You wouldn’t expect it, but smell is a contender for Most Important Sense. It is closely tied to memory; once your sense of smell goes, it’s likely that your ability to recall information deteriorates. You can develop dementia or Alzheimer’s or even mild depression. It’s not definite whether it goes from nose-to-brain or vice versa, but science has decided that the link is there.
Smell is a great way to trigger latent memories, experiences buried under years and years of disuse or disinterest. Clearing out your parent’s attic, you open a box and a big whiff of something from your old dusty books hits your nose. What do you remember? Perhaps sitting on your floor, poring over the cover over and over until you build up an entire story detached from the world within the words. Or maybe lying in bed, reading through the night and all the way until sunup.
But that is of the olfactory sort. Video games don’t have an equivalent for that. Visual, auditory, tactile. Games have those in spades, but they sincerely lack that of what is supposedly the strongest memory affiliate we’ve ever discovered. And yet we still have strong, nigh unbreakable mental and emotional bonds with certain games.
It’s an important distinction, though, of what we’re supposed to be remembering. The smell of those books, that sepia-toned dust filling your nostrils as it filters out the streaking sunlight, brings you back to a place and a time, but it rarely enables you to recall the words you read in that moment. You can transport yourself back to the years gone by in a place that is the same while wholly different but none of it is in regards to the book’s content.
When I remember a game, though, I remember specific actions and inputs and the correlating output. The story, yes, sticks with me, but the stickier notion is what I was doing to progress that story and its ostensible folderol of walking and looking.
When I mash on a button to sprint, my mind digs up all that time I spent in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Back then, Rockstar didn’t have a walk/jog/sprint differentiator, so tapping the run button allowed you to run farther and longer before getting winded. It brings me back to a very specific instance of running away from some cops in Little Haiti after my motorcycle lodged itself into a little side entrance stoop.
When I launch an enemy into the air and air juggle them or launch them off into nothingness, I recall playing the God of War challenge where you had to kill enemies to raise a platform. Sitting in my room, I was only my twentieth attempt and one of my roommates could hear my frustration. He came in to watch. We tried and tried until an hour later, I completed the challenge. I can remember that because of the elation I felt when I beat the challenge. But I still remember almost exactly, play-by-play, what I did to do so. Double jump over, L1+X, L1+square, L1+X, L1+X, circle, square…it’s all still there.
It’s strange to remember a place that doesn’t exist. I can picture the associated surroundings of my gaming memories: my family’s old white wraparound couch on our white carpet in front of our severely out-of-place 80s, wooden entertainment center; sitting on my forest green foldable chair mere feet away from my 15″ CRT television, the red part of the RCA cable from my PS2 dangling from the video/mono audio inputs; and the wet, rainbow floor of Tilt at the mall after my friend and I beat House of the Dead and knocked our Icees down to the ground in celebration.
But those specific moments of running around Hyrule and Kokiri Forest; turning and diving as I try to catch MIPS in the basement of Princess Peach’s Castle; and walking through the rafters of 2300 AD Arris Dome. None of that existed except in my mind. People will recall being there, too, but not really. Not the way I was there. My specific button pushes and stick movements are so ingrained in my mind that for someone to share that memory feels like a violation.
What then, if anything, triggers these memories beyond seeing that game again? Smell is out of the question; that takes you back to a very real place in a very specific time. Visuals work much like a scrapbook and seem less to elicit properly potent nostalgia and more a vague fuzzy sense of recollection.
Sounds are a good start. Hearing the Half-Life health station ch-sss teleports me straight to the first one you find in that original game. Listening to Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” puts me back in the saddle of my chestnut steed, who somehow found his own way across the San Luis River, as I crested that first hill and the sun began to set. The Legend of Zelda treasure fanfare will never not remind me of winning the Piece of Heart in the Treasure Chest Game in Ocarina of Time.
I can accomplish similar feelings, though, without an auditory cue. The simple act of a rote mechanic like the button-mash sprint is enough to remind me of Vice City, so it seems that a physical trigger exists as well. Alternate button mashing goes straight to International Track & Field: Summer Games. A very specific physical step sequence will put me back in Dance Dance Revolution.
The crazy thing is, though, that much like how olfactory memories spring up from the most random seed, these digital experiences erupt in a similar fashion. Much of this I did not remember (and will likely soon forget) until I recently came across each respective trigger in watching videos or playing games or even just taking a dance class. Each one was dug out from beneath the earth with a specific, single-use shovel and pulled out into the light. And now I can’t keep myself from hoping for the next one.