You nudge a thumbstick here and something shifts to the right up there on the screen. You press a button and a small cartoon figure leaps into the air. The screens are accustomed to passively watching respond to your intent. This is why I want to make games. This is why I have always wanted to make games.
I would sit on the floor looking up at the black and white tv. I thought that if I could only adjust the dials in the right way, I could change the images on the screen. I could influence the flow of light. It would be years before home video game systems were common.
I considered, for a short while, creating a mechanical system to remotely control a character or race car or spaceship. I didn’t know enough about electronics to create the analogue circuitry used in the earliest video games. I still don’t. Making the mechanical system I was dreaming about would probably have been even more difficult.
Now I have tools and libraries that make controlling objects on a screen almost trivial. Making it easier to accomplish has done nothing to dull the magic of that feeling. The feeling of moving your thumb and watching blobs of light respond. It still makes me want to make games.
I’ve been creating a game. As you would expect, that has made me think about poetry. Obviously.
One of my favorite poems is I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries by Leonard Cohen. It’s not my favorite poem. My favorite poem is The Cremation of Sam McGee, but that’s not what I’m writing about right now. I think that the first time I read I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries I was either in high school, or maybe I was in the first year of university. Whenever it was, the poem stuck with me. It did what the best poems do. It wrapped up complex and often conflicting feelings, and delivered them in a few well chosen words ready to be unpacked.
I found myself thinking about that poem a few days ago, as I often do when I am feeling particularly down on myself. I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries is, for my money, the best description of imposter syndrome ever written. Every facet of the complex emotional state of knowing yourself to be both competent and hopelessly in over your head, recognising your accomplishments while still waiting to be exposed as a rube. It’s the feeling that you haven’t earned what you’ve done in the right and proper ways, but you are still doing it. All the while the poem is an indictment of the very notion that there is a right and proper way. It also laments the loss of a right and proper way and a life lived superficially. Poems man, just packed right full of stuff.
Anyway, I really wrote this so that any time I, or anyone else searches for imposter syndrome, they have a slight chance of also finding, what I think is one of Leonard Cohen’s best poems. If you go searching for the reason why, the more you accomplish the more you feel like a fraud, you might find I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries. Seems a fair trade.
Twist turn slide reveal
The appearance of puzzles.
Much more. Mysteries
I am roughly 45% composed of nostalgia at this point. I fully expect to continue on this trajectory and transmute into pure nostalgia sometime in my 90s. For a few decades, I will be little more than grunge music, action movie, and video game references. I’m looking forward to it, but I preemptively apologize to anyone who has to deal with that.
Video games are roughly the same age as me, so video games being really down with nostalgia isn’t a big surprise. Retro style games are rampant. 16bit, 8bit, 1bit, analog, rock and stick. If it seems old, we like it. Seems is the most important word in that sentence. New games that adopt a bygone aesthetic can trigger the nostalgia centers. Through nostalgia these games can accumulate an unearned appeal. Nothing nefarious about it. This is the trajectory of every artform that outlasts the generation that created it. So games that seem old can benefit from this effect, but games that are actually old will have to endure based on their own merits. Just as some older films or books are difficult to digest today, some older games are a slog. Some oldies are not as enjoyable when parsed through the modern language of the mediums. We have moved on.
This is why I find it endlessly fascinating when someone latches on to the parts of nostalgia that we no longer have the language for. There is a project called the Coleco Chameleon that aims to create a new video game platform with a retro appeal. The project, as it stands, seems to have tanked. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. I won’t speculate, but they did post a picture of their prototype hardware that turned out to be a DVR capture card. If there is fraud involved, it’s of the profoundly stupid variety.
Less interesting to me than the Coleco Chameleon project itself, is the impetus behind it. The pitch for the console is this. It is a machine that would use cartridges, because downloads are terrible and cartridges last for ages. It would not have system updates or patches, because internet connectivity is annoying when what you really want to do is play a game. Games should come to you in a box, self contained, and bug free. This is a message designed to spear its way right into the deep blackness of my aging nostalgic heart. It is one of the most wrong headed pitches I have heard in a long time.
Nostalgia only works as a selling point when it is not a rejection of progress. New things that adopt up to date techniques, but remind you of the old things is how nostalgia works. When they look down their nose at contemporary works as somehow less than what came before, they will fail. We have an innate sense that detects grumpy old person disapproval. It smells unpleasant.
The real kicker in the case of the Coleco Chameleon is what is being rejected. Video games have come a long way in the past 40 or so years. The biggest shift from the 80s and 90s is the universal recognition that video games are made by people, for people. Being able to meet an author or a director is not an outrageous notion. People expect to see musicians play, live, in front of them. They may have achieved a level of public recognition that few people ever will, but there is absolutely no mistaking it, they are people. They do what people do. They communicate.
Up until fairly recently, the only communication between game developers and game players was at the sales counter. Devs made the game, players bought it or didn’t buy it, and that was the end. There was no way for the players to say that if just this one thing was tweaked, the game would be so much better. There was no way for the developers to let the players know that they were listening, and that they were working on that change, and not only that, they were excited to do it. All of these things that the makers of the Coleco Chameleon are framing as annoyances, networks, patches, updated, dlc, those are all communication. They aren’t perfect, and yes all communication can be frustrating at times, but compare that to the alternative. Video games have long been ridiculed as an insular and isolating medium. Now when communication is becoming the new normal, attempting to champion disconnection and isolation isn’t nostalgic. It’s just old and we don’t speak that language anymore.