Hana’a Dorey is a mostly graduated Master of Arts in Experimental Digital Media from the University of Waterloo’s English Department. They are a sometimes poet, sometimes designer, always thinker. Currently saving money and playing too much FFXIV in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they continue to explore games and media affect their own way at their own pace outside of Academia.
Note: portions of this originally appeared in a mostly unedited form as a comment on Betsy Brey’s article, “Thank Goodness You’ve Returned”
Since reading Betsy Brey’s article, “Thank Goodness You’ve Returned”, I’ve become obsessed with asking myself what am I sharing when I ask someone to play a game or read a book or watch a show I love from my childhood. At the core of these interactions I’m grappling with the idea not of sharing a narrative, of sharing a gameplay experience, but attempting in some way to share the nostalgia, love, and memories I have embedded in this piece of media—usually a game due to my personal media preferences—and in essence share a part of my soul.
Recently these thoughts have resurfaced each night as I lay in bed playing I Am Setsuna and I grapple with how that particular game hedges on a nostalgia for RPGs long past. Each battle asks, “hey, remember when Chrono Trigger did this?”; each story beat asks, “hey what does this remind you of?”. It definitely is working for me, but I wonder what someone without 20 years of nostalgia embedded in the JRPG genre would feel playing this game. I wonder, would this title really have the impact that Tokyo RPG Factory’s developers wanted?
Along this same train of thought, I started my first ever playthrough of Final Fantasy V (and recording those sessions) partly as an exploration of the power of nostalgia. So far, I have found myself loving this game. I’m not sure if I would have if I wasn’t recording it though. I feel like sitting in silence, only me, the controller, and my computer monitor would leave something quintessentially out of the equation. In contrast, it is because I have played Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy X, and a cacophony of other JRPGs from Square Enix’s past that I’m able to truly appreciate and love I Am Setsuna. Playing the game and exploring its snow-covered world is like stepping back into the past into a time when things were different, and I didn’t have to worry about doing my taxes. When I record FFV, I force myself to ask, “hey viewer, why is this important to you?”, and it gives me the head space to enter the realm of nostalgia even if I do not have any first hand memories for this game. Final Fantasy V does itch certain pieces of memory of those same titles, however that feels like a moment of recognition, not a moment of the game actively asking me to remember or holding my hand to such a conclusion.
Having both recommended games, and been recommended games in the past, I found Brey’s thoughts and words especially evocative when discussing her inability to dig into the original Diablo. Recently I had bored a close friend with attempts at replaying Final Fantasy VIII with her, but beyond that even, I bored myself with the beloved relic of my gaming past. Some combination of simplistic battle animations (outside of Guardian Forces) and a slow moving initial story didn’t move my friend the same way that game moved me in 1999. Sitting side by side on my bed in Waterloo didn’t follow the same magic of staring into a tube TV in the basement munching on stale Cheetos and squealing over Rinoa and Squall’s love. I wasn’t able to replicate the feelings I have for the game the way I imagined I could. The script had been flipped and my expectations flipped with it. I don’t blame my friend however—the fault for this failure rests solely on my shoulders.
Contrasting this with the time a close friend of mine had me play Banjo-Kazooie when we lived together begins to unravel the puzzle. They LOVE that N64 classic. They met one of their romantic partners in the Banjo-Kazooie fandom—which is wild, crazy amazing and only adds to how important both of them are to me. They told me this and decried how my childhood had been, to them, robbed of something so integral to their happiness in so many ways. How could I not play this? To play this game would be to tap into the catalyst for romance, for the union of some of my favourite friends. I felt so excited booting up my N64 with a copy of Banjo-Kazooie bought immediately on eBay as soon as my friends demanded I taste a bite of their cornucopia of happiness. I reached for that banquet table so desperately, but I all I could find was stale crackers and moldy cheese. I liked the core, but something quintessentially was changed with time and experience. I was too intimately aware of how games could be different and better and found myself desperately wanting those differences to the point where I could only find my own nostalgia for something else.
Brey gets it incredibly right when she describes these feelings as “tiny tendrils of a familiar doubt”. I feel this doubt both in recommending and being recommended. I’ve been turned off on so many games that I often find myself saying no before I even hear people finish the sentence “How have you not played…”. Perhaps I feel the need to defend myself and I push people’s recommendations away when it becomes a challenge of my character because I enjoy playing a recommendation when sharing the experience, but dislike playing it (often the same game) alone. On that same note, I find the opposite to be true when I recommend someone play a game. Sharing that game puts some sort of stopper between myself and the game in my mind’s eye.
When I play Final Fantasy VIII on my own, I’m not going back to play Final Fantasy VIII. I’m using it as a conduit to tap into the memories of that time of my life. It’s a way to feel the feelings I associate with listening in rapt silence to a friend’s reading of the game’s dialogue. It’s a way to remember coming home from school, homework done before the final bell rang at 2:45PM and begging my mom to buy more Cheetos for another late evening of RPGs with the first older person to treat me like my opinions truly mattered. Booting up a PlayStation and getting that disc spinning is a way to enter a merry go round of mementos of a specific moment in my life I can never truly re-experience.
When I play Final Fantasy VIII with someone, what I want to do is to share those memories, those intrinsic experiences with another because I love that person just as much as I cherish those memories. I know if they could feel the tendrils of the long-lost memories of my ten-year-old self, they will know me better. I can’t emulate those feelings with gameplay alone, but I also feel ill-equipped to bring them into words. Nostalgia is not a feeling I’m good at conveying through meaningful sounds.
Contrasting playing Final Fantasy VIII with when I play Banjo-Kazooie, I realize I search for the wanderlust of love. I’m looking for the moments of magic and elated joy that would be enough for socially anxious people to join Internet forums and, against their parents wishes, spend endless hours gushing to one another across the country about anything and everything. This is something I know in spades having roleplayed Digimon, Kingdom Hearts, and Naruto many times in the past (I even dated a co-Naruto roleplayer for 2 years). The thing is, I’m not looking for what would spur me to do this, though I usually can point out a thing or two when I do. Despite finding endless joy in exploring the dock level in Banjo-Kazooie, ultimately, I was looking for my two friends’ wonder and love. Playing alone I couldn’t find that; it was only when playing with them that I could hope to do so. No one else would know the exact movements to get to the secret level of their love and life together.
In The Cultural Politics of Emotions, Sarah Ahmed argues that, “emotions are after all moving, even if they do not simply move between us” (Ahmed 11). Ahmed goes on to note that, “the word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin, emovere, referring to ‘to move, to move out’. Of course, emotions are not only about movement, they are also about attachments or about what connects us to this or that. The relationship between movement and attachment is instructive” (Ahmed 11). We are moving into the future by moving out of the past, and games – all media really – are a way to encapsulate a specific moment and a specific feeling. Emotions are important heavy things, and they come with a grave and important duty to them.
Like breadcrumbs in the forest, we leave traces of memories planted in the games we play. As we plant more the network of memories interacts with and changes perception. This is so cool and exciting, and the embodied experience of playing a game allows us to intimately and literally retrace our steps in these digital realms. The HUD of our mind allows us to find them again when we pick up the controller or go back to the keyboard years and years later. Those “tiny tendrils of a familiar doubt” may very well be the realization, in our deepest part of our guts that these roots we’ve planted are ours alone and no one else can truly place their hand on them. The best we can hope is that if we touch them, they can feel it in our palms and see it reflected in our irises through intimate eye contact. It is our duty as the recommender to shoulder the emotional labour in recommending a game.
Anyone who knows me would say it is no secret that the Kingdom Hearts franchise is by and far my favourite video game franchise. Every time I play it I find something new to love about it. Every time I play a game in the series I remember every time I’ve played each and every entry in the series before. I start talking and talking and I don’t know how to shut up. If most people plant a tree in the forest when they play a game destined to be one they wish to share in the mystique of nostalgia, then when I played Kingdom Hearts I planted a full forest. That forest of sprouted memories and emotions allows me to overcome the fear I usually have when it comes to matters of the heart (pun fully intended).
Every second of gameplay and story is packed full of the roots of my memories. As a result, I never have a moment where I’m at a loss for words where I allow the conversation to lull nor do I allow myself to subsume to the anxiety and fear that I’m boring a loved one with a batch of my favourite memories. The game we’re playing doesn’t matter, that’s not what makes this work for me. It’s because I put in the work to not simply hand the person the DVD, but instead I hand them the bundle of memories straight from my mouth, straight from my very soul. I let the conversation flow and tangent to where I was when this scene or that scene planted a seed of nostalgia for me to now gaze upon as a full tree of memory and joy. When this doesn’t work though, it’s because I haven’t been responsive to what my recommendee is saying in reply as I have become too wrapped up in the chain of memories this forest makes to see that my friend has got tangled up and restrained in vines three turns ago.
By connecting my heart with others I’ve been able to open their eyes not just to my favourite game but to who I am. This was through many hours of conversation and honesty. Sharing and caring. Too often when we share a game we treat it as a threat. Either play and appreciate this game I’ve played or become less of a person to me. Instead, we should treat it as an opportunity—an open door to walk through and share a good drink with a loved one. We shouldn’t simply listen, we should speak.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Brey, Betsy. “Thank Goodness You’ve Returned”. June 28. 2017. First Person Scholar.
Banjo Kazooie. Rare, 1998. Computer Game.
Chrono Trigger. Squaresoft, 1995. Computer Game.
Final Fantasy V. Squaresoft, 1992. Computer Game.
Final Fantasy VIII. Squaresoft, 1999. Computer Game.
Final Fantasy X. Squaresoft, 2001. Computer Game.
I Am Setsuna. SquareEnix, 2017. Computer Game.
Kingdom Hearts. Squaresoft, 2002. Computer Game.