Game preservation and the quest for immortality

8 thoughts on “Game preservation and the quest for immortality”

  1. It might be interesting to think of games being more like live theater performances than movies. The current hardware is like the stage and original cast. As long as you have the script, you could possibly restage it elsewhere with a different cast, but many shows, once they leave Broadway, are just gone.

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    1. That’s a very interesting perspective, something that I have not even considered at all, thanks! I think that kind of shows as well just how many compelling possibilities exist out there in terms of trying to understand and analyse games, all kinds of alternative and counter-intuitive positions that have yet to be taken up.


  2. Great analogy. I talked about this with a friend who’s into theatre and needed some help with adapting some game mechanics on stage for narrative purposes, and that was revealing: both on what videogame grammar is and how it could translate elsewhere. Basically, a grammar is shaped by it’s media’s limits, but once you get how it shapes your ideas in return, you can transfer this newly found dynamic elsewhere in one way or another – with some loss sure, it’s not the whole work mirrored as is, more of a translation, but it’s better than nothing and certainly leads to new fruitful approaches. And it does feel like theatre and generally older arts mostly care for ideas and some underlying basis rather than full conservation.

    Random thoughts after reading:

    – an increasing number of historians want the context too – design docs, reviews, videos etc. Because without context, meaning can be lost or misinterpreted (or twisted).

    – this reminds me of a design article on Moon Hunters (a roguelike), where the design team drew inspiration from a tribe which thinks writing and whatever way you use to ‘set something in stone’ is counterintuitive: a story should live on and be shaped by the people who interpret it.

    – gaming in general is getting bigger, whatever the type. Boardgames have become way more varied and some directly draw inspiration from videogames (some adaptations are surprisingly great like DOOM 2nd edition, or This War of Mine (some consider it better than the digital version), which even has a kind of ‘indie-like’ manifesto in its manual that mirrors the indie scene a decade ago). Some mechanisms seem like underlying programming, taking players’ actions into account in a more indirect, hidden and subtle way. Some like Magic Maze turn each player into a small function (left/right, open room…) and play real-time. Escape games, and some forms of live theatre use Myst-like approaches or environmental narration + ‘NPCs’. And there’s art installations too, which can explore specific aspects. And modding that basically use any game as a creative framework.

    – in France the Notre-Dame accident triggered some debate about conservation, and a comparison between Western and Eastern approaches, especially in Japan. Western culture tends to keep things as is. In Japan they tend to rebuild identical models, deeming the idea/structure/craftmanship more important. Both have their pros and cons, but could complement each other.

    So this may show that videogames’ grammar can be partly adapted somewhere else, along with part of the experience. All that in addition to pure preservation of course. Both ends of a spectrum.

    As a side note, I was quite surprised by a print of a PICO-8 game draft (a small NES-like game making tool): it was 6 pages of code, with the hexadecimal part (graphics, sounds) included by mistake. It looked like a mess until I held the page at arm’s length and noticed that the whole scenery was actually visible – sure, slightly misshaped and colourless, but the whole structure and the change in textures (due to varying hexadecimal segments) was definitely visible, a bit like pointillism, or vanilla Dwarf Fortress. As my game draft was very amateurish and simple, I was left with my game almost fully readable on paper there: obsviously the logic (and thus the intent and method), the graphics, and, in a confusing way, sounds. So whoever has a very basic programming knowledge and knows how PICO-8’s palette and sounds are handled could get a pretty precise idea of the game as a whole without even using a computer. Obvious stuff maybe, but I thought that preserving a game’s structure AND shape on paper like this was eye-opening.

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    1. Thanks for the extensive comments! I was actually thinking about discussing the inherently “Western” approach to cultural immortality in here but that would have bloated this post even further which I didn’t want to do in the end. The point about the PICO-8 draft is fascinating as well, a single image that represents the entirety of a game, a kind of alternative or complement to a playable archived version.


  3. You might also consider more the difference between preserving digital work and physical work. When companies like Microsoft and Facebook and Google and Sony can save archives of trivial data about literally billions of people but can’t be bothered to save the source code of games made by game developers they own/fund/publish, the conversation needs to be more about the priorities of capitalism than some sort of inherently ephemeral nature of art.

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    1. While writing I was thinking about preserving digital a little bit, although from a perspective where digital assets in the long term seem to be just as vulnerable to time as physical ones, in terms of OS/platform/file format changes etc.

      I can see the point about redirecting priorities within the capitalist system but I am not sure under what circumstances that would be possible, and regardless as you can probably tell by this post I would rather work towards dismantling that system rather than reforming it.

      In the end if there was a possibility of preserving everything, of course this conversation would be somewhat moot, but then we can turn to the more interesting questions of the value of doing so and what that impulse can tell us about this specifically Western sensibility of worshipping at the altar of the original. I came across this fascinating article today that does an excellent job at providing an alternative perspective on that –


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