It may come as no small surprise to those of you who know me well that video games were a huge part of my life growing up.
Or, it actually may surprise you, since I’ve been more or less on a gaming hiatus since I moved out of my parent’s house and away from our PS2.
This March, when I moved in with my boyfriend, I also moved in with (drumroll please) an Xbox One. Initially this functioned primarily as the machine on which Andy played Warzone online with his friends, but in the back of my mind hummed the memories of long sessions spent on the red floral couch of my youth, playing my way through countless RPGs of the early aughts.
Videogames were one of the few activities my polar opposite younger brother and I had in common. He played sports and ran around with his friends while I read books and cried a lot about how I didn’t have many friends.
But, some of my fondest memories of growing up with a sibling are of playing Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance together, or of playing through the hardest parts of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time while my brother cheered me on. The N64 and PS2 were the primary (only?) form of sibling bonding in our household.
And they were also a great source of solo entertainment as well. I loved to rent different PS2 games from Blockbuster to give them a trial run prior to scouring the shelves at Gamestop looking for a cheap used copy of the games that caught my attention. That entire sentence did, in fact, make me feel about a million years old.
I’ve spent most of my adulthood with a somewhat intentional separation from having a gaming console in the house (I can be a bit obsessive when I get into a game, and new consoles and games are expensive for an AmeriCorps salary slash grad student salary slash paying rent on an apartment in the city).
Still, my internet life has always gently tossed videogaming news at my feet, keeping me somewhat attached to the idea of myself as a gamer in spite of not having thrashed anyone in Super Smash Bros since the Melee days (I am not quite as good at Brawl–too much going on).
So, it happened that one afternoon while I was scrolling mindlessly on my phone I happened to cross paths with the news that Kingdom Hearts III would be released on the Xbox One. This led me to the knowledge that the first suite of games had, in fact, already been released for the console staring temptingly at me from across the room. I grabbed my credit card, logged into Andy’s account, and bought the combo pack.
Because I took such a long break from console gaming, it’s difficult to disentangle videogames and nostalgia for me. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that I chose to return to a game I played with my friends as a preteen.
As I worked my way through the first game, I tried to recall which parts I had played myself and which I had observed as a friend battled heartless on their way to the Door to the Light. The experience felt both familiar and strange, not least because the Final Mix game for Xbox One was in some places an alteration of what I experienced in my youth. I was at once my adult self, living with my boyfriend in an actual house and simultaneously my teen self, undoubtedly experiencing crush-related angst.
I devoted hours to playing back through the game, reminding myself of major plot points. The ridiculous hodge-podge of Final Fantasy, Disney, and the heart-centered plot of Kingdom Hearts fell into sharp relief as Andy made comments whenever he happened to be in the room. I wondered just how much of my enjoyment was pure, utter nostalgia for the person I’d been when I encountered these games for the first time.
There is something soothing about playing back through an old video game in the same way that it’s soothing to reread a favorite book. The general, broad strokes are familiar to you, and often come attached (for me, at least) to sharp memories of where you were and who you were with the first time you read / played through. And yet, the newness of this version of you encountering the familiar makes itself known. Different details strike you, or you notice things you didn’t before.
For a few hours a day, I could put the realities of 2020 on the back burner and de-stress, take a little bit of time to forget that it’s been years since I was a relatively untroubled teenager filled with aimless angst and no real problems.
This sense of calming nostalgia followed me even as I advanced through the games I hadn’t yet played due to the fun habit of franchises trying to encourage you to purchase multiple gaming platforms to follow the plot (Chain of Memories and 365/2 Days were released on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS, respectively).
Though the details were new, the experience of playing (or viewing) my way through the world of Kingdom Hearts was familiar and comforting. I knew that Riku would triumph over darkness, that Sora would regain his heart, and that random Disney characters would randomly exist at implausible moments.
There’s something melancholy in trying to repeat the past (of course you can, right, Gatsby?), but I have to confess, I have been thoroughly enjoying this return to a hobby of my younger years. So much so that, for our anniversary, Andy got me a Nintendo Switch. Now, I can play on my little handheld device even when he’s deep in Warzone with his friends.
So far, I’ve branched out to something a little bit new (Stardew Valley). But, I have another replay lined up once I get caught up with Kingdom Hearts—Final Fantasy X and X-2. For some reason, I have an extremely vivid memory of watching a particular cutscene in these games–I can recall the angle of the couch, the temperature of the basement, everything, so I’m interested to see what these games bring up for me as I continue my videogaming trip down memory lane.
One day, hopefully, I’ll branch into RPGs I haven’t already played (or mostly played… 100% did not beat what I assume is the final boss in Final Fantasy X and couldn’t even tell you where I left off in X-2). If anyone has recommendations from the wide world of gaming since circa 2001 (I looked it up because the ad for X-2 is the last one I remember being excited about in a gaming magazine and YIKES), I’ll happily take them. Just not first-person shooters, please–I’ll leave those to Andy.