Capturing Heritage, Preserving History

A while back, I happened to stumble across this article which talked about the most influential people in the video game industry. Among such giants as Gabe Newell, John Carmack and Randy Pitchford was the name Guillaume Rambourg, managing director of a little website called Good Old Games. Hey, I thought, I love Good Old Games, and I love what they do, but why was he on the list?

The reason was simple: he leads a team responsible for preserving and making readily available games from ages past.  Sure, most of these titles aren’t older than I am, but most of them have been left by the wayside by publishers, no longer readily available for the average consumer (or at least, the average consumer who won’t resort to piracy).

And, sadly, for games, there seems little interest in preserving the history of gaming for future generations. Instead, classics are lost amid the deluge of new titles. Sure, modern gamers have a vague sense that there were a couple other Fallout games before Fallout 3 and that Deus Ex is that one game they keep seeing way too high in top 100 games lists, but there isn’t a keen interest in keeping these games readily available for gamers.

And this is further proof that the industry itself is its own worst enemy, taking little pride in its heritage, disregarding classics that built the studios while focusing on promoting huge cash cows. This would be akin to Warner Brothers deciding that Citizen Kane and Casablanca are films that they no longer need to make available or the Tolkien estate deciding that The Silmarillion simply isn’t that important a work in the overall context of everything Tolkien wrote.

Sure, at this point the money to be made off of The Similirion and Citizen Kane is minuscule when compared to something like the never before read Tolkien stories or the bluray release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, but that’s not the point. The point is that the owners of the property take pride in their heritage, make it available to everyone, and proudly proclaim it as what made them so great to begin with. Hell, the music that plays behind The Warner Brothers logo is still “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca. Why? Because Warner Brothers is still proud of their history and the films they produced in the classic Hollywood era.

How do gamers feel about their own history? Well, for many, old classics are undesirable due to convoluted gameplay systems, outdated graphics and lower production quality. For them, they look back at the past and see ugly, primitive games that have little value. And this is a problem. The average reader takes delight in the classics and the average moviegoer has a black and white film they find enjoyable. There aren’t complaints that Casablanca is in black and white or that Pride and Prejudiced uses too many fancy words that have dropped out of modern vocabulary.

That’s the charm, but for gamers there is something undesirable, archaic and backwards about games from past generations. Sure, they might concede the importance of Fallout, but they’d rather play Fallout 3 than even begin to take the time to invest in learning the old interface and getting past the outdated graphics of the original Fallout.

This being said, there are plenty of games who love and play all kids of classic, outdated games today. But for everyone one of those I’ve met, there’s another I’ve met who finds so many classics too outdated today. There is a rich history of games that need to be preserved, need to be made available to gamers with ease. Without that history, it will be hard to convince people of the rich heritage and development of the medium. Publishers should take pride in the accomplishments of their past instead of simply constantly pushing for the future. And, in turn, gamers should be interested in delving into that past, demanding classic games be made available.

And there’s another issue with preserving games. In order to truly preserve games, they need to be independent of any Digital Rights Management. The problem is that services that have DRM rely on serves and systems that could one day be gone, making the games unplayable. As inconceivable as it might seem in the moment, Steam could disappear one day and there’s no guarantee that any of those games will still be accessible for gamers.

This is why Good Old Games is important; this is why publishers need to release these classics with no DRM. Because as long as one person has that GOG installer of the game on his computer, the game will still be preserved. Preservation no longer has to be an act of trained specialist with tons of equipment, but the work of an entire community that collects and preserves games from the past.

And don’t think that these games will simply hang around forever because they’re computer code. In order to truly preserve these, the source code of the game is needed, as well as the materials which came with the original release, so that it can be packaged correctly for preservation. And it’s often something that the publisher may not even have anymore.

Let us not go the route of silent films, many of which were lost, destroyed and disposed of. Now, a great majority of all silent films are gone, likely lost forever. Imagine if that ended up being the case for DOS games. While we’re already a step ahead of many industries in preserving our history, let’s not become complacent. There are still plenty of obscure titles out there which could prove to be a masterwork just waiting to come to light.

I’m not asking every gamer to suddenly go back and spend all their gaming time delving into the ether of DOS gaming, but I am asking them to appreciate and at least explore gaming history. You know there were three Call of Duty games before Modern Warfare, but did you ever try to play the original first person shooter? (I still haven’t.) And what’s the original first person shooter, anyway? I’ll leave that for you to find.

And sure, you may find you don’t care for that many old games, but I bet that most of you who try them will gain a new appreciation for how video games have developed over the years. We need to preserve that history and the only way that is going to happen is if we express an interest in that history.  So go check out Good Old Games, browse through some gaming history articles and websites and perhaps even dust off one of those old consoles stashed away in the garage (hey, I love plenty of console games, too).  Explore that history, show an interest in it and maybe you’ll also find yourself a new favorite from a bygone era.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing