It’s terrifying to think that somewhere along the line, we just won’t be able to play games. I’m sorry, that was overly dramatic. Allow me to rephrase: somewhere along the line, we won’t be able to play some games as they were originally made. Sure, we’ll always be able to emulate games and consoles and whatnot to some degree, but will we ever be able to experience them again as originally intended? We’ll always be able to go online and search for Flash copies of Tempest and tap away at our keyboards for a while playing them, dodging spikes and the like, but that’s nothing like standing in front of an arcade cabinet, posted up with one hand on the side and one on the dial, spinning and leaning and yelling into this flashing, beeping monolith.
There’s also that philosophical question of whether that is still the original game, but that’s for another time.
Arcade games, for the most part, run on bits and pieces that don’t really exist anymore. Some people construct common parts out of their garage and sell them to other enthusiasts, but some things just no longer made and haven’t been made for a really long time. It’s to the point where cabinet owners, the same folk that attend California Extreme every year, are flashing their ROMs just so they can make sure this particular copy of this game is kept clean for posterity. But you can’t flash those original parts. You can’t flash all those cathodes and roller balls and steering wheels onto your computer. They just rust and break and get stowed away in some storage facility or, more likely, thrown into a dumpster.
Really, though, this is just emblematic of the larger problem of the preservation of video games. Or, I guess, the question of the preservation of video games: how do you preserve a medium where the methods with which you consume it constantly change?
Movies, music, and art all face the same general problem, too. Some movies are so old that they’ve long been erased from their original reels of celluloid by time. Many old master records are scratched or broken. Art has faded from its canvas.
But all their content is static. Movies, music, and paintings all exist as a single frame, a solitary moment of time. When they are stored digitally, they at least are able to be kept in a cogent form for all future generations because all you need is the product and an audience, the producer and the receiver. Movies and music and art can all be stored digitally in formats that can be transferred and stored again in new formats so that they never become unattainable again. Simply click and open your eyes and open your ears.
Video games fight a tougher battle with time. First, there’s the problem with the source. Way back in the day, no one ever really thought to preserve the code. If you recall, Jordan Mechner released the source code for Prince of Persia last year in April. What took him so long? Well, aside from the fact that it was all stored in a box he kind of forgot existed, it was all stored on ancient Apple II floppy disks. He had to call in specialists to extract the data off of the weakening magnetic stores, and even then it was a dicey affair.
And that was for Prince of Persia, a seminal release if I ever saw one. But then what about other, less influential titles? Is someone still holding onto a box of that? Is anyone still willing to risk breaking the only hardware capable of reading that storage just to preserve it?
That’s only half the problem, though. Apple IIs aren’t really made anymore, just like NES, SNES, Genesis, and many other game consoles aren’t made anymore. This leaves those that wish to play these preserved games in a bit of a pickle. Luckily, these are older, simpler systems and turn out to be somewhat easy to emulate. The real problem comes in with later games where copy protection became a huge, thorny deal.
Not only that, but some platform exclusives are meant to only run on very specific architectures. That’s why backwards compatibility becomes a talking point with new consoles. People paid their money to be able to play these games, but they’re only able to play it on these one console. It’s not a broken contract between manufacturer and consumer, but it is a bummer to not be able to play games that once worked with a product this company used to sell.
Once that is gone, though, players and archivists are left high and dry. The Cell and PowerPC architectures of the PS3 and 360 will be nowhere as easy to emulate as the SNES and original PlayStation have been. Games are interactive and the portal to that interactivity is their original medium of consumption. Unlike movies and music where you just need to open your eyes and your ears, games also require you to open a very particular drive and interpreter to run those games as intended.
Movies and music have managed to survive many generations of various formats. Records, tapes, CDs, and MP3s. VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and MP4. Art has always been preserved through photography, itself going through Polaroids, prints, and JPGs. All those digital formats, though, can and do change at a whim because software is easy. The hardware of the end game is always unchanged: the computer. The hardware for the end of games, though, is always different. Every console must be emulated—not just the software—because that is what the software needs. Both need to exist and work in concert for the preservation to work, whereas for movies and music and art, the medium and the piece are unfettered to one another.
HD re-releases are a Band-Aid to the bleeding gash. They are still locked behind a repurposed medium. What happens when this generation runs out? Will all your PS2 classics for the PS3 move to the PS4? It’s a problem Wii to Wii U owners have already experienced. And how long before people get tired of buying the same game over and over again for the same experience they’ve paid for time and time again? And once the money stops coming in, what purpose do these studios have in keeping something that doesn’t bring with it any income?
That might be the greatest difference and the greatest problem with the preservation of video games. All those other forms of entertainment see releases to the public that wholly encompass the final product. Once a movie or a song or painting is out there, that’s it. We’ve seen all there is to see, and any pleasure derived from it after that is from simply seeing it again.
But video games, when released to the public, are just instances, a proprietary excursion into what amounts to a timeshare, and to fully engage with it once more, you must travel to that world again. But these shuttles are made by these companies, only willing to sell them before the new model eclipses the old, yielding both more cash and more improvements, casting the aging relics out to the junkyard. And those old decrepit vehicles are left to rust, with not only itself lost to the passage of time but the world it made available to us. That door is shut, and may never open again.