Nostalgia replays have become my go-to escape from pandemic stress

Command & Conquer
(Image credit: EA)

Though the pandemic is not over yet, I'm pretty sure one of my strongest memories from it will be the experience of replaying Command & Conquer and Red Alert—102 combined hours so far. I started in late 2020, aka the First Year. On some nights when I couldn't sleep, instead of dwelling on the awfulness of everything I'd shuffle off to my game room (which had overnight become my home office) and play a mission or two until I was tired enough to stop thinking.

Over the next year and a half I followed C&C with WarCraft 2, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Halo 1 & 2. No new PC games for this player, just old favorites. I mean, it didn't stop me from buying new games—I'm still a sucker for a Steam sale—but my installs of Disco Elysium and Ghostwire: Tokyo are stuck watching from digital limbo. I may not be stuck in quarantine anymore, but I can't tear myself away from revisiting these old familiar places.

I know I'm not alone with these nostalgia binges. People talk about TV shows they've been compulsively rewatching, books and comics from their younger years they're rereading, and sometimes even larger nostalgia purchases. My pandemic brain even led me to buy a classic Macintosh. More than usual, it feels like this retreat backwards provides a mental safe space in a time full of fear and uncertainty and sadness and loss. And there's certainly no shortage of bad news going on in the world right now.

Now, "nostalgia experts" (yep, there is such a thing) like to point out that basking in nostalgia is not always a positive thing. For example, Svetlana Boym's The Future of Nostalgia discussed two types of nostalgia. One can lead people to get stuck in the past with a fear of giving it up—sometimes even a past that never was, as in the case of longing for romanticized "good old days"

The other kind (the kind I hope I'm practicing) is a more positive savoring of what once was without an unhealthy attachment to it. 

A focus on nostalgia can also lead to creative stagnation as game developers (or movie producers, or TV writers, or novelists) lean too much on the past. This can be from their attempts to capitalize on customer nostalgia, or even from designers' own nostalgia. In either case, this can result in derivative designs, sequels upon sequels, and a glut of stuff that values a formula that worked in the past over creative new ideas.


(Image credit: Blizzard)

On the other hand, nostalgic gaming can be a positive tool in helping us get through some crappy times. In addition to the nostalgic warm-fuzzies I get from my old faves, I feel a sense of accomplishment from finishing a game I never finished before—either because I "got gud" or because now it's easier to find online guides and videos to help me where I might have been stuck decades ago. I keep adding new games to my "to play" pile while I mark others off the bucket list. It helps that being a PC gamer makes nostalgia replays trivially easy. No other platform lets you run just about any game going back decades.

Next-gen nostalgia

Sam & Max: Freelance Police

(Image credit: Steve Purcell)

My 19-year-old son recently told me that he has nostalgia for games from his childhood, which was only 5-10 years ago. I would have thought "recent nostalgia" was an oxymoron, but apparently not. It hadn't occurred to me how much nostalgia can differ for different ages—I mean, I can be nostalgic over parachute pants, Star Wars, Wham!, In Living Color, dial-up modems, Betamax, and New Coke. What's my kid got… Angry Birds and Twlight?

I kid, he's got much more than that. The bulk of my son's nostalgia replay time since the pandemic has gone into Minecraft, Terraria, and Garry's Mod, the games he cut his teeth on as a wee PC gamer. These all feel like recent games to me, but checking a calendar, um, they are not. During the pandemic he and I spent some long evening binges replaying PixelJunk Shooter and Halo 1 and 2, toggling between original and remastered graphics in the Master Chief Collection.

For him, nostalgia's soothing power goes beyond playing the same game for the nth time. He says that sometimes playing an older game he hasn't played before gives him a nostalgic feeling, that it brings him back to a time he never experienced and a different style of game than what's common today.

Currently he's working his way through '90s first-person shooters. I'm not sure if this counts as nostalgia for him, but it's helped us bond over shared stories of old games as I watch him experience moments that wowed me when I was his age. As he played through the entirety of Doom, I got to tell him about the shareware distribution model, and how my first PC could barely handle the game when more than a few enemies were on screen—all while watching my son annihilate the hordes of Hell on a higher difficulty than I ever managed.

Not entirely rose-colored

While I highly recommend nostalgia gaming as a way to either have a good time or endure a bad one, I do want to suggest that we all exercise caution in our binging. I may have spent more time than I care to admit playing my mental-health-support games when I could have been getting something productive done. Tragically, my neglect of recent popular games sometimes hurts my comprehension of modern memes—can anyone explain why dogs in Elden Ring look so weird?

Also, I don't want game publishers to think most customers only want old games, or they may continue creating more and more remakes and remasters at the cost of original ideas. I mean, buy what you want, of course, but maybe take a look at a review or two first—because not every remake is worthy of your memories. Some try to tickle our nostalgia center ("Hey, remember this favorite character? Wasn't this catchphrase funny?") without providing much substance.

Anyway, speaking of substance—that reminds me I recently re-purchased the Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. I'm gonna go use it to do some social distancing.