Last year (really just a few months ago), I paid a visit to the newly opened Video Game Museum in Budapest. It's worth a visit if you're in the city. It has a lot of retro consoles spanning from famous ones like the NES to more obscure ones like the Hungarian Videoton console.
This visit to a museum, a place traditionally associated with the conservation of relics of times long gone, got me thinking. How video games will be remembered? And more pressingly, what will survive to tell the tale?
We live in the past. Whatever we see actually happened 80 milliseconds in the past, accounting for the time the photons reach our retina and for our brain to process the information. We can't escape it, everything is aging and nothing lasts forever, not even our beloved games and consoles. And behind those video games we enjoy (and don't) is a whole spectrum of building blocks consisting of the source code itself, the hardware on which they were all programmed, the prototypes, production documents, marketing material and the manpower involved. And they all have one thing in common: they are perishable. And when they do perish, it's a whole history, culture even, that is lost that would be otherwise invaluable to future generations of gamers, video game designers, developers and historians. Several academics in the field recognize the importance of video game preservation not only as artifacts for for public display, but in education and game design schools. Games, good or bad, and their building blocks of late have a whole lot to tell on their own about the progression of genres, about a console's library, who made them and how they were made. In an "Iwata Asks" interview, the late Iwata himself highlighted how "the original [NES Zelda] specifications were drawn up in 1985, and here we are today still making Zelda games based upon these specifications."
With the exponential speed of technological advancement, the gaming industry itself has to keep up; obsolete technologies and hardwares used in game development are relegated to storage rooms or auctioned; and as humidity eats away at magnetic media and dust and bright light damage exposed circuit boards and EPROMs, those relics face extinction if not properly stored or not transferred to better, safer media. The natural aging of hardware or even some of their components like those ~15 year battery life of those nostalgic GameBoy cartridges threaten the lifespan of games and even each gamer's personal legacy! And under corporate management, physical materials may even be destined for the landfill. For instance, after Atari Corporation was taken by the Tramiel family, thousands of its employees were laid off and filing cabinets filled with game source code, production documents and marketing diagrams were sold, auctioned to raise cash and some cabinets were even sent to dumpsters! Natural disasters must not be left out of the disaster equation either. In the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that struck the city of Kobe, the Konami Software Development building was among many structures in Kobe that suffered damage, lose valuable development material during the event. To counter such events, many industries such as medical, legal, entertainment, and manufacturing make use of underground storage in a salt mine to limit in-house storage and protect their respective valuables from natural disasters. This is an option for the video game industry as well, if some aren't already customers.
In his gamasutra article aiming to shed light on the state of video game preservation, John Andersen noted: "The passage of time, and even the inevitable passing of a game development team, diminishes the possibility of further elements being placed in safekeeping. Some of these building blocks are still kept in filing cabinets, closets, storage units, attics, basements, and garages. They may soon face the same landfill fate if they are not rescued." For his article, he prepared questionnaires which allowed industry professionals to explain how involved they are in the preservation of their own gaming legacy and others even went on to explain how they entered a "rescue mode" to track down boxes of old software and hardware in the most unlikely locations to bring an older game back to a new audience via a console, handheld or online service. Terminal Reality, the developer responsible for re-releasing classic SNK games, revealed that ""When we were searching for old SNK ROM cartridges, we would constantly monitor eBay for a game we were working on to pop up. We had some very good luck during the production of Metal Slug as most of the games popped up for auction before release -- although we couldn't actually afford an original copy of Metal Slug 1."
However, not every game is as lucky as to be saved by eBay or lucky auctions. Indeed, among the major road blocks to preserving gaming history are the legal implications of sharing prototypes, unreleased/development material, resolving copyright and trademark issues and NDAs that if broken can result in severe repercussions. Moreover some developers admit to not even having intact source code of their earlier games. In handling the laserdisc format of games including Dragon's Lair and Mad Dog McCree, Digital Leisure had to work with a variety of people and fans of the series to properly piece back together how the original games played to create arcade authentic versions of the games since much of the original code source code for their classic IPs were either lost or not accessible due to obsolescence of the media it was stored on.
Speaking of fans, they actually have a much more important role in preserving video game history than developers and publishers would like to admit. One of the most common means for gamers (especially you, tempers) to relive games of yesteryears is via emulators. Although their fair use being highly debated (Nintendo clearly condemns it), the huge library of ROMs available online is unquestionably a huge step (whether intentional or not is up to debate) to preserve games, released or unreleased, otherwise unavailable now. They allow exactly what video game archivists advocate for. Otherwise a lot of these would share the fate of the N64's Mother 3 prototype, proof of its existence being reduced to rare video footage:
“That’s an example of a historically significant work,” game historian Frank Cifaldi said on the matter. “It could tell us a lot about the process that went into a game we consider a masterpiece but it’s probably lost forever.” Still concerning Mother 3, this game highlights the difficulties of bringing commercially released games to a global audience. The GBA version has never been officially released outside of Japan and there is no other way to play the game in English than acquiring a ROM and patching with the "fanlation". It was the work of dedicated fans, or pirates and hackers if you wish, that brought the game to a wider audience, not Nintendo. However some developers rarely perform the unexpected, like Volition's release of a cancelled Saints Row project to the public. The big gaming companies do also contribute in preserving the very field they deal in. Nintendo has highlighted the importance of its Wii Virtual Console service in preserving and reintroducing older game titles to new audiences and in Andersen's questionnaire Nintendo added that "preserving these [past] games lets us reintroduce them to new players while giving older gamers a chance to relive their glory days." Microsoft maintains special departments that are responsible for storing all gaming material in onsite and offsite locations. Microsoft is also open to provide "general guidance" on its best practices for source code preservation to video game-related industry organizations.
Efforts of preservation has been ballooning lately as an ongoing effort to properly catalogue and archive all aspects of video gaming in the form of exhibits and museums housed in universities and more diverse centers like The Strong National Museum of Play. Much like the museum I visited, they allow visitors to experience video games across generations and those that they've never heard or played before, all in one place. Even individual efforts like Professor Koichi Hosoi's mission to collect every Nintendo Famicom cartridge in existence are impressive and noteworthy. Some may even selflessly bequeath their collection for archives like Stanford's collection of video game artifacts, known as the Stephen J. Cabrinety collection, which comprises of the large computer hardware and software collection that Cabrinety amassed and which were donated after his death. But the rarity of some games is a good enough reason for less altruistic fans and avid collectors to auction them for ridiculously exorbitant prices.
blog posts, having forum discussions, and working on fan creations all help keep the spirit of old games alive. “Players and fans should capture gameplay videos and record their thoughts on playing games,” Jason Scott suggested when asked what simple things could be done to help preserve games. “There’s only so much that individuals can do,” Cifaldi commented. “I think we need to use our power to publish and share things can help create an oral history around games.”
As the clock ticks, hardwares face breakdown, and storage media face erasure, the time is ripe for developers, publishers, designers and programmers to consider what in their possession are worthy for preservation.
The clock keeps ticking and we move closer to global annihilation than ever as the Doomsday Clock reads three minutes to midnight, does our gaming culture face a similar, imminent doom, destined to be preserved only in our individual fleeting memory? Or are sufficient efforts being done to preserve gaming history and culture? Or will a prophetical deus ex machina save the day?
Video games in a sense have taken care of us, isn't it our duty to return the favor, lest they be forgotten, turned ashes to ashes, dust to dust...