Nostalgia Mining

Certain songs take on colossal, completely disproportionate significance for me, giving me an inordinate amount of happiness no matter how many times played, no matter the time of day. The Borderlands opening theme song, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” is one of them. I’m playing it right now.

It isn’t a particularly great song, not one I’d glom onto if I heard it at random on the radio. The song is important for me because it is associated with an experience, a time, and a certain group of people. That potent combination must have activated some neon green and blue switches in my brain; each time this song is played, I’m instantly, deeply elated on a cell level.

I’m taken back to a blissful summer four years ago, when I was in the best touch with what were then some very dear friends around the world. I had no responsibility save playing Borderlands, digging through reminiscences of a few horror titles, and reviewing them in a massive 10,000-word essay. I still wore a black Interpol sweatshirt and I was still vegan, so I was filled with an abundance of truly suspect, nervous energy. The friends were in Australia, California, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. We talked about everything under the sun, synced up our sleep schedules for competition and completion.

In retrospect, the model wasn’t sustainable if you have real responsibilities and a real job and on and yawn. But the fantasy of having that free space was enough, once-filled. And the prospect of finding payment, and stellar editors, to write about what I love, was the joyous part. I remember feeling that it really is this easy and it could always be this easy. Just write about what you love! Just do what you love. Platitudes on platitudes, made real for the first time in my working life. Just find what makes you feel all the sharp, crystalline, deep and heartbreaking feels. Describe this to other people. This came easily. This didn’t feel tortured.

What the world of Pandora meant would be covered diligently on every tech and industry website, from its style to its mechanics to its characters. But what the feeling of being in Pandora meant for a person and what it felt like to be with others in that world: this was another set of concerns altogether.

There was a brick ton of significance in those sensations, which drive a gazillion-dollar industry. The affective elements of play, the feeling and memory of sharing a third place with others: yes, all these tenuous, impossible-to-pin emotions make for serious experience and serious capital.

Nostalgia for the virtual is created quickly, almost instantly. You know intuitively, from the opening sequence, whether the experience of a title will change you in some fundamental way. Trying to explain this nostalgia has pushed my explication abilities to the limit. Articulating why the maligned medium can move one as much as Anna Karenina or a Tarkovsky film, has been the best kind of challenge, to think very carefully on why we spend our free time in the ways we do.

To that end, last fall, I published some more pieces on feeling and not feeling for Kill Screen, including this review of Grant Theft Auto V, without a doubt one of the pieces I’ve worked hardest on to date. I was excited to find it highly circulated, and the feedback, from reviewers, industry professionals and fans, the most intense and personally fruitful. I was thrilled to hear the essay was included by the talented poet, writer and language lecturer R.A. Villanueva in his syllabus for his classes taught at NYU Polytechnic: Writing the Essay: Poly and The Advanced College Essay: Poly. I wrote a short follow-up piece on the process of taking selfies within games, a piece that was named a Voices feature on All Things Digital.

Finally, this past spring, I took on Matt and Trey’s critique of the whole ridiculous culture of nostalgia, perfectly sent up in the South Park game.

As a nice close here, I’ll offer up Leigh Alexander, one of my absolute favorite thinkers on interactive media. She wrote a devastating and lovely short fiction piece, The Unearthing, on the Atari Dig, obsessive fandom and the predictable commodification of this nostalgia.

No game experience has quite come close to that summer with friends in the rocky byways and underpasses of Borderlands. Chasing that nostalgia down for an even more meaningful and sense-whole experience may just be the point of continuing to play. I know I’m always hoping the next world will light up my brain’s switchboard in the same way.

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