past memory. They’re meant to harken back to something you once loved. The good games do both: a game like Undertale uses a one-of-a-kind system to get through battles and provides players to go completely pacifist, but it is also designed to lean deeply into nostalgia — specifically for games like Earthbound and … well, there aren’t other games like Earthbound, I guess.
If you don’t know Earthbound, you might marvel in Undertale’s creativity. If you do know Earthbound, however, there’s an added layer of appreciation. Which is to say that gaming is a combination of both recreating general experiences and reflecting upon specific ones.
Here’s my dilemma: I’m currently playing Final Fantasy VII Remake — a full-remake (but not complete — this just part one of three) of the original hall-of-fame-level Playstation game. And I’m conflicted. It’s attempting to perfect a system I already loved. And it’s attempting to re-capture nostalgia in a way that’s creating an uncanny valley.
Which brings me to some overthinking about nostalgia.
I’ve always viewed nostalgia through the lens of the source, along a spectrum. First, there’s a kind of specific nostalgia: a feeling of longing and grasping remembrance of a specific album, or a specific television program. I encountered this specific nostalgia while reading an oral history of the early days of MTV (Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution) after which I sought out multi-hour MTV archives on the Internet Archive. I felt things while reading that book, and I wanted to experience those feelings again.
Then, there’s a kind of general nostalgia, in which that feeling of longing and grasping remembrance is tied to generalities. Instead of an emotional tug around a specific song, general nostalgia focuses on a time or wide location, or nostalgia for a feeling. This kind of nostalgia is what one might feel if they think about, say, their childhood neighborhood, or the smell of the wind. I encounter this kind of general nostalgia whenever I smell warm terpenes on a hot day.
But this is only one spectrum of nostalgia. The other, which Svetlana Boym talks about in her book The Future of Nostalgia, focuses less on the source and more on the intent. According to Boym, the spectrum of nostalgia flows between restorative nostalgia, which focuses on “fixing” and restoring special moments, and reflective nostalgia, which focuses on appreciating those past moments or situations.
Most of the media we might consider “nostalgic” — and, to be clear, this could be ANYTHING, because we’re all unique people with unique nostalgic triggers — falls in two quadrants: specific and reflective, or general and restorative. We become nostalgic about a reissue and we hope to experience it again; the Nintendo Classic is an example of specific and reflective. Or, we become nostalgic for a time and we want to see a recreation of it; a film like Stand By Me can trigger nostalgia for being a child in the 1950s.
(You could argue that, sometimes, a single piece of media might fall in both quadrants — we may feel nostalgia for the general time and era represented by a restorative film like A Christmas Story, but we may also feel nostalgia for the specific film itself when we watch it replayed each Christmas on TNT.)
Final Fantasy VII Remake falls into a weird third quadrant, in which my nostalgia feels … misdirected, and almost completely fooled. Final Fantasy VII Remake, not unlike remakes of classic films, triggers a kind of reflective nostalgia, in which I remember and appreciate the original Final Fantasy VII. But … it’s not that game. It’s been updated in an image that’s … almost the same. It’s an uncanny valley of memories, in which the changes clearly improve the overall package, but in which my memories are so often confused and mixed up. It’s specific, but restorative, as if it’s looking to re-write history rather than remember it.
This is not unique. It’s a byproduct of what happens when technology is thrown at nostalgia. We want the feeling of gas-powered lights down Main Street, even though they are powered by electricity and use LED bulbs. We want to experience a classic story like True Grit, but we want to also experience the novelty of seeing it through the lens of a new generation of film stars. Creators have been inspired to capture the generality of these feelings — of this longing, of this ache — and remake them into something that aligns more with the current day.
I don’t know how to feel about Final Fantasy VII Remake. I struggle with the changes to the game I once knew, but I also don’t know that game as well as I once did. I like to think that I have a specific nostalgia for the game itself, but in reality I have no nostalgia for the details — my nostalgia is tied to the idea of playing a game like Final Fantasy VII. It’s tied to where I WAS — a rented Playstation in my dorm room in Marshall, Minnesota. The nostalgia is tied to how I felt at the time — in a town I didn’t like, waiting to move, finding the game as a single source of enjoyment in a situation I was trying to escape.
It’s everything all at once, really. It’s specific, it’s general. It’s reflective, it’s restorative. We get to participate in all of it, if we want: we can play the new, we can play the old, we can tie it to the details or the location. We can go back to 1998 or we can appreciate what we have now.
Nostalgia gets a bad rap, but there’s nothing wrong with familiarity — with reaching back into the past and brushing through some old feelings. But it’s not all about familiarity. Sometimes, we just need to get a glimpse of those old feelings within something brand new. Sometimes we can move forward without forgetting the past, knowing that they can both live alongside each other in an uncanny harmony.