In the recent bestselling video game Life Is Strange, a teenage heroine gains the ability to rewind time. She uses it to solve problems, address regrets, and return to a period in her life when she was completely carefree. It’s a game that seems deliberately crafted to make the adults playing it long for their own youth.
Which is understandable. From rock bands doing farewell tours (Black Sabbath, Grateful Dead), to reboots of canceled shows (Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Gilmore Girls), nostalgia is a powerful and lucrative tool in pop culture. The Force Awakens is banking on multiple generations of adults who grew up with Star Wars wanting to experience another adventure with their childhood heroes. If a septuagenarian Han Solo can still rattle off one-liners and win firefights, there’s surely hope for everyone. But the medium of video games in particular makes it easier to profit from players’ nostalgia—and it’s threatening to take a major toll on the gaming industry’s creativity and financial stability.
Beyond using nostalgia as a blunt marketing technique, video games as a medium in particular appeal to players’ longing for the past. Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University who’s made a career out of studying nostalgia, has said gaming lends itself to the feeling more than other mediums because of its immersion factor—games have the potential to be more immediate and personal than other forms of entertainment. Players aren’t remembering the time they watched a hero defeat a bad guy (as in a movie)—they’re remembering the time they beat the bad guy.
Jamie Madigan, who’s written extensively on the psychology of video games, points out that nostalgia tends to be at its strongest when people are reminiscing about socializing. Gaming has always had a communal component to it, and it’s only more so now, with the rise of “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube. (The site’s most-subscribed channel for nearly two years has been PewDiePie, who’s known for his game walkthroughs and commentary.) Last year, Amazon paid more than $1 billion to acquire Twitch, a company whose sole purpose is allowing people to watch other people play video games, as The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote.
It’s by now fairly common knowledge how powerful nostalgia is as a marketing tool, but with video games, there’s another component that makes players more likely to stick with what they know and love. For many, it comes down to time: It’s one thing to watch a 90-minute movie, but squeezing a 30-hour fantasy epic into your schedule is a serious commitment. It’s a bit like taking on a new TV show, but it’s easy to fit an episode or two into an evening, whereas gameplay tends to be less structured. As a result, about 90 percent of people who start a game won’t finish it. And because the average gamer is aging alongside the industry (the typical player is 37 years old), he or she will tend to be mid-career, perhaps with a family. In other words, with more responsibilities and less time to form an emotional connection with a new game.
Interestingly enough, those 37-year-olds are part of the first generation who can feel nostalgic for old games. Gaming doesn’t have much history before the 1980s—with all due respect to Pong, no one reminisces about the time they whiled away hours moving a paddle. So nostalgia for games is a novel phenomenon that the industry’s taken note of. One of the biggest announcements to come out of the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo was about a remake of Final Fantasy VII, a beloved 18-year-old game. IGN named it number three on their list of the 11 biggest expo stories from 2015, a list that’s remarkable in that every entry except one is about a sequel, remake, or existing game.
With the exception of big-name franchises like Star Wars, moviegoers tend to groan at Hollywood’s parade of remakes and sequels. Look at the anemic reception to Terminator: Genisys, or the debacles that were the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four reboots. Meanwhile, when a Final Fantasy V remake came out not long after the VII remake was announced, the biggest complaint was that it hadn’t received the same attention and care as last time. It’s rare to see a Hollywood franchise get so many sequels and remakes that it hits double-digit installments, but it’s so common in gaming that hotly anticipated remakes can dominate the year’s news.
The end result is a creative quagmire. Big names like Mario and Final Fantasy get slapped on everything from basketball games to dance titles, but companies are hesitant to experiment with new ideas. Nintendo released the goofy paint-shooter Splatoon in the summer of 2015, and chief among the praise was happiness that Nintendo had released their first new big-budget property in 14 years. Blizzard Entertainment, one of the industry’s most influential companies, is currently working on a new shooter called Overwatch. It will be their first game not based on StarCraft, Warcraft, or Diablo since 1997.
As Wired has pointed out, risk-aversion is the new norm. 2015’s slate of big-budget games was dominated by remakes, re-releases, and sequels to properties that were considered groundbreaking in 2007. One of the year’s most highly-anticipated new properties, The Order: 1886, struggled badly. When budgets are hundreds of millions of dollars it’s difficult to justify bold new ideas, especially when consumers are just as happy to play Halo 5, Metal Gear Solid V, or whatever else can have a number or “Remastered” label slapped on. It’s reaching the point where gamers will even fund creators to indulge their nostalgia for them. Shenmue III—the sequel to a 2001 game that sold 100,000 copies—set a Kickstarter record in July, raising $2 million in less than eight hours and ultimately raking in more than $6 million.
This is an ominous and most likely unsustainable trend. What happens when the next generation of gamers without a fondness for Metal Gear Solid ages up, but has no desire to drop $60 on the latest incarnation when they can pay less than $5 for a fun smartphone game? Analysts and industry leaders continue to argue that the future of gaming is in mobile—with kids growing up with tablets instead of TVs as their main entertainment platform, dedicated game consoles will see their share of the market shrink.
The effects of this are already being felt. The recent launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops III brought in $550 million over three days, which sounds impressive until you compare it to the first Black Ops game, which in 2010 took $500 million in sales in just 24 hours. Not coincidentally, reviews of Black Ops III were mostly positive but critiqued the game for merely maintaining the long-running franchise’s status quo instead of providing any innovation. Halo 5 fared better, setting a sales record for the franchise—but its real goal was to improve the struggling sales of Xbox consoles. It helped move an estimated 350,000 Xbox Ones, while 2007’s Halo 3 contributed to the sale of approximately 550,000 Xbox 360s. Again, reviews were generally good but critical of the franchise’s inability to move forward. Halo 5 and Black Ops III are both still massive critical and commercial hits, but the cracks in the system are starting to show.
This shift is also dictating what games don’t come out. The gaming community was extremely excited for Silent Hills, the big-budget ninth Silent Hill game that was expected to revitalize the beloved horror franchise. (Even its short playable teaser received effusive praise.) But in April 2015, the developers Konami created one of the biggest gaming stories of the year by canceling it, citing a shift in business strategy towards mobile. It didn’t matter that seemingly every PlayStation 4 owner was excited for Silent Hills—that wasn’t enough to justify the cost of development, not when that money could go towards mobile games targeted at the next generation of gamers. Sure, consoles aren’t going away. But if even a hotly anticipated sequel to a long-running, critically acclaimed franchise was considered risky business, what are creators who want to explore original ideas going to do?
While developers grapple with that question, the retro game business continues to succeed despite digital alternatives and a reputation for price gouging. Retro gaming is a tactile experience—you’re plugging the cartridge into the console, you’re running your hands over the controller and feeling the buttons click beneath your fingers—and collectors are willing to pay to recreate that childhood memory. It doesn’t matter if the games have aged terribly, because we’re less interested in the gaming experience than we are in recreating the memories associated with them. Developers compete by slapping fresh paint on old titles, like in 2014 when Microsoft put the first four Halo games in a pretty bundle that’s sold five million units, one of the best-selling games of the generation.
There’s a moment in Life Is Strange where you and your heroine become so obsessed with recapturing your idyllic past that you accidentally create an unhappy, joyless future. That serves as a microcosm for the entire gaming industry. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia for old games, and many of the classics are still tremendous fun. But by letting classics dominate yearly releases, the industry is depriving itself of new ideas and voices. Unless players want the future of video games to be nothing but an endless parade of remakes and sequels, it’s time to start letting all those beloved childhood titles gather dust and explore what else is out there.