The Madeleine in Eight Bits


In Pixar’s Ratatouille, the triumphant dish that brings a fearsome restaurant critic to his knees does so by evoking a childhood memory. Watching that scene I remember thinking it wasn’t truly fair— a kind of cheating, really, to bowl someone over with such a direct appeal to his nostalgia. We all know those early memories often occupy a strange and protected place in the heart, and that this can give rise to much subsequent irrationality. If you played Chrono Trigger soon after it came out in 1995 and recall it fondly, you might have felt a pang of emotion upon seeing the advertisements for the 2008 re-release: “Good morning, Crono!” in that old pixelated font, on a field of black.

Odd things stay with you over the years. Those combos in Double Dragon at the arcade, or sitting in front of the family computer with King’s Quest, or the particularly fuzzy way a square wave sounded on a Sega Genesis. People join the game industry with stars in their eyes; you know there was something— the hot summer nights spent deep in EverQuest, or the afternoons when the computer lab was taken over by Doom II before the teachers knew to supervise what took place there, or an intense and dramatic player-versus-player match in some MUD that one learned to Telnet to in college— some specific moment that compels us backwards, trying to recapture it.

Video games may have been an escape, or a respite, or a memory of fun and intense competition, but whatever they are to the people who play them and make them, the medium of games feels nostalgic like no other. Coy indie artists use the visible pixel as a point of pride; Mega Man 9 recently came out deliberately masquerading as something created for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Along with its introspective text and music, Braid availed itself the imagery and mechanics of Super Mario Brothers to make its emotional impact. No video game music concert is complete without something Koji Kondo wrote over twenty years ago; that tug at our sentimentality never fails. Even the recent teenage heavy-metal wet-dream titles, like Gears of War or God of War, feature at their emotional cores the sense of a better and more innocent past, now lost.

Modern adult life is probably supposed to be more than just a series of futile attempts to recapture one’s lost youth, or at least what we imagine our youth to have been. But the medium of games entices us because it allows us to try. Games are works of make-believe, and we play cops and robbers or house or God with them; we want to be taken to that magical place, the one where potential and possibility still rule, where everything we’re challenged with seems achievable. People revert when playing games— responsible men with good jobs and families transform into ten-year-olds with controllers in their hands. You could see this positively— a rejuvenation of someone worn down by the grindstone of banality— or it might be horrifying.

That is the real reason non-gamers don’t really trust video games. They sense intuitively that they don’t help us grow up. Instead, they help us postpone the end of childhood. People who continue to play games in their adult life are fooling themselves, in a way; games and toys are acceptable for children because they are models of conflict and other systems that represent situations they will soon encounter in the real world. But what business does a mature and sensible adult, who actually lives in the world, have playing games? By continuing to immerse ourselves in them, we turn our back and chase the magical place at the expense of dealing with reality. And that regressive inertia is why video games will always loop back upon themselves in fits of wistful nostalgia.

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