There’s a rather marvellous article over at Eurogamer right now, ‘The Keepers of all Games’, that definitely deserves a read. Ostensibly it’s to do with a recent get-together organised by the co-founders of the National Videogame Archive project to discuss and promote the preservation of games, but there’s a good deal more information to be wrung from the article than a simple recap of the event.
A couple of thoughts stood out for me. The first was to do with a perception of what games are of value. One of the bods behind the NVA, Iain Simons, makes some excellent points:
‘The games industry has created a cycle where it actively chooses to devalue its own heritage…The next game is always the best game. Logic tells us that the best games should disappear because the new ones are the only ones that are relevant. It’s not even an upgrade culture: it’s an obsolescence culture.’
This has certainly been the case for a while in the industry, but there’s more to it than simply marketing hype. With cinema, there is a certain degree of improvement expected from new CGI and visual effects (we might take Avatar as an example of the pinnacle of cinema technology) but in terms of their construction, films haven’t needed to progress: directors have got the hang of camera work, thank you very much. Gaming is so reliant on technical progression, however, both as a result of its very nature and its youthful state, that every year brings undeniably ‘better’ graphics, new control methods and the CPU horsepower to push the whole thing along.
A simple glance at one of the cornerstones of gaming terminology, ‘mechanics’, gives us an indication as to why ‘new’ often seems to equate to ‘better’: developers will always have to grapple with the nuts and bolts of their art before they can address how to engage with the player. Where a film director can draw on a long-established pool of techniques, a game developer has to be thinking about how to utilise the latest ideas. I feel like I’m doing film a disservice here: it is absurd to think that there is no innovation in the world of movies, but they are undeniably less reliant on the latest trends in technology for their success.
Thought number 2:
‘With digital distribution we see the disappearance of physical media which means there is no material object to preserve, with online patching and updating games change so it is increasingly difficult to work out what the game is as new levels are added and gameplay fixed/changed; with online games we might even ask where the game is and how we could ever archive or preserve it…Unless we devise strategies for dealing with and recording gameplay we stand to lose far more than just old games.’
I like to think that when my stack of games boxes is gathering dust in many years time, someone will still be able to pick out a disc and play it. Of course there are difficulties with this fantasy: this denizen of the future had best have a device capable of playing them (let’s hope Windows 2050 is friendlier to old games than Vista is…). Nonetheless, I find the idea that the game is physically present on the shelf next to me to be of great appeal. That’s why I still buy retail instead of digital, for the most part, because I don’t want to imagine these crucial aspects of my childhood disappearing into the ether when Steam goes bankrupt and its servers shut down (ha). Obviously this is an odd, perhaps outdated idea: any digital distribution service worth it’s salt will likely have contingency plans for their customers should the bailiffs pop round, but I’ll stick to it nonetheless.
Moreover, I like to have originals: having borrowed Baldur’s Gate from a friend when I was thirteen, I knew I had to have a copy myself. Today, in pride of place amongst the shiny steelbooks and smart slipcases on the games shelf is a slightly worn, but still very much preserved box containing two chunky manuals, a map, a control reference card and no less than six CDs containing one of the greatest games that I have ever played. It’s not often that I use Ebay, but for that one I had to.
What happens, though, to those indie games of today that never get a physical release? Will only the hyper-selling ones still be alive in 50 years, the ones that go viral, whether through inherent quality or sheer luck? I hope not, but there are immense challenges ahead for anyone to try and ensure that it is so. Good luck to Iain Simons and James Newman at National Videogame Archive project, and to anyone else who has picked up Time’s gauntlet.
‘Games are an important part of popular culture and any attempt in years to come to understand what the popular culture of the late 20th early/21st century would be pretty impoverished with no access to videogames.’