I talked quite a bit about this in my Mega Man Battle Network review, but computers have fallen into a two-dimensional cave for quite a while now and people are slowly expressing that they’re pretty much done with that. At the same time, games have become more colorful again after years of being gray and brown. Old mascots have been coming out of the woodwork in recent years after going dormant as a "thing" and people have generally been happy about it.
As mentioned in my review, there seems to be a renewed interest in Frutiger Aero, BonziBUDDY, and skeuomorphism generally. Which is to say we walked away with features introduced by this (Windows Aero introduced "Aero Peek," which has survived into that little sliver on your taskbar that lets you view your desktop; BonziBUDDY is survived by a million digital assistants that all likewise steal your info for profit), but none of it has actually retained what made any of this appealing.
So what is all of this and why should we care?
A friendly face
The point of skeuomorphism is to make things easy to recognize and use. We have check boxes because we understand checking a box on a form; radio buttons because we all understood a boom box back in the day had buttons that you would press one down and whatever was pressed down before would pop up. We had save icons shaped like 3.5" floppy disks because that was one of the easiest ways to save a file. At this point, paper forms are on their way out, half of you reading this have never seen a boom box in real life, and kids these days think a floppy disk is a 3D-printed save icon.
But for the time, you know what? IT WORKED. By grounding the digital into familiar physical objects, it made things familiar and usable.
The ’90s and early 2000s took it a step further even in the real world with things like jewel floppy disks in multiple colors; clear cases for everything from the iMac to game systems, phones, handhelds, and even clocks; LEDs in your shoes, electronics, and basically everything for "cool" factor; and a deathly allergy to straight lines as had defined a lot of things in the ’80s and earlier where technology tended to be apologetic for existing and did its best to hide. Technology invaded our world, and, in turn, our world slowly invaded technology.
Even as technology pranced around daily life with all the noise and color of the era, the stuff inside it needed a facelift, which came just as quickly. If you look at various computer themes even as early as Windows 98, they tended to forego things like tiled backgrounds of 3D spheres like in Windows 3.1 in favor of wallpapers of jungle scenes and space stations with a bunch of fun sounds and animated cursors to go with it. Photo backgrounds became viable, too. This more or less continued through Windows XP with that iconic hill, and even into Vista where you started to get jewel buttons and stuff. Many things got abstracted and you started seeing people in the machine along with all the grass and trees and sun, but that in itself lent a sense of unity. The computer was, like the world outside, filled with lights and shiny objects and nature and life and all the diversity of, well, I mean a college town, but that’s not a bad thing. But the whole thing blurred the line between the world outside and the world inside the machine and that made them feel not so different and the digital world a lot less scary.
Even things like digital assistants and desktop pets were commonplace. Desktop pets would mostly just move around and react when you dragged them and stuff. Clippit ("Clippy") was the face of Microsoft word. The reason BonziBUDDY got any foothold at all was because it was a friendly-looking purple gorilla that frankly wasn’t doing anything on the surface that other similar programs weren’t, regardless of what it was doing on the back end.
It’s a real shame, then, that Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon only managed to take away the part where the assistant was constantly spying on you and stealing your data instead of the part where people wanted something with a friendly face. Because ultimately, all the friendliness was the only thing to actually go.
Off to the data mines with you!
Starting with Windows 8 in 2012, or really Microsoft Office 2010 in, well, 2010, all of the comforting blues got replaced with soul-sucking grays in the "business" parts of software and flat design became the de facto standard as other companies followed suit. Computers were suddenly done being friendly, natural spaces and everything became "efficient" with things like the ribbon toolbar (which, Microsoft, if you are taking feedback, I STILL can’t find anything in the blasted thing; menus with clear headings just work better). Business was about numbers and you were going to feel like a number, while interfaces were about efficiency, and Windows 8 had just the thing: TILES!
Ultimately, none of this was friendly, nobody bought Windows 8, and Microsoft had to come out with Windows 8.1 to make Windows functional for the average person again. But everything up to that point that had made computers actually good was lost and has yet to actually come back.
So who asked for this?
So, uh, here comes the funny part, because the answer is "no one." Yeah, I’m old enough to remember all the criticism that came about with people immediately comparing Windows 8 to early ’90s AOL and pretty vocally calling it a mistake. No one actually wanted flat design. It just got rammed down our throats by Microsoft as sort of a rug pull and that set the style that became the look of the era lasting to this day at time of writing. Or rather, Microsoft asked for it and then made it for itself with Windows 8 because Microsoft makes operating systems for Microsoft and tablets happened to be really popular in their Redmond bubble, and tiles are fantastic if you need to interact with something with all the finesse of rubbing it against your nipples. It wasn’t until they literally could not get anyone off Windows 7 willingly that they realized that tablets had 0% market share and Windows was going to have 0% market share if they didn’t get their act together. Microsoft always dogfoods its own products, so there’s a bit of a feedback loop there. The rest of us are just along for the ride. After people had to be literally forced off the much-beloved Windows 7 with increasingly dirty and even borderline illegal tactics on Microsoft’s part, the most shining review most people could offer about Windows 10 was "it’s… Windows…" If Microsoft had maybe done more to friendly it up, people might have been legitimately happy about it.
The real irony is people never wanted flat design, but now everyone is acting like they’re done with it when, really, they’re just being vocal again about the same things they were yonks ago. The issue is not that anyone "started" wanting this; it’s that they eventually saw no point in continuing to complain about it to the monolithic stone flipped bird that constitutes Microsoft’s finger on the pulse of the market, but now there’s a hint of nostalgia that Millennials are feeling that’s an igniting spark on it becoming a conversation again whether Microsoft is listening or not.
Mostly, though, I think it speaks to the younger generations – Millennials, Zoomers, and Alpha – being mostly culturally united in a way that really no two much less three generations have been before, given generational politics have largely been successfully used to sow division, particularly by the Baby Boomers to maintain a stranglehold on political power. Like, yeah, Millennials are getting to be the old, uncool parents now, but we’re also the ones driving our kids to their protests and bringing our own well-worn signs, which has literally never happened before. This interest in going back to when things were more "real" isn’t just nostalgia; it’s because people just like plants and stuff. Like, seriously, I personally have never been able to sit in a gray cubicle. I have, as much as I’ve been allowed, always decorated it with bits of art I’ve done and work-adjacent pictures I thought were cute from the Internet and colorful desk toys and whatever plant I managed not to kill. People joke about young people having plants and stuff, but that stuff is legitimately calming to have around you and the environment could use all the plants it can get right now. Why shouldn’t that stuff be in the computer? Because it is literally easier for Congress to change time than it is for anyone to make businesses let us see the light of day! If anything, people spend more time in front of a screen than ever and having all of the outside world in it was a mitigating factor to us not actually getting to enjoy the outside world. Sky blues in our office software, blue skies on our desktops over almost impossibly pleasant greenery, shiny gems in all our buttons, all of this goes some way toward making the fact that you are allowed one (1) picture of your family and one (1) coffee mug with text that can’t be more than mildly amusing to spruce up your gray or beige cubicle under the harsh, buzzing fluorescent lights in an office that physically creaks at the beams on crazy tie day and would implode the first someone walked in wearing a Hawaiian shirt bearable. Yes, that is specific! But also depressingly universal. "Office culture" (inasmuch as it’s anything but the breeding ground for inefficiency, gossip, and micromanagement), is clinically designed to be soul-suckingly boring, because a general haze of misery keeps everyone buying stuff under capitalism. The fact remote workers are managing to hold down 2 full-time jobs without impacting either speaks to the fact that offices aren’t meant to be good workplaces; they’re meant specifically to be bad ones with all the opportunity in the world to waste your precious life.
You want to know what office culture was like in the 1970s? Look at an old keyboard. Those curly cables? That was so you could lean back in your chair with the thing in your lap and kick your feet up on the desk as you typed into your dark-screened terminal. Because "dark mode" isn’t new, it’s actually basically as old as computers with screens, because terminals were monochrome and you had your color of choice against black. "Color of choice" here meaning "white or light gray" and "a monitor with a button that you could toggle a pleasant amber or green filter on." I literally still have one of those monitors and even though it’s broken (but probably fixable by an enthusiast), the filter button still works. I still have a keyboard with a curly cord, too. Amazing the kind of hardware you get when family would throw away an office boat anchor. Anyway, those folks wore comfortable clothes and made themselves comfy while working on this stuff because working with computers was a specialist pursuit and they had plenty of allowances made for the value they brought.
The thing is, we’re now at a point where we have dark mode, but literally nothing else. We’re all stuck in front of our screens for long hours with none of the comforts afforded to those ’70s folk because computers are just how everything is done now. Computers didn’t democratize a thing; they just made it more widely possible for people to do more work for less pay.
Mega Man Battle Network returning was one of the smartest things Capcom could have done in many ways, returning to a market that’s primed for a near future of A.I. and the nostalgia for the last time the future actually looked bright. It’s a time capsule of everything we thought we were looking forward to, and at the same time a reminder of what we’ve been given and what’s been taken away. It’s colorful, charming, and friendly; hopeful; and most importantly it marries the physical with the digital by bringing familiar physical designs into the digital spaces, grounding computers in terms everyone understands.
Seriously, if computers are going to spy on us, lie to us, and try to make themselves harder to control without help, couldn’t they at least have the decency to do it with the comforting assurance of a friendly purple gorilla or something?