Videogames are weird. By that I don’t mean just the stuff that comes from the Land of the Rising Sun, I mean gaming as a whole. It’s a medium so young that some people have quite literally been there since the beginning, but it’s already one of the most profitable of all time, just ask Rockstar Studios. They’re like the young brother that’s somehow richer, taller, prettier, and more successful than his older siblings, the Seven Arts. But if the recent reckoning that we’ve been seeing happening to big companies and gaming communities like the FGC are any indication, this growth might have been too much, too fast. For God’s sake, we’re still having discussions on whether videogames are even art while GTA V is out there being literally the most profitable thing of all time. There are people way more qualified than me to talk about those topics, and if the title of this piece hasn’t made it obvious yet, they’re not my main subject either, but I’d be remiss not to at least mention it. No, today I’d like to ramble about the other thing that really bugs me about games: the fact that they’re fucking horrible at preserving themselves.
So, I’m somewhat of a history nerd. My sidebar info is basically a signed confession to that fact. That means I’m used to being bullied, so let me start this by comparing games to films. I’m sure this can only end well. Movies have been around for a long time now, and much like games, the things we’re able to do with them never felt so limitless. But if you ask what was the first motion picture ever, there’s a generally accepted answer in 1878, with “Horse in Motion”. You likely have seen it already, it’s that 15-second clip of a running horse running at like 7 frames per second or something. And if that’s too much of a gif for you, there’s always “Roundhay Garden Scene” from 1888 or “Arrival of a Train” in 1895. Now, I’m not saying the movie industry is a champion of preserving things. People who are smarter than me have estimated that 75% of silent movies are lost forever, and while that is sad I can understand why. We didn’t have the technology to do so and even if we did, preserving some old pieces of tape wasn’t exactly high on the priority list. Now, where the hell am I going with this? Basically, if you ask the same questions about video games, we run into similar problems despite the fact they’re relatively a much younger industry. Ahoy has a fantastic documentary on this topic that I greatly recommend you watch after you leave this page. If you want a TLDR, basically the more you dig into the topic, the more confusing it becomes. Go back in time to the start of the ‘70s and consider that gaming started with the Odyssey 100 and Computer Space, the first console and arcade machine respectively. This would put gaming at almost 50 years of existence. Basically a child as far as history is concerned, but already there are big chunks of its history missing. The internet was far from being an option back then, and developers were either unwilling or unable to preserve their games or the people that made them—the credits for the original Castlevania on the NES come to mind now. Games were made, released (or canceled), and then forgotten.
I don’t really blame developers too much. Video games were seen as toys for children, something you consume and move on. It was a cultural thing, which doesn’t make it good but I can at least understand why it happened. What I don’t get is why so little has changed since then. It’s true that old physical media like floppy disks and manuals are unreliable as fuck (especially if badly stored) but why in Iwata’s name didn’t we learn to do better with the advent of things like CDs for example? That story about a dude who found Starcraft’s source code back in 2017 baffles me to no end! If a game as iconic and influential as Starcraft wasn’t preserved by its own freaking owners, then what hope is there for the rest? Or how about Diablo, whose source code is still missing to this day? I know the majority of us don’t really care about that kind of stuff (and fair enough, not everyone is a programmer) but the reason we should is that source codes tell stories! We can look at it and see how games were made, learn from the mistakes of others, or just find some neat secrets. This video about the hidden entities of Half-Life: Opposing Force is a fun example of that. If you need another reason to care, ports and remasters of old games are made much easier if developers have access to said code. Just imagine how many more gems from the past could be getting the HD treatment right now if people just cared more.
Now, physical media is much more than just the source code, and unfortunately, they’re far from being safe. Cartridges, for example, have a time limit on how much longer they remain playable since no battery lasts forever, and arcade boards are not known for being resistant to the elements. If those things stop working before someone can make a copy of some sort, that’s game over man. And that’s assuming someone even stored them, to begin with! Some games don’t get extended that courtesy, like the pinball and arcades Taito made exclusively for Brazil. In ‘83, the vast majority of them were destroyed after the company went bankrupt and the price of the machines plummeted to the ground. Pieces of gaming history that only exist here are just gone. Burnt to a crisp. The surviving ones are so rare that they cost more than a car, and to make matters worse, not many people alive know how to do proper maintenance on these things. This might just be yet another time bomb just waiting to go off. And what about gaming magazines? Or booklets with a bunch of cheat codes? Hell, when was the last time you read a game manual? It’s easy to forget, but these things—along with merchandise, demos, ads, and printed walkthroughs—are as much part of video game culture as the games themselves, and they’re disappearing at a ridiculously alarming rate.
Here's a song from a game you probably never got to play.
This brings me to the can of worms that is emulation, a topic that could fill an entire blog by itself. It’s a debate that’s been raging for far longer than I care to keep track of, so here are my two cents: While I don’t think they’re illegal—in fact, I’m pretty sure they were never actually deemed illegal in any legal system—and I also don’t recommend you use it if you can avoid it, I’ll be the first to reckon that this is the only way some games will exist in the future. Not only that, but it’s also the only way to experience some games that for one reason or another, never made it to a particular region of the world. Whether because they were never officially translated (Ace Attorney: Investigations 2) or simply because someone went bankrupt along the way (Terranigma), ROMs and the communities that share them allow people to experience that part of history that they might otherwise miss. While it is true that some of these games can still be bought, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Radiant Silvergun for less than 120 dollars for example. It’s not the sort of investment anyone is able or willing to make. It really doesn’t help that the companies themselves are against the emulation scene, something I don’t blame them for. Not entirely, at least. They’re within their right to protect their IPs, but since the vast majority of times they’ve no intention of allowing us to play them in a legal way, it’s easy to see why this shit makes my blood boil.
Retro gaming preservation has enough content to fill an entire blog about it, especially when you consider missing games or prototypes that were never really meant for the public to see. And while preserving the past is obviously important, that was not the thing that kicked me into writing this. No, what triggered this blog was… Fortnite. Don’t run, let me explain! I was recently watching a video by Errant Signal where he discusses the less than constant nature of the game, and one of the things he mentions in that video got me thinking. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically the idea is that one can never archive Fortnite as it is, only as it was. The game is in a constant state of ebb and flow, with its daily/weekly/whatever missions, seasons, map changes, and whatever the hell else you do in Fortnite. This is pretty much the nature of these “live-service” kind of games, I know, but Epic’s little cash cow easily takes the cake just by how frequent those changes happen. The game you play one day quite literally might not be the same the next, and it could be because as something as insignificant as “today’s daily mission is X and not Y” or something as big as literally changing the entire playfield. And so, I go back to my question: how do you archive that?
Gaze upon this image and relive the glory of the past!
MMOs kind of deal with that stuff on a basis. It’s just the nature of the genre, you gotta keep the new content coming. This is especially true for those that are old enough to drive like World of Warcraft, and they offer an acceptable solution: archive it by expansion, usually by saving the very last content patch. I should clarify that by “they” I mean the “fans”. God knows Blizzard wasn’t interested in WoW Classic until recently, and any fan that wanted to relive those days had to drift on the “wrong” side of the law by playing alternative servers. And that’s fucked up. If it wasn’t for these kinds of dedicated communities, the game they love quite literally wouldn’t exist anymore. At least, not in a playable state, and isn’t that the ultimate destiny of all live services? To simply stop and drop dead while the company goes “thanks for all the money, sucker!” One shouldn’t have to go through these many hoops to play a game they love. And mind you, that’s not accounting for the games that didn’t (or won’t) get a big enough following to allow for such methods. Does anyone remember Darkspore? That Diablo-esque spin-off of Spore? Well, it doesn’t matter if you do, cause the game is dead. It was a live-service, and it died, and you can’t play it anymore. Or hero brawler Gigantic, yet another casualty of Overwatch’s existence? Actually, Overwatch itself is another good example. When it eventually ends (and it will, you can be sure of that) then what? Pirate servers? What about cosmetics items that some people definitely paid for? That’s to say nothing of gameplay changes caused by patches. Mind you, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (except for 40 GB day-one patches. Fuck those with a stick), if a game can be improved it absolutely should, but what about when the change isn’t for the best? My most recent replay of C&C3: Tiberium Wars was a very different experience from when I first played it back in 2007 thanks to patches, and to that I say, thank God for mods.
Isn’t this all just ironic? We live in the age of information, where everything you want (and some things you don’t) are stored on the net for anyone to see, yet gaming culture is still treated as a disposable byproduct. Generate hype, buy thing, forget thing, rinse, repeat. Always move forward, be like Orpheus, and never look back. And isn’t that just unfair? Does the past not deserve to be preserved? In the case of Fortnite and its peers, can it even be preserved? I realize that over the course of this write-up I offered no solutions, as my goal here really is just to try and make you think, and maybe even contribute in some way! Personally, I found a manual for the original Homeworld in perfect condition, and I’m pretty sure the translated version I have isn’t archived anywhere, so I’m looking into how best to scan that. You don’t need to go that far to do your part. Stream a game, write a blog, hell, a quick post is enough! Just don’t let the things you care about fade away.
Highly recommend you watch this after you're done here.
I love video games. I think everyone on this website does. They’re an inseparable part of what makes me who I am, having accompanied me since my childhood, and I consider myself lucky for living in such a time, and for being able to watch the industry grow and change so much. But I’m not so naive to the point of not seeing where we’re going to end if nothing changes now. If I ever have kids, I want to be able to show them the cool things that matter to me when I was a kid myself, or at the very least, I want to be able to revisit them. The way we’re going, I don’t see myself doing either, and that’s awful. I’m sure some titles have enough staying power that I don’t need to worry about them, but what about the rest? The ones that won’t see re-releases every generation? Those that are already lost? Or even those that will be lost if nothing changes? We have all this technology at our disposal, but it’s still an uphill battle. Even so, the past deserves to be preserved if only because it’s the greatest teacher one can ask for. But you can’t learn history from an unreliable narrator.