Pop Culture Confessional

I have a silly relationship with nostalgia.

I can feel nostalgic for things I never miss, or even things that I find hokey or actively annoying. I can board a long flight, not enjoy it, and still feel bad when it's over. I can dislike a television series more than I like it, and still coo when something else references it.

Star Trek has always traded in this feeling. Its absurdly-long-lasting and still-ongoing new series and films started decades after the original left the air. Every new bridge set, every saucer-and-nacelle model, is in some sense a recreation. Beyond that, though, Star Trek will sometimes rebuild the first sets, and try to convince you that they're the same ones.

Various flavors of original series  Star Trek  sets. The only one from the 60s is top left. Images from  Memory Alpha  with a  Creative Commons license.

Various flavors of original series Star Trek sets. The only one from the 60s is top left. Images from Memory Alpha with a Creative Commons license.

Any of the old-style set recreations grab my attention. But the thing is, I can pull up any of the old episodes, at any moment, and not be half as interested. Or not even want to watch them, really. When the set and costumes and comforting background noises are the originals, my sense of awe of the sets and costuming disappears. Those things become background.

I used to think that I was being pandered to, even if I couldn't exactly figure out why I responded to the pandering. Reconstructions of the old sets mean nothing to my partner, for example. But there's something more than that happening.

This has been on my mind since I started playing the most recent expansion to the Baldur's Gate games. The two Baldur's Gate games were released in 1998 and 2000. This expansion, Siege of Dragonspear, was released in... 2016.

That was as much time as passed between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. For games, sixteen years is even more of an eternity. The Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, which Baldur's Gate and Siege of Dragonspear both used, has gone through three new editions. Siege of Dragonspear is still using 2nd edition rules. Siege of Dragonspear may be the last officially licensed 2nd edition product.

Now, the games have not exactly gone untouched. Beamdog, the company that released the new expansion, also re-released the originals as "Enhanced Editions" with some new content. But Siege of Dragonspear is on a scale unlike what they did before. Unlike the Enhanced Editions, they reunited much of the voice cast. And it was listening to the voice cast that made my breath catch.

In-game, Siege of Dragonspear does not draw attention to the years that have passed between this and the original releases. It takes place between the games. The intended course for a player through it is to finish the first game, play this, and then go on to the second game.

Unlike Star TrekSiege of Dragonspear does not trade in nostalgia beyond the simple fact that it exists. In what I've played so far, the expansion visits some of the original games' locations, but it does not dwell on them. In fact, it curtails the player's ability to visit them. Sprawling city blocks that, in the originals, had a dozen locations of interest and maybe two critical to the plot, are cut to just the plot-important locations. Old characters are not reintroduced with dramatic flourishes or musical stings. They're just there--as, from their perspective, they always have been.

The opening cinematic is narrated by Kevin Michael Richardson, who was also the narrator (among other roles) for the original games.

Every time I hear the voice cast, the fact of their presence grabs my attention. The silly part is, I had just heard these voices before starting this interquel. I'll hear them again as soon as I move on to the second game. They won't have the same effect on me there, and not just because I've played the games before.

What all of this is forcing me to do is to think about the game's production. I don't usually do that, largely because of the medium I chose to work in, but also because of the short-sighted way I view other work.

In short stories and novels, deep behind-the-scenes analysis is rarely a part of the reading. Most writers, myself included, would sooner vomit on you than show you a rough draft. Few writers will even talk about research processes. I construct stories all the time, every day, in whatever time I can spare, but I don't think enough about how other people produce their stories--especially in other media.

I follow authors, but rarely actors or directors. This was a conscious decision I made when I was young. When I was old enough to begin to recognize the artifice in films, see the strings and painted backdrops, I pushed that to the background. Even at an older age, I wanted to believe that the screen was a window into another world--that I could go to the Enterprise bridge and feel tritanium and not plywood. I didn't want to know what was really underneath those carpets.

Now no film or other work can ever be removed from its context. As of course I grew up I became more and more aware that everything is a product of its time, of the people who made it and their biases, and so it. But there has always been a part of me that did not want to peel back a film any farther than that. I never wanted to see casting videos, behind-the-set photos, interviews with actors, or so on.

In Star Trek and Siege of Dragonspear, I appreciate those things in ways that I've trained myself early on to avoid. I want to see how perfectly a set can be recreated, hear actors pick up sixteen-year-old roles.

Getting so much of the old voice cast back together for Siege of Dragonspear feels like an immense accomplishment. This not to minimize the work that went into casting the original games. But a revival has much more rigid expectations. Every departure is noticed; every detail is going to be picked over. The originals had to be very good. The new expansion has to be very good and "true" to the source. Every time one of the characters from the originals appears, I'm caught in suspense, trying to figure out if they'll get it "right."

The way I read these stories has been crucial to my development as a writer. I want to immerse myself in the fiction, believe that it's real, whether I'm reading or writing. So far, that's meant not seeing the sets, the actors, the lighting, and all the other minutiae of production. I used to think that following the career paths of actors and directors was a distraction from their art. But it's another way of reading them. I feel like I'm waking up to something most other people realize in second grade. There are connections I'm not seeing, statements that have gone unread, because of what I programmed myself to ignore.

Resurrecting media whose sets have been destroyed, whose actors have moved on, forces me to pay attention. It's been a silly way for me to realize what I should have long ago. The ways I've trained myself to interpret media have been valuable for me, but I can't rely on them forever.

It's not enough to watch, read, and listen to new things. I need to find new ways to decipher them, too.