As technology improves, video games get more and more advanced. Graphics have blurred the lines between real and imaginary. Real-time ray tracing is now possible (albeit with a major performance hit). We can now consistently hit 4K resolutions in the 60FPS range (if you’re part of the PC Master Race). We have advanced so much, come so far, and yet, the more we advance, the more we forget our past. We forget where we came from and how we got here. But why? How could we have gotten to this point?
Game preservation, or a means to preserve and play games long after their time, is an absolutely critical component to the video game industry that is being forgotten. I regularly play classic adventure games, of both the point and click and text-parser varieties, that cannot natively run on modern hardware. You might be asking, “why would you play a game that’s so old? The graphics are shit”. If you’re judging a game solely by its looks, you’re trash and should go re-evaluate your life choices. I play these games partly because I grew up on them, and partly because I genuinely find them to be engaging and fun to play, even decades after their original release. I dare you to play the original Space Quest and not be absolutely infuriated by its design and mechanics, yet also in love with its death sequences and writing. I would even dare to say it’s more infuriating than Dark Souls at times.
Why should we preserve these older games, though? For starters, by preserving these games, we ensure they can live on for generations to come. Because these games have been preserved, I was able to play them with my dad growing up. My dad and I would play many of these older adventure games in my younger years on hardware that was never designed to play them, or through official re-releases (an official, legal way of game preservation that only works in the short term).
I’m a big fan and proponent of emulation, partly because it’s one form of preserving games. Emulation is when a device can effectively “emulate” the hardware of another platform and play games from said platform. There are all sorts of emulators out there, for a wide variety of devices. Some emulate single systems, others a whole swatch of systems and engines. Some emulators are incredibly powerful in what they can do. When I was in high school I discovered Project 64, an N64 emulator. To my surprise, it worked quite well on my computer, and the compatibility list for games was large. I also discovered that Project 64 supported texture mods, so I tried out a number of them. My favorite was the Celda Mod, which introduces cell-shaded graphics to Ocarina of Time. This was a game-changer. Not only was the game playable in its entirety without the mod, but I was able to enjoy it in a whole new way with the mod installed.
Some have used the argument that emulation is piracy and it should be illegal. I will concede that emulation can *lead* to piracy, but I will defend to the death the notion that emulation itself is not piracy. It’s always existed in a legal gray area, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Emulation can do so much for the industry, though. Take for example something that happened recently. I recently rediscovered a game I played as a kid, Scooby-Doo Classic Creep Capers on the Gameboy Color. I was absolutely obsessed with the game, and I really wanted to play it again. Problem is, it wasn’t available through any official means, and I no longer own a Gameboy Color or a Gameboy Advance. Even if I had the physical cartridge, I wouldn’t be able to play it. This is where emulation comes in. I was able to pick it back up and replay the game for the first time in over 15 years. It felt great. It brought back a lot of memories. Emulation not only helps us reconnect with our past, but also introduce us to games we never got to experience or to play older games in a new way, such as the Celda mod mentioned earlier. Most emulators are built by fans for fans and are not legally sanctioned. Because of this, they exist in a legal gray area and could disappear at any time.
Another reason to preserve games is so we can look back and pay homage to them, and learn from them as well. Take Thimbleweed Park for example. It came out a couple of years ago and was developed by Ron Gilbert, of LucasArts fame. He’s one of the people responsible for bringing us Monkey Island. Thimbleweed Park is actually built on the Scumm engine, which the original Monkey Island games used way back in the ’90s. If the Monkey Island games had not been preserved, if there was no way to play them to this day, people wouldn’t know how good they were, or how truly innovative and original they were, and there wouldn’t be a demand for a game made in that style today. The adventure genre as a whole is one that’s being kept alive by a thin thread, mostly by independent developers and dedicated fans. This market for adventure games, however small it may be, exists because we as fans wish to keep this genre alive. We wish to preserve these mechanics and ideas for as long as we can, dated though they may be. These games provide a window into the past, a glimpse at what came before. It’s important that we never lose sight of our past. Thimbleweed Park is a game made out of love for the past; to play it is to take a trip back in time. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a damn good one.
Why am I so concerned about preserving games? After all, all of the games I mentioned can be played on modern hardware with the right emulators and knowing just where to look on the internet. I’m concerned because we’re entering a dangerous era of games just vanishing off the face of the Earth like they never existed at all. Remember Too Human? It was a game by Silicon Knights, a now-defunct developer (I won’t go into detail about their demise; it’s quite the story). After a lengthy court battle, it was decided that all remaining physical copies of the game must be destroyed. Anyone who didn’t own the game previously would never be able to play it. Luckily I happened to have a used copy from GameStop and a working Xbox 360, but many others were not so fortunate. By and large, the game isn’t great. It’s downright bizarre sometimes, with combat mechanics that are truly baffling and a story that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, I found it enjoyable and consider it to be underrated. If you look past all of its problems and imperfections, there’s something to love underneath it all. There’s definitely potential in the IP, though we’ll likely never see another Too Human game (so much for that trilogy). In a move that surprised absolutely everyone at E3 2019, Microsoft revived Too Human and made it the very last game available through the Xbox Backwards Compatibility program, and made it a free download.
We’re even seeing it now with games that rely so heavily on the internet to function. Servers are expensive, and as time goes on, companies are less inclined to maintain servers for older games, especially if player rates have dropped considerably. When these servers go offline, all online functionality vanishes, effectively rendering the game unplayable. The only hope some of these games have is if fans maintain their own servers unofficially, but this isn’t always feasible.
But let’s look to the future. With game streaming on the rise, we should all be concerned about preservation, especially for games exclusive to streaming platforms. If Google Stadia, Google’s upcoming game streaming platform, ends up being a flop and closes up shop, any and all exclusive games available through Stadia would likely disappear forever, with no way to download the games or keep physical backups. That would be a downright tragedy because there could be some really unique and interesting games coming to Stadia, and other game streaming platforms. And that’s to say nothing about the implications of what game streaming actually means with regards to ownership. To be more precise: You do not own games on streaming platforms. This harms game preservation in serious ways because if your license to access a game is revoked for whatever reason, that game effectively disappears from your catalog. Worst yet, all the games I’ve mentioned could still easily disappear. There are solutions to make them work on current hardware and software, but that doesn’t mean that in twenty or thirty years they’ll still be playable. It’s entirely possible a game like Assassin’s Creed will be completely unplayable in thirty years.
Game preservation is critical because it provides a window to our past; it allows us to reconnect with where we were as a people, as a society, and as an industry. Sometimes these games have very powerful messages to send. Game preservation introduces us to games we haven’t played before or may have missed. It keeps interest alive in older games and provides us a way to play our favorite games again. Game preservation is something we must strive for. These are marvelous, wonderful works of art, the culmination of every artistic discipline in the world coming together. We cannot allow any of these games to disappear. They must endure like some of the most famous and revered works of art in human history.