Backwards Compatibility is the Only Way Forward
Every generation has attempted to preserve the most important pieces of its art. It should be just the same with computer games, but often it is not.
Prior to the announcement of the Xbox One at E3, much had been made of the direction that Microsoft was taking with the next console generation. Numerous articles had been written following their announcement that backwards compatibility would not be possible (or developed) for the Xbox One. The tone and content of these articles has focused exclusively on the monetary constraints this puts on players with one reporter noting that “no backwards compatibility leaves many gamers who have invested hundreds or thousands of dollars into their game collections feeling a bit cheated” (Drew Guarini, ”Gamers Burned By Xbox One's Lack of Backwards Compatibility”, The Huffington Post, 22 May 2013).
The continued focus by the industry's leading media on financial ramifications means that the consequences of the discussion of backwards compatibility have remained short sighted and consistently based upon money. The fact remains that the financial repercussions of this issue are of secondary importance to the larger, more long term issue: video games are an art form in danger of losing its history. For all the debates on the nature of art and the right for the medium of video games to claim itself as such, all art is reliant on the preservation of its own history and the critical community that surrounds it. The claims of numerous Microsoft spokespeople that “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards” (Ian Sheer, “Mircosoft and Sony Diverge on Gaming'Cloud'”, Wall Street Journal, 22 May 2013) betrays a true lack of understanding of the responsibility of protecting the previous generations' works, responsibility embedded in all facets of the industry. Backwards compatibility is the most important first step in preserving games, made all the more important because of the failings of every alternative that the industry has proposed. The industry's rash of HD re-releases and remakes has shown the damage that can be done to the heritage of video game players when companies think of “improvements”.
THE INDUSTRY'S FAILURE
Backwards compatibility is the most certain way of guaranteeing the successful preservation of a video game as it was intended to be seen and to be played. The importance of backwards compatibility is accentuated by the alternatives that the industry has provided in recent years. From a myriad of examples, there are many common issues that present themselves when the industry remakes video games. For the purpose of this essay, focus will now be given to two major releases in recent years that stand as examples of these common issues: one a critical success and the other roundly regarded as a failure. They are Grim Fandango Remastered (PS4, PS Vita, PC, 2015) and Silent Hill 2 (PS3, Xbox 360, 2012).
Silent Hill II
Silent Hill 2, remade as part of Konami's Silent Hill HD Collection in 2012, used new voice actors because, as Troy Baker put it, "the original performances were met with mixed reviews" (Shane Willoughby, “Exclusive Interview: Troy Baker - the New Jason Sunderland”, The Gaming Liberty 23 August 2011). While the real details would become clear later (a dispute over unpaid royalties), the viewpoint that Silent Hill required improvement lead to a dramatic improvement in the quality of the graphics. This had the effect of rolling back the original murkiness of the game's environments, exposing the weaknesses of the original graphics engine. “The game's contrast has been altered to make everything unnecessarily darker, while its claustrophobic fog effects have been removed almost entirely. Not only does this diminish the atmosphere, it exposes a number of graphical errors that the effect existed to hide.” (Jim Sterling, “Review: Silent Hill HD Collection”, Destructoid, 24 March 2012). In the case of Silent Hill 2, the desire to improve upon history lead to situations where the art was damaged and and left broken. Silent Hill 2 still exists as a PS2 game, but the PS2 is no longer being made. Even the most financially successful console of all time will eventually become scarce. The PC version with support from a community of modders may well fare better, but the PC version is a port of what was a PlayStation game. The controls, described as "difficult" by some (Tarrah Rivard, ”Review: Silent Hill 2”, Rely On Horror 8 June 2010) are an integral part of the feeling of Silent Hill 2. Likewise the knowledge that the town is wrong, that the characters that the player meets are off, and that the mere act of movement is so awkward, all contribute to the sense of Jason Sunderland's struggle simply to continue on in the story. All of these details are conveyed to the player through those qualities of the original. A port to another control scheme loses that connection to some extent.
Grim Fandango Remastered is perhaps the exception to the industry pattern that proves the rule. Its positive reception and its subtle reconfiguring to work on modern technology all comes down to a lack of reworking done on the original. As Richard Cobbett puts it in his review; “this isn't the most comprehensive remaster ever made, it's a smart and considered one” (“Grim Fandango Remastered review”, Eurogamer.net, 27 January 2015). Its graphical updates, while perhaps unnecessary, are still subtle enough to be more in line with the reconfiguring of the video game to modern machines than an attempt to use the graphics as a selling point, as Resident Evil (2002) did. Grim Fandango should be the template for all future re-releases, but that is unlikely to be the case. Its release was overseen by Tim Schafer, and it was produced for an audience that, while passionate, was never intended to generate large amounts of revenue. Grim Fandango Remastered was crafted then with a care and attention given to a work of art. The future of re-releases lies at the moment with PlayStation Now, the soon to be released On Demand, Netflix-like, video game service.
Grim Fandango Remastered
While this type of service may seem to be the best step forward for preserving culturally significant pieces, the success of this new delivery system could spark an industry wide shift, replacing the need to attempt backwards compatibility at all. However, according to Sony, these video games are not up to the demanding standards of the modern industry: “In response to this need, game designers have begun to produce mini-games. Within a mini-game, the gamer can be instructed to complete new objectives or challenge their friends for high scores in a format that was not originally designed into the legacy game.” (Eric Johnson, ”Sony Patent Suggests Old Games Could Get Bonus Content”, Recode, 8 January 2014). “In addition, the service will support many popular PSN features such as online multi-player, Trophies, and messages” (“Sony Computer Entertainment Announces 'Playstation™ Now', A New Streaming Game Service That Leverages Cloud-Based Technology; To Be Available In The United States This Summer”, PR Newswire.com, 7 January 14). Like George Lucas's Star Wars and his history of chopping, changing, and “improving”, the history of the art itself is being lost. If, as a wiser man once said, “American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history”, (Germain Lussier, ”George Lucas Speaks Out Against Altering Films in 1988”, Slashfilm.com 31 August 2011) , then the same must apply to the video games that Sony believes they must change to meet the newest market pressures.
Financial restrictions are often cited as the principle reason for the lack of backwards compatibility in the modern console but these explanations fall short when considering the substantial backwards compatibility that was eventually built into the PlayStation 3. Yet these explanations are accepted by a media which is concerned with finances, both their readers and the company's, and which lacks a great degree of respect for the works released on previous generations of consoles.
THE MEDIA'S FAILURE
The top 10 lists and the top 100 lists of classic video games are an easy way to dig up the past and also to generate clicks and readers for a media largely tied to pre-Christmas and Summer release schedules. Few, if any sites, provide any genuine analysis of these games, their creators, or the period of history in which they came out. It is a long search that leads to any piece that gives more thought to games beyond economic concerns or nostalgic anecdotes. “Classic” games, “Retro” games, or even “Old School” games are something of a rich man's novelty trundled out during quiet moments to be admired in passing while ancient 32-year-olds turn rose tinted glasses towards their childhoods. For all the talk of respect for video games as art and all the articles and essays published demanding that they be given due care and attention, the medium's cultural heritage is given the most shallow and trite of critical appraisals. The artists themselves are, unless their careers continue into the modern era, ignored, left unnamed, and dispassionately discarded.
These older games are like palaeontological finds supported by wires and bolts on the museum floor that is the internet. These rigid fossils, once the pinnacle of existence -- titans that walked the earth -- are on display for the future generations to point at in wonder: “Why were they so small?”, “Why are the graphics so poor?”, “Were there really only 32-bits in those days daddy?” But this is not the way to treat art. Nor is it the actions of a vibrant, intelligent critical community. Art, no matter what era it is formed in, is an attempt to speak to people. To share an idea, a concept, or a thought is the fundamental desire of all artistic endeavour from the earliest cave paintings to the contemporary works of Gerhard Richter. No critical community should shy away from analyzing its history, the art of previous generations, as the broader video game community has so often done.
Silent Hill II
What makes older games important is their cultural and historical context, their bugs and their rough edges, which inspired the next generation to create better, faster, and more engaging experiences. To look at the culture surrounding film there is, aside from one spate of colorization in the 70s and 80s, a desire to preserve and protect the art of previous generations, not to “improve” or upgrade it. Upon re-releases of films, be they older ones like Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia or newer fare like Schindler's List, films are displayed in such a way that they can be viewed as the artists originally intended. But the films are also allowed to show their history, their age, and the community around film, which embraces the art form, allowing them to appreciate both the technical or artistic limitations of the era and the ambitions of the artists in breaking through those barriers. The successes and evolution of the medium can be traced, patterns, and trends can be seen and analyzed. Ultimately future generations can learn and evolve their own artistic styles, breaking through new barriers. This is why history is important and our history should be treated with no less reverence. To know where we are going, we must first know where we've come from. It falls on journalists and academics to protect that past from the short-sightedness that could do damage to the medium's future. While remakes are released every month of the year in film, they are more comparable to a band covering a song. The original remains intact, preserved, and more often than not more available with the release of the remake than ever before. Take the case of Blade Runner where all five different versions of the film were given equal attention when they were released on DVD and BluRay. Each version, some only seen on television, others never seen since the film's release, was considered an important part of the history of the film. Each edit was believed to be of importance to the maintenance of a cultural artifact. Compared with the remake of GoldenEye 007 (Wii 2010), which removed Pierce Brosnan's model (in essence the video game's place in history), the lack of care given to video games appears almost criminal.
It would be a mistake to take the tone that all preservation work in the medium of video games belongs to the media and the players. While in many instances (like sculpture, writing, etc.), this is the case (the preservation of an individual, unique piece, or of something easily stored and displayed), it is not too great to ask for those that love it to act in support of its survival. However within video games, the greatest workload in preservation and display is in maintaining complicated pieces of technology. So, similar to the example set by Criterion with film, video games require industry support in their preservation.
The Venus de Milo is perhaps the most famous sculpture in the history of art. This ancient work has a silhouette that is almost unmistakeable. Her bare chest and the flowing cloth across her legs are incredible examples of Hellenistic stone work. But it is the missing arms that have helped the most in creating an icon out of the Venus de Milo. It is her flaws, the signs of history, and the wearing of time upon marble that have created one of the most valuable cultural works to emerge from the city states of ancient Greece. Replacing those arms, “fixing” the Venus de Milo, would be as great a crime as tearing it apart.
Art does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist in a separate universe, divorced of the weight of history and the march of technological and cultural progress. Every painting is the beginning, middle, and end, a story. Every film is a saga. And every video game is a window into the minds of passionate creators and a period of history where something new was brought forward into the world. Remaking these works, “fixing” their problems, is a slap in the face of those people who strove to push boundaries in gameplay, storytelling, and graphics. But the greatest insult comes in the willingness of the media to ignore the value of video games as historical artifacts and the apathy of the video game industry in helping to preserve the valuable lessons that the artists of yesterday learned.
When a remake is produced, it takes the place of the original. Despite the fact that Grim Fandango Remastered has received its deserved critical praise, it has been a success because of the lack of work done on it, its subtle and delicate reconstruction. Silent Hill 2 HD proves all the more that technological or monetary limitations can be the greatest asset that an artist or a team of developers can have. The awkward controls and the limited field of vision generated an atmosphere of terror in the original release. Retaining that knowledge not only allows critics and historians to appreciate the skill necessary to play this classic video game, but it demonstrates the talent of the people involved who built this behemoth of the horror genre.
Not everything is preserved simply through backwards compatibility. The controllers of the N64 or the Atari 2600 are as much a part of the interaction between player and video game as the television that the console is connected to. Backwards compatibility is not a fool-proof solution, a catch all preservation policy, but it is a good start -- the beginning of a the way forward. From this solid foundation new ideas can flourish, new techniques can be crafted, and we can learn from our history how better to maintain our culture for generations that will not have the same access the we have now.
Art, like everything else, ages. Sometimes it needs repairs to maintain it for the next generation, but those repairs do not remove or replace aspects of that art, they work to preserve it for children yet to come. Video games age, and it's time they got the preservation they deserve.