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The Games Industry Has a Preservation Problem

by Jeb Happy

On March 29, 2021, Sony officially announced that they would be shutting down the PlayStation Store for the PS3 and PS Vita the following summer. Prior to closure, the storefront was the only way to legally purchase a wide selection of digital versions of classic PS1 titles, not to mention a number of digital-only PS3 and Vita games and downloadable content. The store’s closing marks the end of a digital era, and without resorting to piracy means an erasure of games history.

The games industry has a preservation problem. Since the future of the industry seems to heavily prefer digital media to physical, preservation of older titles is more important than ever before. Emulation is one way of keeping classic media alive, but there are a number of variable factors which can manipulate the intended experience. Significant corporations like Sony and Nintendo have introduced classic bundles like the NES Classic and PS Classic, but limited availability and a lack of inclusions have made the purpose of archival entirely moot.

This calls into question the legitimacy of modern remakes. In our current consumerist climate, a game remake is considered much differently than a film remake. Remakes of classic cinema (arguably more often than not) dish out underdeveloped knockoffs designed to tick modern boxes and inspire curiosity with beloved franchises and snag ticket sales. But in critical circles, these remakes are often met with scorn; a common phrase audiences use is that a remake “ruins the legacy of the original,” meaning remakes are commonly seen in a negative light.

But with games, modern reimaginings of classic titles are often met with adoration. The recent Resident Evil 2 remake from 2019 was met with commercial and critical acclaim upon release, a remake which redesigned the entire scheme of the original, added a modernistic sheen to the appearance, and rebuilt the game from the ground up. Very little of the game’s transpiring events and fundamental structure are carried over from the original 1998 Capcom title, an entry in the beloved series which is becoming harder to own and play as the years go by without resorting to secondhand purchasing, especially now that its digital availability on consoles will dissolve as soon as the PS3 and Vita marketplace shuts down.

In other words, a few years from now, the original Resident Evil 2 may not be available for a large section of the community to play without paying a large sum for a copy. Even now, games like the Silent Hill series and Suikoden II are skyrocketing in price on used-product sites, especially given Sony’s recent news.

The Resident Evil 2 remake is not intended to preserve the experience of an influential PS1 title; it is meant to replace it. Capcom, and seemingly most other big name developers and publishers, do not express interest in preserving older generations’ media, they are only interested in the new.

This also calls into question the legitimacy of games as an “art form.” Projects like the Criterion Collection seek to restore and preserve classic films which may be at risk of becoming lost to time. Cinema is largely perceived as balancing the artistic with the commercial, but games too often fall into the latter categorization. Assertions that games are “just supposed to be Fun” reinforce the notion of games as content to be consumed and nothing more.

Live service titles further infer the modern state of games-as-product, and the result is a prevalent brushing under the rug of any notion that preservation is important. Older titles are outdated, and therefore they don’t matter.

Well, why should old games matter? Is there anything to take away from them in a modern setting? The issue of failing to preserve history means that history is likely to erase from physical reality. What if to say, for example, Galaga were unplayable today? The game, that has been physically archived inherently by arcade machines and redistributed in various forms amongst various digital releases, is fortunately likely to never disappear. The same can be said for Tetris, and Pac-Man, and a select number of other beloved arcade titles with simplistic control layouts.

The issue is once again profit-driven. Galaga continues to make money, continues to feel significant because of its classic status. More than that, its simplicity — the control scheme consists of a joystick and a button — makes it a universally accessible experience to hop on and play. There are pixels onscreen, one of which the player pilots, the others they aim at and shoot. This is a far cry from Resident Evil 2, which features blocky, early 3D polygons and antiquated tank controls. Indeed, modernizing the game by utilizing the always-fresh Resident Evil 4-style over-the-shoulder gunplay is a favorable choice.

Remakes of so-called “classic” titles infer that the only reason they are classics is because of their legacy. Playing a classic game doesn’t really matter at this point, only knowing of it does. Even those classic arcade titles are often redesigned to appear modern on current consoles and devices.

The Silent Hill HD Collection released in 2012 after a lengthy development process which was hindered by the loss of the original game assets. Rebuilding SH2 and SH3 resulted in an artistic loss which has received endless backlash from fans to this day. Konami’s lack of attention to the criticism is further proof the industry’s disappointing relationship with archival and preservation: As long as it sells, then who’s to care?

Consumers should care. Gamers should care. Proponents of maintaining historic documents and artistic artifacts should care. The erasure of such history as due to a failure to preserve and archive means a further commercialization of an industry already racked with consumerist priorities. From the way things currently look, we are headed in a disastrous direction.

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