A teenager is wearing a down vest and washing the bonnet of a DeLorean DMC-12. Sadly this model is not fitted with a flux capacitor and I haven’t travelled back in time to the mid-80s. It’s simply a retro gaming event in my home town of Leicester.
This sort of sight is common at many retro culture events. The young man in question charges visitors for a picture wearing his puffed-up red vest and sitting in the iconic car – all proceeds go to research into Parkinson’s disease, which Michael J. Fox suffers from. By itself, the vehicle would be of little interest outside car enthusiasts’ circles, but when combined with an event centred on entertainment from the 80s and 90s, it is a huge hit. These events are popular across the world. Retro is in, from music to fashion to gaming. We are in an age of culture which looks to the past more than ever before. The 1960s wanted to throw off the mistakes of the past whereas the 21st century wants to embrace them. We can see it in sequels to long-dead film franchises (Rambo, Die Hard, Bill and Ted), and the return of the down vest and fedora to high street fashion. We can see it in the return to popularity of lost arts, from burlesque to board games.
Our modern culture is not so much informed by the past as borrowed from it. The old expression that the classics never go out of style has never been truer. For my generation, retro culture is more than nostalgia for the music and TV shows of our childhoods. It’s a rejection of bland modernity and a desire to live in a different age where big ideas and grand narratives were still fashionable, and careful craftsmanship was put into creating culture, rather than relying on spectacle and mass production. This image of the past has a lot more to say about how we view modernity than what the past was actually like but it is still a powerful idea that has many followers. The above-mentioned event in Leicester was just an example of the disaffected cast-offs of modern culture coming together to yearn for a different time. This yearning is expressed by watching Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, eating retro sweets that are not sold in shops anymore and playing classics gaming titles on N64s and Dreamcasts.
Gaming is one of my main interests and gaming is very much a part of this cultural discourse, however for gamers, these retro events are even more important. Aside from the nostalgia and the feeling of being born out of time, retro gaming events are where gamers go to escape the omnipresent generic triple-A titles that dominate the popular spheres of gaming. There is a feeling that what once was a vibrant, original art form has faltered as budgets ballooned to point where only large entertainment conglomerates, focused on the bottom line, can afford to make mainstream games. This has constrained freedom of expression and the art form’s ability to innovate, and has led to formulaic products. Gamers are angry at this, and they flock to retro events to express their dissatisfaction. Beyond making a comment on the state of the art, retro gaming events also perform a conservation function in that they archive, maintain and exhibit the history of the medium. This is where new generations of developers go to find out how the bold steps of the past were taken. It is also where they can see what might have been, the roads not taken and the evolutionary dead ends.
The collective learning of 40 years of game development can be sampled in a few hours at a retro gaming event. Games are an interactive art form and as such in these retro gaming events fans can grab hold of the pass and explore under their own direction. As a gamer, I want developers to bring back what games used to have. Golden Eye on the N64 is clunky to play, the interface is brutal and the interaction is severely limited but it remains immensely playable 16 years after it was released. At the Leicester event I spent a considerable amount of time playing the Golden Eye multiplayer. So ingrained is that game in my cultural education that every map, level weapon, every piece of body armour or hiding spot came back to me within a few minutes of playing the game. It takes something special to leave that deep a mark on a person. I question whether we still be playing GTA V, and remembering it this way, sixteen years after its release. Some of my favourite recent games have taken it on board; I can see the influence that retro games are having on the recent explosion of indie titles.
Games like Papers Please are a small step backwards graphically but a huge step forwards in terms of narrative and interaction. With indie games you do not need a huge budget, expensive graphics or support for Kinect, you just need a good idea, which is the appeal of a lot of retro games. Streets of Rage was just fun to play and did not take itself as seriously as Halo does. Sim City taught us that everyday problems can be the basis of a game, Civilization showed us how we could create our own eon-spanning narratives.
For gamers, retro gaming events are more than a way of embracing retro culture; they are an artistic movement in themselves and I feel they hold the key to the future of gaming. We could wish for a DeLorean with a flux capacitor to travel back to 1985 and do things differently. Or – while other art forms are looking to retro culture only to remember how great things used to be – we could use the collective wisdom of past gamers to change the future.