Free for All: Adventure Time's nostalgia is MMO drama done right

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I've tried to explain my love for a bit of melodrama several times over the years. It's sort of a hard thing to explain. I like a good bit of "sad" in my MMOs when I can get it, and I can say that I enjoy some measure of drama as well. Sure, many MMOs have a dramatic storyline quest here or there, but more often than not, the game forgets to be a world and rushes us off into yet another combat assignment.

The fact is that it's very hard to find the balance. We all want a good story, but many of us just want to get to the good stuff. The loot. The treasure. The virtual glory. I've had a hard time explaining my want for a game that makes me feel real emotion and explaining why I enjoy those feelings. Well, the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube did it much better than I ever could, and it used the popular Cartoon Network series Adventure Time as the perfect example of why nostalgia is a powerful and universal thing.

When it comes to video games, I believe nostalgia is even more powerful than loot.

According to the video, nostalgia first came about in 1688 as a medical diagnosis to describe the feelings of soldiers wishing to return home. Imagine that... the greater minds of the time thought the emotion was something that could and should be cured. Nostalgia is that wish to visit, as the video puts it, a place where time stands still like an antique clock. Adventure Time's world is filled with clues that hint at a past that is familiar to viewers. There are entire city-scapes underwater, glimpses of a semi-destroyed Earth, and talk about a great war that left Finn the last human. The characters don't dwell on that past mostly, but occasionally one of them will talk about it or will be featured in a flashback. In one particular episode, Finn and Jake find a stash of videos that appear to be a simple diary belonging to the Ice King. We witness what seem to be standard (for the show) humorous entries of the Ice King playing dress up, worrying like a teenager, and hosting a dance party with his penguin buddies.

"It's almost shocking the first time you see it, this sudden bit of seriousness right in the middle of one of the funniest episodes ever."

At one point, however, we suddenly witness the Ice King as he was before he was the Ice King: as a happy-in-love human who, over the course of the time-lapsed video entry, is slowly driven mad as he becomes the familiar nemesis of the series. It's almost shocking the first time you see it, this sudden bit of seriousness right in the middle of one of the funniest episodes ever. The show ends with a very warm, nostalgic scene, making what we saw earlier even more effective. I had to watch it again to catch it all.

The feelings that often come from watching Adventure Time can be described as ambivalence, of feeling two conflicting emotions at the same time. We are having a great time watching and laughing while we know that at the turn of the corner we could witness something bittersweet or downright sad. It's a wonderful way to watch what might seem like a show made only for children. It doesn't take much to see how the show can be appreciated by more "sophisticated" audiences like the new art and toy scene, one that is often filled with cutesy characters doing horrible things. That same art scene and style has grown in popularity so quickly simply because it speaks to anyone who was ever a child -- so, you know, everyone.

MMOs have the potential to bring out these same emotions. Most games feature imagery that would never be mistaken for reality. Not only has affordable technology not reached that point yet, but it's been shown how humans are uncomfortable with many attempts at realism. That's why most MMOs are cartoons. They are obviously not reality, although the emotions we feel and relationships we form while playing them are very real. For some players, they can even become a necessity, a way to socialize or to escape from real-life issues. I recognize how important MMOs are to me; I also recognize that they must be doing something special to continue to be so attractive even as I grow older and (at least a little bit) more mature.

As the PBS Idea Channel video explains, Adventure Time's creator's favorite emotion is that mixture of happy and sad. I've felt the same for as long as I can remember. I'm not thrilled by action or adventure as much as by investigating the deeper parts of favorite characters. Some of my favorite storylines or character arcs in MMOs made me feel that same intriguing feeling of nostalgia for places I've never been. But those moments are rare. All too rare. Most games are created by a team of talented individuals, but the hard work is often covered up by linear quests or tired mechanics. Only rarely do games explore deeper emotion in lieu of non-stop action.

"We have all felt the extremes of sadness or happiness, so when a character on the screen goes through those emotions, we can identify with that character."

It's possible that emotional moments in MMOs have such power because we can relate to those emotions. We have all felt the extremes of sadness or happiness, so when a character on the screen goes through those emotions, we can identify with that character. When a character is busily attacking a monster, on the other hand, it is something alien to us. We quickly grow used to the imagery and go into repeat mode. The same actions happen again and again and doesn't become any more exciting. But sadness, nostalgia, melancholy, and joy have such intimate connections to our lives that we can instantly identify with someone who might be going through those same emotions, even if that person is make-believe.

Strangely enough, I find the most potential for nostalgia within the browser-based world, specifically the MMORTS genre, which is made up of representations. Like Adventure Time, an MMORTS puts very basic symbols on the screen to represent something more. The way the symbols are placed and colored and interacted with makes them something familiar. Finn and other characters like Marceline are nothing but a circle with a primitive face. The same design went into the Peanuts gang: From Charlie Brown to PigPen, all of the characters looked the same. Yet we each have our favorites and can name characteristics of each. And we all remember where we were when we first heard Linus' speech from the Christmas special. It's still moving.

I love it when an MMO -- a virtual world, remember -- recognizes the things that make us human. Adventure Time is a cartoon with characters who do things that we can never, ever do and is set in a place that we will never see, yet it's very familiar to us. Nostalgia is a powerful tool. Games should use it.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!