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June 28, 2007

Past Perfect: Gaming, Music, and Flawed Memory

Posted in: Games,Music

Ever play a new game and get that “wow, this is just like that game I played as a kid” feeling? Odds are it ain’t; at least if you’re like me. But why is that?

Take Metroid Fusion. On first play, I got those same goosebumps I had when I played the original Metroid. Visually, the characters slotted right into the cookie cut-outs the old characters left behind 20 years before. And the feel was just the same. Or was it? Going back and playing original, it seemed foreign, unforgiving. Lacking all the color and diversity I remembered. Metroid Fusion, then, doesn’t live up to reality, it lives up to an idealized memory. And to build a game that channels that beautifully flawed memory is a special kind of skill.

We’ve seen similar in music. Take, for example, the way LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic Sound of Silver pulls on 80’s memories — but only the good ones. How does that work? Like the Eye of the Tiger riff that hits 3/4 of the way through the first track. It sounds totally lifted from the Survivor song until you go back and listen to the real thing. That Survivor shit is awful! And that’s the magic. You remember it but you don’t.

While playing some games will forever be linked to 80’s styled music in my head, an even more direct linkage is made on the chiptune scene, where folks make music with old school videogame gear. That stuff lives in the nostalgic buzz of childhood gaming memories. You feel it in your bones.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and re-live all those early experiences. Almost. An LCD Soundsystem lyric puts it best:

Sounds of silver talk to me
makes you want to feel like a teenager
until you remember the feelings of
a real live emotional teenager
then you think again

It takes a special kind of looking back to fully appreciate how far we’ve come. The games and music of our childhoods weren’t perfect, but our memories can be. And new games and music that trigger the past can help us reflect on all that’s happened in-between.

What’s the formula for triggering good (and not gross) in our collective childhood media recollection? Who knows. But I’m always in awe when games and music give me euphoric flashbacks to those early days. So I’m happy if the trick stays a mystery. That way, I can put on some Out Hud, throw in Super Paper Mario, and travel back to a perfect past that only exists inside my head. Well, and maybe yours, too.

For more edited memories, see Radio Lab.

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