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How Nostalgia Helps Us—And How it Hurts Us, Too

Thirteen years—it’s over half of my time on Earth, and it’s been that long since Kingdom Hearts II came out. As a teenager, I was spellbound by the series’ characters, their development, and how they navigate the light and darkness in their hearts through their friendship. The writing may be clunky and the world silly, but despite these things, Kingdom Hearts’ strong characters, ideas, and moments hold a special place in my heart. I’ve played numerous spin-offs over the years, and all the while, I hoped to see everything through with a definitive third title.

I feel like I’ve been on a lifelong journey with these characters, so I wasn’t surprised when I teared up at Kingdom Hearts III’s main menu and the all-too-familiar art, sound effects, and music. They’re echoes of the main menu I left running in the background for hours on my PlayStation 2 all those years ago. I would sit on the carpet floor in front of my 25-inch analog TV after a day of homeschooling without a care in the world.

Kingdom Hearts III (2019)

I’m nostalgic for Kingdom Hearts. The prospect of playing the long-awaited third title has filled my mind with wistful imaginings of what could be for so long that I’m dazed by the reality now before me. What baffling nightmare am I living in where Kingdom Hearts III sucks?

Lazy level design, gameplay that’s all show with little substance, poor pacing from excessive expositional baggage, filler side content—it’s all presented with gorgeous visuals and moments of charm, but everything pales in the shadow of my expectations. I had to step back and ponder. Has the series’ gameplay and story never been as great as I’ve thought, or is it just all dated by now? What am I missing that most players seem to love? What are these conflicted emotions that arise when I want to love something I can’t help but dislike? I’ve been pulled this way and that between nostalgia and reality, and I realized that when I zoom out, the former has profound influences on my interests, emotions, and way of thinking. It’s not just me—nostalgia is a defining trait of this decade’s entertainment.

Stranger Things (2016)

Nostalgia can inspire creativity, or it can stifle it.

The technological advances of our generation—combined with the longing for a past devoid of the dangers, monotony, and worries of the twenty-first century—have spawned a proliferation of remakes, remasters, reboots, and sequels to older properties. Social media fawns over the modernization of drawings, animation, films, commentary, and more in the effort to recapture the excitement and feeling of the past.

However, clinging to the past stifles innovation, which is why unexpected hits like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Fortnite have helped distinguish the latter 2010s with new ideas. Whether enjoyed or not, they rocked the boat of nostalgia that our culture sails in. It’s easy to forget the desire of the new—a zeitgeist for this decade that can be looked back upon as distinctly and fondly as the 90s. Nintendo’s Shinya Takahashi told The Guardian, “It’s not that we’re consciously trying to innovate; we’re trying to find ways to make people happy. The result is that we come up with things other people have not done.” Nintendo knows that happiness is not only found in appeasing nostalgia. The new should be sought out to create nostalgia for the future.

Creators shouldn’t feel shackled to nostalgia but can use it as a platform; the past can pave the way for ideas that are just as fresh as their inspirations were in their own time.

Here lies the difficulty of pleasing and moving past nostalgia. Where is the line drawn with creators holding to or ignoring source material? Whereas the Watchmen film has its critics for clinging so rigidly to the source material, something like Game of Thrones takes great consideration with the differences needed to tell its story in an episodic format compared to the novels, even moving forward with the story beyond the author’s vision. Tempered nostalgia can combine the old and new in compelling ways. Creators shouldn’t feel shackled to nostalgia but can use it as a platform; the past can pave the way for ideas that are just as fresh as their inspirations were in their own time.

Nostalgia can unify us, or it can divide.

This past week, Love Thy Nerd’s content has been about the 90s, and it feels like no past time has been celebrated more in pop culture than that decade. From food to video games, fashion, or TV shows, our media-saturated culture can instantly access 90s content and find social circles to safely and easily reminisce with. Thanks to the internet providing anonymity and nullifying physical distance, I believe these have contributed to greater transparency and openness. We say what we think and mean what we feel through the masks we wear in like-minded communities, which are merging more with how people conduct themselves in life. I was once afraid to profess my love for shows like Power Rangers as a teen, but internet culture has made loving the uncool, cool; the shameful, shameless. Brony culture and the resurgence of superhero movies are further examples of this cultural shift toward shunning the molds of “girly” or “nerdy.” Unapologetic nostalgia for the 90s has helped people embrace what we love, regardless of gender or age. C.S. Lewis would approve: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (On Stories, 50).

Power Rangers: Wild Force – Forever Red (2002)

But as much as people love their Marvel superheroes or favorite 2D platforming icons, the pursuit of the new opens the doors of criticism. Puritanical devotees will discourage a spin on a character’s backstory, new direction, or unexpected tone for an existing property. Detractors will see red through their rose-tinted glasses, often resulting in emotional and mental abuse toward creators who dare tamper with the past. We should learn to control our response to change because it isn’t worth hurting others over fictional realities.

We can use our reflections on the past to grow, or we can use them to avoid growth.

Reflecting on media I’ve long loved reveals personal traits and desires and how both have morphed over time. This activity provides insight into the interests, trends, and beliefs of the creators and cultures that birthed them, and what’s curious is how modern audiences can feel nostalgia for things they never experienced themselves. We daydream of bygone eras that aren’t our own and relish in century-old books and decade-old movies. The same is true of a faux nostalgia for a 90s that teenagers of our day never lived in. This can spark healthy curiosity about why the themes, universes, archetypes, and lessons in the media of yesteryear not only resonated with their audiences then, but can also captivate audiences today. We often grow from the viewpoints and ideas that proliferated older cultures and let them inform our age. After all, as the cliché goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There are times to turn around and gaze upon the trodden path of the past when fear or anxiety grip you, but should you meander too long, you’ll root yourself in place to avoid moving forward in the present for your own benefit.

One of the Psalmists knew as much recounting Israel’s history. God’s chosen people continually fell back into their sin by forgetting His works and promises. To remember was to live (Psalm 105-106). To meditate on the past became wisdom for Israel’s present and future hope in the midst of suffering, and while not all nostalgia is of profit or eternal importance, media like Stranger Things can appeal to wistful imaginings of what many recall as simpler, purer times. For me, Spyro: Reignited Trilogy is a portal to an innocent world of whimsy that I loved as a child, acting as a safe space in the present where I can be mentally and emotionally comforted. There’s effectual power in the rejuvenation of nostalgia and how we can benefit from it (Psalm 119:49-56).

But to be too nostalgia-minded renders you no earthly good. The past can become an unhealthy escape, as movies like The Matrix and Ready Player One illustrate with virtual reality, our fantasy can become our reality and vice-versa. You should ask yourself on occasion: “What am I retreating from and why?” If you bring reality to your fantasies, your fantasies can improve your reality by learning from the stories you participate in.

Ready Player One (2018)

We can easily fall into the trap of escaping for its own sake with no rhyme or reason. T.S. Eliot wrote, “So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists.” There are times to turn around and gaze upon the trodden path of the past when fear or anxiety grip you, but should you meander too long, you’ll root yourself in place to avoid moving forward in the present for your own benefit.

* * *

I went through the gauntlet in my first hours with Kingdom Hearts III. My love for the series’ past conflicts with my ambivalence about its latest entry. I’m trying to appreciate the third game on its own terms, but whether or not I come to like it, I’m glad for the warm nostalgia I feel for the franchise. Yet, I also hope to see it evolve beyond the own nostalgia embedded in its design.

What past is a part of your present? Know what’s good to dwell on and when it’s best to move on.

Associate Editor
Joey Thurmond is a dragon in disguise. Other than that, he has two degrees in communication and English. He loves quiet rainy days with tea or coffee. Games of the shooter and survival-horror variant are his favorite, and he's a living repository of Star Wars and Bionicle lore. He writes for Common Sense Media and has bylines with Game Informer and Push Square. His own content can be read and watched on saveasdoc.com.

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