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Credit: inXile Entertainment

The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep and the wonders and dangers of nostalgia gaming

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Sep 24, 2018, 1:09 PM EDT (Updated)

David Rogers, creative lead for inXile's The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep, understands the stakes of his job. "I am holding people's childhoods," he acknowledged to SYFY WIRE earlier this month.

Last Tuesday, the new game was released a full 30 years after the series' last installment, The Bard's Tale III. The first Bard's Tale came out in 1985 and was one of the earliest successful turn-based cRPGs. But since the mid-'80s, the genre has grown and changed significantly, leading to some of the most important and influential games ever made.

Video games are still a young medium compared to film and television, but they've been around long enough to be swept up in the cultural push for nostalgia-based franchise resurrections. While series such as Zelda, Mario, or Final Fantasy have consistently churned out new releases, they are the exception. Most titles disappear from cultural relevance.

This newest Bard's Tale sequel was made possible by fan passion. A 2015 Kickstarter campaign rallied 33,000 backers to raise over $1.5 million dollars. While this enthusiasm may seem unambiguously positive, it hides a complex tension.

Veteran game developer David Gaider isn't involved in The Bard's Tale, but he's worked on numerous franchises that have become cultural touchstones, including Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age. "These existing fans can be a double-edged sword," he told SYFY WIRE. "They want it to stay the same, but they also want it to be completely new."

Rogers and inXile had a daunting task in designing The Bard's Tale IV. The game needed enough nostalgic flavor and familiar gameplay elements to appeal to those fans who fondly recall the original while also incorporating modern game design innovations. Rogers' solution included imagining what The Bard's Tale would be like if it had been coming out every couple of years like a long-running IP. "We're kind of thinking of this as The Bard's Tale Fourteen," he says. This approach provided creative agency to the design team, allowing them to excise outdated gameplay mechanics. What it didn't do, however, is solve for fan expectations.

While nostalgia fuels a reboot, it has a pronounced downside: It can empower toxic factions of fandoms.

Deeply invested audiences eagerly await the evolution of beloved IPs, but the line between appreciation and ownership can become blurred, especially when fans have staked their own money in a project. What's more, people with a childhood or adolescent love for a specific IP can make their fandom a core part of their identity. These properties, then, become highly idealized and must be protected at any cost. Case in point: numerous Star Wars fans hate the latest Skywalker trilogy for specious reasons, and loudly proclaim the superiority of the original films. The 2016 Ghostbusters reboot sparked a wave of outrage that eclipsed any nuanced discussion about the film's merits or flaws.

This is ever-present in the intimate gaming universe. Gaider points out that it's partly "just social media has meant that creators and fans are very close." Anyone can publicly react to a creative decision and this feedback can be weaponized.

Gaider values the intimacy of the gaming ecosystem but acknowledges that it can stymie the artistic process. "Feedback should be fine from a creator's standpoint, we like receiving feedback. It's when it's [an] avalanche — each individual person, it's nothing — but when you've got this wave of feedback it can seem overwhelming." He's quick to point out that his experiences pale in comparison to what female creatives go through. "When people come rushing at me, chances are they talk about my work... At worst they would slip in ad hominem... Whereas female colleagues of mine — that's where they start."

While the Bard's Tale community has been largely positive, Rogers has still had to contend with the fact that each fan has a different vision for The Bard's Tale IV. In the lead up to the game's release, message boards on the Steam page were full of people ready to criticize the game for any deviation from the original or more importantly, from their memory of the original. Rogers says that he sees conflict between these memories and his creation. "There [is] unavoidable [conflict]: these two visions can't exist in the same game world. It can't be grim and light-hearted. It can't be colorful and dank. There's an extent where we have to say, 'I'm sorry, our vision doesn't line up with yours.'"

Part of the magic of nostalgia is the way it threads a fan's emotional life from a specific time into the inherent heft of the work. When we revisit something we loved as children, our more discerning adult eyes can often see flaws we didn't notice when we were younger. Nostalgia allows us to forget those flaws and it can add a personal resonance that creates a richer experience. But returning to a world we haven't visited in a long time is bound to feel different because we have evolved.

"I think there's something inherently destructive about sequels in general," Rogers points out. "Because if you liked the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the next book can't actually be Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Something has to change. A character has to die, new characters have to be introduced. You have to be in a new land. There has to be a new problem. You can't advance a series without changing it."

One of the ways Rogers and inXile approached the problem was to release a remastered version of the first game. This gave fans who wanted an updated version of their remembered joy exactly that, while reminding players about the actuality of the original Bard's Tale. Rogers then chose to set The Bard's Tale IV 150 years after the events of the original trilogy, allowing for the creation of a fresh story that could work for old and new fans while also providing callbacks and references for more seasoned adventurers.

Rogers says that fan feedback throughout the creative process resulted in positive changes for The Bard's Tale IV. He points out that games have a different circumstance than other more passive mediums like film or TV. Playing a game requires audience participation, and that engagement often spills over. "I've given up a lot of ownership over the game… It's a conversation. There's the dungeon master and the player." As an example, the character portrait design and direction improved after fans expressed disappointment in the first iterations. In this instance, the passion of the intended audience helped advance the design.

The balance of responsibility and creation, however, is not easily discerned. The point at which nostalgia-driven fan expectations eclipse artistic possibilities can be frustrating both to creators and to less outspoken members of the fandom. Gaider acknowledges that developers need to take stock of a lot more than they used to but pushes back against the idea of letting fan entitlement drive the creative process, "We have to do our due diligence as creators. That is an added responsibility which didn't used to exist as a creator but now is there. There is a due diligence we need to go through, but we still need to claim that part of the creative process which is ours. You can't let fans co-opt the entire creative process no matter what their agenda is."

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