Opinion – The Dangers Of Chasing Nostalgia

by Ben Reeves on Aug 09, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Over the years, as people ask me about my favorite “game of all time,” I usually start talking about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Link’s first 3D outing blew my mind. It was a blend of brilliant world design, clever puzzles, and an amazing soundtrack. After playing Ocarina of Time, the land of Hyrule felt real and alive in ways that no other artificial world had before. The sun even rose and set in a day/night cycle that was incredibly novel for the era.

I found myself thinking about Ocarina of Time a lot earlier this year while I was playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. With Link’s latest adventure, Nintendo rethought the Zelda formula and delivered a Zelda game that felt incredibly fresh while holding true to Zelda’s original design theory of letting players run free in a fantasy world. Breath of the Wild is a stunning adventure full of beautiful, player-driven moments. I had trouble putting down my Switch for nearly 100 hours after I first picked up the game. Breath of the Wild was my month of March.

Breath of the Wild was so good that I felt conflicted when trying to place it in my mental rankings of the Zelda games. Early on, I knew that it was going to crack the top five. However, the more I played, the higher up the list it climbed. “Well, I think it’s better than Wind Waker, so it must be top three.” Eventually, Breath of the Wild climbed so far up my personal favorites list that it butted up next to Ocarina of Time. My gut was telling me that Breath of the Wild was better than Ocarina of Time, but my heart didn’t want to admit it.

The problem was that Ocarina of Time was such a groundbreaking gaming experience for me that it has become almost untouchable. Ocarina of Time has been my “favorite game” for so long that it’s practically cemented in place. It’s almost unfair, because, if I’m honest with myself, it’s not a perfect game. Someone approaching Ocarina of Time for the first time could easily walk away wondering what the fuss was about. The combat is simple, Link’s fairy companion is annoying and handholdy, and the water temple is a confusing mess. So, why did I find it so hard to say that Breath of the Wild was my new favorite Zelda?

The obvious answers is: Nostalgia.

Sometimes I worry that nostalgia is holding me back, because my personal nostalgia bias extends beyond Zelda. Some of the other games on my personal top ten list include Resident Evil 2, Metal Gear Solid, and Panzer Dragoon Saga. Here’s an interesting fact about all those games: they all came out in 1998. Now, I’m willing to argue that 1998 was an abnormally strong year for games, but I also acknowledge that it’s strange that most of my favorite games are almost 20 years old. It feels like my gaming tastes have become set in their ways.

See how fun Breath of the Wild looks?

There is a concept in psychology called The Golden Age Fallacy, which speaks to the idea that we constantly yearn to return to the splendor of a bygone age. Unfortunately, bygone ages are rarely as splendorous as they seem from a distance. Every era has its own problems and the people who lived in that time often longed for other Golden Ages. This phenomenon can lead to thinking like, “Video game were better back when…”, which is not only myopic, it’s just plain wrong.

Nostalgia isn’t bad. We’ve all had that moment in our lives where we first experienced the power of the video game medium. And the games first opened our eyes to the wonder of this art form are usually the ones we idolize. This isn’t a problem in itself, but our past experiences do color our opinions. The warm glow of nostalgia makes us feel fuzzy inside, but it also distorts our memories, because we tend to remember the good things more vividly than the bad.

Nostalgia is a lot of fun, but it is also dangerous, because it can lead you on a search for experiences that are like the ones you’ve already had. In my case, anytime I hear about a game that was inspired by Zelda, I feel compelled to check it out. And while I’ve had a lot of fun playing games like Okami, Darksiders, and Beyond Good and Evil, I’ve also wasted hundreds of hours playing sub-par Zelda-clones in a quest to scratch an itch created by my nostalgia. That’s hundreds of hours I could have spent playing better games – games that deliver new experiences. When you chase nostalgia, you run the risk of falling into a rut.

The best solution to this problem is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Nostalgia has its place, and it’s fine to revisit old favorites, but the video game medium offers such a breadth of experiences that you limit yourself when you’re chained to the past. However, if you try new types of games and experiment with genres that are outside your norm, you might just find a new favorite game. Then, maybe someday, you’ll be able to admit that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is really your favorite Zelda game.