Video Game Aesthetics & The Never-Ending Past
Synthwave. Neon. 8-bit. Classic. Retro. Revival. Remake.
What’s old is new again. History repeats itself. Fashion is cyclical.
However you’d like to put it, and whatever cultural sphere you find yourself in, there is some adage remarking on how something from the past has once again found relevance.
Nostalgia rules pop culture, because the culture industry knows how powerful the emotions associated with this longing for the past are. These feelings can be so strong that, at one time, suffering from nostalgia & homesickness was considered a medical condition that could be fatal. In 1688, Johannes Hofer first attempted to diagnose nostalgia, translating the German word Heimweh [homesickness] and using it to describe the state of depression seen in Swiss mercenaries who pined for their homes in the Alps while fighting abroad. While nostalgia is no longer seen as a mental illness, there is no doubt that there are still many who suffer from it.
Last year, Ready Player One took nostalgia to the bank, to the tune of nearly $600 million. And just over a month ago, the remake of the 1998 classic survival horror game, Resident Evil 2, shipped 4 million copies, proving that the market for video game nostalgia is paying out. It’s no surprise, as nostalgia has led to remakes and revivals of countless franchises from Full House to G.I. Joe, My Little Pony to Blade Runner, music influenced by 80s pop, and— occupying a niche that doesn’t get as much press representation—video games that try to capture that retro aesthetic. It is understandable that this has happened, as the vast majority of the “creative class” came of age in the 80s, and are now the arbiters of taste. They look back to the days of their youth with rose-tinted glasses, and think THAT was the best era for everything. However, this on its own can’t account for the durability of the 80s in the cultural zeitgeist, and hopefully we can tease out why that decade in particular is so enduring.
80s nostalgia is a heady mix, and the video game industry can’t resist the synths, pixels, and excesses of the decade. Ready Player One chose to open with Van Halen’s “Jump.” A song that epitomizes the cheesy glam rock of the era and leaves little doubt that nostalgia is in the driver’s seat for this particular project.
While nostalgia can take many forms, and appear with varying degrees of subtlety, there are two primary modes through which it manifests in video games, which I will call aesthetic nostalgia and mechanical nostalgia. We’re talking about ‘the look’ versus ‘the feel’.
Let’s start with the former. The aesthetics of a game are an easy way to infuse a game with feelings of nostalgia by using the music, fonts, fashions, and color palettes of a given era. This is Van Halen’s “Jump” being included on the soundtrack, or a character sporting the trademark Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck moustache and Hawaiian shirt. As we’re focusing on the 80s, let’s look at a game that isn’t hiding the fact that it is driven by pure aesthetic nostalgia. Far Cry 3’s downloadable content, Blood Dragon.
A standalone game using assets and gameplay mechanics found in Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon aims to provide nostalgic feels through its ‘homage’ to 80s action films.
With a brooding synthwave soundtrack by Australian duo Power Glove—their name a nod to the Nintendo Entertainment System’s ill-advised peripheral—a smarmy main character, and set in a retrofuturistic dystopia, Blood Dragon lets you know immediately the barrage of 80s references will be unrelenting.
Our hero, Rex “Power” Colt fires one-liners off faster than the minigun from Predator, attempting to recapture the beauty of some of Schwarzenegger’s finest. By aping the action stars of the decade and occasionally breaking the fourth wall, Colt lets you know that this is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek experience. Meanwhile, the narrative is told mainly through static cutscenes, mimicking those from the NES game Ninja Gaiden, and is riddled with action movie tropes, further enhancing Blood Dragon’s 80s cred.
What’s frustrating about a product like Blood Dragon is what exactly is it? The only way to categorize it is as a parody of 80s action movies, but to what end? What’s the point? There’s no critique (as any good parody should provide), and it’s hard to imagine it as an homage because it isn’t treating its source material with any kind of reverence. Essentially it feels like the game employs an 80s aesthetic to make up for shortcomings elsewhere. Because it’s easier to just say “LOLZ 80s, amirite?” than build a game world of substance.
What Blood Dragon highlights is a disconnect between source and reference. This is most noticeable in pieces of media that attempt to recapture the 80s in particular. The 80s are trapped in this hyperbolic fog of affect, which obscures and obfuscates what the actual culture of the 80s was like. To illustrate this point, we can compare the nostalgic interpretation against the real by looking at the promotional art for Blood Dragon and actual 80s movies.
The Blood Dragon box art is a hodgepodge of tropes. It features a chromed font that is clearly “inspired” by the promotional materials for the Michael Jackson art film/video game series Moonwalker. A sunset with palm tree silhouette, which would be more fitting for a Miami Vice parody, sits behind our hero. There is so much neon pink and purple to remind you that THIS IS THE 80s, in case you had forgotten where the developers were getting their inspiration from. The only piece of this that comes close to emulating 80s action movies is the pose of our hero, which is a standard Schwarzenegger/ Stallone kind of pose. This piece of art is exploding with so much 80s, but… is it? What did actual 80s action movie posters look like? By comparing actual 80s cultural objects, you begin to see how nostalgia distorts the past, and becomes a tool to sell you a feeling.
By and large, 80s action movie posters are straightforward. The movie poster for The Terminator features Schwarzenegger holding a gun against a black backdrop with red lasers behind our star, and features a futuristic title font. The only hint that he might not be human, or that some kind of technology might be involved, is the “CSM-101” seen in the lens of his sunglasses. It’s subtle, and creates intrigue. Just who is “The Terminator”?
RoboCop’s movie poster shows us the titular cyborg officer stepping into (or perhaps out of) a police car. There is a metallic sheen to everything, but nothing particularly shocking or outrageous. The muted, sanitary look would perhaps lead one to believe this is set in a futuristic setting.
Finally, The Running Man is the most nondescript poster of the three, featuring just a black and white close-up of Schwarzenegger, with a wide shot of Schwarzenegger running in front of a cityscape towards the bottom of the image, and red title font. While there are certainly variants of these posters, like the German poster for The Running Man that has a campy quality to it, what would have been seen on most billboards were relatively plain advertisements for the films.
With this simple analysis of movie posters, we can begin to see that references made to the 80s don’t necessarily line up with the historical reality. And while you might think it unfair to use promotional materials like posters and box art as a comparison point, these objects are used to sell their product. And when that box art is oozing with this imagined 80s nostalgia, it is trying to impress upon you a feeling, targeting you to make an emotional response and spend.
French sociologist Jean Baudrillard has written at length about the phenomenon where the signifier (the reference) doesn’t match up with, and can be completely separate from, the signified (the actual object). We’ve reached a point where the image of the 80s doesn’t have to line up with the reality; we can believe that the image is in fact the truth. In his book Simulations Baudrillard wrote “to simulate is to feign what one hasn’t.” Though further on he says simulation goes beyond merely feigning, as “feigning leaves the reality principle intact: the difference is always clear… whereas simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’.” And with products that dabble in nostalgia overload, like Blood Dragon, they are not merely feigning 80s culture, they are attempting to simulate it, and as such, it becomes hard to discern if the simulation is a real version of the 80s or not. We get sucked into the imagery, and start to believe that what Blood Dragon presents us is, in fact, an accurate representation of 80s culture.
Let’s shift gears and look at the other way in which video games can fill us with warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. Mechanically. Though there is some overlap with the previously discussed aesthetics, the key difference here is the video game produced either uses—or perhaps, simulates—the technology of an era to create a game that has the same feel as games of that time. Video games are a unique medium in this sense, in that the degree of nostalgic emulation can draw the player in more fully than other media. Video games require the player to interact with the game, button inputs moving the game’s character through the world. This direct tactile engagement enhances immersion, and can deepen the feelings of nostalgia we feel when playing a video game. If a game physically feels like a game played in childhood, it only serves to heighten feelings of nostalgia. Here, we’ll look at the game Shovel Knight.
In their own press materials, developers of Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games, make no bones about what Shovel Knight is. The game’s “beautifully authentic style bridges the gap between yesterday and today” which comes together in a way that “hearken[s] back to the days of 8-bit”. Their goal was to create a game that feels like games of old, by emulating the technological limitations of the 8-bit era. Now, why do this if not to invoke feelings of nostalgia?
The developers looked to the games they grew up playing and wanted to bring the feelings of childhood wonder they felt back then into games today. However, David D’Angelo, a developer for Yacht Club Games, writes in an in-depth blog post about Shovel Knight that the team wouldn’t be emulating the NES exactly, but creating “a rose-tinted view of an 8-bit game.” This distinction becomes important, because, again, we are no longer talking about replicating something exactly, we are talking about simulation, and by simulating an 8-bit game, this feigned version exhibits all the signs of the original, so much so, that we begin to see the simulation as real.
Despite the game not being built using NES assembly, the team at Yacht Club did take in to consideration some of the limitations the NES faced in its day. They restricted the number of vertical tiles and the tile size dimensions of their backgrounds, keeping them in line with NES standards. They also limited the number of colors allowed per sprite to 5, which is only one more than the NES would allow. However, for every rule they adhered to (or came close to working within), they broke another. Parallax scrolling was used to give 2D layers 3D movement. There was no easy way to do this on the NES, but without any restriction, the Yacht Club team created Shovel Knight using upwards of 5 to 6 layers of background to scroll. It creates dynamic depth that wouldn’t have been possible on the NES hardware. They also decided to allow multiple color palettes to display simultaneously, something that is not possible on the NES, which is limited to running one color palette at a time. The result is a beautiful game, but one that is an exaggeration/ embellishment/reinvention of a previous era.
It’s the phrasing D’angelo uses, “rose-tinted view of an 8-bit game” that gets to the beating heart of the nostalgia industry. Selling us snake oil in that certain shade of pink. The cure-all for the cookie cutter Call Of Duty, the panacea for the sea of uninspired platformers. Today’s video games just don’t have the heart that those classic NES titles did. So, we look to the past, and selectively replicate the imagery and ideals we think we remember. However, as you can see with Shovel Knight, it is not an 8-bit game made in present day, it is a simulacrum. Another Baudrillard-used term meaning a copy of something for which no original has ever existed. There was never an 8-bit game that could have looked like Shovel Knight, yet it convinces us of this reality that never was. This is the image of the 8-bit game, packaged and sold to us as authentic, and because the simulation is so convincing, who is to say it isn’t real?
So why do we look back on the past so fondly? And specifically, why has the 80s nostalgia train not reached the end of the line yet?
We’ve entered an era where the real doesn’t matter anymore. Images and ideas are the social currency now. When once we were focused on how something was produced and what use it had for us, we now trade in signs and how something makes us feel. This transition took place in earnest in the 1980s when postmodernism and late capitalism began to tighten their grip on pop culture and mass media. This led to the rejection, and shattering, of grand overarching cultural narratives, and in their place, fragmented pieces that can be reassembled into smaller, specific narratives. Think of how cable news has changed. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN… they all give you “the news” but assemble it differently to create their own brand. It creates little powerful nodes that one can subscribe to, but leaves a “real” (perhaps objective?) grand narrative unattainable. So, when this world seems so fragmented and nonsensical, we look back to the last time in history where the “grand narrative” existed. The 80s. We yearn for those “simpler” times, and as such, romanticize them. The rose-colored glasses go on.
What’s unfortunate about this, is that the 80s were a real time where real lives were being lived and real questions were being asked. With dystopian action films of the era, there was a campy quality — in that the acting wasn’t top notch and the dialogue could be hammy — but many of the ideas written about came during an age of uncertainty. Following the oil crisis of the 70s, for the first time there were fears that the “good life” so many had enjoyed in the post-war period could be lost. With computers on the rise, there was also a fear of technology and what may happen if we allow technology to run our lives. To take those themes and play them up strictly for camp value does a disservice to the thought and ideas of the time. It becomes an image removed from its subject.
When it comes to video game creation, the 80s were a time when people were better able to harness the power of computers and by using early assembly languages, could create games and stories never thought possible. Even still, there were limitations on what could be done. The famed Nintendo composer, Kondo Koji, had grand visions for how he wanted the iconic Super Mario Bros. (1985) to sound, but with limited sound channels on the Nintendo Entertainment System, he had to pare down his vision, be mindful of the memory limits of the hardware, and get creative with how the sound channels were used to deliver the soundtrack we know today. If you had given Kondo free reign, the music of Super Mario Bros would not sound like it does. He wanted to use full, rich jazz chords, but had to carefully pluck notes out to create the same effect with less. We look back at these tunes and want to recreate them, not because we like the idea of limitations making it harder to make music, but because these tunes sound like our childhood and fill us with feels.
The worst part about nostalgia is that the culture industry has figured out how to make money off of it. People are all prone to the pangs of nostalgia, I feel it often and pine for classic games all the time. I’m not immune. But when a game tries to capture the feelings of nostalgia and sell them to me, it feels dirty. Whether it is a game steeped in 80s aesthetics nodding and winking self-referentially, or a game billed as “8-bit” with a soundtrack that could run on Konami’s VRC6 sound chip, I can see the dollar signs behind those decisions. The striving for authenticity, for us to believe that what we are buying is a legitimate link to the past that we remember (or misremember) so fondly is highly coveted in the culture industry, and is essential for a nostalgic product to capture its audience. The goal is to make the consumer feel that connection to their past so viscerally that it becomes conflated with reality. That’s not to say the games mentioned here are of poor quality and should be avoided, but when every piece of marketing shovels nostalgia down your throat, it leaves a gnarly aftertaste.