Nostalgia vs Game Design


There was an interesting panel on “Nostalgia vs Game Design” here in PAX South by the GeekNights team.

I didn’t expect much beyond the banal truism that “you can never please all nostalgic players, because everyone has different memories of a game”, but was pleasantly surprised. They delved much further into the why of that.

I felt they had a good thesis: that people are nostalgic for a feeling, and that even replaying the original game might not bring that feeling back. In the same way, watching a series from your childhood is never as good as you remember, let alone a remake, no matter how faithful to the original that remake might be.

So the task for a creator of a remake or spiritual successor is not to make a high-fidelity copy, but rather to find those elements that made the original great for them, make a game which builds on and strengthens those specific elements, and hope that the audience agrees, and gets the same feelings that they got from playing the original.

They gave many examples, perhaps the most telling being Bionic Commando (1987). There was a sequel, Bionic Commando (2009) which overhauled the game visuals and gameplay and sold some 27,000 copies in its first month, while a remake that was basically made as a marketing tool for that sequel, Bionic Commando Rearmed (2008) sold some 120,000 in its first month. The difference? The remake had identified the bionic hand platform play as an important gameplay element. The sequel had identified it as an important story element, but gave it little to no gameplay use.

So picking the correct elements to distill is critically important.

All of which, naturally, made me think of Underworld Ascendant, and Shroud of the Avatar, and the new generation of Deus Ex games and Fallout games (when I think about it, I play a fair number of nostalgia games…).

With Shroud of the Avatar, I think they set out to create a world, in a way that they had been unable to as Ultima. That, to Richard, and the rest of the Origin team that he pulled back together, was the core element of what they did. It was their catchphrase, their touchstone: “We Create Worlds”. So they created a world far vaster than any they had made before, and got bogged down in making player housing and other Kickstarter rewards. To too many players, even the Ultima Online fans, their nostalgia about the Ultimas was not about a created world, though. They’d distilled out the wrong elements for most players.

With Underworld Ascendant, I think they set to give the player the ability to do whatever they like with the world. In the Underworlds, you had the ability to do things in a 3D world that had before that point been unimaginable. You bashed down doors, or burned them. You cooked food. You cast spells. You fought stuff. You swam, though only on the top of the water. You moved things around and manipulated the environment to solve problems. Every single problem in the Underworlds had at least three solutions. In Underworld Ascendant, they built on that tenfold since that’s the aspect of the Underworlds that they were nostalgic about creating… and they too got bogged down in fulfilling their Kickstarter promises. And again, to too many players, their nostalgia about the Underworlds was not about the control they had had over the world. They’d distilled out the wrong elements for most players.

Arx Fatalis was far worse, for my itch: a shallow game where you pottered through a linear dungeon, every puzzle having for the most part a single solution, and… you know, I can’t even remember the game very well, beyond its cool spell system. It claimed to be a spiritual successor to the Underworlds and didn’t deliver on essentially any level at all, other than literally being underground. But for others, it scratched their Underworld itch, and they found it awesome! Enough of them found it that way, that it was successful.

In the same way, I think that for a lot of people, the newer Deus Exes have worked to scratch that itch of nostalgia, because they’ve distilled out the elements that worked and gave the “Deus Ex” feeling to the game. For me, it’s the exploration of the morality of being superhuman that gets my juices flowing. For others, the ImSim angle. For others it’s the stealth or the ability to just go nuts with awesome augs and blow the crap outta everything. But whatever it is, the aspects they chose, worked for enough of the fans. Definitely not all - it fell flat for many. But enough.

And the Fallouts, again. Some people hate them, because their itch says “turn based isometric RPG”, and the new ones are real-time FPS RPGs. But for enough people, like myself, the new Fallouts scratched our itch in the right way: they had music, and visuals, and story, and even gameplay elements that were reminiscent of the originals, and also worked with what we want from modern games. Some people get awfully snobby about Fallout 3 or 4 and say “Oh, only Fallout New Vegas is true to the originals”… but what they really mean is just “for me, New Vegas scratches the Nostalgia itch the best”. The Bethesda ones scratch mine better, being less linear. New Vegas makes me feel railroaded in a way that the others didn’t. But everyone’s itches are different, and that’s OK.

But if you ever played Civilization or its successors, odds are good you could not now play it and have the same fun, because when you played it, you had more free time, and more freedom. It’s a time-consuming game! So none of the sequels and successors has ever been able to scratch my itch. As the GeekNights panel pointed out, nostalgia often comes from the people you were with and situations you were in so you can never satisfy everyone’s nostalgia itch unless you also convert the players into being twenty and in college with all the time to play computer games that they desire.

And then there’s the upcoming System Shock 3… and I think this one might work. Because, you have a team that is all-in on the ImSim train, making a game which was never anything other than an ImSim. the game itself demanded only a reasonable amount from the player. The chances of it failing to scratch the right itch for a significant proportion of its audience are relatively low, compared to some of the above. Especially if they can avoid Kickstartering it.


Sometimes we do something and then say, “Well, that’s ten minutes of my life I’m not getting back again.” Having read this feels more like ten minutes well-spent. Thanks, Dewi.

To the excellent examples given, and in particular the latter Fallout games, I’d add The Elder Scrolls. Nostalgia, the pain of longing for a past comfort, might as well be listed on the box of a BethSoft game as a key player experience. Whether clearing out bandits squatting in a debris-choked Ayleid ruin in Oblivion, or hiding behind a grimy billboard that once tried to sell your great-great-grandfather a shiny new Corvega, these games never miss an opportunity to remind you that there was a technologically and culturally superior civilization in the past, and now it’s toast. The entire Tranquility Lane segment of Fallout 3 nearly punched you in the head with this. And there’s a better-than-even chance that if you talk to any Dunmer in Skyrim, their main preoccupation will be sadness or anger at the obliteration 200 years earlier of their home Morrowind.

This inside-the-game sense of regret isn’t accidental. As Chris Remo wrote in a 2009 Gamasutra interview of Ken Rolston:

[M]elancholy comes when exploring the remains of long-dead civilizations, seemingly something of a preoccupation of Rolston, and one that frequently makes its way into his games by way of in-game artifacts.

“Melancholy, I think, is the underlying tone in most of the role-playing games I’ve done,” Rolston said, adding, “I know games are all about fun, but there’s an underlying tone I’m always trying to speak to.”

It’s maybe a stretch to say that this melancholy of the characters within the magic circle of these games is somehow connected to players trying to recover the feeling of playing earlier games in a franchise series. That suggests game developers consciously creating “broken” assets in a game world to try to leverage the nostalgia of players for the more whole versions of those things in a previous game.

And yet… isn’t there a little of that in Underworld Ascendant (e.g., the Grand Staircase)? And hasn’t Warren said (actually one of the few things he has said) that there’ll be things in System Shock 3 that players will recognize from both the earlier two games? Are these gestures of respect to players of previous games, or cheap exploitations of nostalgia?

Is there any way for a game developer to maximize feelings of the former and minimize accusations of the latter? Or is any attempt to satisfy nostalgia certain to have some people calling it a cynical manipulation no matter what? If so, what’s the lesson for game designers there? Is gamer nostalgia radioactive?


It’s one thing to have a recogniseable shiny object…working out what made the originals so good is much harder, and the first is no stand-in for the second.

Nostalgia gets a bad press in this context, because it’s so woolly…but nostalgia-for-something-more-tangible is worthwhile.

UA mostly gave us shiny objects (apart from spells) where UU was concerned. We don’t know what approach System Shock will take here (knowing Shodan’s back on board doesn’t really tell us much)


It’s never been about nostalgia for me. The closest I get to nostalgia comes from the fact that I’m so bored with the general homogeneity, I pine for more of those lightning-in-a-bottle products that don’t come often enough. I have to move on, accept that my expectations won’t be met, for whatever reason, and it seems odd to me that this is the typical state of entertainment.

It’s been said exhaustively, but it’s swept under the rug every time, that when lightning strikes, gets captured in a bottle, the imagination explodes with possibility, and…only the shards are picked up here and there. No one takes what created those things and does something new with them, just some of it. I thought more games were coming, not other games that took pieces and parts, and mostly bowed in tribute as if to a dead saint. I did not expect the first Thief games to be the only games to define my gaming, past some Atari 2600 titles, hahaha! I’ve been shown that games can be made for me, that also appeal to a wide diversity of people.

I’m not looking for comfort, or comfort of the past, or comfort of a simpler time, but a collection of systems that I can plug into, and go, where the challenges aren’t always anchored in the inadequacies on my end.


It’s odd how nostalgia works. For me, even though the mechanics were vastly different from UW, Dark Souls scratched the itch for a dungeon crawl, and in the process became my favorite game of the last decade or so. That tells me it’s not all mechanics that make a game within a specified genre–it is also the aesthetics and tone.

Also, I agree Arx Fatalis was bland and a little boring. I managed to break the game halfway through playing it, and never went back to it. Hand-drawn spells were a neat idea, but I am not sold on an RPG based on it’s novelties.

Carry on.


Yeah, the general existence of UI components, implemented without attuning to the particular user who enjoys them in another game, can be enough for that player to write it off, if it isn’t a mere matter of “getting used to it”. It comes up often in arguments about a lacking mechanic, that “the game has that, you fool!”, but may as well not, for how significantly different it is in the hands of the frustrated player complaining about it.

The UI is much the same as any instrument, and when the senses find their home, the mind can achieve flow-state much more quickly and intensely. It ain’t nostalgia when it’s about depth of engagement. Can I make this instrument sing? Or are we at odds?