2015 has been a peak year for ‘90s revivalism. In addition to newly announced seasons for Twin Peaks, the X-Files, and — for some reason — Full House, we’ve also been given a Rolling Stone retrospective on Space Jam’s promotional website (now celebrated as a masterpiece of early Internet design), a restoration project for old Geocities nethubs, and even an oral history of Theodore Rex. However, this pales in comparison to the ‘90s moment gaming is having right now.
There has been a deluge of throwback content since 2012 — begun largely by a series of crowdfunding successes on Kickstarter that saw projects launched to bring back creators or game genres that flourished in the ‘90s. Although Tim Schaefer’s Double Fine Adventure (a.ka. Broken Age) —arguably the catalyst for gaming’s Kickstarter success — wasn’t specifically for a ‘90s callback project, Schaefer is most fondly remembered for his time at LucasArts,working on or helming such classic adventure games as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango (which got a remastered edition earlier this year).
This led Brian Fargo to launch a successful Kickstarter campaigns for Wasteland 2 and a sequel to Planescape: Torment, and then Obsidian Entertainment mounted a successful campaign for ‘90s cRPG revival game, Pillars of Eternity. Other creators like Ron Gilbert (also from LucasArts), Julian Gollop (original X-Com creator), Chris Roberts (Wing Commander), Robyn and Rand Miller (Myst, Riven), and more controversially Richard Garriott (Ultima) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Fable), all had successful campaigns to either bring them back into the fold of game creation or bring back beloved game styles.
Game genres that had a significant flourishing in the ‘90s like cRPGs, adventure games, and 3D platformers (just see A Hat in Time and Yuka-Laylee — both, of course, with soundtracks by Grant Kirkhope) have made a significant comeback with a glut of titles in the last three years. Even FMV games have made a comeback. Yes, FMV video games — once ridiculed for their expense, poorly compressed video, hammy acting, and comically large number of CD-Roms needed to play — have been the inspiration behind Sam Barlow’s critically acclaimed video archive mystery Her Story, and the more tongue-in-cheek, Contradiction — Spot The Liar!: The All-Video Murder Mystery Adventure.
Then we begin get into the rereleases and remasters, most notably Homeworld, and the aforementioned Grim Fandango, and soon we’ll be seeing The Day of the Tentacle again. Heck, even Final Fantasy VII is getting an HD remake. There was also this absurd commercial for a callback ‘90s first-person shooter.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but demonstrates that game creators and consumers are fixated on the ‘90s. I even lamented the loss of Carmen Sandiego in a time with so much classic game revivalism. Manos: Hands of Fate—one of the worst movies of all time—has recently become the subject of tongue-in-cheek platforming game that’s a deliberate call to the awful tie-in movie games made for the NES and SNES. So, why the sudden onrush of nostalgia?
The first — and most obvious point — is that people who came of age during “the last great decade” (not my wording), are now old enough to be cultural producers themselves, or at least consumers, who want to experience again what they grew up with. Essentially, people have the creative power or the cash or both, to revive genres long thought dead. There is a huge nostalgic push, and this has led to results both good and bad. If you’re a fan of computer role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate, this revivalism has been good for you: Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin are great games in their own right. If you’re a fan of classic adventure games—then not so much.
A second reason is history. Game companies and gamers alike are apathetic toward preserving game history. As a result, previously explored tropes, genres, and ideas are redone and repackaged—sometimes without awareness of whether or not it has been done before. A good example is Sword Coast Legends, another tactical role-playing game, set in Dungeons and Dragons’ Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It advertises a “DM Mode” that will let one player be the Dungeon Master and curate the role-playing experience for their friends online, and is being touted as something that’s never been done before. The only problem is that it was done before—and quite successfully—by BioWare’s 2002 D & D role-playing game, Neverwinter Nights. This might not be so surprising since Sword Coast Legends is being made by ex-Bioware developers, but I have yet to come across a single article talking about how Legends riffs on NWN’s original, innovative feature set.
The historical aspect of the shift toward nostalgic revival becomes more apparent when consider how often the genres that people love are misremembered. As mentioned before, adventure games have not fared well, mostly repeating the clumsy navigation and frustrating puzzle design that was prevalent in ‘90s adventure games. Contemporary adventure game designers miss the point, Richard Corbett argues in a piece for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, of what made adventure games great in the first place. He writes:
“The vast majority of adventures that we get aren’t even trying for that level of innovation or novelty value, and sure as hell don’t have the relative budgets to pull it off. Instead, they’re content to be the next Touche, the next Bud Tucker, the next Innocent Until Caught – following along in the wake of Lucasarts and Sierra and a couple of other big names like pilotfish. If we follow them, we’ll get to where we need to be. Right? Never mind that nobody gave a shit about those games back in the 90s. Hold the line! Keep the faith! It’ll all work out eventually, right?”
This is the dangerous trap one can fall into with gamer nostalgia — the simple replication of what a genre offered rather than capturing its essence and moving them forward. This is unsurprising in a world when even a game designer like Roberta Williams are forgotten until—as CRPG Book project editor Felipe Pepe pointed out on his blog — it was announced there would be a reboot of the King’s Quest series. Then there were retrospectives written on the series and Williams’ importance, and she was even given an industry award (!) as something old is remade into a vital consumer product.
Amazingly, it gets even worse. Not only is the games industry apathetic to its own history; it’s actively hostile. The Electronic Software Association is trying to prevent the Electronic Frontier Foundation from preserving online multiplayer games long since abandoned by their developers, and in fact, the ESA considers all forms of game preservation “hacking” and therefore illegal — nevermind that it’s largely game pirates and hackers who have been actively preserving and curating games history.
At the heart of ‘90s revivalism then is the fight over whether games should be considered art, or merely just another consumer product. As art, games have a history and a vitality that needs to be preserved, cherished, and expanded upon—a series of interesting pathways meant to inspire rather than to be merely imitated. But considered solely as a consumer good, it must be forgotten, ignored, or actively blocked, otherwise it can’t be resold to the next generation, or even worse, someone will be inspired and create a new game and become successful outside the mainstream games industry. So remember that as you awe over someone creating a ‘90s style gaming rig or chuckle at the latest ‘90s commercial parody that there’s a fight for both the past — and future — of gaming.