The Retro-Gaming Renaissance and the Democracy of the Dead

The Retro-Gaming Renaissance and the Democracy of the Dead June 18, 2013


One of the more eccentric showings at this year’s E3 was WayForward‘s Duck Tales: Remastered, a revamp of the old and diabolically difficult NES classic. Capcom released a trailer for the game a few weeks back, making DT:R the latest in a line of recover-and-restore projects currently in development.

This movement really started gaining steam around March of 2012, when the old Baldur’s Gate Web site went live again with a countdown ticker, eventually leading to the announcement of the Overhaul Games Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. This coincided with the opening of the Kickstarters for Obsidion‘s Project Eternity and inXile‘s Torment: Tides of Numeneratwo games that owe a great deal of homage to the Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape: Tormentand similar Infinity Engine titles. Meanwhile, surrounding these announcements, a number of indie developers undertook projects that clearly looked to video games of the past as models. 

What all of these projects have in common is an impulse toward renaissance: a conscientious choice to go “back to roots” in order to revitalize story or gameplay elements that seem to be dwindling or altogether absent in more recent releases. Amazingly, amidst a marketing culture that primarily values the innovative and the cutting-edge, the gaming industry seems to be becoming the locus of a movement to remember, recover, and restore cultural artifacts that are old and worth preserving.

A common theme amongst these projects is the question of quality—what makes older games like Baldur’s Gate or Duck Tales so good that even after almost fifteen years and several quantum leaps in graphical presentation, gamers still want to play them? While the answers to this question are various and at times conflicting, there remains a lingering desire to tap into a richness of form and content that is recognizably timeless, no matter the level of pixelation.

We can see similar things happening in the American church. As Millenials come of age, more and more of them are leaving “contemporary” churches for more liturgical settings, finding that, at least within the context of faith, older often seems better. According to Duke University historian Lester Ruth,

They are looking for worship that has a sense of rootedness and connectedness, especially in the sense of well-crafted liturgical texts, that reaches across the ages, is strongly tactile and tangible, especially in its sacramentality.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that these two movements are connected, especially since they coincide with a growing democratization of both the gaming industry (think “crowdfunding”) and the culture of faith (consider the differences between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis). In Chapter 4 of his Orthodoxy (titled “The Ethics of Elfland”), G. K. Chesterton notes the link between tradition and democracy, writing:

I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary recordTradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

As we continue to press further into the twenty-first century, and as technology continues to advance and raise questions about what it really means to be human, modern life runs the risk of overwhelming us with its complexity and ephemerality. Moving forward, I think we’re likely to find ourselves looking backward for guidance. Whether through the polished and crafted digital stories of late-90s RPG’s or the devotional writings of medieval mystics, the past often speaks to us with a clarity and beauty that the present seems to lack.

For this reason, we need to safeguard our ability to participate in that conversation. For instance, we need to be concerned about innovations in console gaming that are threatening the loss of backward compatibility, depriving future gamers of access to the titles that paved the way for their favorite new releases. Similarly, we as Christians need to not disregard tradition as the trappings of an authoritarian church, but rather value it as a potential wellspring of wisdom that can help shape the substance of twenty-first century belief. If we truly believe the words of the Teacher, that “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), then we should work to preserve and, when necessary, to revitalize that which is worth remembering in the realms of both faith and culture.

photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc

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