Vintage by Design: Exploring Nostalgia in Video Games

Nostalgia can be a very powerful feeling.  At one point or another, all of us have felt a longing for the way things were.  Naturally, this is a feeling that video games attempt to reproduce. Many remastered or remade versions of popular old-school games have been released in the past few years to capture some of that nostalgia, but I’m not concerned with those at the moment.  This blog is dedicated to answering one question in particular; what can we do to create an authentic sense of nostalgia in original video games?

That question feels strange to write.  How do you make something feel nostalgic if it’s brand new?  There are plenty of articles and papers out there on why remasters and remakes are so popular, but it seems difficult to find a lot of information on games that capture that sense of nostalgia while remaining entirely new.  I’m going to take a look at a few recent games that, in my mind, best gave me a strong sense of nostalgia and pose some reasons that they may be successful in doing so. These findings may turn out to be entirely subjective, but I’ve tried my best to find universal examples.


Technology

One way to bring about a sense of nostalgia is by using nostalgic technologies.  The best example of this in recent days is Cuphead, a run and gun platformer released in 2017 by StudioMDHR.  What makes this game unique is the fact that every frame is hand-drawn in the same fashion as the cartoons by Max Fleischer or the Walt Disney Studios in the 1930’s.  The result is a beautiful, charming, and exceptionally difficult game that looks unlike anything else available today. Reading any interviews by the game’s creators makes it clear that this was not by any means an easy process.  

The One Change Every Cuphead Player Should Make
A screenshot from Cuphead, a game in which everything you see is animated in painstaking detail by hand. (Source)

The amount of work that went into making a smooth, natural looking game from hand-drawn frames was huge enough that the development took around seven years.  However, the response from consumers and other developers was extremely positive. The gameplay is definitely fun, but no one can mention the game without talking about its art style.  In fact, you could take any recorded playthrough and show it to a moviegoer in the 1930’s, and they wouldn’t think anything of it. This seamless blending of traditional art techniques and technology with modern gaming design practices allows for a very unique style that oozes with nostalgia.


Aesthetic

Another way to give the feeling of nostalgia is through aesthetic.  In this case, I use aesthetic to mean the overall feel of the piece, which include a bit of theming, a bit of story, and a bit of whatever that extra element is that makes something stand out.  The strongest examples I could find of nostalgic aesthetic in games is in the Bioshock series.  The two games I’ll focus on are Bioshock (released in 2007) and Bioshock Infinite (released in 2013), both developed by Irrational Games.

Bioshock.png
The cities of Rapture (left, from Bioshock) and Columbia (right, from Bioshock Infinite) feel as if they’re straight out of an alternate reality’s history books. (Source 1 & Source 2)

In both of these action first-person-shooters, the player takes on the role of a hero exploring a fantastical, fictional city.  Bioshock featured the underwater “utopia” of Rapture, a haven where scientists, artists, and other creative individuals could flourish without having to worry about the morals upheld by the general public. Bioshock Infinite took the action to the skies in the floating city of Columbia, a permanent world’s fair built onto the backs of blimps.

Both of the cities explored in these games are entirely fictional, with features like animatronic bodyguards and citizens partaking in gene splicing and time travel. However, the nostalgic aspect comes from the fact that both pull from real history and culture. The soundtracks heard in the streets and on radios in both cities are made up from real songs matching the eras in which they’re supposed to exist. Rapture is with filled with Art Deco architecture and characters based on real figures like Ayn Rand. The streets of Columbia, on the other hand, pull inspiration from the same sources as Main Street in any of the Disney parks, giving the city a clean, innocent feel. Even the history of Columbia is tied to real events such as the Battle of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion.

By pulling inspiration from so many real sources, the worlds created in Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite can’t help but feel nostalgic. To me, it felt like I half-remembered these cities from history class in middle school. Maybe I just fell asleep in class when those topics were covered.


Mechanics

Finally, one of the more interesting ways to bring about nostalgia (and actually the origin of the idea for this post) comes from the mechanics within games. It might be easy to say a game “feels” good, but it’s much tougher to understand exactly why it feels like that. For this discussion of mechanics, I’m going to be taking a look at 3D platformers. In this genre, a character’s perceived weight, floatiness, traction, jump height, acceleration, attack speed, and so many more factors make characters feel like they do. Outside of the character, factors such as the environment, enemies, power-ups, and interactable objects can change how the game plays as well as how it feels. Recreating these attributes and factors can lead to a modern game feeling like an older game, but is that enough to create a feeling of nostalgia? To explore this subject, I’m going to take a look at two recent collect-a-thon 3D platformers.

Banjoj.png
Screenshots from the classic collect-a-thon 3D platformer Banjo-Kazooie (left) and its spiritual sequel, Yooka-Laylee (right). (Source 1 & Source 2)

The collect-a-thon 3D platformer was a genre that was created with the birth of the Nintendo 64 console. Super Mario 64 is considered the original collect-a-thon, a genre which is defined by the existence of multiple types of collectible objects scattered throughout various worlds. One of the other most popular games in the genre was Banjo-Kazooie. This was a favorite game of mine (and still is!) due to its colorful and interesting worlds, its sense of humor, and its solid and fun mechanics. After the Nintendo 64 was replaced by later generations of consoles, the collect-a-thon genre mostly died off. However, in the mid-2010’s, the genre re-entered the mainstream due to some very successful Kickstarter campaigns.

The most highly-publicized Kickstarter was from a team of developers called Playtonic Games. Many of the members of this team had previously worked on Banjo-Kazooie, so when they announced Yooka-Laylee as a spiritual sequel to the much beloved classic, fans were ecstatic. Within 40 minutes, the team met their Kickstarter goal of ~$230,000. By the end of the campaign, they had raised $2.6 million. It was clear that fans were excited about a return to a game from their childhoods. Several years earlier, an even smaller team called Gears for Breakfast started a Kickstarter for their own collect-a-thon game, A Hat in Time. This game had nowhere near the backing of Yooka-Laylee, but still managed to raise ~$300,000. It had the same goal as Yooka-Laylee: bring a dead genre of games back to life on modern consoles.

Hat.png
Screenshot from A Hat in Time, a indie game by Gears for Breakfast, which had a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013. (Source)

Both games released around the same time, but the public’s response to both was quite a surprise. Players and critics gave Yooka-Laylee middling scores, while A Hat in Time received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Why was it that the team behind the beloved Banjo-Kazooie series couldn’t recapture the magic that their games used to have? I think this all lies in the fact that nostalgia doesn’t concern itself with the technical details behind games. On paper, Yooka-Laylee should have been a great success. It had all of the the features of Banjo-Kazooie, plus updated graphics. The characters controlled well, the worlds were huge and varied, and the overall presentation was solid. However, there was one small problem; the nostalgia people hold for old games like Banjo-Kazooie lie in the feelings surrounding the experience rather than purely the mechanics or gameplay.

At the time, Banjo-Kazooie’s gameplay was new and fresh. The worlds were interesting, and the game’s structure was simple but fun. However, as time passed, those features became less impressive. Huge worlds can be found in just about any game now. Loading Unity’s standard assets gives you access to characters with fun and interesting controls to put into your own games. Since Yooka-Laylee took those elements and repackaged them with new graphics, it didn’t work the same magic for gamers as the original. A Hat in Time, however, did something new. They took the basic formula that made 3D collect-a-thon platformers great and built upon that with modern gamers in mind. Their worlds were smaller, but had much more detail packed into every corner. The main character was not only fun to control, but also had a variety of unique powers that allowed for interesting movement, puzzle solving, and combat situations. Rather than copying what made classic games great, the Gears for Breakfast team took what was already done and built upon that. Player’s sense of nostalgia came from the excitement of finding secrets, having fun with the controls, and exploring a new world, just like they had in the past.


Nostalgia is a tricky thing. People often feel longing for certain times and events, even if they never experienced them in the first place. I think that, to create games that give off the undeniable feeling of nostalgia, a few options are available: utilizing older technologies with modern audiences in mind, taking real-world culture and events and working them into fictional worlds, and taking inspiration from what people love, but changing the design to better match what people expect. Hopefully, with these ideas in mind, it might become a bit easier to create games and experiences that people connect with at a deeper level.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s