As everybody is aware by now, Sony has officially unveiled the Playstation 4. The announcement was hardly a surprise and Sony are all but guaranteed to be rewarded with a return of investment down the pipeline. However, as other commenters (such as this excellent piece by John Teti on The Gameological Society) have already written, the launch of a new console is not without its problems. For one, the already astronomical financial barrier for creators, writers and even players will be raised even further with another console generation. Furthermore, there were no women present to announce any of the new hyper-violent games (mostly sequels to already established franchises), suggesting that the new Playstation will only be offering more of all the problems that are associated with games now but with higher framerates. A new console generation exacerbates another growing problem in games: that of preservation.
The same day that the Playstation 4 was announced, Japanese game developer Kenji Eno passed away from heart failure. Eno’s death was noticed quickly and remarked on respectfully, leading to a number of warm tributes to his unique body of work. I had never heard of him before he died. Eno’s most well-known and lauded work was on the very Lynchian D (Sega Saturn/3DO 1995), Enemy Zero (Sega Saturn/PC 1996), and D 2 (Dreamcast 1999). Unless you have immediate access to hard copies of his work and the short-lived consoles he developed for, you will never have the chance to experience any of Eno’s work.
There are video games that are “classics” (goodness knows Square-Enix are thrilled to have such a deep library to excuse the mediocre schlock they’ve thrown together in recent years) but most games released in a given year are forgotten. Often that’s for the best, most anything of a given year is unremarkable. Still, there are more than a few babies in all that bathwater. Sometimes a work of art needs time before it can really be appreciated, or even for people to discover it. You could drown in all the examples of now classic works of art that were unappreciated in their own time. There’s a reason there’s a cliché for the painting that only sells for millions after the artist dies. Sometimes, these things take time.
There is an added dimension to this in video games. Developing exclusively for one console automatically restricts the majority of a potential audience from the work. Journey is touted as a milestone for gaming, but for anyone without a Playstation 3, it’s just something abstract to read about. Moreover, as a game based on multiplayer, eventually it won’t be what it was. Players will log on less often until it’s just an empty virtual desert. If you’ve missed it, you’re running out of time.
A new console means another library of old games being discarded. Again, much of what’s left behind probably doesn’t seem like much of a loss: but what about the larger trends that come and go? What about the snapshots that old conventions and lost titles provide for the art form? A zeitgeist ebbs and flows and art helps capture the mindset of a time and place. All those old games provide a timeline for how things came to be the way they are. And if that doesn’t seem important, what about Kenji Eno, who’s only real mistake was betting on the wrong console three times in a row?
What hope is there for the developers that are ahead of their time? For those without the marketing budget to reach everyone at once? For those whose contractual obligations prevent them from earning the audience they otherwise would have? For those that need time to grow to find an audience? What happens to Kenji Eno now that he’s died and all that’s left is his work?
Eno’s work spoke to a lot of people and they have taken the time to write about how and why it’s important and meaningful. They should keep doing it. There are many that are disappointed that Eno never had the opportunity to release more work with his signature on it. There are many that are grateful he was able to share his vision through the games that did see the light of day. But they’re a rare bunch. Without access to his work, it’s all abstract.
The only games that are preserved are the biggest immediate commercial successes. Imagine a world where the only albums that are available are those that hit platinum in the year of their release, or films that reach $100 million in their opening weekend. That’s the approach to game preservation now. A work is only worth keeping if it was once—and therefore could once again be—profitable. Those that try to preserve the medium on their own terms are treated with as much hostility as criminals.
According to publishers, those that pirate, copy, borrow, share or even buy their games used are ruthlessly killing the billion dollar industry. Granted, there has always been a financial impetus for game development, and whenever those obnoxious “games are art” people start talking too much it’s easy to shut them up with the fact that games are made to make money and that’s that. Wanna stay involved with games? Pay up to keep up. But much like people, companies eventually die. Companies are sold, they change owners, they change industries, they change goals, they go in different directions, they’re buried by scandal or legislative reform or bad decisions or an unpredictable market. What happens to all the great work they did in their prime?
This should not be taken as a protest against change or a resistance to progress from just another grumpy underemployed critic who’s starting to feel a little less young than he used to. But for sake of argument, let’s say that David Cage—free from the burden of making games on an eight figure budget at a studio that employs nearly two hundred people—is finally able to actualize his vision on the Playstation 4. Let’s say that whatever he’s able to produce for the new console is important and meaningful to the people that play it. Now let’s say that, somewhere, Sony miscalculated and the PS4 spirals into obscurity after two years of spectacularly failed gambles. In this scenario, it is not better to just forget those outstanding games for their proximity to someone else’s failure.
Games that have value deserve the opportunity to be appreciated. But that can’t happen when a culture of “new is better,” is fostered and when the pursuit of profit becomes so aggressive that it becomes more conducive to bury past work than it is to make it accessible. Content is always going to be produced and new directions are always being taken. And yes, new technology offers opportunities that previously didn’t exist. But the tradition of games is being actively stifled every time a new console is built on top of it. What comes next does not have to come at the cost of what was there before. It’s disappointing that that’s the attitude we’ve apparently adopted.