The online past is calcified in our collective memory, a flipbook of outdated virtual aesthetics. Millennials can mark out discrete blocks in their lives and match them to the social network dominant at the time. But many of those networks — My Chemical Romance-soundtracked Myspace pages heavy with bric-a-brac; text-forward LiveJournal before that — are no longer accessible. If they are, they likely don’t look or function the same way. Nostalgia for the online past comes with a distinctive sense of loss: A ’90s sweater can be worn as it always was, and resemble sweaters made today; and a first pressing of a 50-year-old record can be played on contemporary equipment and sound much the same. Outdated tech aesthetics, on the other hand, are replaced by faster, cleaner, and more modern iterations. Newcomers sometimes starve out competitors by attrition, or erase their own history through seamless version updates.
In her Programmed Visions, Wendy Chun describes the practical challenge facing digital archivists as “Janus-like,” a confluence of the “fragility of the print past and the volatility of the future.” To older Millennials who grew up online in the ’90s and early ’00s, a specific version of the internet lives in memory alongside the one frozen in the Wayback Machine. The recent work of game designers Nina Freeman and Sophia Park, along with their many collaborators, finds refuge in digital nostalgia, depicting online communities as vectors for friendship and romantic intimacy. This remembering is in sharp contrast to the reality of the internet, excising most of the bad — doxxing, surveillance, hate mobs — to leave a rosier impression. In the process, it suggests that the internet still holds those essential pockets of safety and love and growth.
Many of us have an early, formative experience of a fervent online community (for me, it was the long-dead Assetbar comment system attached to Chris Onstad’s formative webcomic Achewood). As nostalgia goes, the spaces where we experienced our first sense of belonging seem idyllic in hindsight — small, communal, and undisturbed — while comparative spaces today are massive, centralized, massive platforms whose ease of use has a slight flattening effect. You can jump from a subreddit full of anime gifs to an analog photographer’s Tumblr page to an academic blog and it all feels like it’s at the same volume.
Digital nostalgia depicts online communities as vectors for friendship and intimacy. This remembering sharply contrasts with the internet’s reality, excising most of the bad
Designers Sophia Park and Penelope Evans’s latest game, Arc Symphony, was cannily marketed with mocked-up PlayStation 1 jewel cases and through Twitter word-of-mouth. It’s a text-based game about a Usenet group for fans of a fictional Japanese role-playing-game called “Arc Symphony” (in quotes to avoid confusion), circa 1994. The artists’ choice of game genre is no accident: JRPGs from the ’90s like 1994’s Final Fantasy VI and 1995’s Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest VI vaulted the genre into new realms of complexity, making them perfect fodder for fans to obsess over en masse. Without a centralized forum like Reddit, fans had to build their own micro communities to trade tips, bemoan obnoxious voice actors, and speculate about future installments.
You play as a member of the alt.games.arc–symphony newsgroup returning after a hiatus. A questionnaire at the game’s start determines your handle and favorite character from “Arc Symphony.” The game essentially lets you be friendly or confrontational with the other members, and your attitude determines whether at the end you’re offered a mod ship or booted from the group. Picking the asshole route nets hurt responses from your friends, like Incubill, a math professor at Cardiff, or MysticPixie and Softfox, who are a couple.
Everyone is genial with each other, even when the conversations bump up against the edges of age and gender identity, so it feels genuinely transgressive to breach the group’s code of conduct. The game simulates a constellation of strangers united by their appreciation for a videogame, and in the loosely structured way of forum-based communities, with a couple of mods keeping the conversation civil, it allows its members to express themselves in a safe space.
The gentle flicker of Arc Symphony’s faux-CRT-monitor interface, the glacial download times, and gurgling dial-up modem noise invite the player into a nostalgic headspace; it doesn’t strictly denote any operating system, instead abstracting early-’90s OSes’ DOS into a simple pale-green cocoon. On the desktop there are a few folders filled with rasterized pictures of your cat Murray and anime girls, a list of your favorite movies, and a handful of fanfic — one in particular structured around the lyrics of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” another hyper-specific symbol to anchor us in the game’s time and place.
Nostalgia has a devious habit of coding your way as good, and the new way as bad. Arc Symphony extracts what was best about an era made obsolete — the rosier parts that linger in the minds of those who played, not Arc Symphony itself but the world in which it was played. Meaningful interactions can take place on any virtual stage — from comment sections to online games — and any platform is secondary to the user’s experience with it.
Designer Nina Freeman’s Cibele is a game about falling in love on the internet, which is not the taboo it once was. Like most of Freeman’s work, it’s autobiographical and painfully intimate. “People want to hear about reality,” she told Kill Screen in 2014. “People want to hold onto each other, and know that they’re not alone in the world.” I use the word “painful” not to denigrate Freeman’s openness but to approximate the amorphous-but-unmistakable pangs of empathy and embarrassment that her games are likely to elicit for anyone who grew up on the internet. Cibele includes photos and writing from this period in Freeman’s life. Like Arc Symphony, it takes place on a simulated desktop — a pink-hued, kawaii approximation of Mac OS.
Without Freeman’s sharp understanding of how teenagers pour themselves into their online personas, the particulars of Cibele would fall flat. The fictionalized Nina character meets a boy named Blake through a massively multiplayer online game called Valteria. (“More often than not, these games function like a chat room,” Freeman told Wired.) Valteria is the conduit for their budding relationship, which is presented to a player used to a world full of dating apps, and, as ever, endless handwringing about the consequences of meeting through a machine. The period setting of Nina and Blake’s relationship allows the game to explore a romance that happens online without belaboring the online part, like a Very Special Episode of a sitcom.
The game simulates a constellation of strangers united by a videogame, allowing the player to relive that experience of bonding with a friend who may have nothing to do with your daily life
Cibele’s use of Freeman’s intimate personal ephemera to invite the player into her headspace, to embody her as a character, is shocking. It’s not so much voyeuristic as a vivid new type of interactive memoir, and it speaks to the ways that virtual spaces oftentimes feel more real for their users than physical existence. Nina pours herself into her blog and her relationships with online friends in a way the player can easily infer she does not do “IRL.” Friendships can form between people who remain totally anonymous to each other, who never exchange anything but usernames. How do you reconnect with someone who probably abandoned the handle you knew them by a decade ago?
Cibele allows the player, in an abstract way, to relive that experience of bonding online with a friend who may have nothing to do with your daily life. There is an invisible contract to these relationships, a more delicate rhythm than the firm commitments required to, say, hang out at a friend’s house. Transience is normal. People delete their accounts. They log off. They move to a different site, or their computer breaks. The relationships don’t necessarily mean any less.
We do our best to protect ourselves while using social networks for their ostensible purpose — navigating the fraught relationship between what Benjamin Haber calls “the very forms of intimacy that make social media compelling” and our awareness of the narrow criteria of acceptability and broad vulnerability of public personas. The nature of relationships forged online, especially in the more anonymous days before mammoth social media and digital footprints, makes explicit the basic push-pull, hedgehog’s dilemma of all human relationships.
Nina Freeman’s most recent work is Lost Memories Dot Net, the first videogame commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and made in collaboration with designer/programmer Aaron Freedman, writer Emma Kidwell, musician yeule, and artists Jenny Jiao Hsia, Opal Pence, Milkblushh, and more. (Along with the Whitney Biennial’s Porpentine Charity Heartscape installation, Lost Memories reflects an increasing acceptance toward and patronage of alt/indie games work by tastemakers in the larger art world.) You play as another fictionalized Nina during middle school in 2004, navigating a crush via instant messenger.
In 2004, AOL Instant Messenger had a monopoly on how kids talked to each other online. While the chat client in Lost Memories isn’t explicitly AIM (unlike in Kyle Seeley’s 2015 Emily is Away), usernames like “JoinMyYakult” and “xXx_Sephiroth_xXx” are spot-on, knowing evocations of the AIM era. The story unfolds through chat conversations, though in the downtime you can redesign your blog in wonderfully garish style and visit other sites. The details code this as a warm, expressive space for the protagonist: This is where she goes to be herself, to talk about anime and write blog posts about staying home sick from school and playing Final Fantasy X-2.
The awkward, clunky personal blog as Lost Memories remembers it is no more — not gone, but exploded into Tumblrs and locked Twitter accounts and monetized lifestyle blogs and YouTube channels. Each of them may serve a different purpose for the user, befitting certain moods or types of content. Lost Memories exists as a time capsule, placed paradoxically in the midst of the forward-thinking multidisciplinary blitz of the Manchester International Festival. Like Arc Symphony and Cibele, it offers a vision of an idealized internet, like a dream world that grows fuzzy and faint around the edges — but, like any idealized past, it offers relief in the form of a world it’s possible to make sense of.
This is not hollow nostalgia. Retromancy has pop culture firmly in its neon grip, from Netflix’s Stranger Things to Steven Spielberg’s late-career adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 childish nerd-handshake smash Ready Player One, but these works look back to reaffirm the importance of right now. They caution us against strict dichotomies of Back Then and Today; instead, they highlight the elements of the internet that have always served as a vital emotional outlet for culturally ostracized, underrepresented people like teen girls and trans people. These games suggest that even in the face of ephemerality and widespread surveillance and abuse there is — there needs to be — space online for that spark of self-fulfillment and intimacy.
Correction: an earlier version of this essay misidentified the creators of Arc Symphony. The game was created by Sophia Park and Penelope Evans. We regret the error.