Hype and Nostalgia: Gaming’s Memory Flows

It took me about four hours to find out that double-clicking made Manny Calavera move faster, running instead of the slow walk I had gotten used to. The game had changed there, in an instant, to something much different. The ambience had left, the music didn’t match up with my movement as well, and I didn’t linger in specific areas to pick up on the various scenes in which objects were carefully placed. I was working through Grim Fandango Remastered (GFR) with a walkthrough anyway, already largely ignoring the details of its careful puzzles. This turned my play away from the Tarkovsky-like experience of setting and detail, instead crafting a blockbuster with continuous, driving narrative action. The settings weren’t alive as this FPS-playing monster of a player denied any pause that it might have desired. Yes, I denied the game certain things that I had been promised, but the excitement and memories that I had been promised also let me down.

I had a lot of expectations coming into GFR – I had heard the crowd’s response at 2014’s E3, the press’s response afterwards, and had some friends talk about it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the game, but it seemed lacking when put up against everything I expected of it. Expectations are tricky to manage, especially for an audience that is mixed between those who have experienced the object before and those who have not. They raise and lower hopes wildly before they can even be enacted within the experience of something actual.

Expectations are caught up in a web of memory along with hope, hype, and eventual nostalgia. Those who experienced Grim Fandango when it came out already had a stable of memories built around the title, possibly smoothed over from the time between playing it and hearing about it’s remastered version at E3. I don’t really have the storehouse of nostalgia that seems present in much of games culture – a byproduct of not owning a console until I was in grad school and only playing a handful of PC FPSs through my childhood and adolescence. That doesn’t make me immune to the hope or excitement of remakes and remastered editions, but it does work differently.

I didn’t have the memories that other had, but I had the memory of expectations guiding my playthrough of the game. I had hope that it would be something that would eventually turn into that nostalgia that I saw rampant in the response to the game. In the week after this year’s E3, we see that nostalgia is a strong force, but it is tangled up with the other memories of expectations, hope, and hype. This web is difficult to parse out – as is much of memory – but we need to continue to question where the memories are coming from and what work they do within games.

Hope is an odd form of memory. The two don’t match up completely, of course, since they must move through the intermediary of expectation. Hope sets up expectations and those expectations turn to memories to be accessed later in time. For video games, hope gets tagged onto a title when it’s derived from a trailer, a piece of concept art, a leak, or even a friend’s re-telling of experience. We’ve come to call this “hype,” established, enforced, and prolonged by games publishers and the various outlets for gaming news. This memory is always a virtual thing, something that has yet to concretize, but acting as a possible springboard for the warm fuzzies of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a force of memory, but what does it force? When developers and publishers (and the fans that desire these games) push forward these remakes it isn’t just to sell games. The ideology that backs these things is one of technological progressivism and fetishization. We have the memories, but the only way to access them is through new consoles. The games don’t need to change as long as the hardware does. We get stuck in time this way. Our technologies keep moving forward, our texts clinging dearly onto a past that never existed. How do you capture nostalgia as a game publisher?

At E3, capturing the wonder of nostalgia can be done simply through uttering a name, activating memory through a tag and the legitimacy of a brightly lit stage. Cameras would catch a 20-something guy here and there who would be standing up, hands on head or grasped in hair, astonished that that game would be returning. The meme ‘shut up and take my money’ would get lobbed down at the presenter, enforcing the position from which fans are ultimately taking in these things.

Nostalgia has seemed a bit like a buzzword the past week, with not too much consideration of what the forces of memory do when invoked at gaming’s great pageant. We’re not just dealing with repackaging experiences, but with the same conservatism that is rampant within other aspects of game culture. The games presented might bring in new audiences, but when it is the same text, we’re replicating a gamer culture that will never move on. This isn’t to say that these old games are useless, but that the culture that they feed into are long gone and have been replaced with a medium that is attempting to move on and move out from its own museumified canon.

Games live in the circuits between our eyes and hands and the screen they are projected on. They are alive when we play them. However, with constant remakes and re-releases, the games slide back into the hollow platforms many want us to believe they belong in. They filter back through the plastic and metal until they are no longer ours, but instead something that is wholly born from the machine – inevitably reborn as well. Publishers are certainly milking an audience, but the memories that the audience put so much stock in play just as big a part in this issue.

When we free Terry the Sea Bee from imprisonment in GFR, we are greeted with his cheer of “It’s time to shake up the hive!” But what we’ve been stuck with in this season of reveals is the realization that the hive is too large and the bees too preoccupied with missions of stagnation and replication. Our memories drone on, establishing new expectations and turning hope to hype quicker than a typo. There has been a good amount of talk about preserving games in the past year, but the managing of gamer memory will be just as important in the criticism and understanding of videogames. If we don’t, we’re bound to the same hive we’ve dealt with for years: airy and hollow with an inevitability of being stung.

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