Against Nostalgia (Part 1)

I wrote this essay nearly two years ago in response to both the final chapter of the Life Is Strange series (the first one with Chloe and Max and Rachel) and the release of The Last Jedi.  I had held off on publishing it because I thought I might sell it, but I was naive about the way that freelance writing tends to work.  It’s one of the things I’m most proud of writing, and after having seen The Rise of Skywalker I find myself revisiting the ideas I explored here.

These days, I’m hard pressed to explain what video games I like.  When the subject of gaming inevitably comes up with my students, it’s always a difficult dance of trying to give a comprehensive picture of what I enjoy; my tastes run in cycles through various action-adventure titles to more narratively focused experiences to sometimes just wanting to play a button masher.  About the only solid pieces of information I can give to students are that I don’t do multiplayer games, and I’m typically turned off by traditional first person shooters. It feels like this automatically rules out ninety percent of the games that my students like to play as subjects I can authoritatively discuss, and yet it’s inevitable that I’ll have kids say, “You should play [hot new game of this quarter],” because the desire to connect with someone over a shared interest forever seems to outweigh considerations of personal taste or ability.  It’s hard to convey the idea that things get more complex as you mature, and simple answers become more and more inadequate for simple questions. This is why when the question is asked, “what sort of games do you like?” I flounder for a succinct answer before throwing up my hands and saying, “I like lots of stuff, but the last time I loved a game was Life is Strange.”

It’s not unusual for me to play a game and have thoughts about it; a big part of the fun for me involves turning over things for a while after I’ve finished experiencing them.  With Life is Strange, it went beyond the normal mulling over; I spent the better part of a month picking apart the game because it gave me feelings.  You know, not just the typical reaction to a story that’s well crafted enough to make you sympathize with its characters but something that evokes a sense of wistfulness that never really comes back in the same way twice.  It’s a game that, among a lot of other things, is about nostalgia and the ineffable sadness that springs from understanding you simply can’t recreate an original experience perfectly. Max Caulfield learns, regardless of what final choice the player makes about Chloe Price’s fate, that there is no going back; her superpower is being able to perfectly relive memories, except she can’t decontextualize them from what she knows about the future.  Even she can’t scratch the itch that nostalgia always leaves as it skitters through our brains. Life is Strange says, quite emphatically, that we’re collectively doomed to chase imperfect facsimiles of cherished past experiences.

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Star Wars is not Life is Strange.  It begins with a nobody farm kid discovering he’s heir to a powerful legacy and growing into the power that legacy offers through a series of victories and defeats (but mostly victories).  The scale of the story is massive, the stakes the political future of a galaxy. This is high melodrama we’re dealing with, all fit neatly into a very well trodden story structure. Star Wars is big and flashy and exciting while also being comfortable in a way that can be difficult to explain.  Over the course of the original story arc, following Luke Skywalker from farmboy to Jedi Knight and liberator of the galaxy, the audience gets invited into a classic power fantasy.  There are no moments of small feeling or sitting with slight discomfort or teasing out the nuance of a few exchanged words. Emotions are big and, for the most part, pure. Audiences loved it to such an extent that now all you have to do to call up those thoughts and emotions is mention Star Wars.

Following Life is Strange, Square Enix decided they wanted to publish a prequel.  Life is Strange: Before the Storm has the unenviable task of going back in time to tell us the story that brings Chloe to where she is when she first barges into the bathroom at Blackwell Academy looking to settle a debt with Nathan Prescott.  It introduces us to Rachel Amber, the girl who has left such an indelible impression on everyone in Arcadia Bay with her absence in Life is Strange that her presence could only be a disappointment (and yet it somehow isn’t).  In the predestined frame of tragic death awaiting one or both of these girls, Before the Storm dares to push relentlessly towards the happiness that they so richly deserve regardless of the personal cost.  In a lot of ways it succeeds, although like all prequels this story suffers from knowing what comes next. That the developers felt the need to add a stinger after the game’s final credits reminding you what’s in store for Chloe and Rachel in Life is Strange underlines this fact grossly.  A story that should be about two queer girls finding happiness despite everything being set against them is marred in ways that can’t be avoided because you can’t change what’s past.

Fans of Star Wars have grappled with this problem of prequels for two decades now; a story that they loved got more added to it, but it was done in a way that failed to meet their expectations.  While George Lucas was off chasing his own nostalgia for the movies and serials he grew up with while playing with modern filmmaking technology, the audience was waiting for their nostalgia for Star Wars to be satisfied.  If we can set aside the objective quality of the Prequel Trilogy, what we’re left with is both a creator and his audience discovering in a very rude way the incompatibility of their nostalgias.  Lucas couldn’t recreate the magic of the first movie, so he didn’t try, and fans revolted. Nostalgia became a catalyst for toxicity in the fandom. Anyone who was even vaguely aware of Star Wars fans in the ‘00s knew that a vocal portion of them were bitterly angry with Lucas for failing to deliver on their preferred vision.

Before the Storm, with its push to break new ground in a story about memory, couldn’t be the last word for Chloe and Max.  Nostalgia trips aren’t complete without some return to original form, and there’s too much inversion in the prequel for it to stand alone as a satisfying reprise of what Life is Strange captured; Max and Rachel, eternal foils in Chloe’s mind, have to be put back in their original roles as the respective presence and absence that pull her character in opposite directions.  To close out our time with these characters, we get the bonus episode “Farewell” which serves as a prequel to the entire series.

The whole episode is an extended exercise in fan service and nostalgia for the dynamics that fans of the series loved about Life is Strange.  Max is a little unsure of herself, and Chloe is full of enthusiasm and joy that covers some deep pain about being a social outcast.  The original voice actors (absent from Before the Storm because of a voice actors’ strike that happened during the game’s production) reprise their roles.  The soundtrack reverts from the hard rock that Chloe prefers to the more melancholy folk and indie tracks associated with Max’s perspective.  The side quest is once again Max’s ongoing search for the perfect photo ops. As a player you are supposed to nostalgia trip hard, and for the most part the episode succeeds at getting you there.  The pain and poignancy of the episode revolves entirely around moments of foreshadowing to which Chloe and Max are oblivious while the player absorbs all the tragic import.  Family plans that will be dashed mingle with Max’s ever present misgivings about how she can stay in touch when she’s moving so far away to continually pull the player’s emotional strings.  We get it; this is a last moment of unmitigated happiness for Chloe and Max before the universe starts to punish them for existing. We so appreciate being reminded of all the stuff that these characters suffer while we were growing to love them.

Ultimately, “Farewell” chooses to end in the same spirit as Before the Storm‘s main story: with a gut punch that only hurts because it’s powered by the memory of something that can’t be reclaimed.  If you step away from the investment in the characters for even a moment, it immediately becomes apparent that this story was structured to maximize the emotional manipulation of the player.  Of course the day Max tells Chloe she’s moving away is the same day Chloe’s father dies.  This can’t just be a bittersweet story about friendship promising to endure despite unseen rough waters; it also has to remind us of Life is Strange‘s worst impulses towards traumatizing characters just because it can.  A straightforward reading of the entire series is that the universe hates Chloe Price; the cynical reality is that the developers, who created that universe, don’t hate Chloe so much as see her as a vehicle for delivering measured doses of trauma porn.  They created a character that many players of the game love, and then they exploit that emotional connection to induce sadness in players, the vast majority of whom simply do not have the well of related experiences to be anything but voyeurs.  It’s a cruel trick, but this is a story about nostalgia, and the only way nostalgia can be enjoyed is to not notice its cruelty.

I remember feeling cautiously optimistic about the news that Lucasfilm had sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney.  This was a soulless corporate juggernaut taking over a beloved film series, but at least it was a soulless corporate juggernaut that knew how to make an entertaining movie.  Along came The Force Awakens, and fans were treated to the nostalgia trip they had been craving but George Lucas hadn’t delivered.  It was off, though. Some fans felt like too much was similar (the desert planet, the nobody discovering their heritage, the third iteration on the Death Star) while some (mostly white, male) fans felt things were too different.  Nostalgia found itself in direct conflict with the impetus to do something new. Still, the muddled response to The Force Awakens (after all the initial ecstasy of having a new Star Wars movie that wasn’t terrible wore off) pales in comparison to the anger that The Last Jedi elicited from certain nostalgic fans.

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Theatrical release poster for The Last Jedi. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The extremely vocal faction of Star Wars fans who have railed against The Last Jedi are fundamentally upset because they were presented with a story that puts nostalgia in its place as something that’s fleeting and unhealthy to dwell in; they wanted Luke and Leia and Han to remain unchanged despite thirty intervening years.  Their vitriol against a story that dared to make characters change in the same way that people change is entirely fueled by disappointment that their nostalgia wasn’t satisfied. They missed the fact that Han is mostly unchanged when he boards the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens: he’s returned to his original state as a shiftless smuggler just trying to stay ahead of the people he owes, and the result of this enforced stasis is that he has an estranged son who ultimately kills him.  Luke, in contrast, is totally disillusioned with the past; he’s seen the havoc that sort of reverie can wreak, and he completely dismisses the glory days as unsuitable for dealing with the present. The legend of Luke Skywalker is an illusion that’s only good for a distraction.  The new Star Wars trilogy, as far as it’s gone, says quite emphatically that enshrining the past over adapting to the present will cause heartache.  Nostalgia indulged uncritically on a massive enough scale will turn from a small cruelty into a large hatred.

And of course nostalgia is cruel.  The promise of a return to something simpler and more pure and joyful is so incredibly seductive as we grow more complicated and uncertain and jaded by our experience of the world, but it inevitably disappoints.  You can’t go back, and the longer it takes you to come to terms with that fact, the more nostalgia twists the knife. We become Max, caught between an irreclaimable past and a painful, destructive present that we didn’t really have a hand in making but we do have a responsibility to help make bearable.  

The confounding thing about this position is just how frequently we seem to get trapped in it.  Yes, the wistfulness and the reverie are appealing, but they also hurt.  The big question seems to be whether the pain associated with nostalgia gets directed inward towards the person experiencing it or outward towards others.  Neither direction seems especially healthy, and it leaves one wondering why we continue to collectively indulge in nostalgia at all. We seem to be addicted to this thing that we’re only capable of weaponizing in order to torture each other in our endless interaction with story.  It feels untenable, but in the long run it probably won’t change in any meaningful way; people are remarkably stubborn when it comes to holding on to the past.

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