After last weeks piece I spent a while thinking about the weird aching sensation I described being left with after playing What Remains of Edith Finch. It took me a while to figure out why it seemed so familiar about it, but also so unlike the emotions we generally associate with death – you know, fear, existential angst, that good stuff. Eventually I recognized that sensation as one that I feel quite frequently in a much milder form: Nostalgia. Nostalgia is actually something I’ve had on my mind a lot lately, which perhaps primed me to react to the game in this way.
I’ve been thinking about what we mean when we talk about nostalgia, and the parts of our relationship with the past that turn septic and poison us. The word ‘nostalgia’ was originally coined to diagnose acute homesickness – so acute it was described as a cause of death in soldiers abroad. Nowadays we use it to describe a yearning to return to the past, or at least to access some part of it in some way. I don’t know that I, personally, actually desire any sort of return to the past, though – is it possible to yearn for something without actually desiring it? We feel the loss of things that we’re better off without very acutely sometimes. Toxic friendships, depressive binges, dangerous situations, these sometimes have a way of taking on a rosy glow afterwards. When we leave somewhere, whether a palace or a prison, we always leave bits of ourselves behind. It’s hard not to scratch that phantom limb sometimes, not to miss what we had – or what had us.
So that’s what I felt from Edith Finch, and the overriding sensation I get when I think about death and loss: A sensation that things are being lost forever and will never be recovered. Priceless first editions burned. Childhood homes torn down. A dead person leaves a hole in the lives of those who knew them, and it’s not a fear of mortality that makes that hurt, just a sensation that pieces of the world are constantly falling away, out of our reach, and that this trend will continue until we too fall out of reach.
It’s a painful thing to contemplate. Most people avoid doing so. The yearning for these lost pieces is bittersweet, though – even more so when we acknowledge that the things we yearn for were never really quite the way we remember them. When I say that I think about nostalgia a lot, it’s because a large part of the games industry is built on it. Everyone who’s played games for a long time has fond memories, and though many of those memories weren’t really about the games, usually, but about time spent with friends, long Summer nights, carefree days before money woes and health issues, people pretend it was just the games. It’s a nice thing to pretend, because the games are still here. The games can be remade, remastered, replayed: The days cannot.
All this is fine, as long as it’s just a stimulus you feed yourself to remind yourself of the past and enjoy a taste of that sweet yearning. What’s not fine is convincing yourself that these games were your past, that they don’t make them like they used to any more, that your nostalgia was an accurate recall of an experience solely provided by a piece of media, rather than a complex melange of memories and experiences being mediated through a particular work of art. Only a tiny part of those memories came from that cartridge, and it’s terribly sad that many people try so hard convince themselves that those days were contained entirely in that gray plastic box.
The precious part of nostalgia is that it is insatiable. The yearning is impossible to really feed, so it leads us to dream impossible dreams. We want to rebuild empires that never existed, relive lives we never lived, revisit art that was never created. Once in a while I’ll feel nostalgic over a dream – I’ve had many dreams of strange houses, versions of houses I’ve lived in with extra rooms or trees growing through them or, sometimes, less pleasantly, rotted walls and collapsing staircases. I had a recurring dream as a child of wandering somewhere, a field or a beach, and finding a (presumably) magic gauntlet that was the color and pattern of light refracted onto the bottom of a swimming pool. I dream of towers of interconnected white plates suspended in the sky, of familiar places grown strange and new – my point is not that my dreams are especially interesting or amazing, but that the feelings and images my memories instill in me, whether those memories are factual or not, provide the bones to carve my art out of –
But only as long as I acknowledge, with all my heart, that the past is the past. I cannot go back, just try to learn and be inspired by that past to try to shape a future. I can yearn for these things without desiring them – and yet the thought that I can make some version of them, create some sensation of the vast dream inside me within other people, keeps me creating.
What I want, as an artist, is for you someday to feel some part of what I feel now. I can’t tell yet if that’s selfishness or selflessness.