In comparison to a medium like cinema, computer games suffer from a particularly poor level of longevity. The vast majority of films can still happily be viewed today, often in an updated format, though keeping to the original production. That isn’t to suggest that films do not become dated, nor that more than just distribution formats are updated in later productions. Only recently I had the privilege of watching a once lost silent Polish film, A Strong Man (Mocny Człowiek), rediscovered in 1997. As there were no hints as to what musical accompaniment was meant to be played with the film, the DVD was released with a modern ambient style, that took a short while to get used to, but actually fit the film’s plot and style rather beautifully. On the whole, however, a film produced fifty years ago can be viewed with much the same clarity today as on the day it was released.
With computer games this issue is all too obviously unsolved. Not only do games age, as with any form of media entertainment, but they do so astonishingly quickly. The systems in place to support many of them gradually fade away, the communities surrounding them normally dissipate before too long (if there even is one), and in many cases the hardware and software required to run them simply move on.
To compare games to cinema is perhaps unwise, but many of the principle facets remain the same. Older games may not have the same visual complexities of today’s successors, nor the scope of their worlds or the detail of their mechanics, but their storylines and gameplay can remain as fresh as ever. A game such as Tetris will never die, on the basis of its blinding simplicity and addictive gameplay – but most importantly thanks to the myriad of rewrites, updates and clones that have kept the game alive to this day. Even the signature theme tune will live on as a classic example of gaming heritage.
Yet for every classic such as Tetris that has survived or been adapted for the modern era, there are simply thousands that have been essentially lost under the rolling wheels of technological advancement. Worst of all is that whilst many games become unplayable as operating systems and hardware develop, and as publishers stop producing them, copyright holders generally maintain their grasp on the games and consign efforts to keep them alive to pirates. This is quite frankly one of the more maddening aspects of computer game development, that golden classics should be consigned to history or piracy, since they cannot legally be made available for free, and cannot be purchased in any store that isn’t still anticipating the Millennium bug, is in my eyes simply a crime. All power to the outfits that make their games available after a certain period, or like id software have a policy of releasing their source code for free after a certain period.
Nevertheless, all is not Doom or Gloom. This post was originally inspired when I came across the remake of a classic of the 1980s game Ghostbusters, entirely rewritten for today’s machines. No doubt the original is out there somewhere, and playable via one of the many decent emulator programmes available, but trying to acquire and run these things can be a challenging experience. The more popular platforms have well developed, stable emulators with a lot of support, and finding ROMs for these isn’t particularly challenging, but for the more obscure platforms and titles, this can still be a frustruting and fruitless search.
Fortunately, some really great work has been done on a number of projects to keep certain niches alive. The ScummVM project has done some excellent work to make a number of classic adventure games playable on today’s operating systems. Quite how they’ve run into battles with the LucasArts legal team when trying to rescue their back catalogue from the dustbin is beyond me. A number of projects have also arisen around the selection of older id software games, such as Doomsday, which providing an updated game engine for Doom, Heretic and Hexen, helped in large part to id software’s laudable policy of releasing the source code (not to mention having the temerity to port many of their games in the first place). With a more general aim, the DOSBox project empowers a great many classics with a new lease of life, although this can be a tricky process, made much easier by the D-Fend Reloaded frontend. As per the recent entanglements with Worms, however, even this can cause some headscratching.
My favourite project of this ilk, however, has to be the astoundingly good OpenTTD. The ultimate goal being to create an entirely free re-working of Chris Sawyer’s classic Transport Tycoon Deluxe, the project certainly sits on shaky legal ground for attempting to present a copy of the game, but that aside the software is able to utilise the original game’s graphics and sounds, and not only recreate the original experience, but also improve upon it. Amongst other merits are the plethora of options, the feature additions which are well within the tone of the game, and of course the brilliantly updated multiplayer options which has given this game a decidedly extended lease of life. I could happily go on raving about this project, but that’s probably best left for another post altogether.
One might like to believe that the future looks brighter as far as gaming longevity is concerned. Distribution platforms such as Valve’s Steam allow games to be ‘published’ long after the traditional cycle, and has even been in large part responsible for resurrecting some old classics (e.g. Commander Keen). It may also spur developers to keep their catalogues ‘current’, at least as far as running on the latest Microsoft operating system. Nevertheless, the modern computer game has certainly moved far from its humble origins. The classic games of yesteryear that have remained with us on account of their unique simplicity, are mimicked today in the largely plotless gameplay oriented multiplayer games of the Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament ilk. There are of course more recent and highly successful moves in the direction of more immersive and detailed worlds, and although World of Warcraft alone probably accounts for well more than half of all players of MMORPGs, clearly in terms of gaming attributes the multiplayer aspect has grown to highly significant proportions.
Ultimately then, whilst there are numerous well-intentioned projects out there to attempt to rescue many classic games from the grave, will the future of gaming make that job actually harder rather than easier to achieve? Certainly any multiplayer gaming experience relies to some extent on the quality of the players involved, but setting up a multiplayer game of Doom is probably easier today than it was when it was released, the only thing needed are the players. But for games that rely on servers and a myriad other players cannot really hope to be recreated in the future, in the same way that an old DOS or Amiga game can be rewritten or emulated. In the future, will we be forced to look back upon a game like World of Warcraft as a phenomenon?