Games of 2022: Sephonie was the most nuanced nostalgia trip

Nostalgia as a concept is probably one of the most alluring things in art at the moment. Hollywood is desperate to cash in on the memories of those raised in the 80s with reboots, sequels, and the like. We’re constantly inundated with reminders from the games industry of how good games used to be, with remakes that don’t quite capture how we remember things being. So when a game like Sephonie comes around, and manages to take my fond recollections of all those 3D platformers I played as a kid while offering a more mature, contemplative idea regarding what nostalgia can be, you can absolutely guarantee it will end up being one of my favourites of the year.

Sephonie, if you haven’t been treated to the knowledge of its existence, is a 3D platformer with a strong emphasis on parkour-esque movement. It follows three biologists on their exploration of the titular island. Stylistically, I personally think it feels like a forgotten 3DS game (the highest of compliments I can offer), though it is obviously inspired by platformers from the N64-era all the way up to the PS2.

I was initially drawn to the title for a number of reasons, including my love of expressive movement in games, and the fact that Sephonie comes from the incredible team Analgesic Productions, also the creators of the Anodyne series. The reason I stayed for so long, though, was because of the way the game deals with nostalgia.

If I had to pick a single theme about Sephonie, I would likely land on memories. Our three protagonists, all of whom share Taiwanese heritage, are subtly forced to confront their pasts, in order to better face their futures. There are incredibly beautiful scenes that use real but distorted photography of locales I imagine were frequented by either Melos Han-Tani or Marina Kittaka, the pair of developers that make up Analgesic.

These scenes were abstract and formless, the images warm and comforting, the internal monologues sometimes sad, and more often than not reflective, often reminding me of some of the more surreal sections of Neon Genesis Evangelion. We all get lost in the past sometimes, don’t we? That’s what these scenes felt like, an opportunity to look back on the past, even with all its complexities and difficulties, and figure out what they mean to us now.

Using the genre of 3D platformer as a frame to paint a more nuanced image of what nostalgia can be has very easily cemented Sephonie as a game I’ll probably think about forever. I’m incredibly happy to see the resurgence of the genre, but as I’m getting older, I do find that on occasion I need something that aspires to be more than just a collect-a-thon (and by no means do I mean that in a derogatory way, Sephonie has plenty of items to collect itself).

What I mean is that I don’t want to play things that are mostly riding on the waves of what was good yesterday. Sephonie is so effective in what it does, because it does ride that wave, but it also lands on the shores of something new. It looks back at the past and thinks, “OK, I think I’ve figured out how I can grow from this.” Which is exactly what I feel like I need right now.