It was a line I fell in love with the first time I heard it. 

There’s a moment in Alan Parker’s completely over-the-top but also strangely subtle Angel Heart (1987) where Robert De Niro’s Lucifer cooly informs Mickey Rourke’s character: “The future is not what it used to be, Mr. Angel.”  The line–which many have attributed to French poet and critic Paul Valery–makes sense in the context of the film, where a man discovers that everything he thought he knew about himself is frighteningly wrong.  Our sense of who we are, let alone our sense of our future potential, who we might become, is completely dependent on our sense of who we have been.  This is true not just for individuals, but for developments in art, science. . .pretty much anything, really.  Writers from George Orwell to Milan Kundera have understood this clearly: control people’s perception of the past and you control their future.  Potential is based on memory.

Angel Heart explores what happens when our memory can’t be trusted.  But what if you have no memory at all?  You get the world of game development.

A Sitting Duck

Recently I found myself missing inhabiting the Star Wars universe, so I decided to re-install X-Wing Alliance (1999), the last in he series of superb space combat simulators produced by Lucasarts and Totally Games.  I’d run the game under XP before so wasn’t anticipating any problems.  I fired the game up, jumped straight into combat. . .and the problems began.  Any time I tried to target an opposing ship, my cross-hairs disappeared, as did the enemy ships.  All my weapons refused to fire. . .which didn’t stop anyone else being able to fire at me.  A little bit of research led me to the fansite X-Wing Alliance Upgrade where I learned that these are relatively common problems experienced by people with more recent Nvidia graphics cards (and when I say “recent” I do not in any sense mean “cutting edge”).  This is but one of a whole host of problems experienced by people trying to run the game, some of them related to graphic capabilities, others to problems with newer operating system architectures.

The good news is that there may be a fix, at least for my issues (I haven’t tried it yet).  It comes courtesy of a person who obviously has way more diagnostic talent and programming know-how than I and who has produced a series of patches, many of which involve hacking the actual executable files of the game.

What I have described here, however, is an all-too common experience for people trying to run older games.  And one common response from gamers (one that cropped up a couple of times on the X-Wing Alliance boards) is along the lines of “Dude, it’s a ten-year old game.”  But the more appropriate response should be “Dude, it’s only a ten-year old game.”

The Rapidly Disappearing Past

Scattered all over the gaming universe you find these small pockets of people still stubbornly moving heaven, earth, and not infrequently, code, in order to try and play older games that they still find compelling.  Not surprisingly, these communities frequently cluster around what many game scholars and game developers would agree are benchmarks in the history of game development.  People still playing X-Wing Alliance despite the problems I’ve just described, people still playing Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (1997) even though it needs a patch to run under XP, people still playing the Thief games even though you need to run a small utility to disable all but one of the processor cores on modern machines.  These are games that have long since been abandoned by the people who created them.  Moreover, as the X-Wing Alliance example demonstrates, they are rapidly being abandoned by the hardware manufacturers who created the original technological infrastructure necessary for them to run in the first place.

This is a huge problem for game development.

To understand why, think about any other sphere of human artistic, design, engineering, or research practice that you care to name.  Imagine that it were impossible for most people to, say, read a novel published ten years ago.  The text goes all blurry and several pages go missing at random.  Sure, a few fans have put together a rough and ready fix that enables you to read the text, but most people don’t have the technical know-how to implement it.  Others do have the know-how, but consider it too much faffing around to really be bothered.  Most of the populace, however, doesn’t give a rat’s ass, because they are firmly convinced that the new massively multi-page legal espionage vampire thriller from CGM (Clancy Grisham Meyer) Studios will be the best novel ever written and will make all other novels obsolete.  Why on earth would you bother trying to read a novel that is a decade old?

Of course, that isn’t the world that we can live in.  I can pick up a novel from the 1790s and read it just as easily as one from the 1970s.  I might have problems understanding it, but  that is really no different from finding a particular game more or less challenging based on your prior knowledge, personal disposition, etc.  But I won’t have any trouble actually accessing and parsing the text in the first place.  Moreover, I may well find a novel from 200 years ago more enjoyable than any novel being written today (as many people do with Austen, for example).  Moreover moreover, I may well find a novel from 200 years ago influences me in what I write today.

Anyone who is involved in creating something, be it a poem or a bridge, needs access to what people have done in the past in their particular area of expertise.  Artists are influenced by the work of previous generations of artists; engineers, architects, etc., are influenced by the work of previous engineers and architects.  Even if your intent is to reject what has come before you, you still need to be able to know what has come before you if your own work is to appear as something other than a random event.  Just as importantly, however, practitioners need an audience with an awareness of the past.  If you are a Surrealist painter, you need your audience to have some awareness of the conventions of naturalism that you are rejecting, otherwise your rejection is in fact nothing but production line art whose only impact lies in its momentary novelty.  Or imagine an engineer presenting a bridge design to a local council member only to have that person exclaim in wonder: “So I can go over the river instead of having to drive my car through it?  That’s a great idea!  Why hasn’t anyone thought of it before?”  From your perspective as an engineer what is important is the kind of bridge you have designed; from the point of view of an audience with no memory, the most important thing is simply that you’ve designed any kind of bridge.  They would have been equally excited by a couple of planks laid across the river.

Human endeavours, especially those that desire in some sense to be transformative of their surroundings rather than a merely diversionary acquiescence to the passage of time, in fact cannot depend on a simple version of memory.  Human memory is–in contrast to most people’s “common sense” view–deeply flawed and unreliable.  It doesn’t preserve the past as much as make it available for complex forms of manipulation and reworking that include biased selection, distortion, and outright omission.  The power of memory however lies (in two senses of the word) in exactly the sense of infallibility that accrues to our own apparently detailed recollection of events.  While this sense of infallibility is an illusion it is an important one, because it preserves the necessary fiction of  a single, stable self that persists over time.  That is precisely why Harry Angel’s discovery at the end of Parker’s film is so disturbing.

What we need to promote and support human creativity is not memory as such but memory’s externalization: an archive.  In fact, not just one archive, but many archives, with varied but overlapping focuses and collections.  Such archives need to give rise to communities of learning and experimentation that will grow up around them.  Lastly, the work produced and the archives themselves, need to be accessible to the public.  This, of course, is historically the role that has been played in our culture by libraries, universities, institutes, and learned societies.

Learning to Forget

Now consider the position of electronic games.  A young form, true, compared with other forms of human creativity.  Yet we are fast approaching the point where developers of games, people who study games, and people who play games, will not be able to access any game older than about ten years.  This is something the affects all types of games on all platforms, but games designed for the PC are particularly vulnerable.  After all, if you still have an NES lying around you can still play NES games from the 1980s.  Moreover, there is also a rich variety of emulation programs that allow you to play classic console games on the PC. 

But PC gaming continues to be heavily influenced–some would say hampered–by both a technological arms race and the fact that the weapons are themselves mired in a maze of proprietary specifications all of which have virtually unlimited potential not to play well together.  There’s nothing wrong of course with developers of graphics cards, sound cards, memory, etc. desiring to push the envelope in their respective fields.  Or for developers to try and take advantage of these new technological capabilities to push what is possible in the area of gameplay.  The problem of course is that hardware manufacturers know that PC gamers will, collectively, spend extraordinary sums of money in pursuit of largely incremental (and, usually, completely inconsequential from the point of view of competitive gameplay) improvements in performance.  Consider, for example, gamers’ fixation on the metric of frames per second, where combinations of graphic cards, drivers, cooling devices, and faster RAM are all purchased and obsessively tweaked in order to obtain slight, and usually completely visually imperceptible, improvements in fps.

The situation with PC gaming is, however, only an exaggerated version of the situation with all digital gaming.  Each new generation console effectively makes the previous one obsolete–that obsolescence just takes a lot longer than in the hypersteroidal world of PC gaming.

Couple this with the fact that gaming has no real archive.  Some game studies and media studies programs are beginning to build collections of game titles and the machinery to play them.  But they are few and far between.  Once again, the situation is slightly easier with regard to the preservation of console titles.  With PC gaming it borders on the nightmarish.  Consider, for example, that for a given PC with a particular graphics card, one game may work with one set of software drivers, but another won’t.  So you need to preserve not only copies of the games and multiple types of hardware but every version of every relevant software driver.

There is a dreadful irony here.  As the world shifted from analog to digital we were led to believe that this was progress.  And indeed, for a while, it seemed so.  The digital shift meant new media, a proliferation of communication forms, new ways of producing, recycling, amplifying information.  Supposedly, it also meant new ways of preserving information (think the Google Books project, or any number of digitization projects undertaken by traditional museums and archives).  However the digital shift has meant that we have unprecedented abilities to preserve traditional media. . .but the very strength of the digital world (proliferation of information in multiple formats) is ensuring that we cannot effectively preserve new digital media themselves.  The very inflexibility of “old media” that makes them seem so limited and unhip to anyone under 20 or anyone who writes for Wired is what makes them so relatively easy to archive.  If I can get access to a physical copy of Shakespeare’s first folio, I don’t need any special technology to read it.

Given that much of what we have referred to as progress since at least the Renaissance has been made possible by ability to preserve and then consult our past, how are humans to continue to progress in the absence of this ability?  Moreover, can the effective destruction of the ability to preserve your progress really be counted as progress in the first place?

Reinventing the Reinvented Wheel. . .Again

What are some of the implications of the problems with preserving games?

  • The ability to play older games will rapidly elude most game players, particularly those interested in PC gaming.  As the X-Wing Alliance example demonstrates, in some cases there are technological workarounds for some playability issues, but most gamers are not that different in their relationship to their product than other people: they are not users in any real sense, but simply consumers.  They don’t have a huge amount of technical know-how concerning how their devices actually work.  If a problem can’t be resolved by throwing cash at it, by replacing a part, for example (and for XWA that would actually make many of the problems worse) they won’t bother.
  • Assuming that a concerted effort gets under way to develop meaningful gaming archives, curating those collections will require a radically different skill set than that possessed by the people who currently manage our archives.  It is not simply an issue of having technical skills–libraries and museums employ many technical experts skilled at using software or keeping the physical hardware running–but the kind of technical skills that will be needed.  Say that some time in the future your archive has the last surviving example of an Nvidia 8800GT video card.  And it stops working.   You don’t need the kind of technical expertise that can replace a video card and install appropriate software drivers.  You need the kind of technical expertise that can physically repair a card.  I’m not sure that that kind of expertise even exists now, given that these things are currently regarded as completely disposable commodities.
  • Some benefit may be provided by the development of sophisticated emulation devices.  This may be enough to give some people access to at least a portion of our gaming history.  But for an in-depth understanding of gaming emulation won’t suffice.  If you really want to understand an object or a process–and more importantly, people’s relationship with that object or process–you need access to the physical objects that people used.  Reading a description of a Jacquard loom is no substitute for actually seeing one.  Seeing a digital rendering of a medieval manuscript is no substitute for seeing the actual book that people used (a digital rendering doesn’t convey things like size and heft, for example).  The same is true of gaming.  It is especially true of gaming where the physical hardware is a key part of the gameplay experience.  Think of the difference in playing a console action title with and without a rumblepad, for example.  Or the number of USB ports that certain gaming rigs need to support particular kinds of games (my flight sim pc has 5 USB ports utilized just by all the game-related paraphernalia–joystick, rudder pedals, throttle set, TrackIR camera, and microphone headset).
  • Gaming development will soon begin to lose touch with its own history.  This hasn’t happened yet, which is why I don’t think anyone is really taking this question of the lack of an archive very seriously.  Many of the early pioneers (of commercial gaming, at least) are still around.  But what happens when they begin to die off?  Archives exist not just to compensate for the fallibility of human memory, after all, but primarily to compensate for the brevity of the human life span.
  • When gaming loses touch with its history, it loses the ability meaningfully to innovate.  In fact, without a real sense of what the gaming past was like, the concept of innovation (of moving forward, of evolution) becomes essentially meaningless.

So we’re heading toward this bizarre situation where the extraordinarily complex, high-tech world of game development will be increasingly reliant on that most untrustworthy of human faculties: memory.  You already see a few signs of this with developers alluding to the great games of the past, or games that influenced them, or that they aspire to emulate.  But if you can’t actually play that inspirational game in the present, how is that really helping you?  Moreover, what happens when your lead level designer asserts that the game you revere and the memory of which was the basis for your entire game design was, in reality, a steaming pile of shit?  Engage in an elaborate game of “Is too/is not” based on your less than eidetic memories? 

We need gaming archives to help preserve the best examples of game design.  The reason people are jumping through technical hoops to play decade-old games, or hanging on to out-dated consoles in order to play a select few titles, is because they really, really liked them.  I dunno, it may just be me, but if I were a game designer I would kind of want to know what it was about that particular game that inspired such loyalty (particularly given gamers infamous lack of loyalty). . .and then I’d want to bottle it.  And the only way that is going to happen is if you can get your hands on the great games of yesteryear and see for yourself.

We need gaming archives to help preserve the worst examples of game design.  Obviously, if you are a game designer, or any sort of artist for that matter, it is important to have access to numerous examples of things that were great but also to the pieces of dreck.  Many of these will simply serve as cautionary tales of what not to do.  But the examples of really, really bad games may be important in other ways.  For example, consider this PC World article, “The 10 Worst Games of All Time.”  With this kind of list, naturally, there will be disagreements (although the authors have collected a notable series of stinkers).  But especially when it comes to these kinds of assessments you are often dealing with perceptions and ungrounded interpretations, which collectively fall under the label “conventional wisdom.”  For example, Romero’s Daikatana makes the PC World list; hardly surprising since the conventional wisdom is that the game was a major disappointment.  However, as Brenda Braithwaite notes in a recent interview with John Romero for Gamesauce, after asking people about Daikatana she received 100 negative responses in a row. . .all from people who admitted to never having actually played the game.  Another reason for keeping an archive of really awful games is that they may nevertheless be useful as artifacts for understanding parts of our culture.  The absolutely awful Custer’s Revenge, for example, sheds some light on how close to the surface were racist and misogynist attitudes in 1980s America. . .but also has some interesting relevance to the persistence of US myths about Custer.  Lastly, truly awful games may not in fact be truly awful.  Super Columbine Massacre RPG, for example, makes the PC World list, largely I suspect because its an easy way for the reviewers to pretend to have a moral conscience.  However, I’ve included this game on the syllabus in one of my classes because I believe that while it isn’t a great game, it is an important game, and its failure actually raises some important questions about what games by and large aren’t doing in their attempt to engage with serious issues.  Which brings me to my final point. . .

We need gaming archives to help preserve all examples of game design.  Archives represent a tacit acknowledgement that our perceptions are limited and our judgement usually clouded by our immersion in our own cultural moment.  We can say what we value now, and what we think is important now, but we cannot predict the things that future generations will find useful.  We are especially unable to imagine how our own assessments might be wrong.  For example, generations of nineteenth-century US literature scholars systematically ignored a) anything that was popular, and b) anything by women.  One result was that arguably the most influential novel (and certainly the most widely read) of the nineteenth-century, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, completely disappeared from the US literary canon until the 1990s.  We now understand that this novel played a very important role in shaping US culture during the nineteenth-century. . .but we wouldn’t if we’d been constructing our archives (libraries, etc.) mainly on the basis of what one group of scholars considered to be the “best” work of the nineteenth century.

It may take the death of some of the great game designers of the past to help us begin to see the important of trying to figure out a way to establish archives of games.  Personally, I think it will take a lot more than that: nothing less than a wholesale re-evaluation by our culture so that games are seen as worth preserving in the first place.  The more likely scenario, regrettably, is that people in the future will find it easier to study materials written 300 years ago, than they will the games of today.