Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, the 1999 science fiction spinoff of the legendary Civilization series. I’d really never expected to play this title again — it was one of several “archive” games in my GOG library, titles from my youth that I picked up for pocket change during sales solely so that I would always have access to them. But for a brief period, I had a minor obsession with Alpha Centauri that I’ve had a chance to re-examine.
My original copy was a second-hand disc that I bought in high school. It came with no box, no manual, not even the original case — just a CD in a plain jewel case, easily lost among others in the bin. What drew me to the game was Meier’s name first, the sci-fi setting (easily gleaned, even with just the screen printing on the disc) second, and it was an easy purchase to justify.
But actually playing the game was a trial. Alpha Centauri features more complex mechanics than the Civilization games of the time, and without proper documentation I really had no clue what I was doing. Yet I was determined, meandering numbly through one unfortunate game after another, picking up a little more about the mechanics with each failure.
In time, I’d learned enough to play the game proper — and from there, to start to master it. I’ve never been more than an adequate Civilization player, but by the time of my first year of college, I’d completely broken Alpha Centauri. Over what must have been hundreds of games, I’d memorized the tech tree such that I could sketch out research strategies in the downtime between classes. I could consistently beat the game on its highest difficulty level with any faction.
When merely playing the game lost its appeal, I worked my way into the game files and created my own custom factions, creating new experiences from nothing. I even used a homebrew game mode to simulate the 2004 U.S. Presidential election for a political site that published some of my work.
One evening, I completed my masterstroke — a playthrough on the highest difficulty, in iron man mode, with every challenge setting turned up all the way. I took one last look at my stratospheric score, uninstalled the game, and walked away. I wouldn’t touch it again for 15 years.
Returning to a strategy game as old as Alpha Centauri certainly calls for some adjustments. It takes time to get used to the clumsy, limited menus, time to get used to the aged core mechanics that have changed so dramatically over two decades of strategy games. It’s still a sound title, and I’ll put the game’s science fiction setting well above its competitors, but it is a different experience.
It’s interesting that it would be so different, because Alpha Centauri has not changed — it is the same version that came out in 1999. The world has changed, I’ve changed, and because of that the game is subjectively different.
This is all part of the joy of rediscovery.
Our current media environment is defined by novelty. From dawn to dusk, we are presented with this constant stream of entertainment and news, all of it promising a fresh new experience. And if that’s not what you want, if instead you desire to relive something from your past, there is nostalgic media offering new content with old-fashioned flair. It’s the joy of discovery, that explorer’s rush we get when laying our hands on something that’s a little mysterious.
In the struggle to keep atop the rush of new content, it’s easy to forget about the contrast to this — the joy of rediscovery, the feeling we get when returning to something that gave us that same rush in a different phase of life.
The past can actually feature as much novelty as the future — revisit something you vaguely remember from many years in the past and there’s no way of knowing what you’ll feel. Sometimes, it’ll be disappointment, other times the return of a happy memory. But sometimes, your years of experience can give you a whole new perspective, and what’s old becomes new.
Any media can trigger this response. You may watch a movie that you loved in childhood and spot a plot thread that you were too immature to notice. You may listen to an album that you didn’t care for and have a change of heart. Time can change the flow of a story or magnify a work of art in ways we can’t always anticipate.
I think that video games lend themselves even more to rediscovery due to a trait that’s largely unique to the medium — replay value. Consumers of video games — especially in the modern market — expect that they’ll be able to return to titles for which they’ve paid good money. When we talk about replay value, we typically look at it in terms of mechanics or features: game length, story branches, unlockables, alternate character builds, difficulty settings, multiplayer and ease of modification, to name just a few. These are the ingredients developers use to make games that people will play for weeks, months, even years on end.
Yet there are games sorely lacking in these features that people play over and over again. What might explain this?
For me, one of these games was the cult classic JRPG Earthbound. As a child, it was a special trip to rent the game, which I could only find in a mom-and-pop video store we rarely visited. It was a trip I made frequently, though — I played the game on a loop, slowly shortening the time it took to finish it over each cycle. The distinctive oversized box was clearly visible even at the end of the shelf, a clear visual sign to tell me if I would have a chance to finish my game or if I would be holding my breath for another week.
I missed my opportunity to buy the game when that store closed — I was a little too late, losing my opportunity to one of the other fans in my small town. It would only be a few years before emulation gave me a chance to revisit what would otherwise have been a lost title.
For a significant stretch of time, I played Earthbound at least once a year, to the point where I estimate that I’ve finished the game somewhere between 15 and 20 times, maybe more. It’s hard to justify this — after all, based on those design aspects, Earthbound has little replay value. Each of those twenty runs was, from a gameplay perspective, about the same. Yet I’m not alone in this — over the years, I’ve encountered a number of people who say they’ve played the game dozens of times, and a surprisingly large number even given its cult status.
One might call these “ritual games,” titles one plays on a regular repeated basis. This seems to be a fairly common phenomenon, and the range of games people play by ritual is quite extensive. These aren’t necessarily games with ample replay value, and may not be great or even good by the merits, but they hold some emotional resonance for the person. This is harder to quantify, but perhaps more important when it comes to understanding replay value.
It’s not that hard to fathom why someone might repeatedly replay a game with nostalgic value. Far more interesting is the game that one likes, maybe even loves, yet leaves alone for years and years and years.
When talking about how the phenomenon of the rediscovered game applies to my own life, there’s only one title I can use: Final Fantasy VII. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
For a large portion of my life, If you’d asked me about my favorite video game, I would have put Final Fantasy VII on the top of the list without reservation. To this day, it’s a strong place in the top ten. Yet in the 20+ years I’ve had access to the game, I’ve finished it only five times — far fewer than other titles that I’d put farther down the list.
There are a few reasons why someone might go a long time without playing a favorite game. You lost your copy; you sold the console; you played it too much and burned out; you had better things to do than spend all day playing an old game; you just got busy and forgot.
In my particular case, and in the case of this particular game, it’s all a matter of diminishing returns, of replay value and the lack thereof. The first time through the game is a true joy from start to finish — Final Fantasy VII is one of the few games I’ve ever played that doesn’t leave me with any twinge of disappointment, except that it’s over. It’s that ending rush that often leads me to play it again just months later, thinking that there’s replay value to be found in a different party and strategy.
But this is an illusion — the second time through is sluggish, and it leads me to step back for a while. Not too long — just a decade or so.
Thus, my playthroughs of Final Fantasy VII have come in pairs, including an unfinished run from about a year ago. Each of these cycles has come at a completely different phase in my life.
The first cycle was around 1999, when I was in middle school. Video games were central to my life — they were about the only source of entertainment in my small Midwest town. A JRPG fan and a Nintendo loyalist, I’d been hurt when Square decided to take their flagship series to the PlayStation instead of the N64. The release of the PC port was about the biggest thing in my life at the time.
The second cycle was around 2009, when I was in my early 20’s and living in northeastern China some 6,000 miles away from where I grew up. Video games were no longer a priority for me — I made a willful choice to sit out the ongoing console wars in favor of playing the odd older title. The years had soured me a bit on Final Fantasy VII, and when I installed that same (now rare) PC copy onto a modern laptop never meant to run it, I expected nothing more than something to fill a few hours.
The third cycle was around 2018, once again overseas but in a different city. The intervening years had not been kind — I’d dealt with everything from long-term unemployment to a broken engagement to a stalker, all of which had given me a harder edge. When I bought and installed that new Steam port of Final Fantasy VII, all I expected from it was that same simple enjoyment I had when I was a child.
In general, what I learned is that this exercise is an excellent way to study how a medium, a genre, or a style has changed. When playing an older game, one can’t help but compare it to the current state of the industry as well as everything that’s come out between then and now. Compare the reality of the game to your own expectations and memories, and you can get a better frame of reference than you could by comparing the game to another.
So what has changed in the industry? In brief, the emphasis on realism. Final Fantasy VII, like most JRPGs of its time, does little to hide the fact that it is a video game, an artificial thing. Modern games are meant to breathe, to feel alive — a concept encompassing everything from geography to character motivation to the progression of the game. The artificial barriers to progress that dot Final Fantasy VII mark it as a product of an earlier time when realism wasn’t a concern.
Yet it’s this same unreal character that makes the game so much more memorable than many of titles released in the following decades. There’s a certain pedantic “realistic” character that has gripped not just video games but speculative fiction as a whole, one that makes modern fiction dreary. Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, was driven by creativity unbound by this pedantry.
My opinion is that Midgar could not exist in a title released today. The claustrophobic cyberpunk mega-city is iconic, with the shot of Midgar from the air being perhaps the most famous image from the game. The city is not just visually distinct, but a powerful visual metaphor that neatly symbolizes one of the central conflicts. But making it so distinct and powerful means that, on a practical level, Midgar makes little sense. Release the same game just a few years later, and it’s likely that Midgar would have been replaced by something much more standard and bland — all in the name of “realism.”
In short, unrestrained creativity has been harnessed in the name of creating a product with more consistent quality— and the industry is slightly poorer for it.
There isn’t a pressing need to learn some deeper lesson every single time you revisit something from your childhood. Nostalgia, kept in its proper place, is a thing that causes no harm. Still, there’s always something new to learn, even from something very old.
Maybe you’re thinking of a game right now — something you haven’t visited in ten years, or twenty, or maybe more. It could be one that you loved, or one that disappointed you at the time, or maybe just a title that’s been stuck in your memory. Perhaps this is the time to return to it — for a day, even just for an hour — if only to learn of what’s changed in your own life.
As for me, I believe I have enough stamina left for another game of Alpha Centauri. This time, the Hive shall know no mercy.
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