on nostalgia, prog rock, and games

Nostalgia is the enemy of all great art, rock and roll most of all, since at its best it is a celebration of the now.
– Jim DeRogatis, “Ode to the Giant Hogweeds”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why today is a tough day to write about games, even if today is a day where I’d prefer to be distracted by writing about things that keep me distracted.

But it’s also tough to write about games because, well, this is the week before GTAV, the game I’ve probably been looking forward to more than any other game of this generation.*  And as such, I’m having trouble staying focused on the games that are already in front of me.  I played around 30 minutes of Rayman Legends on Monday, and around 20 minutes of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs last night, and while they’re both really impressive (even if for wildly different reasons), I found my mind wandering.  (And yet I continue to play the shit out of Giant Boulder of Death on my iPhone, even as it eats up my battery like crazy.)

Anyway, I feel like I need to write something, so indulge me as I ramble for a bit.  (It will turn back around to games, I promise.)

*      *      *

Yesterday I started reading “Yes Is The Answer: (And Other Prog-Rock Tales)“,** a collection of essays about the big prog bands of the 70s.  It actually ends up reading mostly like long sort-of-but-not-really-apologies about liking the big prog bands of the 70s, because admitting that you like prog rock is, I guess, a mark of shame.  I had the good fortune of discovering prog rock during the late 80s/early 90s at summer camp, long after punk had kicked prog to the curb (but just before grunge came back to finish the job), and so I don’t necessarily feel guilty about my unabashed love for Genesis, Yes, Rush and the like.

Anyway, I was reading this book and I happened to have Spotify open on my computer while I was reading – this way, I could listen to the bands that were being talked about that I didn’t know all that well.  (i.e., Caravan, the Strawbs, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, The Nice, Incredible String Band, etc.)  It was an illuminating afternoon, even if, as it turns out, there are certain bands that I will never, ever, ever be able to get into.

For example, Emerson Lake & Palmer – I just can’t do it.  And I should be able to appreciate them, as I’ve been a keyboard player since I was 3 years old and Keith Emerson ought to have been my keyboard hero, because my keyboard heroes when I was younger were Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel – but I’m 37 now, and I like what I like, and when I go back and listen to that stuff it’s impenetrable.  It’s the same thing with King Crimson (even though I adore Red).  And while I do love Yes, it’s really only certain albums that I can still enjoy listening to – the ones I know the best.  Of all those prog bands, Genesis was the only one where I forced myself in recent years to become familiar with the albums that I hadn’t been familiar with when I was younger – and I suppose that’s only because they were my favorite prog band and I was predisposed to get past the stuff that turned off other people.  (And also because the remastered box sets from a few years ago sound fucking incredible.)

Likewise, not prog, but still:  David Bowie – can’t do it.  And I respect the shit out of him, and I appreciate that he’s well-loved by pretty much everyone.  I forced myself to get into Ziggy Stardust, and by and large I do like that album a great deal, but I just can’t get into anything else.  I’ve tried repeatedly to get into The Berlin Trilogy, but there’s something about the production aesthetic that bugs the hell out of me – it totally obscures the songwriting and the vocals, and I’ve never been able to get past it.

Anyway, I thought about this a lot yesterday, and I started to wonder if this knee-jerk reaction to certain genres of music applies to other media.   It’s hard to say, I suppose, because rock music – much more so than film or books – is very much defined by its era and its immediate context, and so an older band can be a bit more difficult to get into if you already don’t have an innate sense of where it was coming from.***

For example, I don’t find capital-F Film to be that difficult to get into, of any era; maybe there are certain filmmakers that i can’t see eye-to-eye with, but by and large I’m willing to give most any film a chance (even if I don’t often find myself longing for old-timey, black-and-white films).  TV is a bit trickier, as old shows can feel incredibly dated now,**** but to be fair I’ve never been a big TV guy to begin with.

Games are a different story altogether.  (See?  I told you it would come back around to games!)  Because it’s more than just cultural context at play – it’s just straight-up technology that gets in the way.  Even games that are only 5 years old can be technically horrific to look at, compared to what we’re used to today.  Gameplay systems and conventions have evolved radically, exponentially; GTA3 is damn-near impossible for me to enjoy these days, especially now that Rockstar Games has so clearly reinvented the combat wheel with Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption – indeed, even GTA4 feels downright archaic.  How can I go back to Oblivion (where I’ve spent over 100 hours) now that I’ve clomped around Skyrim? Could I even enjoy KOTOR now?  I think I have it on my iPad and I kinda don’t care, and we’re talking about one of my favorite games of all time.  I tried playing System Shock 2 when it came out on Steam a few months ago – one of the “greatest games of all time” – and couldn’t get much farther than the tutorial; it felt alien and strange and unintuitive and not fun.  If I’d played it when it originally came out, I suppose I might have been more forgiving towards it – but as a new player, it was impossible to get into.

And, of course, there are plenty of older games that are literally impossible to play now, because there are no logistical ways to play them.  Skies of Arcadia is one of my favorite JRPGs*****, but unless they make an HD remake I’ll never play it again – I’m not even sure my Dreamcast can hook up to my HDTV without needing some arcane adapters.  And my love for all things Tim Schafer can only begin with Grim Fandango, as I never played Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle and I don’t have the technological savvy to make that happen without accidentally setting my PC on fire.

*      *      *

If you made it this far, thank you.  I’m sorry I don’t have a central point to all this rambling; ultimately this was about me trying not to have panic attacks about what happened 12 years ago.  It feels like a lifetime ago, even if a lot of it is still simmering in my brain and my blood, as fresh as if it happened this morning.  It changed me; it scarred me.  It bothers me a little when people say “Never Forget”, because if you were there, you can’t forget it.  I was only a few months removed from temping down there, actually; indeed, if I hadn’t had the world’s worst boss at the time, I might’ve still been there.

Hug your loved ones; keep them close.

__________________________________
* I wrote this without really thinking about it; but now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it’s true.  The only other game that might come close in terms of me going bananas with anticipation is Portal 2.  (What’s notable about Portal 2, though, is that it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped, which is something that almost never happens.)  I’m trying to think of other games that I was absurdly excited about; I know I waited in a midnight line at Gamestop for GTA4, and I might’ve waited on a midnight line for Skyrim, but those were unique situations in that I knew I wouldn’t have to be at work the following day and that there was a Gamestop within walking distance from my apartment.  I did get pretty nerded-out for Beatles: Rock Band, of all things.

** The book is good though uneven – and of course you will only bother to pick it up if you’re already a fan of the music – but the absolute knockout of the bunch is Tom Junod’s piece about Genesis and Peter Gabriel, which can and should be read by anyone.  I’m cutting and pasting from the L.A. Times’ review, since it says all that needs to be said:

“The indisputable star in this band of essayists is Tom Junod, whose “Out, Angels Out” might be worth the book’s $24 price by itself. Junod revisits a perilous passage in his late teens when he was falling into alienation and despondency. Genesis singer Peter Gabriel became the lifeline that pulled him through — although Junod’s closest sidekick in prog didn’t make it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about rock music or, for that matter, about how adolescence can suddenly turn into a rope bridge over a chasm in a howling wind.”

*** My parents were both classical musicians and didn’t listen to rock music in the house at all, and even listening to the Top 40 countdown on the weekends was a minor act of rebellion on my part (even if I did it on my tiny boom box at very low volumes).   So it makes sense to me why certain, classically-influenced prog music would resonate so deeply with me as a teenager away at summer camp, surrounded by all the older brothers I never actually had.  (It was a performing arts camp, too, so my fellow campers were already predisposed to liking geeky things; it was a save haven for all of us to rejoice in our nerdiness without getting punched by jocks.)

**** Case in point – the wife and I ended up watching a lot of TJ Hooker during Labor Day weekend, and it’s just ridiculous that anyone could’ve been a genuine fan of such unintentional silliness.

***** Skies of Arcadia is also the first JRPG I ever played, so that might have something to do with it.  I have absolutely no idea if it holds up today; I’m not even sure I want an HD remake, because I don’t want my memories to be squashed.  (If someone out there who is in charge of such things is reading this, I want you to know I’d still buy it – just turn down the number of random encounters a smidge and we’d be all set.)

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