Recently I was putting away my old video game systems into deep storage. The Playstation 2 hadn’t been played in a year and I didn’t want to clutter up my entertainment console with unused systems. So I started exploring the emulation landscape on last generation’s systems. Would I be able to play last generation’s games on my computer if it tickled my fancy? It turns out that, at least for Playstation 1 and 2, they work just as well as on the system for all the games I own. When I first discovered emulators, I used them to play Chrono Trigger in the high school library when I was bored. When I went back to them in college, it was to play arcade games from my childhood on MAME.
With maturity, I came to see that the true benefit of all the work that goes into the emulation community is not the ability to play games without paying for them. (Via emulators and ROMs or ISOs) The true benefit is a preservation of an art form that will not live as long as the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is hung up behind a thick plate of glass and cannot be handled. Central to experiencing games is playing them. And in playing them we wear them out and they cease to be available for future generations. Serious emulation projects like MAME do their best to ensure the emulation is not just about being able to play the games, it’s about being as faithful as possible to the original hardware. Sometimes this means even recreating bugs because that’s how the arcade machine played all those years ago.
This made me realize that there’s a potential issue for the emulation and preservation of the current generation. (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, and – to some extent – PC) Today’s games are released and then patched – sometimes dozens of times – to fix what can sometimes be game-breaking errors. In the future, on an emulated PS3 – where will these patches come from? While it would not be impossible to somehow recreate the patching servers and maybe recover some of the patches – they are not on the physical discs and would be a lot more scarce for those who would preserve these games. And that’s even assuming that the current generation of copy-controls wouldn’t make it impossible for the games to play without being able to contact true Sony (or Microsoft or Nintendo) servers.
Patches are only one reason why Scarlett may not be able to play the games I enjoyed from my 20s onward. There is also downloadable content (DLC) which is, more often than not, only available online as opposed to a disc. For some games, like Mass Effect 2, the player who does not play the DLC is missing a key game experience.
Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought of this topic. I first thought about it when I heard that World of Warcraft (WoW) was going to have a world-changing event that meant new players would never get to experience the early story and areas of WoW. I had never intended to play WoW because I was opposed to paying a monthly fee to play a game, but, nonetheless, I was sad that if I were able to play I’d never be able to experience what nearly 8 million others had. Of course that ignores that fact that since a large part of MMORGS is interaction with others, by not being there at the beginning I’d never get to experience what many of those who played WoW did.
My lamentation ignores games like TF2 which are inherently online play and have no single player mode. Those games are constantly changing as different people play them and eventually no one will be playing them or the servies will be switched off. And that also makes me think of games like Call of Duty where there is a single player mode, but the main focus of most players is on the online multiplayer mode.
I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do to preserve these games. Games like TF2 and WoW are obviously lost causes as games that can be properly preserved although we could capture video so that people could still see what these games were about. But when it comes to the more traditional games I wonder if organizations like the Library of Congress could work with developers to acquire the necessary files while it’s still easy. (ie before the companies dissolve or files are deleted) There are some really historically important movies that we lost because the movie studios didn’t see the need for film preservation in the early days of cinema. I would hate for the same thing to happen to games. At least the interesting thing is that Scarlett will definitely be able to play Final Fantasy VI; she may not be able to play Final Fantasy XIII.