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Final Fantasy 7. Ocarina of Time. Deus Ex. Besides being all-time classics, these video games all have something in common–they look like shit by today’s standards.
A lot of gamers claim not to care about a game’s visuals, and while I’m sure that’s true for some people, I think most of them are frankly full of shit. No one wants to play a game in this day and age that looks like the inside of my anal cavity. Most players really mean that they don’t care about a game’s graphical fidelity, but totally do care about art design. I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would disagree that Superbrothers’ 2D pixel art is heartbreakingly gorgeous in comparison to the dull 3D world of Watch_Dogs. God that game puts me to sleep… which is funny, ’cause Sleeping Dogs is actually gorgeous. I digress.
Final Fantasy 7 and Ocarina of Time both featured wonderful art design, which has helped them to stand the test of time in spite of the horrific polygonal monstrosities that don’t feel at home in the surrounding world at all. However, there’s also no denying that if these games were released today with the visuals that they had then, no one would be interested. It simply wouldn’t be deemed acceptable with the power of modern technology and the standard of the current industry. These games would need to look at LEAST as good as Dark Souls to stand a chance in today’s market, and as it stands, they are no Dark Souls.
So why is it that these games still get replayed and heralded as classic to this day? This isn’t a case like Goldeneye, where the game is considered fantastically influential and important, but nearly unplayable by modern standards. Final Fantasy 7, Ocarina of Time, and Deus Ex hold up to their legacy with mechanics that excite players to this day, in spite of countless games which have built upon them. So why do modern players make allowances for these games that they’d never make for a game released today?
The answer you’ll often here is “nostalgia,” which is very correct, followed by “blindness,” which I think is incorrect. In this case, nostalgia comes in two forms–personal nostalgia, and cultural nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is built upon the player’s past experiences with the work. Maybe they played the game when it was new, or at a developmental stage in their life, or before consuming other works in the medium. These previous experiences cause the player to see things differently than if the game appeared before them now.
Cultural nostalgia is more of a broad collective understanding of cultural heritage., which can be felt even by those born in the time after the works were created. Even if you never played an N64 game, you might have a general understanding of the limitations present in technology at the time the game was released, and be willing to make allowances based on that. In both cases, nostalgia allows the player to hold the game to a different standard and not judge it on the same terms that they would a modern game.
Some would call this ability to soften judgement on older works “nostalgia blindness,” and if your ultimate goal was to rank all of the games ever created on a consistent scale based on visuals, I could understand saying that. However, in general, I think that nostalgia doesn’t blind the player so much as it allows them to open their eyes. To see nostalgia’s ability to make players accept an old game as a bad thing suggests that players should hold themselves to a consistent, decided upon standard, and is the realm of those who wish to herald their tastes above others, i.e. douchebags.
But really, functional nostalgia is a good thing. It gives us the opportunity to look back and to appreciate old media. Nostalgia is born of memory and history–it can give the feeling of knowing where we’ve come from, and gives us the sense of where we are and where we may be going. It’s a powerful, often positive emotion, and if a game can harness nostalgia, that makes it better, not worse. If you want to determine a game’s quality, what matters is only results. Do people love the game, or don’t they? If they love the visuals in Final Fantasy 7 because of nostalgia, that’s a no less valid form of love than loving a modern game for its technical achievements in graphical fidelity. Nostalgia is just one more way by which we love games, and as such, I can’t see how it’s a bad thing.