Often, when we think of heritage, our minds direct towards displays of craftsmanship, monumentality– big stones put up by hairy men in loincloths or photo-realistic paintings that you had to write an essay on in high school. Naturally, we seek to preserve these things, to restore them if necessary, and there are means of restoring fine art and conserving it so it might be enjoyed by generations to come. The same goes for other tangible aspects of our past that weren’t meant to be remembered at all. Axes, instruments, clothing perhaps, all things that were not necessarily ‘made’ to support the test of time are restored and conserved meticulously due to the insight they offer into our ancestors’ lives. Now, what if that part of our past is a series of ones and zeroes making up the code to a software, or say, a video game?
It’s easy to imagine how plastic objects will by far outlive us due to how little these materials react to the world around them, but it’s harder to imagine where your little brother’s Fortnite account will be in about fifty years. The trend is simple: usually a medium will evolve alongside a piece of art. For example, we may still listen to the soundtrack of Grease, almost forty years later, but most of us (the non-hipsters among us, at least) would do so on a musical streaming platform such as Spotify, or Apple Music, perhaps. The medium changes, yet the content does not, which seems to guarantee it a longer life as technology continues to evolve. And video games are similar in that respect, with video game companies offering ports from one system to another; It’s the reason we can play the original 1983 Legend of Zelda on a Nintendo Switch.
Transferring older games to new systems has an important function beyond just selling more copies of the same old game, but it also gives it a longer life than it may originally have had if it had been abandoned by the producer. What’s more, it allows more players to become accustomed with pieces of video game history, and ultimately attract massive retro gaming nerds to try and see all that the game has to offer, perhaps even going into creating emulations of that same game onto modern-day machines.
To an extent, the more ports and emulations a video game has, the more its future is secure despite what may happen to its original system. It may be strange to imagine now, but it’s perfectly possible that in the future there may be no more Xbox One models to run its games, and emulation or ports may be all we have to run them. After all, if a company ceases production of a system, then there can only be less and less of it out in the wild (I mean, I’ve seen some people resting drinks on an original NES, it’s only going downhill from here).
Sometimes, the game and system developers try to make their games more accessible by remaking old systems, or by creating licensed ports, and other times, they just don’t. Some games end up in the same state as a mall in rural Iowa– abandoned and worthless in today’s economy. See, it’s safe to assume that iconic game franchises, the Lara Crofts, Marios, the Sonics, won’t die out immediately because of how many fans they’ve amassed over the years, but that sadly isn’t the case for all video games.
Abandonware is the name given to the games that time and their developers forgot and that would disappear were it not for fans with a lot of time on their hands and a certain amount of knowledge in game development. Some games can be reverse engineered, depending on how much of the code is available, although other games may not be so easy to restore, and lack too many assets to be revived in one swift move of digital necromancy. Another pressing issue here is the stranglehold of copyright holders, preventing third parties from re-releasing games or emulating it without legal proceedings, as was the sorry fate of the game No One Lives Forever (oh, the irony!).
Interestingly enough though, in some cases the best version of the game is produced by the fans. Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was a much anticipated sequel that was ordered to be finished within sixteen to eighteen months to have a holiday release. The result? An overall good game, although with some strange gaps in gameplay and storytelling that were cut for time. Most of the content that was cut, however, could still be found deep in the cavernous abyss of the game’s files, and many fans banded together to restore this cut content (and fix some 500 bugs in the process) to publish it as a mod on online forums. The finished product of the mod exceeded the expectations of the game developers, as they also managed to optimize it for modern-day PCs, which helped future-proof the game.
Thus, the main takeaway is that video games exist just like songs, stories, or craftsmanship. They may seem immortal for now, but cartridges wear out, systems die, discs rot, and games disappear every day just like any other part of our culture. Archives for digital content that includes games are important now more than ever, as technology evolves at a record pace around us and some time parts of history are forgotten or silenced by copyright strikes by major companies.
- McDonough, J., et al. (2010). Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/17097
- Ruggill, J. (2009) Before It’s Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper from the American Journal of Play (2009): 139-66
- Williams, L. (2018) How Fan-Based Projects Are Helping Preserve Video Game History, IGN, available at: https://www.ign.com/articles/2018/10/14/how-fan-based-projects-are-helping-preserve-video-games-history