Pete Davison: Looking Back

Posted on June 16, 2011 by

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It’s ironic, really, that one of the best things about living in The Future is the ability to recapture the past at will. While we may not have managed to nail the whole time travel thing just yet, despite our speculative fiction authors coming up with a number of potential solutions, technology provides the next best thing, which is to revive things from our past in our present.

There’s lots of ways this happens. We have the pixel art movement, creating art from the graphics of 20 years ago. We have sites like Good Old Games celebrating, well, the good old games of the world. We have YouTube and its magical, ever-expanding collection of tat from your childhood which someone has lovingly gone to the effort of finding, digitising and putting on the Internet for all and sundry. (On a side note, the word “digitised” doesn’t seem to be used much these days. I remember it used to be a word to denote excitement in the late 80s and early 90s — “this game has digitised speech!” “WOW!” etc.)

Is this healthy, though? Wikipedia (I know, I know, I don’t have an actual dictionary to hand) describes nostalgia as “a yearning for the past, often in an idealised form”. The rose-tinted spectacles syndrome. Nostalgia sees you thinking back to past experiences and thinking “God, that was awesome” with an implied “but I’m not sure I’d want to go back and do it again.” If you can actually go back and do those things that inspired such nostalgia, does it lose its impact?

It varies. Sometimes old things really don’t hold up well to close scrutiny. And sometimes they do. In the video game world, Ultima Underworld holds up a whole lot better than, say, anything on the Atari 8-bit computer. Granted, there’s more than a few years between them, but they’re both things that evoke a feeling of nostalgia in people who knew them first time around — and they’re both things that you can recapture the feeling of, either through an emulator in the case of the Atari computers (or indeed finding a working model on eBay) or in the cast of Ultima Underworld, through Good Old Games, which has very graciously recently made both games available once again after a very long time.

The same is true of non-gaming experiences, of course. Things that you thought were delicious and tasty in your youth might taste like crap now because your palate is more refined. Having a farting competition on the school field might not hold the same appeal. Doodling cocks on exercise books might cease to be amusing. (Though I doubt it. If I ever get to that stage, kindly kill me.)

A lot of it is due to your own attitude towards the past, of course. If you’re an inherently nostalgic person, then you’ll be predisposed to enjoy rediscovering old things, whether this is an old video game, a diary you wrote when you were twelve or a CD you used to listen to on repeat over and over and over. But some people prefer to move on, always pushing forward, leaving the past behind, preferring to let bygones be bygones. They get to enjoy the latest, the greatest, the biggest, the best. But they never get to do the things that once made them happy again. That’s kinda sad.

You can probably guess which category I fall into. If you’re having trouble, the fact that I replaced my Windows “busy” cursors with the pixelated monochrome bee cursor from the Atari ST today should make it abundantly clear.

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Posted in: Pete Davison