Welcome to Rose-Colored Gaming, a recurring series where I replay games from my childhood and discuss how feelings of nostalgia influence my current experience.
In today’s article I take a look at the cult GameBoy Advance classic Golden Sun.
I’ve wanted to replay this game for a while because I’ve always secretly held out hope I’d make it to the sequel. I recently graduated college and found I had a lot of extra free time on my hands, and what better way to use it than catching myself up on all those plot points I’ve long since forgotten in the original?
Even from the beginning, there was a specific sense of hope and magic that the simple pixel art reminded me I’d forgotten. The first dungeon was beautiful—almost like revisiting a dream I’d had a decade ago.
I mean, sure, the graphics didn’t exactly hold up to the likes of Moon Hunters or Hyper Light Drifter, but whatever. When I was younger, I didn’t need to be playing the prettiest game possible to have a meaningful experience. It was almost universally central to my identity that I could find magic in anything. As I’ve grown, though, I find myself looking for more and more ‘perfection’ in the things I use in order to fill my life with that same feeling. I need it to be pretty, and to apply to what I’m going through, and to teach me a valuable lesson. These requirements only succeed in making that feeling that I’m looking for smaller and smaller. The gap left behind instead gets filled with what’s important—that is to say, what’s grown up.
What I’ve realized is that Golden Sun has interwoven with childhood memories of growing up. In fact, it’s almost rendered it synonymous with them. All it takes is the sounds of Kolima Forest, and I’m thrown back into the summer of 5th grade, trying desperately to figure out how to get my GBA screen to function in direct sunlight, or pulling my first ‘all nighter’ for a video game (a term which here means staying up till 11:45 pm, but hey, I was young).
It’s easy to find myself wistfully thinking that those were better times.
I mean, real talk, being an adult is hard! I miss my mom, I’m constantly worrying about credit cards and rent, and like, 50 percent of my daily conversations are about work.
I find myself looking back at the time in which I played Golden Sun and thinking my biggest worry was how scary the tree people of the Kolima Forest were. But that’s a dangerous thought. Nostalgia can easily become a revisionist filter, telling you it was always better in the past and your present should change to reflect that. I’m afraid that if I give into that sort of thinking, I’ll stop learning from my past and end up missing out on opportunities to grow as the person I am now.
This brings me back to the first town I came to in the game: a hamlet by the name of Vault that in replaying felt—well, familiar. I remembered exactly where the weapon shop that sold the game’s first mysterious artifact was, how to solve the optional puzzle that would give me a new power for my main character, and where to go to recruit my favorite character, Ivan (coincidentally, the first person to replace Tuxedo Mask as the object of my youthful affections).
What I didn’t remember was the suspicion all of the townspeople felt for outsiders that looked a certain way, a suspicion that was unambiguously backed up by the narrative no more than 10 minutes into the quest.
Whether intentional or not, Golden Sun falls upon the racist visual shorthand of darker skin meaning an evil person. As a child, I completely accepted the fact that one could spot a criminal just by looking at how different they were from the people around them.
This realization made me severely uncomfortable after years of experiencing how people look at non-binary folk.
When I sit with that uncomfortable feeling and look at the context surrounding the release of Golden Sun (2005, the beginning of Bush Jr.’s second term as president), I become afraid. Afraid because I realize that the xenophobia I was absorbing then wasn’t confined to something so easily dismissed as a video game.
It’s somehow easier to think of ways in which I’ve been personally affected by that environment. It’s not an uncommon occurrence to find myself looking into the mirror, judging the way my gender identity and expression conflicts with what I’ve been taught is appropriate for someone born into a body like mine.
Scarier still is who I would be if I let my thought process stop there, if I ignored the ways in which that environment has shaped the way I perceive people who are different than me. No matter how much I try to be aware of the ideologies of white supremacy and ableism I’ve been raised with, it’s moments like this that remind me how deeply those ideologies root themselves in my being.
After playing Golden Sun, I started paying more attention to the children I tutor at work and how that tutoring changes based on their skin or their ability to communicate. I quickly saw how I’m quicker to draw some students back to task and less likely to goof off with them than I am with other students. I could let my (often wishful) self-image stop me from acknowledging why that is, but that would lead to following the same path that brought me here to begin with.
Nobody has the luxury of trying to reason their way out of their own ingrained prejudices, especially in our current context. It’s important to me to look for ways to move forward, even if it’s as simple as taking a small break in between classes so that I have the energy to pay attention to my (often discriminatory) gut instincts.
As a kid, I found the idea of being trapped in a tree like the denizens of the town of Bilbin to be existentially terrifying. Now that I’m older, I’ve found that doesn’t do much more than unnerve me. To be honest? After a particularly long shift, I probably wouldn’t mind waiting for some adventuring youths to break my curse while I chill out with some ambient VGM.
What I fear now is that one day, I’ll let my need for that wistful sense of comfort that comes with nostalgia stop me from being critical to ways I can confront the very much uncomfortable truths about who I’ve been raised to be, and demotivate me from doing the hard work of becoming a better person now.
Read the rest of the Rose-Colored Gaming series.
A genderless eldritch beast bound to mortal flesh. Interests include games, gardening, magical realism, and the complete restructuring of America’s political and economic systems. Frequently orders too much food at restaurants. Tweets @unnnez.