Videogames at the end of history

Last week, videogame publisher EA quietly removed several older titles from Apple’s App Store. One of these titles was Flight Control, created by Melbourne studio Firemint (now EA-owned studio Firemonkeys). At a time when Apple had no interest in what the iPhone’s functionality might mean for videogames – an almost unimaginable notion today – Flight Control took advantage of the new touchscreen technology to create a videogame that could not have existed on any previous platform. It was a huge success, and alongside other early titles it paved the way forward for contemporary mobile gaming, and it remains one of the most successful Australian videogames ever made. If you previously purchased Flight Control from the App Store, you should still be able to download it. If you did not, you will now never be able to access the iPhone version of Flight Control.

Around the same time, videogame developer Bungie released a huge update to their popular shooter Destiny. This update, requiring a 17-gigabyte download, adds and tweaks content in preparation for the game’s next paid expansion, ‘The Taken King’. As a part of this update, all of the spoken lines of one of the characters, voiced by Peter Dinklage, were removed, replaced by videogame voice acting darling Nolan North. Dinklage’s apathetic voice acting was broadly criticised at the game’s release, and Bungie was unable to secure his involvement in ‘The Taken King’, so replacing all the existing lines was the only was to ensure consistency across the game’s content. Now, Dinklage’s original recording can never be heard in the game. The audio files still exist on the disc sold in stores, but to play Destiny requires that you connect online to Bungie’s servers, and to connect to the servers you must have installed the latest version of the game. Imagine if every time George Lucas decided to update the original Star Wars trilogy he was able to alter the old version you had already purchased, erasing all history that Han shot first.

Also in the last week, Kotaku reports that Nintendo have been cracking down on videos of homebrew Mario levels uploaded to YouTube. For decades, dedicated communities have been remixing the data of older games to create ‘ROM hacks’: unauthorised remixes of beloved games. The Mario franchise has received much love from this community and has seen many infamous and wonderful levels created with the existing assets, such as the spectacular Kaizo Mario World. This past week, however, Nintendo released the title Super Mario Maker for its WiiU console, allowing players to easily create their own Mario levels and upload them to the Nintendo servers to share with other players. Here, Nintendo builds on a direct legacy of those ROM hackers and homebrew modders, commodifying their practices and then erasing the history. One day, Nintendo will decide it is no longer profitable to keep the Super Mario Maker servers running and delete every single stage that has been uploaded, erasing that history as well. They did so for a similar title, Warioware D.I.Y last year.

One final anecdote: earlier this year, videogame publisher Konami had a public and messy falling out with one of its best-known designers, Hideo Kojima. After completing his recently released title Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima was meant to create the next game in the survival-horror Silent Hill franchise alongside Guillermo del Toro. With Kojima no longer at Konami, that project has now been cancelled. Last year, however, Konami released a short playable game on the PlayStation digital storefront called P.T. This game was free to download and play, and worked as a ‘playable trailer’ for the then-upcoming now-dead Silent Hill title. Despite being a marketing product, P.T was one of the most remarkable and best-realised title of 2014 – a small, concentrated idea produced with the resources of a blockbuster title. It was magnificent and critically acclaimed. Once the new Silent Hill title was cancelled, however, there was no financial gain for Konami to keep P.T available on the PlayStation store. They removed it, and as it was never ‘purchased’ by its players, it can now never be redownloaded by those who had previously obtained it but then deleted it to clear up hard drive space. One of the most important games of recent years now only exists on the PlayStation 4 hard drives of those that downloaded it and have decided to hold on to it.

Videogames have always had a preservation issue. The perpetual and profitable march ‘forward’ by technology has always ensured videogames are rendered obsolete within years of their release. People purchase a Sony PlayStation, and thus pack up the Super Nintendo and all its games. The Atari 2600 in the garage is full of dust and spiders, and there exists no modern machine those cartridges can be plugged into, assuming they aren’t similarly infected. Even if the new machines people purchase to replace the old machine can still play those older games, that videogames have long been evaluated on a technological metric ensures that going back and playing those older games is difficult. They don’t look good anymore; the technological spectacle has faded. Videogame publishers then take advantage of this by rereleasing ‘high-definition’ versions of older games for people to purchase again and again. Console ‘generations’ bring the rhetoric home as each new Sony PlayStation is incrementally better than the last (PlayStation 4 is better than PlayStation 3). Microsoft take a different and even more ahistorical approach, as the third Xbox console is called the Xbox One: we have arrived; forget all those previous lesser games, this is it – for another five years, anyway.

There have been moves to counter this constant and ongoing erasure of one of the most significant creative forms of the late twentieth century. Museums such as MOMA have begun to curate collections. Academic research projects, such as the Play It Again project in Australia and New Zealand, are working to not just salvage and render playable significant early videogames but the surrounding documentation and stories as well. Not bound by the same legal frameworks, the most significant archiving work is produced by everyday people digitalising their old game collections to be (illegally) downloaded and played by anyone who also downloads the homebrew emulation software. Most of my personal experience of early Nintendo titles was obtained through such emulations.

But despite the best efforts of both institutes and hobbyists, the above depressing anecdotes demonstrate that the situation is only becoming more dire as videogames enter a primarily online environment. Increasingly, videogames are not purchased in physical stores but downloaded from online storefronts. This is convenient for the consumer with better bandwidth than local shops, and it allows the publishers to cut out the middlemen of distributors and retailers to sell a limitless number of copies at a far lower cost. This is as true for small mobile titles purchased through Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store as it is for the massive summer blockbusters purchased through the online stores of Valve’s Steam, Microsoft’s Xbox Live, and Sony’s PlayStation Store. Access to a previously purchased game is no longer dependent on the individual’s ability to store their physical belongings responsibly, but on a corporation’s decision that it will keep the digital storefront available.

Through persistent broadband connections, videogame corporations are now ever-present in the living rooms and pockets of videogame players, casually downloading and installing updates for games in the background. That backdoor is always wedged open, allowing the publisher to take back that which the consumer has ostensibly purchased, to alter it in some permanent fashion, or to render the whole thing inaccessible. It is a broader problem with the reliance on a corporation’s servers to house ones digital possessions (I have written two previous articles relevant to this one that I can not link to as they were published on websites that have since overhauled themselves and deleted old content), but a problem most vividly felt for videogames.

Archiving and sustaining history is an impossible challenge for every art form. Old paintings fade, books go mouldy, original copies of films are lost in warehouse fires. The perceived immateriality of digital forms such as videogames is often seen as a miracle solution, not susceptible to the degradation of mere material artefacts. But the truth is far more dire: digital artefacts are no less dependent on their material grounding than non-digital artefacts. The only difference now is that the material grounding no longer leaves the possession of the corporations who sell the immaterial work, and when it is no longer financially profitable for them to maintain access the work, they will take it away again. It is curatorship by capitalism, preservation by profit, and it is turning the history of videogames into a scorched earth.


Brendan Keogh

Brendan Keogh is a senior lecturer in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology. He is the author of A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames and co-author of The Unity Game Engine and the Circuits of Cultural Software.

More by Brendan Keogh ›

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  1. The sad part is that few people care about this amoungst my circle of friends. So my humble collection of retro games draws amusement and the odd comment from most people.
    It is also sad that many arcade cabinets are being gutted and converted into MAME cabs. I can’t say much about the pinball tables as I don’t have much interest in them, but they are rarely seen these days.

  2. Great article. Places like State Libraries etc are also thinking about these issues (eg SLV has collected a small number of games as electronic resources, I think usually on disc), but preservation is just so difficult (and resource-hungry). Even journal archives are often now effectively “rented” from publishers. Should a library stop their subscription or if the company closes, there is no guarantee the library will retain access to past issues. Game preservation is at least 10x more complex! But no one should still be under the illusion that digital = forever.

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