It was back when I was playing World of Warcraft in high school that I first realised I had a problem. My bags were always full, laden with old gear and miscellaneous baubles I just couldn’t bear to part with, even if that just meant putting them in storage for a bit.
A random stone that reminded me of a great quest. A pair of gloves that took me back to my first raid with my guild, when they hazed me by convincing me I should leap to my death to reach a (fake) secret area. I’m sentimental nearly to a fault, something that’s come through in the way I play games for years.
Only recently, however, have I seen games begin to really embrace the specific sort of nostalgia our adventures in their worlds can conjure.
Lately, I’ve been playing a bunch of Mario Odyssey, and I love that the game allows me to purchase little souvenirs from each kingdom. Unlike the small junkyard of random armour scraps I dragged around in games like World of Warcraft or, more recently, single-player RPGs like The Witcher 3, Odyssey‘s souvenirs serve no purpose except to adorn your ship and remind you of where you’ve been.
After hours and hours of hunting moons, it’s easy for locations to lose a bit of their magic, to become rigid, structured stages in your mind instead of living, breathing places. Silly as it might sound, though, I can go into my ship and glance at my inflatable rubber dinosaur toy from the Lake Kingdom and remember when I first arrived there, when I was sucked into a whirlpool of chill by the sheer serenity of the place.
The creature my souvenir is based on, in fact, actually scared the crap out of me when I first encountered it. I was just swimming and vibing to the music when this immense blue monstrosity appeared in the corner of my eye. I nearly leaped out of my seat before discovering that it was actually a big, peaceful doof of a thing.
The souvenir’s description, meanwhile, gives this relatively small kingdom a ton of life. “Fans of the universally loved Dorrie have been clamoring for a quality reproduction like this,” it reads. Glad to hear that the Dorrie fandom finally got their wish.
Sentimentality can be a complicated feeling, a spectrum more nuanced than warm nostalgia or wistful tears. It can shift over time, reshaping your own tellings of the stories associated with those moments. Pyre, released earlier this year by Bastion and Transistor studio Supergiant, nails that in a really understated way with its own souvenir system. The game’s cast of characters is massive, and after one of them joins your team and starts travelling with you, they become associated with an item that decorates your wagon.
Early on, your wagon is basically empty, bereft of personality and a couple bumps in the road from permanently breaking down. By the time you’re prepping for your last big journey up the mountain, though, the inside of your wagon looks like the tomb of some weird old king, overflowing with instruments, books, treasures, and heirlooms. Each one has personal significance, something made all the more powerful by the fact that by that point you’ve sent most of your team away permanently, and it’s been in-game years since you’ve seen some of them.
One item, cooking tins once owned by a rogueish character named Hedwyn, reminded me of one of my biggest in-game regrets.
I’d sent him away too early, thinking he’d want to be with his best friend, who was the first character I sent. He nearly broke into bitter tears upon receiving his freedom. Later, though, he helped lead a revolution and was finally reunited with his long lost love.
When things were all said and done, those tins came to represent necessary sacrifice in my mind. Hedwyn struggled for our cause and nearly lost out on the things he cared about most, but it all paid off in the end.
Pyre‘s souvenirs also do an excellent job of making a 15-hour game feel like an epic journey. When I finished the game, I was struck by the way this tiny tale managed to feel more momentous than many 100-hour behemoths. You can look at any item or area in that game and immediately recognise how far you’ve come, how little you knew when you first started out, how much you’ve lost, and how much you’ve gained.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 doesn’t have a souvenir system, and yet its approach to sentimentality struck me more than any other game this year. Near the beginning of the game, you’re freed from what’s essentially a concentration camp for magic users, but you’re still stuck with a power-suppressing collar around your neck. When you finally find somebody to break it, it’s a huge symbolic moment, not to mention an important mechanical one.
Obviously, being me, I kept my broken collar in my inventory. I didn’t think I’d ever need it, but why not?
15 or 20 hours of playtime later, in an entirely different act of the game’s plot, I came across a group of kids playing in the street of a town. They were pretending to be magic users and the jerkholes who hunt/imprison/turn society against them. I approached them and was surprised to find that the game offered me the option to give my broken collar, this junk item that I imagine most players just got rid of, to the kids to enhance their imaginary game. I decided to hand it over, and the kids just about lost their shit.
Holding onto memories and mementos is all well and good, but you’ve got to know when to let them go, too.
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