Video games haven’t been about that long in the grand scheme of things. They’ve only existed for about 60 years and they’ve only been in the mainstream since the mid 80s. However, I believe they’re as important an art form as any other.
In the words of Don Daglow, creator of the Neverwinter Nights MMO and Unity, one of the first simulation games: “At our best we can bring people together in a way that’s even hard to do in theatre and film because they’re doing things together. They’re setting out on a quest together. They’re facing the dangers together and they’re building community.”
It would be a shame to see the classics of our art form disappear and be forgot when the major works of other art forms are preserved. In schools today we’re still studying books like the works of Shakespeare and Dante even poems like the Epic of Gilgamesh dating back to 1800 BC. We’re still watching decades old black and white film like Psycho and Citizen Kane.
All of these have been re-issued, re-released or re-mastered so anyone can buy and enjoy them now. And if you don’t want to buy them that’s fine, there are libraries full of them. Classics just sitting there waiting for you to take them. But we haven’t got that for games yet and I think we should. Notice I said “yet” there. There are people working on a video games museum.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum did have an exhibit for video games in 2012. Though it lasted only a short while it gave the public a view into modern and classic gaming. I would love it if a full library or museum of video games could exist like a traditional library. Imagine going into a museum and there’s a playable version of a game with some of its development and cultural history there for you. Of course, they wouldn’t be perfect. You’ll never get the full experience of a game standing in a museum only playing for a couple of minutes.
This is where a library would come in handy. The Video Game History Foundation are taking big strides to make sure gaming’s history is maintained, as discussed in this article. Being able to rent games for free would of course allow players to experience a game as it was meant to be, as long as they had the proper hardware at home, that is. I don’t see this ever happening though as publishers tend to hold onto gaming licenses for a very long time and with the potential to release classic games on new hardware for a price, they’d rather do that than give it out for free.
Speaking of licenses, that brings us to another problem facing video game preservation. Sometimes they run out. Many of our favorite games have licensed music in them and the developer has to pay a fee to use that music in their game. Once that license expires they can no longer ship copies of the game with that soundtrack without renewing it. Several games have been victim to this. One notable example is GTA San Andreas, which had to have its soundtrack changed in later releases because Rockstar didn’t pay to have the rights to certain songs renewed. Other games have suffered too.
Mafia II and Crazy Taxi both use licensed music and advertising. In Mafia II the player can collect Playboy magazines and the world of Crazy Taxi has Pizza Huts and KFC restaurants in plain view. However, due to licensing issues, Mafia II was removed from Steam for a while as they were renewed. Thankfully its back the way it was. Crazy Taxi had to be changed though. Modern releases no long feature the sounds of The Offspring and all the restaurants have been changed to fictional ones. These may sound like minor complaints but these all add to the identity of a game.
Crazy Taxi’s iconic soundtrack was a product of its time for sure. The Offspring fit in perfectly with its whole punk attitude and aesthetic. The new soundtrack doesn’t quite give the same vibe. A licensing issue only affects future releases of a game. Older copies will remain the same so they can still be bought or even emulated.
Emulation can be a rather tricky topic to tackle but it is undoubtedly valuable in terms of keeping gaming’s history alive. For those that don’t know, emulation is generally pretty simple. You download an emulator of the console you want and then download the games and now you can play any game on your PC.
The best way to illustrate the usefulness of emulators as a method of preservation is to look at some examples. Let’s say you want to play a game like Earthbound. Earthbound is a classic and until recently this game was officially unavailable in Europe and so the only way to play it was on an emulator or by importing an American console. Not to mention the fact that a copy for it goes for hundreds and hundreds of dollars these days. Of course it’s now available on the Wii U virtual console but for the 22 years between 1994 and 2016 emulation was the only way for us Europeans to get it. There are of course, even rarer games that people just don’t have access too.
The Nintendo World Championship games on NES, which were released in extremely limited numbers and are available to buy second-hand for thousands of dollars, for example. Or the older Final Fantasy games. FF VII was the first released in Europe. Of course, since then the rest have been released and re-released time and time again but each one has been an update or remake. There simply is no way to experience the original without the use of an emulator or an expensive import. Either that or a reproduction copy made by die hard fans.
Basically emulation is a great way to experience games that either weren’t released were you live or can now only be procured for ridiculous prices. Suikoden 2, despite now being available on the PS3 can still go for over £100. In years to come original copies will only get harder and harder to find and older cartridge based games that used batteries to save, like Pokémon, will cease to function. This is already happening with the first two generation of Pokémon games. Many of them have had their batteries run dry and their save feature is lost unless you want to replace it.
Unfortunately I’ve seen games lost and become unavailable. One of my all-time favourites, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, was released as a digital download on PS3 and Xbox 360 in December of 2010 and was taken off both consoles’ stores in 2014. Fortunately if you bought it, you can redownload it but for those who hadn’t bought a copy the game is completely unavailable and the only viable option left is emulation.
Of course, emulation has its downsides too. Many emulators do not emulate the original experience perfectly, with graphical or audio glitches that shouldn’t occur. Moreover, they simply aren’t emulating the original experience. When you play an emulator you’re most likely playing on a PC with a nice crisp display, using a keyboard or an Xbox or PS4 controller. It’s certainly very close but it just isn’t the same as the feeling you might have gotten from buying a new game and popping the disc or cartridge in, though that’s a very minor complaint. Moreover, older games were designed to be played on a CRT.
That is to say, when the artists drew the sprites they knew that there would be (relatively) big black lines going across the screen. Modern displays don’t have these and it can give the sprites and background tiles a smoothness they weren’t intended to have. To combat this emulators for older games have a filter that adds scan lines in.
I’d like to note I am not advocating piracy or any such thing, just stating that emulation has its uses in terms of games preservation. Many people conflate piracy and emulation but there is legal emulation too. The NES and SNES classic are forms of emulators, as well as those cheap handheld retro consoles you can get that have a selection of 5 or 6 classics on them. Most of them aren’t worth the money though.
Backwards compatibility allows players to play their old favorites on modern hardware too. Right now Microsoft are the leaders in backwards compatibility. They worked hard to make a fairly large amount of original Xbox games playable on the 360 and they’re continuing that work on the Xbox One, making 360 games and even original Xbox games available on the system. This diminishes the need to buy multiple consoles unless you want to be able to play every single game on Microsoft’s consoles.
Sony is doing something a little similar with PS Now. That’s their streaming service that allows you to pay a monthly fee to stream PS3 games to your PS4. At the moment it’s not in a great state. It’s often unplayable if your console is connected wirelessly and in the American market internet data caps at home are common and streaming 1080p video for hours on end can use up a lot of data.
PC games are sort of weird in this respect. The way they’re made, many older games just won’t work on modern hardware, but some do. Lots of older games have their game speed tied to the clock speed of the CPU, meaning that a fast CPU makes the game run way too fast. Or they just won’t recognise a modern graphics card and won’t know what to do with it. Fortunately CD Projekt is making big strides in this field. GOG.com is a website for buying Good Old Games.
Many of them actually include guides including links to mods that make games playable on modern PCs, and instructions for how to install them. This is a great thing. There are so many classic PC games that could disappear if they weren’t playable on the powerful machines we have today. Unfortunately not all can be fixed this way and remain unplayable without the use of an emulator.
Of course, we don’t just play games. We write and talk about them too. Writing about games doesn’t preserve them in the same way that keeping a playable version of them does but it’s something at least. As long as there are people writing about games, making videos about them, analyses, reviews or lets plays then that game will live on in some fashion. We may not be able to play Scott Pilgrim again but with so many videos of it existing future generations can watch it and imagine what it was like.
They can read articles to see if it was a popular game at the time or if it had some big fatal flaw that made it not worth playing at all. As long as these remnants of a game continue to exist, then they may act as a form of inspiration even for new developers. Future devs may even try to recreate unique game mechanics they’ve only read about or seen. Maybe something that was popular in the past and didn’t make it into mainstream gaming in the future.
Us consumers aren’t the only ones who can influence the preservation of games though. Developers have a hand in it too. Many developers, when they finish a game will move onto the next one because they need to make money and want to make more games. Obviously, it’s not financially viable to make a different version of your game for multiple platforms after the initial release. I mean, if a game comes out on PC, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One, the next re-release, if there is one at all, will be for the next console generation and no further. We’ve seen this happen with plenty of games. The Sly Cooper, Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter all had their series released on the PS3 after having been initially made for the PS2. Similarly, The Last of Us was first released on PS3 but got an updated version for the PS4.
We’re seeing more of this recently with Japanese game developers seeing the potential in PC releases. For a long time Japanese development studios like Square Enix would release their games exclusively on consoles. However, the PC gaming market has grown substantially and we’ve seen enhanced editions of Final Fantasy III, IV, VII and IX released on Steam in the past few years. Platinum Games have also seen PC’s potential and released NieR Automata simultaneously on PC and console, as well as giving us updated version of Bayonetta and Vanquish.
Bethesda Softworks provides another example of this. After the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, they put free versions of Elder Scrolls Arena and Daggerfall, the first two in the series, up on their website for anyone. In fact, they’re still there. They’ve also been included in the Elder Scrolls Anthology collection which is the entire series of mainline games, without the spinoffs. A re-release can breathe new life into a dead game. So many multiplayer games have had their servers shut down or there simply isn’t anyone else playing them because they’re so old. Being able to play it online again is like playing it for the first time.
The bottom line is that games matter. They’re a young art form for sure but they are art nonetheless. Games can bring you closer to friends and family, they can open you up to whole new worlds and stories you would never have experienced otherwise. They are, in my opinion, the culmination of our most popular art forms; music, paintings, literature all in one with interactivity on top of it. Like those, I feel it is important that future generations be able to experience these things the way we have.
Let us know in the comments what you think about keeping the history of gaming alive in the future. Do you think it’s that important? Are there other ways to make sure this part of a culture doesn’t disappear?