Excisive Nostalgia

23 November 2021

in contrast to excessive nostalgia, the phenomenon likely underling the myriad social conundrums of today

*deep sigh*

What do I even call this? Not the title; given the places where this thing will end up, an unambiguous title is the right move to avoid misinterpretations—even if all others within will be metaphorical. What do I call what it took for things to even get to this point?

The end of a journey? Far from it, that’s for sure. I’m only really just over halfway done with The Healer and the Vagabond; and since that’s an amalgamation of things I wanted to do in an original game-turned-novel and the retelling of another story (that I’m almost certain was made to encourage this kind of remixing, like a lot of videogames of that scale), the latter has taken enough of a backseat to the former that it’s liable to balloon into a whole series of fics. Feels like I’ll still be stuck with this game trying to tell this story for the first half of this decade, too… (once I do finish these crit pieces, I’m probably never going to publicly post about DQXI again on social media or mention it here—though both what I write in it and about it will probably make their way here eventually.)

the nebulous collections of traits that coalesced into these characters actually came into being much earlier in 2016. The wonderstruck girl might have been a different RMVXA actor in early versions of the game, but that smug-lookin' boy was always supposed to be that actor right from the beginning. Anyway, Akira Toriyama probably owes KADOKAWA some royalties

A culmination? Maybe. Countless snippets of understanding collected across college courses, critical dissections, hot takes, books, and a incredibly specific set of coincidences have led to a set of criticisms for an innocuous AAA videogame that really doesn’t need this much fussing over it—but a cultural train of thought (to the extent that mercurial obsessiveness could be considered thinking) that absolutely does. Both of these definitions have a finality to them that doesn’t necessarily fit what I’m feeling, though.

(really, a lot of my problems with DQXI the game are easily lumped under the umbrella of how the chosen masculine hero narrative’s utter ubiquity in every facet and form of popular western media shapes our entire perception of the world: how we depict and handle our problems, the morals we’re predisposed to aspire to, how our cultural norms treat what kind of non-magically-metaphorical powers should be valued or ignored or ostracized…but that’s something for another set of stories.)

Growing up? Probably. If we’re talking about things we think will be with us forever, the process of going through life definitely seems to excise those things for us, whether we like it or not—or how much we yearn for things to be the way they were. A couple years ago, one of my university professors said something along the lines of “becoming more critical is a journey that once you start, you can’t come back from.” Knowing that, I can’t say I outright yearn for the unthinking esteem I had for DQXI, or most other things in the world, seemingly forever ago…yet I still get wistful when I think about how I used to carelessly enjoy all the media I interacted with without picking out what worked or didn’t work or what was moral or immoral. Maybe a little nostalgic, even.

I’ve never found myself nostalgic for much. Which is ostensibly weird, given the current media landscape. Living in a world where all the major powers seem hellbent on cherrypicking aesthetic details “a bunch of folks liked when they were kids” and/or past perceptions of the world that “had to be better than things are now” into some nebulously fulfilling package is today’s main motivator behind them—but those only seem to land when you feel like your childhood memories were nice and peachy. For the most part, the childhood I remember was pretty lukewarm. Yet I’ve still somehow found myself enamored with more than one series that takes the familiar, the well worn, the core kernels of archetypes and patches them into blankets so cozy you wake up sweaty every time you sleep under it.

Some time ago, I told a couple friends the process of coming to all my realizations about DQXI was like finding out someone you hung out with enough to consider a friend never reciprocated the feeling. Gathering together all these ridiculously profound thoughts almost feels like telling everyone I know that, in fact, they were a jerk behind our backs the whole time. It’s certainly not how I want this to feel—but when all your goodwill suddenly feels misplaced if not a little worthless, you have to make it seem worthwhile, somehow.

I try not to mess around with typical fan spaces for just about any videogame anymore, since the fleeting and flighty insularity of your average fandom has become an almost foreign mindset to maintain at this point. But, like the leftover ashes of any first love, I still click back into them every now and again. Lurking, witnessing all those people enjoying themselves in their blissful ignorance, and still feeling those twines of wistfulness.

After a year or so of NEETing around, I finally(?) started working again this past week. I was initially a little averse about returning to tiptoeing around the outwardly casual but ultimately distant relationships that one usually finds…except the enormous safety net that is my current living situation gives me enough practice at that dance. It’s essentially a basic entry-level government job, nothing intensive enough to require this shiny new degree of mine—but its certainly not anything I’d consider “dead-end” or “ridiculously high-intensity for the pay grade that really needs to be doubled” in the service sector.

Since I’m in-between the thing I’d like to do that definitely needs said degree though, one of the things I’d like to juggle is helping out at the elementary school my mom teaches at. I went through what was a (paid!) test run by fire this past week as well, and being back in one of those 13 years removed leaves a lot of deja vu to stir up those lukewarm recollections. Although a former occasionally-labeled “weird kid” by parents and teachers alike myself, it feels like I’m obliged to peg these kids into those same holes to better deal with their inattentiveness or sheepishness or hyperactiveness—the exact same problems I supposedly posed when I was in grade school. It would be nice if all the kids were compliant, dutiful order-followers and schoolwork-completers—but that’s inherent to the entire machine of American schooling, and pretty abysmal-status-quo supporting. At least I’ll get a better understanding of how silly things are from firsthand experience, I guess…

More importantly, these stirrings managed to coincide on the same day that Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were released. Remakes of the original Diamond and Pearl for the Nintendo DS in 2007, as far as I can remember Pearl was both one of the few games my family managed to buy without requiring my enlightened assistance and the first Pokémon game that belonged solely to me; no secretly messing around with someone else’s ‘mons or getting as far as I could without saving on a cart I didn’t own. As just a 9-year-old 4th grader at the time, were my wee-bit-younger-than-everyone-else anxieties reliably relieved by that game enough for me to feel warmly nostalgic whenever I sift through my scattered memories of it?

…not really? That first excursion might have been the longest in terms of investment; but I’m pretty sure I’ve become the Sinnoh champion more times than I can count on one finger, and that initial copy of Pokémon Pearl was somehow the only one I ever owned. My brother had gotten Diamond at the same time, so I do have a few substantial ideas of what place it held in my childhood: our capricious struggles over having hte stronger team, and the rare camaraderie of hiding our DSes under our blankets as we played late into the night. Other than that, what I can remember of the game itself has blended multiple playthroughs together into a slush of sounds and sights and text boxes and mechanics.

So do I feel anything special returning to these remakes now? Not much. Flashes of recognition, impulses to check everything, the few glints of delight when I stumble across a favorite ‘mon in its usual place or hear an earworm for the first time in a while. Overall, Pokémon Shining Pearl just feels like another Pokémon game; which is quite literal, being a remake and all.

If that makes these remakes sound like a disappointment, they really aren’t. The prospect of these games getting this treatment never seemed much more than a fanciful curiosity every time folks clamored for them online. The fact that they’re exactly what they say on the tin probably makes whatever discourse flaring up in their wake even more ironic: “Oh, you wanted these games to be as pretty and feature-laden as the last entries? Sorry, none of you clamoring droves were specific in your cries for a Gen IV remake, so we just made a modernized version of the exact same game lol”

Still, I have to wonder…with attempts to evoke it so omnipresent today, what are people searching for when they’re nostalgic? There’s the yearning that’s an emotion in and of itself, but nobody yearns for something they’ve never felt before, do they? What is anyone looking to feel when they reach for the past like that? A rekindled excitement? The former vestiges of normalcy? A resurgence of wonder in the face of perceived possibility? Nobody ever talks about what this specific target is like it’s obvious, but I dunno—most of the time when I see something I liked when I was a kid again, I go “oh look, it’s that thing I liked when I was a kid,” probably do some internet searches about it, then go on with my day. In Shining Pearl’s case, I’m having a good time, yet I don’t expect it’ll be any more special than my already normal retrospectives of the originals over the past 14 years (or even hold a candle to the best Pokémon games™, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon).

A better question to ask, then, is what am I searching for by playing this supposed polishing of an older game? There’s a reliable satisfaction that comes from exercising that subliminal muscle memory, routinely retreading traveled paths and fighting the same battles with foresight—though, like many others, Pokémon’s modern polishing involves sanding off most meaningful friction the original mechanics presented. (Passive experience points sharing, which was limited to one ‘mon holding a specific item in the original games, now applies to all Pokémon in your party and can’t be disabled, without buffing up your opponents’ across the game to compensate.) Can Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl really be faithful or even fulfilling remakes when they’re barely interested in evoking the same efforts players might’ve had to endure in the original adventures?

I’ve written on the internet before that playing modern Pokémon games feels like an obligation; either as a way of “being in the know” about one of the nerd culture meccas that would undoubtedly trickle down into whatever obscure corner I was in, or just because it’d been a constant in my life for so long. Since most of that has lost its allure and anything that made past titles particularly memorable is getting bulldozed in favor of packages that resemble treadmills, even that feeling of obligation was nearly waned. Playing Pokémon Shining Pearl, the only thing I’m nostalgic for is when I truly felt I was enjoying these games, not the games themselves.

…I paid $60 for this game, so I’m still gonna finish it, of course. I’ll probably end up completing the Sinnoh Pokedex, too…

Dragon Quest XI’s subtitle in English is Echoes of an Elusive Age, hinting towards its “mysterious” background lore that sets the narrative in motion—the heroes of yore kinda succeeded but also kinda failed quest to beat up a big bad—while also subtly nodding at its structure: two main “acts” with a third, rather contentious “postgame” act mostly made of abridged versions of events from earlier that are mostly sidelined as it wraps up those mysteries. (oops, spoilers!) In Japanese, ドラゴンクエストⅪ’s subtitle is 過ぎ去り時を求めて (sugisari toki o motomete), which most machine translators spit out as something like In Search of Time Passed By—or, a la one of the many references to influential western media in the English localization, In Search of Lost Time. For a game using nostalgia as its foundation, with a story and mechanics that are almost a complete pastiche of past entries, it remarkably straddles the line between subtlety and straightforwardness.

In fact, despite the aforementioned contentiousness, I think the shtick of the subtitles is pretty clever for the most part. The gist is that after the world-destroying events and affecting “character moments” of the second act, the only way to progress into the third and undo the damage is to go back in time, leaving behind those versions of the cast and undoing their emotional arcs forever. Most folks say this undoing makes the rest feel hollow, irreparably sabotaging an integral part of its story—except the lead up to that makes it pretty dang clear that this has its own consequences. In trying to find the time that was lost—the peachy world it should have been per every other Dragon Quest game—you lose much: the ““things”” you learned getting there. (There’s a discussion to be had about postgames and canons and whatnot—plus I have an argument as to why there are scarequotes around things—but again, this isn't the post.)

Pokémon isn’t exactly a “hollow” experience; the fantasy of gathering a club of critters to adventure with and take care of always manages to draw me in, and any extra minigames centered around the latter makes the entire package land better. It also doesn’t really seem that built on constantly selling back nostalgia to its audience, despite claims about ‘mons from its first generation titles.

Yet with whatever feeling compelling me to shuffle my way through most of these games dwindling—if I ever nursed it at all—things feel as dimly purposeful as any videogame with lines of progression can feel, and otherwise pretty aimless. Like a search for time gone by, time I can’t even say was there with any certainty, its elusiveness managing to maintain its allure. Perhaps this is all nostalgia is for anyone.

But who can say? Perhaps my significant dearth of nostalgia is just the result of the hand life dealt me. Perhaps the collective fixation on nostalgia is simply made more glamorous than it might be when parroted by the culture so entrenched in our lives. Perhaps.

…in the process of writing this, I noodled around with the old Flipnote Studio animation software for the DSi and everything I saved before the online service was shut down…since creators could choose to leave their flipnotes unlocked for people to modify and share repost, one of the most infamous/ubiquitous flipnotes was a Dragon Ball-esque stickmen fight backed by a song I had always been curious about but never able to find online (at least originally, since half of the reposts was a version with the song swapped to Linkin Park’s In the End)…but thanks to YouTube music parsing algorithms(?), I briefly lost my shit when I found out that song was, in fact, real and findable on the internet…so maybe that counts for something…

Anyway, since so much of my non-writing free-time lately has been split between research and getting the last of this compulsion out of my system, this turned out a lot gloomier than I thought it would be. Will Shining Pearl be my last Pokémon game? Dunno. I’m pretty sour on Dragon Quest right now, but I sill want to see what VII is like to get my I’ve played all the main games at least once medal. Plus, since there’s no way SQEX executives won’t capitalize off XI’s massively subpar success by making XII some sort of sequel, there’s a good chance I’ll end up getting that, too. I’m just at a point in life where things based around nostalgia just don’t land, but that can change in the future.