You Must Gather Your Party 2



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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.


Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.