Why Don’t Videogames Have Their Own Criterion Collection?

Above from Portal 2, Valve Corporation (2011)

Though the video game industry bases itself on forward progression, the rich history of the medium is being underserved by the lack of preservation for older, essential games.

Given their popularity, it seems intuitive that videogames would have enough demand to be restored as they age, but they aren’t. There’s an easy answer to the question of why video game preservation is so dismal.

Preserving and redistributing videogames demands navigation through knotty copyright laws and even more difficult problems restoring, marketing, and operating games from outdated technologies. The question in the title of this article, then, can be reworked as such: Why isn’t there a widespread effort to maintain videogames worthy of preservation and artistic consideration given these mounting problems that this medium inevitably faces with each passing generation? Why are we as gamers quick to forgo our rich artistic history and rely on convoluted and bootleg emulators or face steep prices for videogame titles on the brink of extinction?

Obviously, there’s very little that individuals can do considering the aforesaid copyright and technical limitations, but cultivating the mindset of physical preservation and re-release can attract those with actual power to realize these goals in commitment to videogame art.

For those unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, the company restores and distributes classic, independent, arthouse, and foreign films worth preserving, featuring directors everywhere from Akira Kurosawa to Lars von Trier. These films are distributed with handsome new packaging and supplementary material including critical essays, original commentary from contemporary directors/critics, scholarly featurettes, and more. Analogous to institutions like Penguin Classics or the Modern Library, the Criterion Collection suggests a canonical formation of great works worthy of assimilating into broader appreciation.

Unlike mediums like film or literature, however, videogames suffer from a lack of physical redistribution of important artistic titles. When a console phases out – take the PlayStation 2, for example – gamers are often forced to scramble for the last remaining titles available for sale before they fall into obscurity. Some of the most significant and frequently cited titles of gaming art are at risk for complete extinction because they lack significant efforts at preservation and re-release, especially in terms of physical sale that sidestep the problems of digital rights management (DRM). Even fairly recent games like God Hand, Deadly Premonition, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Psychonauts are in desperate need of physical re-release because of poor initial distribution.

Grassroots efforts like the recent Operation Rainfall have been successful in pleading for official localization and redistribution of little-known games The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Pandora’s Tower for Western audiences, revealing that there does exist a tangible audience receptive to this idea. And finally, as the Criterion Collection demonstrates, re-releasing hard-to-find works like those of Yasujiro Ozu or Ingmar Bergman have propelled these artists into a wider pool of audiences. The time is now for videogames to step up and follow in the footsteps of Criterion.

A number of excellent articles have been written that recognize the unheeded crisis that videogames face with the passage of time and the growing obsolescence of past technology. USgamer held a roundtable that calls into question the virtues of emulation and the idealization of digital distribution: “The problem with all these emulators is that, with the exception of the Retron 5, they all hinge on piracy and the illegal distribution of ROMs.” There’s also a discussion between PCGamesN and GOG.com managing director Guillaume Rambourg, as well as a lengthy treatise on Gamasutra also identify the mounting necessity for videogame preservation, lest many titles be lost and rendered insignificant.

What these articles contend is that the current videogame preservation efforts are unsustainable and often illicit. My argument extends their initial claims, maintaining that poor efforts at preservation and redistribution bar videogames from serious consideration in the literary and visual arts. New channels of physical preservation must be found for worn, short-lived technology, and many individual game titles often fall out of print, forever vanished from popular discourse.

Digital re-releases are imperfect solutions, relying on the good will of a platform like Steam to retain titles on their storefronts, and even then, institutions like the Criterion Collection or Penguin Classics uphold the long-term concreteness of quality physical preservation over the more fleeting and short-term solutions offered by digital files. After all, what will happen to small indie titles like Thirty Flights of Loving should the digital platforms that host its sale shut down? Physical preservation at least secures the game’s long-term availability in actual existence and archival in libraries and museums.

Despite the easy, short-term solutions that the Internet affords publishers with a thriving digital market, institutions like Criterion and Penguin still remain prominent in physically preserving important works for contemporary audiences in tangent with digital forms of distribution. A comparable organization for this industry must recognize noteworthy videogames that demand revitalization otherwise not afforded to them.

Thus, while many critics praise certain games like Half-Life 2 or Red Dead Redemption as pivotal works in the lineage of videogame history, these titles remain widely available to consumers and don’t immediately demand physical preservation. Instead, revered yet frustratingly inaccessible titles like Grim Fandango or Policenauts lack substantial wide releases, especially as it regards physical copies.

Obviously, a number of problems must be overcome if this medium wants to live on in posterity. Technological hindrances deter games of obsolete consoles and archaic PC specifications from emerging to a new generation of audiences. Although some will argue that emulation is the key to preservation, this solution still remains illicit and often requires convoluted technical steps and forays into questionably reputable websites, not to mention its lasting ties to digital files over the lasting ownership of physical media.

Sony’s efforts of re-releasing games in high-definition for physical release are laudable, as in the especially commendable release of The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection in 2011. Even then, these HD collections are still limited to accessible titles everywhere from God of War to Splinter Cell. Furthermore, in the case of the Silent Hill HD Collection, the remastering process even spins the text’s original artistic vision out of focus, with new voice actors and the cutback of crucial elements like Silent Hill 2’s iconic fog atmosphere. The dilemma with remastering arises with the question of maintaining the text’s original intent.

For a group like the Criterion Collection, the prioritization of this concern happens through signaling their ongoing act of “working closely with filmmakers and scholars to ensure that each film is presented as its maker would want it seen and published in an edition that will deepen the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the art of cinema.” Videogame re-releases sometimes corrupt a text’s original artistic design as in the aforesaid voice acting change in the Silent Hill HD Collection, but even more drastically as in the completely reworked visuals and audio in the 2009 release of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, overlooking the value of the original game’s aesthetic on its own terms.

Antiquated games may have crude art styles by today’s standards, but re-releasing games means safeguarding the original intent of the author despite how tacky or stripped down these games may be. Rather, physical preservation and remastering efforts should aim merely at translating old software for easy accessibility in newer platforms and instant play. Updating the sheer resolution for high-resolution monitors—comparable to the DVD to Blu-ray shift—is also suitable, but sound restoration, the elimination of known bugs, stabilization of frame rate, and other technical fixes that do not clash with the game’s authorial and stylistic intent are needed.

Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks (2008)

What’s at stake in videogame preservation and re-release is the survival and integrity of the medium itself. Because videogame production incessantly marches forward in the name of progress with each passing generation of technology, games of previous eras slump out of print and consequently, become inaccessible. Moreover, because of this unwillingness to revisit videogame history, older titles are often seen as crude and outmoded without taking these games on their own terms.

Indeed, many past titles still invite critical praise despite being seemingly antiquated, as in Shenmue’s ambitious open world or the artistic experimentation of the 1995 adventure game The Dark Eye. Because these games lack any re-releases, general audiences grow out of touch with this rich history of artistic development. As a consequence, videogames suffer the fate of being a fleeting medium, relinquishing the preservation of important texts while literature, cinema, and music continue to be influential in the artistic sphere because these mediums celebrate and uplift their histories. Digital platforms like Steam are simply not enough in providing the preservation efforts that videogames need. Actual physical ownership completely circumvents the complicated issues tied to copyright law and DRM, and if content vanishes from sites like Steam or GOG, they disappear forever, locked out of sight from consumers.

Imagine if a film like Rashomon was never restored and re-released, collecting dust in some lonesome archive in Japan, or if literary circles never saw fit to preserve texts like Don Quixote or the Divine Comedy. That videogames live in this kind of hypothetical now should be criminal to those who truly care about the medium.

The aforementioned texts in the hypotheticals are especially useful in thinking about videogame preservation, as they all rely on translation efforts to reach broader audiences. A countless heap of un-localized foreign games, especially Japanese titles, remain untouched by gaming publishers and unseen by potential audiences that would undoubtedly enjoy what they have to offer. Artistically masterful works like Mother 3, Mizzurna Falls, LSD: Dream Emulator, and Moon: Remix RPG Adventure lack English translation and official releases outside Japan. This lack of translation conceals these games from receptive audiences willing to take part in say, Moon’s reflexive genre defiance or Mizzurna FallsTwin Peaks-esque idiosyncrasies.

An organization comparable to the Criterion Collection would introduce both critics and audiences to otherwise disregarded works of gaming art like these titles, thus broadening the ongoing discourse on videogames and perpetuating the medium’s artistic impact into other spheres of culture. Moreover, the availability of remastered physical copies allows for preservation in credible institutions like the Library of Congress or any institution dedicated to the pursuit and preservation of artistic achievements. Thus, the oeuvre of artists like Hideo Kojima or Jason Rohrer could be physically placed alongside Jane Austen or Ingmar Bergman, solidifying the cultural value of videogames and the case for game art.

Another benefit afforded by the Criterion Collection is its encouragement of critical reappraisal of a film whenever a new entry assimilates into their canon, spurring shrewd discourse and actively fostering intellectual consideration. Videogames often stay rooted in the narrative of forward progress, with critics and audiences coolly moving from the latest game to the next without heed for what’s already accomplished. By re-releasing important games of the past, a new mentality can emerge that thinks of games as a dynamic art form in conversation with its own past. Retrospective appraisals can shed interesting light on games that may have been overlooked or underappreciated the first time around.

Certainly, the Criterion Collection enlivens appreciative reflection of films like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, works that were initially berated upon initial release but now find a fruitful afterlife in physical redistribution packaged with supporting critical essays. If videogame preservation can accomplish similar feats, we may be more keenly acquainted to initially panned games worthy of reconsideration. Take for example the uncompromisingly savage artistic direction of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, a game that was thoughtlessly derided in 2010 but evokes the provoking stylization of artists like Michael Mann or Gaspar Noé. Additionally, a mediocrely received game like Lighthouse: The Dark Being can benefit from retrospective evaluation, allowing us to appreciate its creative aspirations—a sort of Bioshock Infinite before Bioshock Infinite—and its unnoticed relevance in videogame culture.

Of course, the focus of a Criterion Collection-esque effort in videogames would be preservation of important titles in immediate need of revitalization. Numerous videogames have already proven their worth as artistic landmarks worth attention, but our continued disavowal of their archival and remastered publication compels change. Titles like The Neverhood, Killer7, Snatcher, Day of the Tentacle, 9: The Last Resort, Another World, Cosmology of Kyoto, Vanquish, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and many others still worth playing cope with the threat of total disappearance altogether.

Videogame history itself foretells total extinction because history necessitates that we still hold the memory of bygone events. The ceaseless forward progression of the videogame industry threatens to relinquish these memories thoroughly, and these lessons of abandonment may fall on deaf ears. Even accomplished artists and revered developers endure the problems of preservation, especially with the advent of a new generation—and the survival of their works is fading fast.

Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. His written offerings can be found on First Person Scholar, Thumbsticks, and Medium Difficulty. He blogs on Invalid Memory.