Choosing Nostalgia

I get really nostalgic for stuff that, when I think about it, didn’t exactly impact my life in heavy ways. Although it’s probably common enough, I’m more nostalgic about products, fictional characters, and moments in another person’s published narrative than I am about actual occurrences in my life.

This is used for evil by companies that own intellectual property, like Square, who recently made Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, a music-based game that focuses on the soundtracks from all 13 major releases. It’s astoundingly diabolical.

That it is a solid music game is entirely incidental. It plays music you remember from the last twenty five years of video games, and that feeling makes you warm and fuzzy and old (2 out of three ain’t bad). They spector-style avatars are a constant reminder that this isn’t the real thing. As you can see above, each Final Fantasy main character was re-imagined in a cutesy dead-doll fashion, their unblinking blue eyes a reflection of their purpose. It’s like Final Fantasy, but it isn’t.

But why isn’t it? Why isn’t this a Final Fantasy game? There’s battles, grinding, and very, very good music. What’s missing? Story, of course. There’s no story here at all (there’s something about a crystal, but whatever. It’s ten seconds at the beginning and you only see it as a scoring device). Without story, these characters don’t mean anything. They’re props, there to make you feel a tinge about that time you spent 100 hours with them saving the world.

I don’t think I’m breaking ground here by suggesting that it’s what a character does that’s important, and not just what they look like and if they have cool hair or a neat gun. I’m not likely to fall in love with any of the characters from Theatrhythm because they don’t actually do anything. They just stand there, or walk independent of my action. I’m not really paying attention to them anyway. I’m tapping and swiping. But they look a little like a character I used to really like embodying. They have the same name, and the same outfit. But it’s a ghost, just a memory, a husk.

I don’t like sequels to things for this reason, or fan service in general. If Theatrhythm had featured no characters at all, I wouldn’t have liked it any less. But this is a problem with fiction in general: people like tropes. They like feeling like they know what’s happening. They like comforting character types. People like formulas. They’re easy.

I didn’t use to think I included similar notions in my stories, but I do. In fact, I mapped out the overall plot and character motivations from my three books (one unreleased). Turns out, I’ve been telling essentially the same story over and over, just with different characters. I’ve got similar beats about love, betrayal, and growth in all my stories, and I didn’t even do it intentionally. I probably learned about this from Final Fantasy, a series of games involving different characters in different worlds, all telling somewhat similar stories, running into similar character conflicts, and overcoming similar personal and world-saving problems. I think I’m far more forgiving of this kind of reused ideas, and I’m not sure why.

I looked over the main beats of my three books, and I wrote out the formula for all three. It’s not exactly scientific, and three doesn’t exactly make a lifetime pattern, but it’s still interesting:

Now, I like this little formula I’ve made, because I can weave a ton of different characters and ideas through it, and it still comes out feeling a little similar (but not lazily so) to the last one, which is comforting on a similar level to the nostalgia thing so many companies do by re-introducing old characters into new things. At least, that’s the theory.

July 19, 2012