Video games, like literature, is an art form obsessed with its own past. It’s a rare gamer who, when asked for their favourite title, says anything made in the last five years. A retro art style has been pulling double duty, as both a cost-saving measure and nostalgia injection, since the mid-noughties.
There’s no other genre that indulges this collective nostalgia quite like the adventure game. Its revived existence in the last decade is itself a form of nostalgia for a genre which, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist after the turn of the millennium.
The resurgence has been impressive, with a wide range of games both mainstream and indie recapturing the magic of the old Lucasarts (and to a lesser extent, Sierra) point-and-click empires – even when they update the gameplay to better reflect the times.
But when you’re a fan of the genre you do start to notice trends, and a curious and oft-overlooked pattern is the volume of games which are, for reasons apparently unrelated to the plot, set in the 1990s. Gone Home, an engaging narrative adventure and one of the earlier entries in the often-derided walking simulator genre, is set in 1995. Additionally Kathy Rain, a point-and-click investigative game from Wadjet Eye Games, is set in the same year.
Other examples include: horror-adventure Among the Sleep, starring a toddler assailed by parental-themed night terrors, and The Stanley Parable, which was very well regarded as a branching path adventure, with lots of 90s computers kicking around.
There is a sub-subgenre of these games which are not set in the 1990s but still exude the aesthetic and technological feel of that decade. Life is Strange makes great use of audio tapes in its aesthetic, despite that medium being woefully outdated by the time the game is set in the mid-2010s . And Night in the Woods, a game all about the difficulties of letting go of the past, is steeped in love for a 1990s childhood with its video games, bad garage bands, and retro pizza restaurants.
Love for the 1990s in adventure games in particular is a curious confluence of gameplay practicalities, genre nostalgia and audience-pleasing that works remarkably well. It’s a lot easier to design puzzles around communication, location or lore, when your protagonist isn’t carrying around an internet-connected smartphone at all times, and when it’s possible for a location to be brand-new and unresearchable in advance. Gone Home wouldn’t work as a gradually-unfolding series of revelations about your family if you could just call them on your mobile the moment you got into the house, and Kathy Rain’s titular protagonist couldn’t provide much entertainment out of simply Googling historical records of her relatives.
There’s also an optimistic charm to 1990s fashion, decor and humour that appeals to an audience used to futuristic vistas, gravel-voiced protagonists and unflinching violence – it’s a subtle nod to this era’s gaming heritage, and to the developmental environment which spawned so many great adventure game hits. It can be more or less subtle – Thimbleweed Park is an obvious X Files parody with direct expies of Mulder and Scully as protagonists, so a 1990s setting is the natural choice – but it’s present in so many that it’s hard to keep count.
The decade-long gap in the development of dedicated adventure games is almost unique to that genre (possibly shared only with the 3D space exploration game) and as such, leaves its development time-locked in the 1990s. The wait was long enough to inculcate a longing among fans for more of what they fondly remember.
Lastly, the nostalgia for the 1990s is, if anything, a draw for the current generation of Nineties Kids that make up a massive cohort of adult gamers. It’s worth remembering that for many Western millenials born between 1980 and 2000, the 1990s is the only decade of their lives during which they’ve known a combination of relative political stability, economic prosperity and social progress. That, coupled with the common tendency to idealise those things we remember positively from childhood, absolutely explains why the setting is so popular, even when it doesn’t quite match up to how we remember it.
Yearning for past stability and known boundaries drives a millennial love for adventure games on both a plot level and a meta-level. We feel the hurt of the characters in Night in the Woods because we lived similar lives in so many ways, despite their dramatic turns. We back Thimbleweed Park on Kickstarter because of our love of its style and developer’s heritage, yes, but also because the setting that was contemporary during the golden age of adventure games is inextricable from the new wave.
Nostalgia can be a blight on gaming as on all things, but in the case of adventure games, it’s an integral part of a certain warm, fuzzy appeal that the genre still holds for many players. Executed well, it’s an emotional pull that can add to a well-written plot and relatable characters. A love of the 1990s, out of convenience or aesthetics, is driving the new wave of adventure games – and that’s why we love them in return.