11.20.12

Is our obsession with 8-bit bad for games?

British author Simon Reynolds recently decried the obsession in music for all things old made "new" again.

I wonder why we’re so obsessed with the past, particularly in music, because that’s my thing. A lot of the other retro phenomena I find vaguely amusing, but the music is a genuine worry because I like to be surprised. The first instinct for a new band starting out now—and I’m talking about very musical, intelligent people—is to go to an existing template and then tinker with it. They have fun trying to reproduce it as exact as they can or adapt it to their purpose in some way. But there are not so many musicians trying to come up with something out of nowhere, which is quite hard to do.

In the past, though, people have tried to do that. That was the general modernist ethos for a long period in music, particularly in the ’60s, but also in the post-punk era I grew up in, and in the electronic techno scene of the ’90s. You might use an idea from the past, but you’d probably mutilate it in some way or drastically change it. Or you’d use it as a springboard to go somewhere new. Now the ethos is much more like reproducing antiques. It’s about getting that drum sound or that guitar texture. It’s literally a backward movement. My concern is a sense of everything being seemingly vaguely familiar. It’s a bit depressing.

We, of course, see a lot of the nostalgic fetishism in games, in particular with the continuing interest in 8-bit. Part of this is practical -- small teams may not have an artist with them and 8-bit is the easiest style for a programmer to create. Some of it is legitimate nostalgia as indies, in particular, are recreating the games of their youth, albeit with different mechanics. Some of it is aesthetic -- Rich Grillotti of Pixeljam (above), for example, is playing with the language of 8-bit with a more modern spin.

But Reynolds is pointing to something deeper and to his mind, more troubling. Pop culture is fun, he says, in small doses, but he worries that it's connected to an unhealthy obsession with the way things once were in a fast-shifting environment.

It’s fun to relive our pop culture history. But is the fun based on being scared of what’s going on now and hiding in the past? That’s what people have always accused nostalgia of. In the ’70s, there was all this ’50s nostalgia, and ’20s nostalgia as well. Various columnists in “The New York Times” wrote about it in the ’70s, wondering what’s going on with this backward-looking or regressive phenomenon. Often, being nostalgic politically has been linked with conservatism and more reactionary forces. As in, “Things should go back to how they were when people knew their place” and that kind of thing. You’re suggesting that you’re opposed to progress in some way.

The whole interview is worth a read.