In gaming the word 'nostalgia' brings to mind 16-bit characters, chiptune music and consoles that make the Xbox One look like a slim, svelte machine. That’s understandable because over the past couple of years, the gaming industry has seized on our love of the games of our childhoods and revived them with re-masters, re-makes, and re-releases.
But as much as we love getting to relive those long afternoons sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, ignoring the warnings of our eyes going square, this retro resurgence is becoming slightly exhausting.
As it’s simply defined as a ‘sentimentality for the past’, you could quite as easily feel nostalgic for something that happened last weekend, never mind 20 years ago. Nostalgia is simply longing for a time when things were good and very few of us need to go back to the days of Spyro to find the last time a game made us feel happy or content.
The good old days
That’s why the recent rise in standalone spin-off games is so interesting. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, and Life is Strange: Before the Storm are just some of the games that are branching off from hugely popular franchises to tell a separate and shorter story in the wider game world using once supporting characters.
These games offer us another way back into a game world we loved and were sorry to leave, and for that reason they’re arguably becoming the new, modern face of nostalgia.
Standalone spin-offs have been around for a long time, but they’ve tended to be somewhat sidelined and tend to feel like a lesser or stripped back version of the original game they’re drawing on.
Take Assassin’s Creed Chronicles as an example. They’re not bad games by any means, but they don’t recreate the feeling of the mainline Assassin’s Creed titles and they aren’t given nearly as much attention, either.
These latest spin-offs, though, are something different. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is like Uncharted ‘Lite’.
It has all the feeling and spirit of a core Uncharted game and it’s being marketed with almost the same fervor as one, too. But it’s shorter, cheaper, and doesn’t feature the series’ star, Nathan Drake.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is receiving widespread praise; in fact, we very much enjoyed it ourselves.
After getting some time with both Dishonored: Death of the Outsider and Life is Strange: Before the Storm at this year's Gamescom, we can also say that both of these titles are shaping up to be very enjoyable additions to their respective franchises, following the same idea as Uncharted.
These games are enjoyable because they’re able create the feeling that you’re playing a big story and taking part in a big adventure without asking us to play for much more than 10 hours (around half the time of their mainline counterparts).
They use the player’s pre-existing knowledge of the game world, its characters and its tropes to cut the preamble and jump into the deep end of the game. It’s a plunge pool experience that’s satisfying because it respects your commitment as a fan and your intelligence as a player, all while remaining accessible to those who are new to the series.
Reaping the rewards
Games that tell a good story, craft an immersive game world and present characters we can care about tend to require a large investment of our time in return. This isn’t an outrageous ask, but when your free time is limited and the number of games you want to play only grows as the months go by, it’s easy to feel resentful when a game appears to be attempting to monopolize your time.
When you do invest that time and reap the entertainment rewards, it can be extra galling when a series ends and you realize you’re going to have to start from scratch with something else.
These spin-offs are almost like a reward for time spent. Though they’re accessible to everyone, it’s those that have already spent a lot of time in the Uncharted, Dishonored and Life is Strange worlds that will truly get the most from them.
It’s they who’ll get the warming nostalgia that comes from the familiar gameplay, characters, locations and visuals as well as the thrill that comes from discovering new locations, powers and features.
And it's they who'll get the benefit and satisfaction of the illusion of depth that comes from understanding the game’s wider lore.
Sure, in some ways these spin-offs feel like cashing in on our love for franchises. Sometimes it seems like we just can’t let anything end anymore. But as long as they’re cashing in without compromising on quality, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to give players satisfying gaming experiences in worlds they know they want to spend more time in. It’s like when you finish a book and find a great fan fiction. And then you find out the fan fiction is written by the original author.
These games are an example of what happens when a good story is told and a rich world is built. It’s a credit to games that can do that, and it shows how far storytelling on the medium has come.
A different approach
Narrative games have something of an uncertain future at the moment, and we’re seeing fewer of them around. Earlier this year, head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, said in an interview with The Guardian that single-player narrative driven adventures were becoming increasingly risky to rely on. His view was that games that become services like Destiny and The Division are more financially safe and capture a larger audience.
Spencer’s suggestion was that to keep narrative titles alive it may be worth considering a subscription-based service where the story is told episodically. The problem with this is that though games released in this manner would require less of your time in the moment, they still require long-term commitment, like a TV series.
Spin-offs are a happy medium. They’re the Marvel blockbuster that can be enjoyed on its own rather than the 10 episode TV series. They reward players for investing time in a game world, rather than make it more obvious and drawn out that they're doing so.
So, yes, though we sometimes can scoff at the gaming industry and our own penchant for nostalgia, playing on it could give story-driven games the extra life they need. Not only that, playing on our love of franchises that are so new calls attention to what games are doing well right now, and that in itself is something new and refreshing.
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