There’s a peculiar cult of nostalgia around videogames, a veneration of the past that permeates every inch of game culture. Every new game will eventually be photoshopped into an 8 or 16-bit “demake,” while huge fundraising drives raise millions to resurrect long-dead franchises and genres. Any list of the greatest anythings in gaming will inevitably be dominated by franchises that are decades old.
My inner cynic ascribes this obsessive, grasping nostalgia to our desire to feel special. These countless allusions to older games and their tropes are meant to reinforce the boundaries between “us” and “them.” True gamers have played (or at least understand references to) Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, Starcraft and so on. These games are rites of passage, requirements for entrance into our community, gates to keep out the Angry Birds.
See, it’s an important part of the gamer mythos that we all be different and marginalized, somehow other from the rest of the world. The stereotype of the gamer as a lone social outcast is not only imposed by those outside the circle: many of us cling to it as a way of distinguishing ourselves. True or not, the perception is that gamers are the nerds, the geeks, oppressed and put-upon by the jocks and the normal kids. By venerating the past and ensuring that only those who understand our shibboleths are allowed entrance into our community, we can keep ourselves safe and unique.
For these reasons, I’ve historically viewed this nostalgia with distrust. I’m not terribly interested in excluding people, and don’t have any illusions about how “oppressed” I am. But the other day, I tried to play Baldur’s Gate again, and afterwards, I realized there might be something more to this particularly powerful form of nostalgia than simply a desire to be separate and unique.
Baldur’s Gate was not the first game I played, nor the first game I really loved. But it was the first game I really lost myself in, the first game that caused me to lose time and be late to things. It was my first Great Love, the sort of game that taught me that Games are Wonderful, and for all its multitudinous clumsinesses, it is the game against which I measure all other games of its type.
It is also cruel and unforgiving, and it was mean to me long before I even started the game. I received five separate copies of Baldur’s Gate as a birthday present one year, all from the same person, my friend Joe. His father knew someone who knew someone who owned some place that sold software, and had managed to damage a whole bunch of his stock somehow. This person gave a bunch of the unsellable software to Joe’s dad in an attempt to get rid of them, and Joe, having remembered how much I wanted to play D&D, seized on the opportunity for an excellent and cheap birthday present. Baldur’s Gate came on five separate disks, and because the CDs were so scratched, none of the sets would work as packaged. So, Joe simply handed over five or six of those god-awful paper CD cases and three copies of the manual, and bade me good luck.
It took forever to find a matching set. All of the CDs were scratched, so it wasn’t simply a matter of looking for the undamaged ones– it was a case of finding the ones that were the least damaged and putting a set together. Dad and I must have installed and reinstalled that game eight times, trying to find a combination that would work, because each time it broke you had to start all over again. Once we finally got it working, we carefully threw away all the non-functional discs and burned spare copies of the good ones, just in case.
Once I was finally able to play the game, I realized an important truth: Baldur’s Gate hates you, and wants you to die. Level 1 characters in 2nd edition D&D can be killed by sufficiently motivated housecats, and you thus spend the first few chapters of the game in constant fear for your life. Level-scaling wasn’t a thing: if you wander into an area you’re not supposed to be, the game puts up roadblocks in the form of murder. If you stray off the paved road in the very first section of the game, you will be devoured by wolves.
Even if you don’t stray from the level-appropriate areas, you’re only one critical hit away from death for about the first third of the game. At the gateway to the first major tavern stands a single third or fourth-level mage who will consistently murder you and everyone you love with two spells before you can blink. (I would wager decent money that half of all unfinished BG playthroughs died on the steps of the Friendly Arm Inn.)
I’m not sure what gave me the force of will to learn how to play the game. Some combination of obligation to my friend, a lack of other games to play and a sheer, stubborn determination to enjoy the game I had been looking forward to for so long, dammit, enabled me to reach the level of proficiency necessary to achieve even moderate success.
But whatever that spark of stubborn’s source, it’s gone now. I tried to play through it again a few months ago, but only got so far as the Nashkel Mines before abandoning my Bhaalspawn to death by Kobold. The years have not dimmed the game’s fearsome hatred for players, but they have diminished my patience for the game’s punishing design.
I can’t do that sort of thing anymore. I am too spoiled by games that meet you halfway, games that seem to want you to succeed or at least explain the tools at your disposal before abandoning you to the wolves. I can’t get more than an hour into Fallout, which I missed the first time around. The icon sits on my desktop, berating me for my cultural illiteracy, but every attempt to educate myself has ended in irritation and hair loss. As Jim has pointed out, returning to a game after many years is a complex and often dissatisfying affair.
But try as I might, I can’t stay mad at Baldur’s Gate for too long. Its all-too-real foibles and flaws seem to me delightful eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. So when I found myself thinking fondly of the game not so much as a day after I’d given up in frustration, I began to wonder why. I don’t usually have any problem stating that something I loved as a child or teenager is bad. I enjoyed The Phantom Menace at the age of nine, and I feel no shame in stating this was because of my underdeveloped sensibilities, not because the movie was any good.
But I don’t seem to feel that way about Baldur’s Gate. That warm feeling I get when I think about dungeon-crawling somewhere beneath the Cloakwood Mines is stronger. The nostalgia I feel for Baldur’s Gate is a completely different animal than what I feel for the other trappings of my childhood and adolescence. When I think of Redwall or the Animorphs, I get a smile and remember long nights reading with a flashlight under the covers, but the nostalgia comes from the circumstances. I miss being able to stay up all night without any responsibilities or repercussions.
When I remember Baldur’s Gate, it feels like I’m using some other part of my brain entirely. I feel the way I do when I remember singing in my high school choir or climbing trees in the backyard. Baldur’s Gate feels like something I experienced, not just something I read or watched. Its events and encounters feel like my own memories.
This is the heart of it. It’s not just mutual enthusiasm for an art form that renders games culture so tremendously excited and profoundly impenetrable to outsiders. Discovering that a stranger also played Final Fantasy VII is akin to discovering he grew up with your childhood friends. Games culture is built not simply on a shared hobby, but on shared experience.
Jim Ralph has written about how Skyrim shares many of the trappings of a real-world nation because of all the people who have experienced it and share memories about its locations and ideas. Literally millions of people have wandered its mountainous terrain. I didn’t enjoy Skyrim in the least, but I still laugh and tell stories from my time in its grasp just as I might tell stories about things that have happened to me in the real world. I still feel some small sense of community with everyone else who has visited it.
I honestly have no idea if Baldur’s Gate is any good. I expect I am entirely incapable of evaluating its quality, because I can no more rate Baldur’s Gate than I could “the time we bought plastic lightsabers and had massive brawls all over Colorado National Monument.” Baldur’s Gate is a thing that happened to me, a set of experiences I had at a crucial point in my development.
Nostalgia in the gaming world may well be a function of insiders trying to separate outsiders, and, intentionally or not, it certainly has that effect. It necessarily creates a division between those who have seen what I’ve seen and done what I’ve done and those who have not. Still, the veneration for all things past in the gaming world doesn’t have to be any more classist or divisive than old high school friends telling stories at a reunion. It’s annoying to those not in on the stories, and it’s certainly bad to dwell on the past to the exclusion of all else, but the stories are an important part of us, and are worth remembering.
There seems to be a golden mean here. If we let this nostalgia become a barrier between us and the rest of the world, we’re doing a disservice to the power and beauty of these experiences, selfishly hoarding them away for only people who are “like us.” But if we instead use these shared experiences as a way to unite people and highlight their similarities, it can serve as a starting point for wonderful friendships and powerful communities.