Video Game Preservation is Already Complicated

Since the dual announcements in the last month of Google Stadia and the Microsoft’s Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, many observers within the video game industry are rightfully concerned about what these new platforms mean for the long-term preservation of video games. As physical releases are gradually replaced by downloadable copies and streams from servers, preservationists fear that we are headed towards a world in which large swaths of video game history are restricted to re-released copies sold as remasters, accessed via streaming services like Nintendo Switch Online, or lost entirely as hard drives die and servers are shut down and repurposed. As Carly Kocurek states in her most recent piece, if games end up being preserved only in corporate archives, they will “exist at a remove from the public’s collective memory.”

While these articles draw attention to the future of preservation, archivists currently focused on digital preservation face serious obstacles. Many of the looming threats posed by streaming and digital-only access already exist in one form or another. As Trevor Owens explains in The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, preservation can be broken down into three broad frameworks: artifactual, informational, and folkloric. For the first few decades of their history, video games fell into the category of informational preservation. There could be multiple copies of a game printed and sold throughout the world, but as long as the data itself was identical, each copy was considered the game.

“Nostalgia” by Jo, CC BY-NC

The copy of Super Mario World bundled with the SNES console, for instance, is fundamentally the same game as what was later released independently in stores. For institutions like The Library of Congress or The Video Game History Foundation, preserving video games as informational objects poses significant challenges, but the process follows the standards established by other physical media like books, film, and music.

The difficulty with modern games, however, is that they present a moving target for preservation. Features are updated and removed, game-breaking bugs and exploits are fixed, and new content is readily added. The pressures of video game development are such that new releases purchased on discs often don’t even include the entire game. Release-day patches are commonplace and often clock in as downloads larger than the disc’s original content.

Online-multiplayer games complicate matters even further. These games keep players interested by providing constantly evolving worlds where users interact with one another to unlock new modes and milestones. The gameplay possibilities seen in Destiny 2 at launch, for instance, are radically different than what is now available two years later.

Taken together, patches, DLC, and online servers can divide a game between discs, hard drives, and corporate storage. No longer singular informational objects, modern video games create serious problems for archivists seeking to preserve not only the content of a game, but the experience as well.

While The Library of Congress can readily accession and preserve a retail copy of Destiny 2, for example, a researcher accessing the disc years later will not be able to understand or fully appreciate the game’s played experience. Owens suggests, then, that we may need to rethink of video game preservation as akin to recorded performances instead of informational objects. While imperfect, Let’s Plays, Twitch streams, and other gameplay recordings can provide valuable windows into a game’s played experience. Further scholars will be unable to complete a raid in Destiny or World of Warcraft, but they be able to watch players doing just that. Game streaming and digital-only distribution will continue to exacerbate old problems of preservation, but we can take steps to ensure researchers understand why the games of our era took hold in popular culture.

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New Play the Past Article: Valiant Hearts, The Great War, and The Shaping of Historical Memory

I have a new piece up on Play the Past concerning Valiant Hearts, a narrative-driven puzzle game about World War I. I’ve been exploring the use of historical settings and events in video games over the last few years and this piece continues that trend. I look at how Valiant Hearts focuses on the human cost of war and the individual experience. You can find it here.

Slavery and FTL: Faster Than Light

In order to make better use of my blog, I’m going to write some smaller posts that cover something I’ve noticed in many modern games. Through several fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic settings, slavery is featured as part of the in-game society. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Fallout 3, and the Mass Effect series all direct the player to interact with slaves and slave traders. The Assassin’s Creed series, including Assassin’s Creed 3, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, address slavery as part of their respective historical settings. Within these games, the developers have established economies less constrained by morality or law, allowing for individuals to profit from slavery without retribution.

In FTL: Faster Than Light, the player can randomly encounter slavers as they attempt to fulfill their mission for the Federation. When they meet a slaver: they are given three options: (1) Buy one slave and free them to join your crew, (2) Attack the slavery scum, or (3) Ignore the slaver and continue on your way.

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In describing the slave trader as scum and placing “laborers” in quotations, the developers make it clear that your crew believes slavery to be immoral and that you can deal with the slavers accordingly.

If you select the first option, a new crew member appears on your ship after presumably being manumitted. If you choose the third possibility, the encounter ends and you move on to the next waypoint. Attacking the slaver allows you to enter into open combat and eventually triggers more decisions. If you continue to attack and eventually destroy the ship, FTL informs you: “The slave ship is destroyed. They won’t continue their evil trade, but many lives were probably lost on that ship.” By drawing attention to the innocent slaves who lost their lives, FTL suggests that saving the slaves is more important than ending the slave trade itself.

On repeated playthroughs, this pushes the player to attack the slave trader but select the alternative option. The slavers surrender and state, “Take one of our slaves as tribute; if you destroy us they’ll all die anyway!” If you accept the offer, a slave comes on board your ship and you can travel to your next waypoint.

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While you’ve preserved the lives of innocent slaves, this option raises several moral questions. First, are the slavers simply allowed to continue trading throughout the galaxy? By accepting the offer, you’ve allowed the slave trade to continue in exchange for the life of a single slave. Second, what is the legal status of the slave you’ve taken on board? According to the dialogue presented to the player, the slave given as tribute is never freed. Instead, they simply appear on your ship where you can use them in any role you choose. In addition, the slave cannot leave your ship for the rest of the game. Rather than freeing a slave and dealing a blow to the slave trade, you’ve accepted human (or alien) chattel as a bribe.

Your relationship with the slave traders is further complicated by a fourth and final option. If you have installed a teleporter on your ship (something I don’t often do), you can send a rescue party to free the slaves. In most of these instances, you are able to free one or all of the slaves and bring one of them aboard your ship. In this context, the game implies that you’ve freed all of the slaves and additional crew member joined your party of their own volition.

Eventually, your boarding party, with or without the freed slave, will have to fight the slavers in hand to hand combat. If you kill the entire crew, your party may find the slaves in the ship’s cargo hold. According to the dialogue presented to you, “They look at you questioningly and one asks if they’re to be released. You could use more crew but you don’t want to force them all to work for you instead…” Face to face with a cargo hold of slaves, your crew is incapable of passing up the opportunity to bring a slave on board their ship. While they feel that claiming all of the slaves would be immoral, they justify owning one slave for the good of the mission.

In a decision tree that uncomfortably mirrors historical slave auctions, you then choose between these three species based on innate characteristics that grant them unique abilities in combat and support roles. If the player is familiar with each species, they will likely choose the one whose labor will best improve the ship’s operation. The three slaves also come to terms with their continued enslavement in different ways. One “seems fine with the orders,” the second “remains silent and you worry there might be trouble,” and the third believes their enslavement to be “acceptable” as long as the primary objective is galactic peace. The remaining slaves are freed on a nearby space station, but the one you’ve chosen remains a slave in your service. Presumably, the three agreed to accept a lifetime of slavery if it meant the freedom for their compatriots.

While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant. When you first encounter the slave trader, your crew views the slavers, and by extension the slave trade, as scum. As the exchange progresses, however, your crew grows increasingly comfortable with the idea of using slaves to complete their mission. By either accepting a slave as tribute or keeping a slave as payment for rescue, FTL’s crew abandons their previous ethical objections and uses slave labor on their ship. This is especially tragic in a game where death and defeat is almost always your final outcome. Unable to leave your ship, the slaves that you could have freed are instead doomed to die in bondage.