The following is a guest post from Kaitlin Tremblay:
Kaitlin Tremblay has a Master’s in English and Film, with a specialization in gender and genre, and is currently living the fabulous life of a publishing intern. She spends most of her time playing games, painting, reading (mostly comics nowadays), watching old B-horror films, and writing a nerd-culture/feminist blog.
Nostalgia is a word that gets pandered around quite bit by everyone in almost every industry. In the winter I had the opportunity to work closely with various indie game developers in a program designed to help people get their projects up and running. During one of our workshop sessions, we got to talking about the word “nostalgia” and how it’s overused, but an extremely effective word and quality to infuse your product with. Every one is chasing the “nostalgia-factor” because we all like reminiscing about an idealized time. That is, in a large part, what nostalgia is all about: feeling a connection to a past event, object, period et cetera that is irretrievable and heavily idealized.
But it’s not actually about the past. Nostalgia is addictive and rewarding because it speaks more to our current state than it does the past event that is being remembered. According to film theorist Pam Cook, when we idealize something from the past, it’s a reflection of a longing we are currently feeling and trying to abate. This is why nostalgic films are so powerful as satires. Makes a lot of sense, right? I feel nostalgic for childhood when I’m overwrought and exhausted working multiple freelance gigs and internships and feeling generally cranky and angry at my present life-situation. It’s relaxing because it allows us to project.
On that note, I want to talk about nostalgia in video games, specifically in BioShock, which resembles pretty closely what Cook refers to as nostalgic films: they are works of art that recreate/(re)present a past society. BioShock is nostalgic because it imitates a specific period in American history that represents idealism itself: the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream. But nostalgia isn’t selective: when Rapture epitomizes 1950s culture, all the problems inherent rise to the top — that with the American Dream and capitalism comes with it the power for one man to take complete control, as well. The choices we think we have in BioShock are actually fabricated and a part of a system that we cannot beat through our own hard work: we’re controlled by Fontaine until we’re saved by Tennebaum. We can see this as a critique of a capitalist/Objectivist society because our current cultural climate allows for us to take our existing knowledge and see how it stacks up in a recreated past society.
To take this one step further: art, especially visual art, takes the form of a cultural memory. During my Master’s I took a course on Memory and Art Film, where the basic premise of the entire class was that film functions as memory (not a metaphor for memory, but actual representations of memory). Our artistic endeavours form a sort of memorial archive that houses the major attitudes of each era, and especially when it comes to nostalgic films, they actively reshape our relationship with the past/present by reforming and representing the past events in a new way that is pertinent to our current needs. There’s two main points here: nostalgia is actually more about our current society than it is about the past, and if nostalgic works of art are (re)presenting a past in a way that suits our contemporary needs, how does this function with the position that art operates in part as our cultural memory?
Let’s look forward to BioShock Infinite. Complete disclosure: my only experience with BI is through the trailers and interviews I’ve been able to consume while waiting for the game to release. At the time of writing this, BI is scheduled to release next week. In an interview Ken Levine says that BI is not a history lesson because it’s not about history. For me this really resonated because this is the heart of nostalgic films: they use tropes and images from an idealized past to shine light on our contemporary desires. And for Cook, nostalgia is all about the images. She explains that “as nostalgia is predicated on a dialectic between longing for something idealised that has been lost, and an acknowledgement that this idealised something can never be retrieved in actuality, and can only be assessed through images.” Images are our main source of recreating/representing an otherwise irretrievable feeling or event because they grant an intimate immediacy: they implant a sense indexicality and of having been a witness to the event.
So if art is memory, then what is being encapsulated in the nostalgic games that BioShock appear to be? With BioShock, it’s not so much about shifting our attitudes about the past or retroactively influencing our remembering of these bygone eras. The nostalgia is in part about influencing and creating our current cultural memory and how we want ourselves viewed. Is Rapture glorifying Objectivism? Or is it condemning a societal state that even allows for the choice of harvesting a young, brainwashed little girl? Levine states that he wants BioShock Infinite to be “honest” in the way it presents itself, that characters such as Lincoln were products of their time and had a complexity that involved both positive and negative aspects. But this isn’t necessarily to do Lincoln any justice, but rather to provide an honest medium for players to engage with issues how –if — they want to.
What else is the first BioShock doing when it offers the good and bad ending if not placing a memorial burden on ourselves and our in-game actions? Narratively, the good ending creates a future that we are comfortable with and proud of, whereas the bad ending places the blame for an apocalyptic nightmare on our character’s shoulders. I don’t want to get into if video game ethics can translate into real world ethics, because what I’m talking about here is the way the narrative operates as a nostalgic work of art and memory. This isn’t a question of ethics, but one of how art reflects back our cultural climate: the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
Nostaglic films always contain an element of self-reflection, and through this process, they encourage self-reflection in their audience. Let’s move this argument over to video games: when it is revealed that Fontaine has been manipulating your every move in the game, there is a moment of self-reflection that involves feeling duped, man-handled, and betrayed by both Atlas and by the game itself. When talking about BioShock, Levine stated that the game acted as a Rorscarch for people (one that usually ended up in negativity, infuriating gamers who chose to engage with it on that level), and this is exactly how nostalgia is operating: it’s letting us, as players and as an audience, look at the game (the mechanics, the setting) and project our own political discourse onto it. They become modes for discussion because they’re open.
Uncle Sam and nostalgia + politics in BioShock: http://gamercheeese.com/2013/01/22/five-books-to-read-in-preparation-for-bioshock-infinite/
Interview with Ken Levine: http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/12/13/bioshock-infinite-interview-ken-levine-racism-history/