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.