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Digital Future, Invisible Past : What Lives On When A Good Game Dies?
by Darby McDevitt on 06/11/14 12:15:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Part 1 : An Old Friend

Have you ever met Eloise? She was a young hero of mine, the star of Eloise at the Plaza , an illustrated children’s book from the 1950s that rarely left my bedside in my earliest years as a reader. I remember her fondly: Eloise and her marshmallowy cheeks, her bolted-on nose, her twigs and bristles of bushy hair. Eloise and her scrappy pup, Weenie, and Skipperdee her saucer-sized turtle and their skiddering adventures around the frosty pink halls of the Plaza Hotel. Eloise and her effulgent imagination.

A rambunctious girl capable of spectacular disruptions, her antics stirred the young writer in me. I crafted some of my earliest attempts at fiction under her influence, around my tenth or eleventh birthday. Many years later, tilting into my thirties, I would hit on the idea of writing a novel about a teenage boy trapped in a phantasmagoric fugue-state similar to Eloise at her most inventive, only without any recourse to reality—a chronic reverie from which there was no return. To make this connection as clear as possible, my protagonist would speak often and eagerly of Eloise, believing she was his sister. 

This conceit, I thought, would require some research. The following day I called my mother to ask if she still had our original printing of Eloise At The Plaza, a faded maroon copy her mother had originally purchased for her. Mom said she didn’t think so. The last time she’d seen it, she’d felt sorry for the poor thing, a battered and threadbare plank with a cracked spine and loose pages. Mom feared she had thrown it away. I was sorry to hear this, and told her I’d find a new copy if possible, else I’d look for a used one online. Mom said she couldn't imagine anyone having a copy anymore. I was worried she was right.

Our doubts were unfounded. Poking around Seattle’s Elliot Bay Book Company a few days later, I discovered Eloise was still a minor celebrity, a tiny kitchy industry still attracting young readers sixty-five years after its original publication. Right there on the shelf in front of me were half a dozen copies of a fresh printing of Eloise At the Plaza, taking up the lead in a procession of sequels I had never heard of. There had even been a live-action film in 2003, according to a blurb on the back of one copy. Quelle suprise. I snapped up a copy of the original and skiddered home.  

Weeks later, I began writing my own book. Five years later my novel was finished, thanks in part to the inspiration I took from a young lady who refused to disappear. How easy it had been to find her again, and rexperience our old adventures together. I don’t know where that second copy is now, and I’m in no hurry to find it. But when I do — five, ten, twenty years down the road — I’ll crack the spine and smooth the pages and dive back in.

Part 2 : Nostalgia

Last autumn I began brainstorming another personal project—a concept for a video game this time, an old-school graphic adventure with a modern twist, something modest and small in scope. I had never designed and developed a full game on my own before, but programs like Gamemaker and Unity 3D had given me just the right dose of overconfidence I needed to fake it. 

Here too, research played an important role in generating ideas. Before outlining any designs of my own I made a mental list of all the adventure games that had inspired and enraged me in my first years as a gamer — those early PC classics that embraced their physical limitations as opportunities to innovate. At the top of my list, beating Sierra’s “Quest” games and LucasArts’s point-and-clickers, was a curious title called Below the Root, a non-linear side-scrolling adventure game published by Wyndham Classics in 1984. 

While I deeply adore games like Kings Quest and The Secret of Monkey IslandBelow the Root has always stood out in my memory primarily for its singular weirdness and, second, because it was the first game I never finished. Quite a wound to the flowering ego of this once proud completionist. I had already torn through two dozen titles of varying quality by the time I got my hands on Root around 1988, but this one confounded me from its opening moments and never let up.

Some of my confusion can be put down to the fact that I had obtained an illegal copy of the game. Without recourse to the original printed manual I had no access to an explanation of the game’s control scheme. The first time I pulled up the game’s functional vocabulary list, I found — sandwiched between the commands SPEAK and OFFER — the bewildering word, PENSE. Lacking any familiarity with Romantic languages, I assumed this had something to do with British money. It did not. Further to the right on the list were the words GRUNSPREKE and KINIPORT, which I knew only as two sounds my stomach makes when I’m about to vomit. This was not how they functioned in-game.

Everything about Below the Root was either a mystery or a frustration. The game’s inventory system was clunky, only showing you one item at a time in a strict sequence. And the controls that moved my avatar about were abysmal. Walking, running, jumping and talking to NPCs pitted me and my keyboard in constant combat.

But behind these opaque barriers, Below The Root radiated an eerie mysticism. It’s breezy arboreal setting was captivating, humming with slight magic and a developed sense of place. And though it had the appearance of a 2D side-scroller, it was as close to an open-world game as you could get in 1984 — an invigorating breath of air in a market saturated with text adventures and clunky arcade ports. Right out of the box, you could roam freely about its tree-house villages and underground tunnels, exploring to your heart’s content or until you plunged to your “death” through a haphazardly placed crack in the softwood floors (after which point you woke in your bed with a splitting headache, ready to continue.)

I loved Below the Root despite never quite sussing it. I’m not even sure I knew then what my general goal was. But the more time I spent playing, the more I burned to solve its riddles and understand its systems. And now, 30 years after my first attempt, I was hungry for another go. As had happened with Eloise, the longer I dwelled on my fragmented memories of Below the Root, the more I felt I had let a great secret slip past too early. But unlike EloiseBelow The Root had withered on its vine and faded from public view.

These days, acquiring an old piece of software isn’t as simple as marching into a well-stocked bookstore and plucking a copy off the shelf. There’s an incredibly minuscule chance I could stop by a second hand media outlet and find a copy cozied up beside an Atari 2600 cartridge. Otherwise there’s Ebay. But as you might have already concluded, physically acquiring a copy of the original game (and its manual) is well beside the point.

Even if I had my old cracked copy of Below The Root in hand, my beloved Apple IIc has gone the way of the betamax. Those sleek five-and-a-quarter floppies may as well be drink coasters now. So what’s a nostalgic gamer to do? No one was selling a port, so far as I could tell. And a YouTube walkthrough wasn’t going to cut it. But I wasn’t about to let negligent obsolescence get in the way of my goal. It was time to download an emulator.

I that evening I found myself groping around the messy extremities of the internet in search of something that would summon the ghost of a Commodore 64 into my Macbook. A few clicks here and there and no problem. The whole package now takes up less space on my hard-drive than a high-res JPG. Next I searched for a disk image of the old game, a ROM. This didn’t take long either. I spared a final 30 odd seconds looking for the original manual too. One Google search — “Below the Root Manual PDF” — was all it took.

And voila. After an absence of almost three decades, I was back in the forests of Green-Sky, kicking it with the Kindar and Erdling people and setting out once again to accomplish some magnanimous feat for somebody before some catastrophe kills everyone. The manual explains it thusly: “Greetings, Quester! You have arrived in Green-Sky just in time to discover a hidden secret of momentous importance that will stop the headlong slide of our land towards certain disaster.” So there you have it, another cherished childhood memory rekindled, only this time in the form of contraband.

Maybe “contraband” is overstating it. I haven’t done any deep research into the legal status of lapsed software, so it may be that this particular ROM of Below the Root is fair game. Quasi-legal, grey-market hooch in marketplace that has no official alternative. Either way, its final resting place in the grand ROM heap of digital history depresses me. 

I’m a game developer with over 15 years and 20 games under my widening belt. Is this the evantual fate of all my labors? Is this the end that awaits my digital output? Is this where the best-sellers and the unsung classics come to rest? When I found myself missing Eloise and her coterie of imaginary friends, I just wandered over to a bookshop and reintroduced myself. If that had failed, a public library would have served just as well. 

And in either case, there would be nothing “out of date” about the words and pictures on its pages; nothing in need of an emulator or a software upgrade. Dozens of companies will perform Shakespeare this year and thousands will read Moby Dick because books endure. By contrast, almost all of the games from my youth are gone from the public eye, and will not be coming back in any public or meaningful way. They exist, yes, but in a form so rarefied and obtuse that most of them are not likely to find a large or welcoming audience again.

Part 3 : Preservation

Some years ago I was having drinks in Manhattan with a friend who had recently earned a masters in Library Science. She was pondering her future prospects and coming up short of options. I asked what her ideal employment situation looked like. “Preserving the work of authors I adore,” she said. “A professional archivist.”

And what was an average day in the life of an archivist? I asked. She had a clear answer. “Organizing and cataloguing their personal literary output, mostly,” she said. “Letters, of course. Correspondences. And notebooks too, journals, that sort of thing. Anything that might add to a future scholar’s understanding of their work. It’s a bit like archaeology. We catalogue collections of media so future generations have fast, easy access to them.”

How common are such jobs? Would she have any trouble finding work? Yes, she nodded. It was fairly hard to find good, steady work. Archivists typically worked on limited grants for brief periods. She’d consider herself lucky if she found something literary, but she wouldn’t turn anything down so long as it paid reasonably well. In fact she had recently talked to the family of a deceased Rabbi about a quick three month job, sifting through the three or four dozen large boxes of papers, books, and affects he’d accumulated over a lifetime of writing and pondering. She would accept if offered.

Her enthusiasm for the subject was rousing enough to keep me asking questions for the full length of a pint. When I called for a second she flipped the script. “What about video games?” she asked me. “Who archives the work you do?”

It was a question I had asked myself before, but without much devotion to finding an answer. Now faced with an opportunity for a professional second opinion, I had no excuse. “To be honest,” I said, “I don’t know if it’s possible to effectively archive a video game … not forever anyway. They sort of … go extinct,” I said. “Is there any reliable way to archive digital material?” She nodded. “It's a complicated area,” she said.

I’ll admit straightaway that I am not an expert on this topic. I do know that archivists have been puzzled by the digital conundrum for a long time now, but I have little insight -- apart from my recent reading of a few articles on the topic -- into the state of the endeavor. But as a developer and a consumer of video games, I am also acutely aware that there are no standardized practices in place to keep older video games alive and in the general publics’ eye.

Since the genesis of home gaming systems in the late 70s our industry has moved through no fewer than seven generations of consoles, each representing a significant technological leap forward, with roughly two to four entrants in each generation. Toss in the tiring bevy of clumsy control peripherals, software formats, and technical requirements for each and you have the first popular art form subject to something akin to Moore’s law: inevitable and rapid growth on a single victor.

Looked at from a vantage of four decades, the swift change we see in the digital entertainment industry resembles evolutionary speciation played out at a breathless clip. All art forms evolve but none so fast as this. Ours must be the first industry in which a developer with 25 years of experience has already witnessed the almost total extinction of at least one generation of his or her games 

Yes, many of these games are technically available, as my recent ROM hunt proved. But a depressing few have any cultural cache as living works. From time to time, console manufacturers make friendly gestures to these past luminaries, modifying the coming generation of consoles to graciously accommodate games made for the previous — what we condescendingly call “backward’s compatibility.” PC users don’t suffer this obsolesces so swiftly, but it creeps in eventually. In this case, if the money is right, a game developer might go through the tedious process of porting one of its older, popular titles to give it a longer tail. But this is a rarity in the grand scheme, and more often than not we are faced with a forced extinction as thousands of titles each decade fall from the rumbling wagon and into the gutter. 

Is there an equivalent to this process in, say, literature? I cannot think of one so comparatively swift, relentless, and deliberate. The human languages employed by storytellers certainly evolve over time, but not usually by force and never through the near-instantaneous bait-and-switch that hits us every time Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo increment the numbers on their consoles by a few ticks. 

Language has a remarkable resilience in the face of passing time. Earlier this month I was flipping through a facimile of the 1623 First Quarto of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in search of the original text of his famous soliloquy, and found this waiting for me:

To be, or not to be, that is the Queſtion:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to ſuffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes againſt a Sea of troubles,
And by oppoſing end them:

A distance of 400 years separates the birth of this monologue from this morning, yet the passage remains quite sensible with only minor visible alterations — an obsolete character (“f” for an “s” in some instances) and a few alternate spellings. If in another 400 years Modern English evolves to the point where Shakespeare is no longer sensible, there will still be women and men willing to translate the text into whatever doggrel humans currently bark (though translations are more akin to “ports” I suppose). Yet more critically, the means by which we read the original will still be sound — printed text. There’s no codec but the mind needed when mere words are involved.

Since the origin of human communication, the difficulty or ease of information preservation has depended on its means of transmission. In the oral tradition of storytelling, a tale survived so long as there were brains to remember it and mouths to recite. Cave paintings have endured in darkened caverns, hieroglyphic coffin texts etched in stone have withstood centuries of desert heat, and naughty frescos have waited patiently beneath meters of volcanic ash for a new century of voyeurs. In some cases the exact meaning of these messages has been lost or muddled, yet no additional technology is required to view them.

But as the centuries have oozed forward, our reliance on and perhaps our fetish for new technology has edged us closer and closer to cultural products that are disposable by their very nature. The Information Age appears to be the apotheosis of this trend. There is an almost Faustian quality to the pact we have made with digital media. In exchange for the power to process anything via bits and bytes — Photos, Film, Sound, Music, Text, Visual Art, Data — we have accepted the fact that this material may have a shelf life shorter than a Twinkie. 

We are living in a world where we speak not only with our mouths, but with an entire bouquet of media options. Consider the 55 million photos uploaded per day on Instagram, or the 1 hour of video uploaded to YouTube every second. This is palaver practically begging to be forgotten. But perhaps our bargain has been worth it. Just as words trip off our tongues and evaporate in casual conversation, so too will the majority of today’s media vaporize in the vastness of the cloud. This unfortunately may include our work as game developers as well.

Near the conclusion of the recent documentary called Side By Side there is a brief discussion about the nature of film preservation as it relates to the “celluloid versus digital” film debate. Adherents of the old style argue that format obsolescence is not an issue with celluloid—“You just shine a light through it,” says one celluloid evangelist. Minor quibbles aside, this is a reasonable assessment and provides stark contrast to digital film formats for which there have been — according to the documentary — over 80 unique and often incompatible video file formats in the last four decades. One does not merely “shine a light” through these files to make them function. They must first be reacquired — possibly from outdated storage devices (where's your ZIP drive?) — and then decoded using codecs and video players that may no longer be compatible with current software. 

It’s a fair bet to say that without constant and attentive preservation, few file formats used in 2000 will be functional in 2050. This may not sound scary to people content with the status quo. George Lucas’s estate and Disney will certainly ensure the survival of Star Wars well into the next century, updating these best sellers into whatever delivery format suits the times. 

But this leaves a gaping trench around the margins of our industry. More often than not, our best and brightest producers of art and entertainment are inspired and enriched by what they find lurking in the shadows — the unsung classics, fascinating failures, the outright oddities. Without the ability for future filmmakers, artists, writers, musicians, game developers, and historians to cast their eyes off the beaten path, the critical process of tranferrrence may be hindered and the only cultural products that will have any chance of surviving in the public consciousness will be the products executives and capitalists feel are adequately capable of generating revenue. The money makers. That spells trouble for the Emily Dickinson’s, Moby Dicks, and Citizen Kane’s of the world. And it’s a disaster for any video game that fails to make a deep mark on its first outing.

Part 4 : Posterity

Orson Welles once opined that making anything for posterity is almost as vulgar as making something for money — lacking in refinement what it gushes in pride. In my calmest moods, I agree. Art flourishes best from want, not payouts, and legacies endure longest when genuine enthusiasm keeps them alive. For incomparable artists like Welles, time and culture have ultimately been kind, yet gradually. He worked his ass off, stuck to his guns, and created. Posterity has bolstered him since. Today each one of his twelve films as director is available for purchase on DVD or Blu-Ray.

But this wasn’t always the case. I waited 10 years for a quality copy of Chimes At Midnight to surface, until a shady entrepreneur in Brazil finally satisfied that demand. I’m saddened by the sub-par quality of the product, but I’ll take what I can get and continue looking in the meantime. And at long last The Magnificent Ambersons has found the attention it deserves, with a copy on the market in fine condition. I picked up my disc last year, completing my collection.

If these are the hoops I must jump through to find decent versions of the work of a man who is arguably one of America’s greatest filmmakers, I shudder to think what this means for the future of our most celebrated video games. Because the nature of preservation is bound up with the technology that sustains it, when the tech evolves the media must too. Without the will and vigilance to carry these artifacts forward, they will disappear. Many filmmakers are struggling to do it. How are we faring?

Most lovers of literature sit secure in the feeling that their treasures are in relatively good hands. Books are remarkably resilient and require no interpreters even centuries after their publication. Better still we can always produce more with a pinch of effort; even if all printing presses on earth vanished tomorrow, it wouldn’t take much work to build another and get back to it. 

With video games such casual stewardship isn’t an option. The life of a piece of software is ephemeral and without active care it falls apart. My workable ROM of Below The Root owes its existence to various programmers who have seen fit to keep the Commodore 64’s virtual circuits alive. Every decade or so, they’ll have to upgrade their warez, else they will vanish too. Elsewhere on the planet, little squadrons of porters and modders and other digital dabblers are working actively to keep thin slices of the past available to all. Good Old Games is doing the Lord’s work presently, keeping almost 1000 titles from the near and distant past available for the foreseeable future. With constant upkeep, finger-crossed, they will last a few more decades. For smaller bites of the past, visit sarien.net for a sixteen-color jaunt through Sierra’s EGA back catalogue. Or try nexusmods.com for a revitalized trip to Morrowind. Enjoy them while they last.

Yes, our recent past is still “out there,” yet in forms changeable and vague, with no guarantee of their lifespans. The valiant efforts of the preservationists will only stanch the bleeding for so long, and when the regular, religious effort to sustain our past dwindles, the floor will fall away at a rapid pace. I suspect a stunning percentage of what game developers are building right now will be all but inaccessible in 30 years and obsolete in 60—digital ash in digital urns, to borrow a phrase. This fact seems inevitable.

But it begs a question: does it matter? 

Perhaps the new stuff that replaces our old stuff will serve our cravings for interactivity just as well. Maybe posterity doesn’t matter so much as potential. Maybe the past really is mere prologue to an endless and thrilling now, one built on whispers and memories.

Part 5 : Meme Theory

Implicit in my eulogy for the dead and dying games of yesteryear is the assumption that their value stems from their concrete content alone — the sensible experiences they provide, the stories they tell, the worlds they create. This is the basic criterion we apply when judging most art, and if we take this view seriously it implies that each new video game is an indivisible artifact of some singular value and for which there is no direct replacement. If Shakespeare’s Hamlet were to vanish from the earth and our collective memory tomorrow, there would be no direct alternative. Those words arranged in that order had an inimitable and singular literary value. No substitute accepted.

But this sense of tragedy doesn’t often apply to games in the same way because games are not always “complete” experiences in the sense we apply to films and books. In a great many cases the opposite is true. Games — culled to their essentials — are the invisible engines of potential experiences; experiences made possible through their game mechanics. Inert yet alive, formless yet capable of forming, game mechanics organize and shape our actions, providing elegant frameworks for our play. And better still, they can be transferred from game to game with little loss of fidelity or strength. 

This last point marks a special difference between games and most other forms of entertainment. For if a game's mechanic can exist apart from its original contexts — outside narrative, ignorant of character and setting, above visual representations, etc. — then we have located the immortal core of our art. Game mechanics — and not the games themselves — will outlive us all.

They are, in stranger words, “memes” in the sense Richard Dawkins originally formulated in the 1970s. And a strong game mechanic — one that recurs through dozens or perhaps hundreds of iterations — is one that has proven itself physically and creatively fit for replication. These survivors are tiny ideas that provide a backbone from which the lineaments of a new game will be hung. Latch on to the right game mechanic, and it will fertilize a thousand and one new titles — many forgettable, a few astonishing, yet each indebted to a common lineage.

The clearest example of this phantom longevity can be seen in every incarnation, clone, and bastardization of Tetris, a game whose original version has all but vanished from popular view (a port is floating out there somewhere on the web) but whose basic mechanics have been revived, reworked, modified, and imitated in countless incarnations for the past 30 years. Like digital ghosts drifting from one console to the next, year after year, platform to platform, the basic puzzle and control mechanics that underly Tetris live on outside its code in the heads and fingers of its admirers. This is it's true legacy. Not a physical thing, but an idea.

Prolonged lamentations over the loss of the “original Tetris” — designed and coded by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 — would be trivially misguided if they weren’t so sweet. But I doubt this has ever happened. The importance of that original artifact is historical now, not artistic. For someone craving a night of tetromino stacking, any recent and structurally sound version will do.

In the three decades following its release, a few dozen acceptable updated copies of Tetris have come and gone, offering the same basic chores and challenges. And each title has been just a little more or a little less successful than the one previous. Originality hardly enters into it. At the day’s end, what matters most is how each version plays. Is it responsive? Are the cues readable? Are they well implemented? Salient details like art-style and music are simply the colour of a delicious cake’s icing —stimulating but secondary experiences. To quote the accidental sage, David Brent (God help us), “A good idea is a good idea forever.”

Part 6 : Form vs. Content

Obviously I’m pushing this argument to some extremes. Not all games are cold and soulless scaffolds of game mechanics and abstractions. In fact, a majority now have context and personality, narrative and meaning. This one is set during the fading days of the Wild West, that one is set in a futuristic science research facility; this one is about ordinary people surviving a zombie apocalypse, that one is about a lost undead wandering a wasteland peppered with demons. Many games have stories, and many are well told. Many games have characters and some are believable and beautiful and ornery and sad. And most games have settings that uplift the experience of playing beyond abstract challenge into places sublime and strange.

But these facts only return us to the field of my opening argument and to the seed of the original problem: the ruthless competition between time and preservation. In truth, this is a fight between the Content of our games and their Form. And the sad reality is — if I have accurately described our long-term problem — the Content of our games is doomed.

Content is brittle in this industry. We carry forward our stories, our characters, our worlds, our experiences in crystal vases and clay pots. It’s only a matter of time before they’re dropped and shards are swept away. Time will pass and technologies will evolve and the punishing triumphs of Dark Souls, or the tricky whimsy of Portal, or the elegiac uplift of Journey will disappear, replaced by sequels of the same pedigree or new generations of games that we will praise with all the fanfare and fervor of their ancestors. Content is not king; it is carrion.

The Form of our games, however, will endure. Ours may be the one industry in which Form is unequivocally superior in strength and longevity. Pick any title from the past few years and trace the ancestry of its core mechanics. You can always find a few aged precedents lurking out there in the fog of the past. Count on your fingers the number of successful platformers that owe their existence to Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers and you’ll bolt from your house in search of more hands. BraidLimboSpelunky, Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania, Kid Icarus, Ice Climber, Fez … the branches of this family tree are drooping with juicy fruits. All are touchstones in a well-oiled genre, each with its own particular twist on the sidescroller formula. In our industry, formal evolution is swift and necessary. 

All artists in every medium must grapple with Form sooner or later. Writers watched from behind cluttered bureaus as the sonnet, the epic poem, and the blank verse drama faded from popular view. Meanwhile the novel form has remained notoriously resilient for over two centuries, though it may now be dying (again), and blogs are to this decade what memoirs were to the 90s -- a public confessional. Yet for all these shifts and perturbations, past forms can still inhabit and shape the present because in the writing game, Content is king. The poetry of past age still sings to us, the stories still thrill, the wisdom endures. Centuries later, the Content is still legible despite its Form.

But games, possibly like music — another form kept alive through active performance — rely much more heavily on Form for their survival. And like well-written song, a strong game mechanic endures through repeated use and application. This is a variant of Bob Dylan’s assertion that “a song is anything that can walk by itself.” I can hum the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, and you can play it on a kazoo, and Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic can perform it for an audience of thousands, and though individual results may vary, we’re all basically cooking our own variation of the same delicious recipe.

Call them “catchy mechanics” then. Like melodies, catchy mechanics have a way of replicating and reproducing swiftly. All developers know this. Ninety percent of all Form is precedent in our industry. Content is a veneer that distinguishes this platformer from that one, but under the hood they function with remarkable similarity. So much so that we distinguish games by their Forms before their Content: 2D platformer, FPS, RPG, MMO, Rougelike, Graphic Adventure, Puzzler. Unlike the Genre labels of narrative fiction, this list of Forms tells you nothing about the Content of the game you’re about to play. These are descriptions of how you will play the game ... of the mechanics behind the mischief you will make.

Lucky for us, form is fluid and malleable in the most amazing ways. When Gears of War blew minds with their novel cover-system in 2006, it didn’t take long before it was standard fare in every subsequent third-person action adventure. But cover systems have a long history that stretches well before Gears. Pinpointing the first instance is probably an exercise in hair-splitting. More recently Demon’s Souls set us on edge with their asymmetrical, invasion-based multiplayer in 2009. Three years later a clever variant appeared in Journey, and again with Dark Souls, and now half the devs in my office are wondering how we might leverage this idea. Enter Watch_Dogs. 

In the best cases, catchy game mechanics represent what is most admirable about the open source ideal that so many hold so dear. We, as developers, are free to pick and choose among thousands of proven concepts until we find a handful that best suit our grand scheme. A few tweaks here, some innovation there, a slathering of soul, and here’s a new idea primed and ready to impress. With Braid, Jonathan Blow stood on the shoulders of plumbers and attached his unique Time-manipulation mechanic onto a tried and true 2D platformer framework. A single critical innovation that refreshed the genre for years to come. 

How lucky for him, for all of us, that game mechanics cannot be copyrighted. Imagine a world where the opposite was true. Imagine the lucky bastards who patented the “jump” button, or just “jumping” in general. Who owns the “First Person Camera” copyright? What about the “Mini-Map”? Our games are better off for the unlimited freedom we have to borrow and steal. 

But as the recent Threes vs 2048 flap proves, there is a dark side to this necessary freedom. One developer spends time and money, sheds sweat and blood, to bring an original idea to life and makes a decent buck; some months later, a copycat clones the game in an afternoon and releases it at a cut rate price and makes a killing. What is the lesson here? Life in the open source stream is cruel. Perhaps Asher Vollmer, Greg Wohlwend and Jimmy Hinson — the creators of Threes — can take some cold but karmic comfort in the fact that their 14 months of effort spawned another brilliant Catchy Mechanic… one that may not earn them much money, but which will certainly outlast all imitations.

This is not how we have been trained to understand artistic and professional legacies, but this is the stark reality of the industry we inhabit. We are meme-factories as well as content producers, and this opens up as many paths as it blocks. 

*

I hope my longterm predictions are flawed to the point of embarrassment...

Honestly. I’d love nothing more than to believe that my favorite games of the past few decades will be around for my children and grandchildren to play. I'd love to be able to fire up The Last ExpressAzteca, or Below the Root in ten or twenty or thirty years time and experience those tickling thrills again. And I'd love to believe that the work I have produced as writer and designer for most of my adult life will be around when I look back from a dimmed vantage at seventy or eighty years and feel like taking a nostalgic trip to my own past. What bits of my work will I be proud of? What will I regret? Some of those games had some pretty good writing, I think — a few memorable lines, a little wit and pathos, and some fine acting. A few even made folks cry, so there’s that question answered.

But I fear this may be wishful thinking. If I am in error, it's probably the speed of the decay I got wrong, not the state of it. Our industry is built on a foundation of lighting and sand, made to dazzle but never to last. Perhaps a few youtube walkthroughs -- or its 2050 equivalent -- are the only mementos I'll be left with. That’s fine. For, whether we like it or not, we are men and women who traffic in ideas, not monuments. Our time in the sun is short, but our legacies are long and wonderfully democratic. So until a permanent solution is found, I'll simply resolve to do good, experiment like mad, and add to the public meme pool the best way I know how.

 


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Comments


Slo Bu
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This subject is dear to me as my hobby is developing ports and new games for classic systems. Unfortunately, the fear of legal threats leads to self censorship among the classic game development communities. Basically, the policy is don't talk about rights. Don't publicize your works outside the community. Preserve or port a game but NEVER ask permission or discuss the process thereof. It's clear rights holders and developers both are at fault in this dysfunctional relationship. I do not think abandon-ware is the answer. Responsible, healthy communication is.

Nathan Mates
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Modern games that have a significant online component that usually can't be pirated simply because it was never in consumer's hands.

Going forward, I think that some games will be more like some live musical performances -- impossible to archive/replicate. Sure, you may be able to hear some music that your favorite DJ played, but replicating the entire experience of a club isn't something that can be bottled up and put in a CD/digital download.

Darby McDevitt
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That's a cool concept. Something like a live game of Peter Suber's "Nomic" maybe, where participants come together for one night and start mixing and mashing the rules of the game itself. Once the evening is over, the game is retired.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Nathan

The problem with the "treat it as live theater or music" answer is that it doesn't have to be that way. If someone could have recorded original Shakespeare performances, wouldn't you wish they had done that? Well they can with games.

Outside of always online MMO type games it's really not that difficult to create a archive copy. On PC amateur programmers do it themselves as a hobby, so a massive corporation like EA should be able to whip something up for the sake of preserving their history. They just don't care.

Even MMOs could be preserved if certain files were released to the community, which almost no company bothers doing.

Darby McDevitt
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It doesn't have to be that way no.... but if the assumption is that a recorded version is always superior to a live version I'd say that's a bit shaky. You wouldn't convince many people that any film version of Woodstock was an adequate substitute for actually being there. The same goes for live theater...

A filmed version is good for archival purposes, but if one of the essential qualities of the experience is missing, you haven't totally archived it. Is watching a walk-through of Red Dead Redemption the same as playing it? I'd say not... for the "point" of that game is bigger than it's narrative.

Dane MacMahon
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Yes but archive means archive. You can't preserve the feeling of playing WoW at the height of its popularity, but you can preserve as much of it as you can for historical purposes. It will be sad one day when such a big part of 2000's culture can only be seen on youtube.

And for singleplayer games I don't see any issue with archived copies, it's the same game and experience. I frequently play 10-20 year old games, they're as good or even better than modern ones. Surely anyone who has bought an indie game (gameplay over graphics) would agree with the sentiment.

Darby McDevitt
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That's true, but I think this question strays a bit from my article's main thesis... my main question was, "What endures when we make digital entertainment?" ... and I concluded that, even if the games themselves vanish, the mechanics we invent live on to be used in future games. Therefore, game mechanics ... like sheet music for an old song ... are the real legacy we leave behind, even when the actual games have vanished.

"Live performance" is not actually in the sphere of this article, though its an interesting subject.

Dane MacMahon
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Fair enough.

Kyle Redd
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@Darby

"You wouldn't convince many people that any film version of Woodstock was an adequate substitute for actually being there. The same goes for live theater..."

It's impossible to archive a live musical or stage performance. Everyone acknowledges that. It's absolutely NOT impossible to archive virtually every single form of computer or video game ever created, including all MMOs or other online games, if game publishers were to release the source code to the community.

Dane says the publishers don't release the code to the community because they don't care, but I very much doubt that is the case. The publishers won't release the code because they *want* games to die, to be unplayable by anyone after a certain period of time. In this way the sales of new games is always assured. This is one of the core purposes behind DRM and forced accounts.

Darby McDevitt
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Your middle paragraph there was basically the point of mine too. The discussion above sort of strayed from the main thesis

I like your last point, and I certainly think there is some element to it... though in my 15 years I have never heard any publisher or developer actively express this desire. But in many ways the game industry works like the film industry... we pump out narrative driven games wrapped around the same old mechanics because people just enjoy new stories. People don't need a new Tetris or Chess every year, because the old ones work just fine. But if you somehow made one new Tetris every year with an ongoing serialized story, people might be more inclined to snap up every copy...

Jonathan Perrins
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Yes but what does archiving really mean? You can easily back up all the ones and zeros, but what of the meta-data, the knowledge of what to do with it? Your example of modern MMOs actually sounds hilariously naive to anyone that has worked on one. The server component alone is a sprawling bespoke system with many pieces and third party software components. It is incredibly brittle and only exists as more than data through the exhaustive efforts of a team of people who are experts with this one game. And it is tightly coupled with the client side; a fragile marriage also fraught with constant maintenance. And both are constantly evolving through the life of the game.

Kyle Redd
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@Jonathan

"It is incredibly brittle and only exists as more than data through the exhaustive efforts of a team of people who are experts with this one game."

If it were true, how is it possible that there are so many pirate WoW servers running at this moment, with neither the permission nor the resources from Blizzard?

Larry Carney
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In a way, this is what true scholarship seeks to do: you wrote of books, and one is able to find examples of literary critics restoring the reputation of writers (it is hard to believe there was an era where Fitzgerald fell out of favor!) and the basis of the Western Canon is the belief that these are works that each generation should engage with.

I'm contributing in my own way, a forthcoming book on a certain video game. But the first thing that I wondered, and what you ask in your blog, was "Why?" Do video games have the inherent worth to be worth preserving? Are there at least some examples of video games which can form a "Canon" of video games?

That sense of "am I involved in creating anything which matters" you also wrote of is perhaps more sensitive in gaming due to the age of the form and what it is constantly compared to: art forms which have existed since the dawn of civilization and which have seen the most profound expressions of the human spirit. How can "Flappy Bird" compete?

Perhaps one way forward is to try to make a "video game canon", to be able to find and provide the fundamental gaming experiences that each generation should engage with (and of course have fun with). What that would look like as well as the process for selecting titles is of course something that would need to be decided, but why shouldn't the industry at least make the attempt?

Darby McDevitt
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Every year various gaming periodicals have a stab at creating a canon in the guise of "best of" lists. This typically reflects the attitudes of the status quo... and is usually met with alternate lists that champion obscure and under-served titles. Later, when academics and writers lock onto the question, another set of contenders crops up. This is typical of any medium of course -- see the Modern Library's best 100 books written in the 20th century and compare it to the publicly generated list.

But all this is beside my point, which is: even if we HAD a canon... in 100 years, could we PLAY any of them. My answer is probably not... but that we WILL still be using the game mechanics invented 100 years ago. So, what about a game mechanics canon?

Larry Carney
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That is a wonderful idea, a game mechanics canon. Since this is a community of developers, it might be interesting to see what games the community would include in it.

Andreas Ahlborn
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" the Content of our games is doomed "

While it may feel "lazy" at first sight, in 2012 I suggested a health-care system for games ( http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AndreasAhlborn/20121108/181171/All
s_well_that_ages_well_A_Health_care_system_for_Games.php ), meaning in essence to create a new profession, what you could call "game-remasters" that would be part of your team and mainly concerned to make the game fit for a future release on new Hardware.

For some AAA-Title this is already reality and from the excitement The Last Of Us - PS4 remake to the Master Chief Collection creates it seems that (especially at a generation-swing) these remasters will be huge commercial hits, even more of systemsellers than overhyped new franchises like Titanfall.

It`s by no means a perfect solution, and at the moment considered a Luxury but imo we will see that a lot more in the near future.

Dane MacMahon
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Game preservation is something I worry a lot about. No one seems to care except for a select few, which is a real shame. Thanks for trying to build awareness of this growing problem.

As a PC gamer I am thankful we have abandonware and skilled programmers who keep old games alive just for the sake of doing it.

Matt Matthews
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First, apologies in advance, for I only skimmed for a sense of the article's many points.
- Nostalgia is poison. Avoid it as much as possible, and continue looking forward.
- Because they require player interaction, games are particularly susceptible to changes in expectations. I can watch an early 1900s silent movie about as easily as I watch a modern movie, because the required action is the same. I cannot enjoy a Commodore 64 game as easily because my expectations are different. I loved Adventure Construction Set on the C64, but I would not want to deal with it today, because it is so clunky. From my personal experience, this happens even for games up through the late-PS2 and early-PS3 era.
- I believe that much of what's important about early games can be explained just as well with good screenshots and explanations or professional narration over videos.

Sorry to post and run.

Dane MacMahon
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"I loved Adventure Construction Set on the C64, but I would not want to deal with it today, because it is so clunky. From my personal experience, this happens even for games up through the late-PS2 and early-PS3 era."

See from my personal experience games from 2002 are actually less clunky. From an interface/gameplay perspective I think the original Deus Ex or Morrowind kill their modern counterparts. This might be because I'm a PC guy and modern games are made for consoles first, though.

Jamie Mann
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- Nostalgia is poison
I'm not sure what's meant here. Yes, people do have their own personal favorites which they view with rose-tinted glasses, but that doesn't mean all older games can be dismissed. Much as with the silent movies you praised, there's a wealth of stuff which can be studied or simply just played and enjoyed. For me, games created on home computers in the eighties are of particular interest: the seeds of the modern indie movement were sown at that time and there's hundreds of odd, experimental and surprisingly forward-looking games to be found.

- Because they require player interaction, games are particularly susceptible to changes in expectations
Y'know, I really don't like early 1900s silent movies. The camera-work is jerky, the frame-rate is low, the acting is hammed up, the lack of audio is annoying, the visuals are poor quality and the fonts on the speech boards is overly ornate!

Only kidding. To me, old movies are fascinating, but to dismiss one fledgling media movement as primitive while at the same time as praising another, equally primitive fledgling movement seems a bit odd...

- I believe that much of what's important about early games can be explained just as well with good screenshots and explanations or professional narration over videos.
The same is true of any media, whether it's old games, old films or modern productions. Why go watch the latest Hollywood superhero film, when you can just fire up good ol' Wikipedia?

Beyond that, I'd note that you're then relying on someone else's ability to summarise the production - and you're also subject to whatever biases and filtering they choose to apply to their summary.

Overall, the fact that you don't want to revisit video game history doesn't mean that there's no merit to doing so...

Darby McDevitt
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The article doesn't really invoke nostalgia in any meaningful way... its just a buzzword. Unless of course you believe re-reading "Moby Dick" in 2014 to be a poisonous act of nostalgia in and of itself... at which point I would have to vehemently disagree. As I do with your third point. Re-reading notation for historic chess matches is not equivalent to the thrill of playing a game of chess for yourself. It's a fun historical document, but it doesn't replicate the experience any more than someone describing what it's like to see a film.

TC Weidner
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Nostalgia is poison. Avoid it as much as possible, and continue looking forward
-------------------------------------

wow, I couldnt disagree more. Fond memories and yes nostalgia are some of the greatest gifts in life. In the end , they are ALL that matters. Where we have been is just as important as where we are going, perhaps maybe even more important. anyway...

as for the topic in hand, we are humans, we come with both short term and long term memory, our brains are pretty powerful, they are our archives. I'm never going to be able to recapture the summer in the 80's where me and my older brother basically locked ourselves away in our way over air conditioned bedroom and played the hell out of the Bard's Tale... We cant recapture what it is to be a teenager with gobs of free time on a summer vacation, what it was like in the early -mid 80s. My brother is gone now, so obviously I can never recapture the special time with him. but I do have it all archived in my brain, and those memories of that game and of that special time playing it with my late brother always brings me a smile. You cant recapture that on some archived version.

By all means I think saving old games is important, but we cant confuse saving them with being able to relive them. To relive them, at least in quick flashes requires the archives we all have sitting atop our shoulders.

Matthew Cleere
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Video Games are like songs. Millions have been written. Even millions have been recorded. The very best rise to the top and have their stretch of living glory. A small portion of these (the very best) become classics and live on for possibly decades. To hope for anything more than that, they'll have to get into a hymnal.

However, video games are also like books, and a little like paintings, and these works can last for centuries as we have seen.

Those books that define, or record, the spirit of a generation or an age become part of history and therefore become part of the collective mythology and culture of the human race, at least for a few hundred years.

In that vein, I believe that the truly seminal video games and those on the vanguard will endure for quite a long time, while thousands, no matter how good they are, will recede to the dusty back up hard drives of hard core pirates, warez seeders and digital connoisseurs.

Kids will "study" Space Invaders and Pac-Man and give them a poke with a giggle, and why should they do anything more than that? Tetris might just last forever in one form or another. Defender is too damn hard for young kids to handle!

I say, "It's all good!", and I absolutely mean that. If all our great great great grandfathers were still alive there wouldn't be any room or reason for any of us to be here. Let the next generation take what they like from the ones that came before and bury the rest in the ground with our dust!

As Valeria says, "Do you want to live forever?"

Don't worry about it. The next generation is going to be consumed by man-eating sentient robots anyway, and who cares what games those bastards(the robots) like to play?

Bart Stewart
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Wow. Thoughtful, knowledgable, and beautifully written -- this piece was a pleasure to read.

To the subject: my impression is that the real conclusion here is not about trying to preserve working versions of particular games. It's more that the best outcome is to create a mechanic or system that is so catchy that it lives forever by propagating itself into other games. Is that about right?

If so, it suggests a very different kind of game development culture than one focused on making throwaway games to be quickly beaten and forgotten.

Darby McDevitt
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There's no prescriptions intended with this essay. It was only an attempt to describe the current state of things. So I don't know that I would put a value judgement on Form versus Content -- for me there's no question of "best outcome". From a business standpoint, perhaps (though you see what happened with Threes and 2048... )

And if your preferred aim is to create something monumental and timeless, yes, you'd do better to focus on interesting systems. Imagine how proud the inventor -- or inventors, more likely -- of Chess would feel if they visited the modern day. People still regularly play their game.

But if your aim is to simply create something interesting in a specific time and place, then all games are game. We can still shape and influence culture and people and ideas in the short term, so I think it's worth all the effort we put in.

Michael Joseph
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Would this be very much an issue if all games were open source? If this were true, the primary job of a video game archivist might be writing ports.

http://openxcom.org/about/

Jim Burns
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Digital is not the future.

Scott Sheppard
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Loss of games is like an ache in my heart. It's this persistent nagging feeling, and one that makes me deeply sad. It's one of those things that has nearly convinced me to become an archivist on multiple occasions.

I find your point about catchy mechanics living on as the game's legacy as an interesting one. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about it. I'll attempt to solidify them.

As a final anecdote, I find the thing that bothers me most about the reality of archiving is that we must pick and choose what gets to live on. It makes sense, and I cant argue the reasons that make this a reality. However, when we imagine that every single game (or any form of created media for that matter) was created for a reason by a real human being, it seems like a disservice to let it disappear. No matter how poorly created, there's a story behind every game ever made. There's something to be learned, with or without context. Just as there's something to be gleaned from shards of random decorative pottery from thousands of years ago. So while some things will live on, and some things will die... I still feel like it's important to preserve as much as possible in a long lasting way for those that come after us.

That's my two cents.


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