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Preserving video games is tricky, but our readers have some ideas

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

One Article To Rule Them All

This week, all the Keyboard Geniuses comments come from Bob Mackey’s For Our Consideration essay about “enhanced” re-releases that endanger the artistic legacy of classic games. As of now, it’s the second most commented on article in Gameological history, just one scintillating comment behind the current leader. And predictably, it spawned tons of great discussions, only a few of which we can highlight here.

First off is a response from GhaleonQ, who tried to breakdown the preservation aspect of Bob’s article and took umbrage with the way emulation has packaged and presented video games’ roots:  

One alternate take is that culture has always been preserved in three ways. The folk keep it alive through tradition, the owners keep it alive through preservation, and agreed-upon intermediaries keep it alive through curation.

Commenters have rightly criticized video game museum exhibits to date, and Bob explained how poorly owners outside the small circle of Japanese arcade greats preserve their work.  That’s to say nothing of bankrupted developers who lose control of their catalogs.

However, I wonder how legitimate the idea of folk preservation/used games/emulation is for video games. Yes, there are region-specific and “lack of appreciation” problems with piracy. I’m more concerned with the binging issue, though. We’re at the point where you could easily download a package of “every PlayStation 1” and fully functional emulators for relatively new systems. In addition to that being a distracting array of choices, I think it leads people to quickly reject games that don’t have instant appeal. If anecdote and YouTube videos are any indication, scores of people are content to sample 10 minutes of a game before disregarding them forever. It’s annoying but not “a problem” for any one game, but I think habitual disregard lessens games as an art form worth preserving in the player’s mind. If we have to rely on TheGameGuru420 to keep old games alive, we’re in trouble.

Girard disagreed and argued that surely it’s better than the alternative of relying on profit-driven gatekeepers:

What is the alternative? An artificially constricted (by someone else) library of games that forces the player to spend more time with fewer games? Yes that might “force” players to invest more time in more rewarding, less initially flashy games, but it could just as likely strand players with an anemic library “curated” either by a company only interested in remembering its own flashiest games (the “virtual console” phenomenon), curated by an ignoramus (the “video game rental shelf at your local supermarket that consists entirely of a copy of Platoon, Jekyll & Hyde, and Bayou Billy” phenomenon), or curated by a company behaving like an ignoramus (Nintendo’s laughable “Mario Anniversary Collection” for the Wii).

I think it’s far, far preferable to have everything out there, and then to have other channels which either curate games, or allow players to curate their own play. Some piracy channels used to do this curation themselves. Home Of The Underdogs had ratings, short reviews, and would earmark “Top Dog” games, for instance. Now, that role is played by critics with a curatorial bent, like those at HardCoreGaming101, and maybe some of the folks on the Insert Credit podcast. It’s perhaps analogous to the enormous streaming libraries now afforded viewers (bootstrapped with DVDs in Netflix). Yes, a lot of people will just stream the cheapest, crassest reality-TV garbage that is served up on those overwhelming services, but the services also provide fantastic, deep wells of culture that viewers can navigate with the help of critical establishments like The A.V. Club.

People who just want an easy game fix will just download some horrible app or horrible app-ified version of a classic game, rather than load up an emulator and download a ROM anyway, right? At this point, emulation is no longer the least frictional path, and people that bother to set up emulators (ones for newer systems tend to be arcane assemblages of dodgy plugins) and download ROM sets are at least evincing some initiative and interest in the form, which would, one hopes, carry over into their actual engagement with the content.

Zebbart argued that taking preservation out of the hands of publishers is precisely the way it should be handled:

The de facto way classic game preservation works now actually seems like the ideal way copyright and culture should work. Creators get 10-15 years to profit from their work, and then it devolves into the hands of the public to do with what they will while creators move on to the next thing. If it weren’t for the Internet and good cheap computers, a lot would be lost, as it was in the early years of cinema and most of the history of music, literature, theater, painting, etc. But now we have the resources (including enough talented and motivated volunteer preservationists) to preserve everything with endless degrees of fidelity or “improvement”/modification. “Turnerization” may be a bit of an insult to purists, but as long as the originals are tacitly tolerated and widely available, I don’t see what the harm or the threat is. The last thing I would want is for the preservation of games to be solely in the hands of for-profit right holders no matter how good a job they would do with it.

Much further down the thread, Rebecca Hernandez Gerber, who happens to be working on a degree in audiovisual preservation, shared her opinion on the legal hurdles that stand in the way of archivists:

I co-organized an important video game preservation conference and saw this issue come up a million times. Unfortunately, most audiovisual preservationists I talk to, even the video game focused ones, are not as passionate about games as the enthusiasts. They see legality as the center point, not this obstacle to avoid.

That’s not me. Fuck the institutions. Fact is, without us game enthusiasts, there would be no video game preservation. I’ve done more work on saving game history outside of my official audiovisual work than on the clock, and we should be on our knees thanking our fellow nerds for doing the same. For all intents and purposes, most video game preservation is illegal. Emulation? Illegal. Migration? Impossible, so forget it. Technological preservation? It’s better to have the source and executable codes, which means breaking into your storage media like cartridges and CDs, which means you’ve broken DRM. Illegal.

So what choice do you have? Option 1 is to do what most audiovisual preservationists do. They save what they can without breaking the law, which is barely a damn thing, and do nothing else because they don’t see the point of the risk. They think video games are cute and stuff, but they’re not actual culture, so why risk your institution for silly games? Option 2 is to say, “Fuck the law.” It’s realizing that your job as a someone who cares about this stuff and as a preservationist is to save your heritage regardless of the risks. And you do it. We need more people to do Option 2, because we’re losing our history fast, and that’s just not okay.

Square Enix’s new retouched versions of old Final Fantasy games were some of the worst offenders in Bob’s eyes, and caspiancomic provided a few more examples of Square Enix’s unnecessary game tweaking, some less problematic than others:

Sometimes, these more purely commercial visions of preservation end up yielding products that are both economically and historically righteous. The Ico/Shadow Of The Colossus HD rerelease for PlayStation 3 has gotten a lot of use in my home, and its “upgrades” to the source material don’t seem exploitative. The HD version of Jet Set Radio improves the aspect ratio and controls while keeping the spirit of the game totally intact. Sometimes companies make more invasive tweaks to older games. Square especially has a habit of rewriting old scripts for rereleases of classic titles, but these changes aren’t always dealbreakers as far as I’m concerned (Final Fantasy VI  on the Game Boy Advance and Chrono Trigger for the DS are both acceptable in my books, although I hate the new script for Final Fantasy Tactics: War Of The Lions. Its faux Olde English strikes me as overly affected and distracting.) Sometimes games are more or less preserved in their original forms with bonus crap thrown in (especially bonus bosses or dungeons, or new cutscenes), or sometimes an old game’s interface is upgraded to incorporate control options not available on a game’s original system. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that sometimes changes, even relatively major changes, can sit right.

But sometimes it’s just a matter of getting cheapo quickie HD ports out the door to make a buck rather than to preserve their history. (I understand the Silent Hill HD collection is a bad offender in this category, since it not only attempted to totally re-record the original games’ vocal tracks but was also technically insufficient to boot.) But sometimes we see whatever the hell is in the first screenshot of this article—games having their edges smoothed down, their character drained out, and basically their relationship to their history eradicated. Not to give Square more heat than they really deserve on this one, but their recent iPad version of The World Ends With You not only smoothed all the character out of the endearingly jagged and crunchy pixels of the original game, it actually undercut the original game’s “playing on two screens simultaneously” conceit. With You was a game that had the DS in its blood, it was designed with the DS’s strengths and unique quirks in mind, and it took advantage of that hardware’s every foible. But in order to make a bit of money and keep their brand recognition afloat, the company tried to force a square(cough) peg into a round hole.

Merlin The Tuna was less forgiving of the Final Fantasy Tactics rewrite that caspiancomic mentioned:

As a huge Final Fantasy Tactics fan, the script update was really disappointing to me. The game did need an updated script—just not that one.

I like to hold it up as an example of translation versus localization, even more than as an example of crappy re-releases. The original script reads a lot like they just ran something through Google translate and called it a day. There are some fantastic lines (of which the king will always be “Don’t blame me. Blame yourself or god.”) but there are almost as many parts that are borderline gibberish. The new script is way more correct, but it’s so annoying to constantly parse its Ye Olde English-ish that even the high points are hard to appreciate or remember. The character Miluda, in particular, had a couple of good lines, but they’re so wordy and roundabout that I can never recall them exactly.

I wonder how much of it that kind of stuff stems from update teams trying to justify their existence without actually putting in time/effort/money. Releases like the Chrono Trigger update blows my mind the most. The new menus were a nice improvement, but when I picked it up, I was most excited about the new areas to explore. Imagine my surprise to find out that they were terrible fetch quests and pointless monster closets. It’s like someone said “I really want to add something to this beloved game from a decade ago, but I also want to totally phone it in.” The game is actually made worse by new content.

Finally, responding to a comment that mentioned not having a problem with the article’s included still shot from the colorized version of It’s A Wonderful Life, LiberalCollegeFreshman linked us to unsurprisingly insightful clip from At The Movies where Siskel and Ebert stick it to the colorization process:

That’s it! Thanks for reading and commenting on all of this week’s articles. (The discussions that ran alongside our news stories about the Candy Crush Saga studio’s trademark escapades were especially hilarious.) We’ll see you next week!