Thanks to websites like Kickstarter and Fig , video game developers are able to crowdfund projects that full scale publishers are less likely to support. As a result, we are experiencing something of a retro gaming revival, as older properties are finally developing sequels (e.g. Psychonauts , Wasteland, and maybe even Starflight (cross your fingers, damnit!!)). At the same time, some developers have tried to recreate the glories of the past by starting new intellectual properties that are spiritual successors of a sort. Pillars of Eternity, which I’ve written about before, and Torment: Tides of Numenera are good examples of this trend. Both of these games recall the famous Bioware/Black Isle Infinity Engine games, such as the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series. Tides of Numenera even borrows the name of one of these games, Planescape: Torment. This was a direct attempt to tie the newer game to one of the most beloved games of all time among PC gamers who enjoy RPGs.
These sequels, direct or spiritual, have met with mixed responses, both commercially and critically. Pillars of Eternity has been enough of a success that a sequel was kickstarted in the last year, one which I have contributed to thanks to my enjoyment of the first game in the series. It relies on a new world, and even a new engine, but both are heavily inspired by the Infinity Engine games, with their isometric viewpoints, control of an entire party of characters, pausable, real-time combat, and world building.
However, one of the problems that game developers encounter when trying to appeal to nostalgia is that we tend to remember all the great parts of these older games, but gloss over the flaws. A great example of this is with Planescape’s recent revival (of a sort) in Tides of Numenera. The original Planescape was a bit of an odd duck in the Infinity Engine games. You play an immortal, though you have no idea why you are immortal. In fact, you wake up in a morgue with amnesia. A large part of the game is simply trying to remember who you are and what you were trying to do. Your memories come back in flashes, often tied to your attributes. The game is perhaps the only one in the Dungeons and Dragons system to make the attributes of Charisma and Intelligence useful, regardless of the class you play (in fact, you can multi-class as a fighter, mage, and thief in this game).
But what made Planescape a classic was the writing. It was very good, not just for a video game, but in general. The lead designer and writer, Chris Avellone, has a degree in English and has studied philosophy. This background allowed him to explore ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology in a setting that involved a city that sits among all the dimensions of the D&D world. So, the denizens of the main city in the game come from planes of order, chaos, logic, and sensuality. The game had an entire faction built around the notion of empiricism, where we learn by experience, that focused on being able to absorb the experiences that others have had.
The result was a game that played like a choose your own adventure, complete with lots and lots of reading. By most accounts, the combat was sub-par. The graphics were average, and the Infinity Engine was already becoming a bit long in the tooth at the time. In other words, the world building is what made this game so amazing, and people who played it in their late teens through mid twenties were treated to a deep exploration of the human condition, often offering philosophical ideas that they had never yet experienced. It was a work of art in this way.
It was also a lot of reading. I replayed the game recently, and it’s bogged down in reading. Certain parts of the game, such as a sequence where you walk through a tomb full of traps, are downright rage inducing.
Enter Torment: Tides of Numenera. In an attempt to capture what made Planescape so great, Torment developers assured Kickstarters that there would be lots of reading and excellent worldbuilding. The reviews confirm both, but the response has been much more mixed than it was with Planescape. Perhaps this can be attributed to lesser writing, an inferior setting, awkward implementation. But at least some of it is the nostalgia problem. We really can’t go back again and experience a game like this for the first time.
Interestingly, we can go back and play the original, and some people will have glimpses of the amazing experiences they once enjoyed, a bit like the Sensate crystals in Planescape. It’s not the real thing, but it’s a taste of something primal and satisfying. Unfortunately, this is not the same thing, and the newer game will often suffer by comparison to a memory that is largely constructed (or perhaps deconstructed, distilled down into only its positive elements, cleaned up of the negative aspects that surely must have frustrated us at the time).
So, should developers risk this nostalgia backlash? I’m not sure I can answer that question. It probably depends on sales. Even if gamers do not praise the newer version in the same way as the old, it could be financially rewarding. Of course, Planescape itself did not sell particularly well in its day, especially compared to the other Infinity Engine games. Some of the best games of all time were financial disasters (Freespace 2 is the most egregious example—that game deserved so much more!).
One thing I can say, though, with reasonable certainty is that there is no way to really recapture an experience like that. When I was a teenager I would play strategy roleplaying games for 8 hours or more, having my meals as I played, and taking breaks just to go to the bathroom. I’ve seen the sun rise after playing a game all night. Not only do I no longer have that kind of time, I would see it as a waste. Beyond the ways in which our own phenomenological selves have changed, games themselves have developed, with better UIs (usually!), graphics, etc. We have expectations that didn’t exist when the original games were created, forcing developers to choose between modern expectations and nostalgic demands for accurate re-creations. The best of these reboots (e.g. Divinity: Original Sin) remake the engine completely, often forsaking nostalgia altogether, but using the license itself to create interest. The worst leave fans feeling the bitter pains of age, as they realize that memories are best when left alone.