Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Mining Nostalgia

Took a break on Friday to clear my head after all of the MMO nostalgia and get caught up on a backlog of work.

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We had our Game of the Month podcast on Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and I want to talk a little bit more about that game. I’ll rehash some of the stuff I talked about in the podcast, so I apologize in advance for any redundancy.

One of the tangents we (I) got on while talking about Shadowrun was how difficult it is to make a game centered around old nostalgia and make it good. I have a litmus test for this sort of thing, that Ash mentioned in the podcast. A game needs to be good on its own, absent any context outside of its series. The further along a series gets, the more impenetrable it becomes, generally speaking, which is why the third or fourth game in a given series is often a significant reboot. To wit: Grand Theft Auto 3, Bioshock: Infinite, Assassin’s Creed IV, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the new Thief, Fallout 3, Jedi Outcast AND Jedi Academy– just a short list of games as I scroll down my Steam Library that are the third or fourth game in their series and a significant reboot, sometimes changing the game’s genre entirely.

Shadowrun is a good game in its own right– you can enjoy it without having a decades-long background in the kinds of games it’s inspired by. It’s perhaps why I’ve had so much trouble getting into Pillars of Eternity. There are awkward parts of the gameplay and the user interface that are borne of the game trying very hard to stay close to its roots, without necessarily evaluating if those roots make for a modern-feeling, up-to-date game.

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Games are experiences that are meant to evoke certain feelings; they create a particular scenario in which your brain lights up in a certain way. Unfortunately, the key there isn’t the game itself, but the way the brain lights up, and that changes over time, ESPECIALLY with new experiences. I can play Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, one of my favorite steampunk games, and it lights up my brain in much the same way it did when I played it more than a decade ago. It’s also a deeply flawed game, with a lot of break points and issues. I’ve played similar games since, and they don’t evoke the same feelings. I dearly loved JRPGs growing up, but now it takes a truly spectacular one that approaches the genre differently to get me engaged.

Even if we like the same sorts of games over time, our standards will rise as we get better and better games. The bar goes up, and fewer and fewer games will meet it as time goes on. If we’re not careful, we’ll find that no new games meet our criteria anymore, and nothing new will light our brains up the way the older games do.

Lone Wanderer tweaked wallpaper (FALLOUT 3) by SLiqster

Lone Wanderer tweaked wallpaper (FALLOUT 3) by SLiqster

It’s why I harp so much on trying games you don’t necessarily think you’ll like, in genres you don’t always play. I mentioned Fallout 3 as an example in the podcast– the old Fallout games with isometric turn-based RPGs, and lent a strong sense of wandering through a vast world on your own and having many options for dealing with whatever problems or opportunities came up. The new Fallout games are first-person shooters, but importantly they’re still pursuing that sense of wandering through a vast world. Our bar for that sort of experience has risen, and for the most part an isometric game makes you feel detached and makes the world feel constrained to what you can see on screen. In a first-person shooter, you can pull out binoculars or a scope and look out over a vast landscape, which contributes to that sense of detachment and tunnelvision when playing an isometric RPG when put in direct comparison.

As games get better, the kinds of things we can express in them as a medium get broader, and certain genres will lend themselves to certain types of games more readily. This will change over time, as genres mature and the gaming landscape changes. The point-and-click adventure game that gave you chills as a child (7th Guest anyone?) has become a first-person thriller (Call of Cthulu/Amnesia) and eventually morphed into an MMO (The Secret World), all focusing on a very similar set of experiences and lighting your brain up in similar ways, but coming at it from very different angles.

With a game that’s about nostalgia, about triggering those old feelings, it’s important to pay attention not just to what those games did, but how the medium has evolved in the meantime. Slavishly recreating an old game isn’t going to have the same impact as a brand new game that evokes those same feelings in a newer, tighter package. This can even transcend IP– Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall have little to nothing in common with older Shadowrun games, but it expertly pulls in references to older Shadowrun content as well as evoking the feel of old Black Isle and similar games, all without becoming inaccessible to a player unfamiliar with any of those things.

Coming off of the MMO nostalgia train of the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I haven’t felt like an MMO has captured the feeling of the old games. For me, it’s because a lot of those memories are inextricably tied to the joy of discovering a new technology– the Internet, and the idea that I could play games with real people in a huge world without the constraints of a team vs team match was thrilling. That same earthshaking, intoxicating excitement isn’t likely to happen again until another major technological breakthrough that not only changes the way I play my games, but also changes the way I live my life. That confluence of events is what gave those older MMOs the spark that seared into my brain, and is (I think) why the genre has stumbled once internet multiplayer became a core feature of every video game. Certain games are trying to mine that nostalgia for older MMOs, but they’re missing the key factor; recreating the games and their features, not recreating the experience.

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I hope that in my lifetime I see another technological leap that makes me sit forward, jump into a game, meet a new person in that game, and have us both get excited because, holy shit, we live in the future and we can’t believe playing this game in this way is an actual thing we can do. That’s how I’ll get my MMO nostalgia, and that’s why I’m excited about the new Shadowrun– it’ll make me remember all of the good times I had with old isometric RPGs without also reminding me that they now feel old.



Source: Digital Initiative
Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Mining Nostalgia

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