Yet I was also really into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming.
When I try to explain to my kids what the dominant aesthetic of the mid-late 90s was like, I will call it 'sincere'. This was before the internet set off an irony bomb under everything (circa 2003), before a pornographic style and attitude began to pervade the popular culture (beginning from I think the noughties), and before social media started to make everyone really angry and depressed (from, say, 2014). It was a time during which we were encouraged to see the best in one another and to look to the future with optimism. The teen films of this era are distinguished by being positive about the relations between men and women in particular: think of American Pie, Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You. They are all about boys and girls learning to get along - especially about boys figuring out how to be sensitive and emotionally aware. These films don't undercut this message with meanness or archness. The message was sincerely meant. Back then, we valued the idea that everybody could learn to rub along.
Dawson's Creek was the apogee of this turn towards sincerity. As much as it had elements of humour, the series was unrelentingly intense and serious about teenage travails. Sex was not pornographic or transactional, but imbued with almost metaphysical meaning; divorce was treated as weighty and agonising; homophobia, snobbery, mental breakdowns and the like were considered sensitively; above everything else, the storylines revolved around finding love, which seems almost passe to our irony-infused, post-internet gaze.
And the look of the series - let's just go balls to the wall and call it its mise-en-scene - buttressed this mood. In Capeside, it always seems to be late summer or early autumn. The music is earnest, romantic, singer-songwritery, po-faced. The visuals are elegaic, somehow evoking nostalgia in its teen audience for an era which has not yet passed - the era of their own youth, passing before their eyes. Phenomenologically, watching Dawson's Creek was a bit like being transported into the future to inhabit one's own middle-aged self, and looking back at one's own teenage years through the rose-tinted spectacles of time and distance; it somehow felt simultaneously set now (1998), but also set then, as 1998 imagined as the semi-distant past.
The music of Counting Crows also seems to encapsulate this era. Adam Duritz's lyrics are expressionistic, romantic; his heart is worn on his sleeve; he never tries to be funny or sexy, but always earnest about emotional affairs. The relationships he depicts are imbued with drama and pathos. They all seem to matter, not just to him, but somehow to the very universe itself - as though part of some grand narrative in which matters of the heart are all engaged. It is all so very sensitive (a word which women used to useall the time, it seemed, in those days: "If only I could find somebody sensitive.")
Watch Duritz go - this, whatever else you might say, is a very sensitive man:
It could just be timing, but I can't help but feel that something of this aesthetic filtered into role playing games, perhaps in Vampire: The Masquerade, but most notably in my experience in Changeling: The Dreaming. I never really played Changeling, not much, because the way it was presented by White Wolf made it essentially unplayable; but what I did do was look through it lovingly and wallow in the waves of bittersweetness and nostalgia for lost youth that seemed to wash out of its pages. It struck exactly the same kind of notes as Dawson's Creek did: it felt elegaic, sorrowful about the passing of time, veiled by late-summer sunlight, and above all obsessed with the importance of feelings sincerely felt.
If you're not sure what I mean when I refer to this aesthetic, then looking at some internal art from Changeling communicates it, I think, perfectly. I mean:
There is a bit of mid-late 90s sincerity to the D&D of that era, as well, to my eye - indeed, it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that Monte Cook had also been into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming. This was the period during which TSR, and WotC after it, really began to get serious about PCs having an emotional life of their own rather than being mere ciphers for the players. Gradually, it began to seem as though it mattered for PCs to have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Dungeoneering and gaining treasure was passe; what began to matter was story and "role playing rather than roll-playing". The whole enterprise came to be very sincere as a consequence.
Sincerity is entirely defensible in TV, film, literature and music, but not, I think, in the context of games, where it easily becomes very cloying and awkward. With that said, a little goes a long way: the OSR often seems to pride itself on having a lack of sincerity, and a sprinkling of a little po-faced sentimentality may be what is needed to freshen things up a bit.