Dusty Pixels and Patchwork Stories

by Scott Juster

21 October 2010

Aging technology, the difficulty of cataloging games, and the ease of digital revision complicates our grasp of video game history and our ability to critically evaluate the present.

In the waning months of 2008, I learned that an upcoming patch to PixelJunk Eden would make significant changes to the game’s rules.  While it wasn’t exactly a problem of biblical proportions, I did feel a sense of anxiety about how the changes would affect my little digital paradise.  I was faced with the options of either forfeiting online features in perpetuity or racing through the gardens before the patch was deployed.  Partly out of stubbornness and partly out of principle, I vowed to finish the game in its original form.  With only days to spare, I managed to swing, grip, and jump my way to victory.

In addition to giving me an unexpectedly enjoyable meta game to play, the experience awakened me to increasingly common problems that arise when studying games.  How do we analyze games that change over time and games that are re-made?  Games are subject to ports, re-releases, updates, and patches.  What kinds of artistic and interpretive issues are raised by this plasticity?
In PixelJunk Eden, even subtle changes like increased time limits and more liberal checkpoints changed the story conveyed by the game’s mechanics.  What was once a game about maintaining a sense of urgency even in a serene environment became considerably more mellow after the patch.  From an accessibility standpoint, these changes were good ways of easing a fairly difficult game and broadening its appeal to players who wanted a more exploratory experience.  Still, it was slightly disturbing to consider that the game that was originally released would effectively cease to exist.

Video games are not the only art form in which works are revised.  Pieces of literature in particular often see changes between specific additions of the same book.  For example, The Hobbit underwent alterations after it was first published in order to reflect Tolkien’s new plans for the significance of the ring and Gollum.  People dedicate their lives to studying the differences between different editions of specific works, and their efforts to point out differences and changes over time allow provide a standardized framework in which to study the material.  Of course, all this is possible because, unlike games, old books do not vanish when they are “patched.”  The World of Warcraft that existed in 2004 has substantially changed over the years and will be undergo an even more drastic change after the upcoming Cataclysm.  The latest expansion will fundamentally alter the virtual world’s story and geography so that new players can not possibly have the same experience as those that came before them.  Unlike going to a library to find an older edition of a novel, directly interacting with WoW’s history will mean scouring the Internet for rogue servers or gaining access to the bowels of the Blizzard internal archive, should such a thing even exist.

In terms of access to various editions of the same work, video games resemble film.  Because they are more difficult to preserve and reproduce, the original creators hold a relatively large amount of power over which version of the work is most widely available.  As is illustrated by the many (and most would say unfortunate) attempts to revise the canonical versions of Star Wars and E.T., it is clear that subsequent editions can drastically affect the message of a work and not always for the better.

I am loath to put Portal’s new ending in the same category as “Han Shot First” and “walkie-talkies instead of guns,” but the revision comes dangerously close to the aforementioned instances of flippancy in terms of its disregard for the message found in the original version.  Having Chell dragged back into the facility by an apparently new character undercuts the isolated, personal contest between Chell and GlaDOS.  The game was full of ambiguity and mystery and the ending was fittingly similar; the uncertainty of GlaDOS’ demise and Chell’s victory was left for the player to ponder.  The second ending raises new questions but also conforms to the familiar tactic of hinting at, or promising, a sequel.

The timing and intent of the new Portal ending are also potentially worrisome in terms of the commercialization of revisions.  At the risk of sounding overly snobbish, retconning the story to promote a sequel feels a bit capricious.  Because of their talent, Valve is able to pull this off tastefully, but it is still bothersome to think that a stand alone title can be conscripted and altered into a marketing tool so easily.  In the hands of a more mercenary publisher, it is easy to imagine entire games being patched to reflect focus group tests, reviews, and plans for expanding the franchise.  Without an easy way to acquire, store, and disseminate them, the original version of the game would fade into digital obscurity.

Just as code and human memory can disappear, so too can the physical objects we use to play games.  Kieron Gillen, eloquent as usual, describes seeing the original version of Asteroids in the wild:

Asteroids, played in its natural habit of the arcade, simply looks like nothing else. If you’ve continued to play Asteroids on the home system, seeing it those lines burn so painfully bright is a revelation. If you’ve never seen Asteroids at all, it looks like some kind of modernist masterwork dropped in from another dimension. The vector screen is technology which was never followed significantly further, meaning that all its power remains novel even to the 21st century eye. It looks like a dream of a videogame, this pure idea of a thing, the light as bright as your imagination, lines as sharp as the gasp torn from your chest. (“The Arcades of New York”, Kieron Gillen’s Workblog, 10 October 2010)

In addition to the software and the player’s experience, video games exists in relation to their hardware, hardware that has a finite lifespan.  While software and audio emulation is quite capable of producing faithful renditions of old games, Kieron’s observation reminds us that even the most faithful reproductions distort the original product.  Our new monitors with their glossy sheen and sizable resolutions are an odd fit with games from the past.  Harsh lines and crude animation are thrown into sharp relief on our new monitors.  Playing old games like Super Mario Bros. on the Wii’s Virtual Console highlight the utility of CRT’s warm blur and instant response times.

For console games, the controller itself provides a challenge in bringing old games into the modern era.  Games like Super Mario 64 or The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time were built specifically with the Nintendo 64 controller in mind.  A game’s tactile elegance is only as strong as the player’s tool for interacting with the virtual world, and the Classic Controller suffers from being a general tool for a specialized job.  As anyone who has ever owned an N64 control can attest, such a specialized tool is also tragically fragile.

Are Master System controllers going the way of the phonograph?  Is upping the resolution and altering the character models of Beyond Good and Evil the equivalent of colorizing Citizen Kane?  Can patches and updates fundamentally change a game, and is this acceptable?  All of these questions are debatable, but while we debate, the past continues to slip away.

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