Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fanwank Corner: Securing Gaming's History

In 1995, Quintet, a subsidiary of the Japanese role-playing giant Enix created an action role-playing game called "Terranigma".  The plot of the game was specifically designed to be a contrast to the violent focus of so many video games - the player would travel around the world map of our own Earth and through fighting through dungeons and beating bosses, resurrect the world in which we live.  Basically you're playing as God, only God is a spiky-haired early Nineties JRPG protagonist, and runs around in baggy M.C. Hammer pants.  "Terranigma" is probably one of the most underrated JRPGs ever made, a completely unique experience featuring amazing art design, a fantastic score, and extensive cutscene montages based on the film "Koyaanisqatsi", which pushed the Super Nintendo hardware to its limits.  Nothing like "Terranigma" had ever been made before, and really, nothing quite like it has ever been made since.  It is an entirely unique piece of art.

My point is that "Terranigma" is an obscure title.  It was only ever released in Japan and the PAL territories, and even then, its place in history has been overshadowed by the other great RPG titles on the SNES, such as "Final Fantasy VI", "Chrono Trigger", and "Dragon Quest V".  Enix by 1995 had shut down its localization department entirely, and "Terranigma" was one of the last Enix titles to leave Japan until the merger with Square in 2003.  Even then, it only sold about 200,000 copies, which was probably a financial success for the time, but not a super hit.  It didn't inspire a massive franchise of sequels, its never seen a re-release or remake, its not available on PSN, Xbox Live, or the Nintendo EShop.  Quintet itself has not existed in any form since 2002.  If Square Enix has preserved the source code to "Terranigma", I would be honestly shocked, since they already lost the assets to Kingdom Hearts, a much younger PS2 game, and one of their best sellers.  Essentially Square Enix has given every indication that this game is no longer worth their time, energy, or money to preserve or support.  That being said, its not impossible to play "Terranigma".  You can still find physical copies of the cartridges for around fifty dollars on Amazon, probably in very good condition.  You would need a European SNES or a Super Famicom to play it though.

Really, "Terranigma" is just an example - one of thousands of games made between the 1970s and today that were released, had their impacts, were beloved by gamers, but are not supported in any way.  Obviously though, the situation is not so bleak - "Terranigma" is freely available online, with very little difficulty.  Simply download the brilliant SNES emulator, ZSNES, and then download the ROM, and within a half hour if you have a slow connection, you could be playing "Terranigma" today.  Therefore our history is safe, the game is preserved for as long the Internet exists, which should be roughly congruent with the survival of human civilization.

Only one problem - everything I just described is entirely illegal.

With Roger Ebert now dead, I suppose the last voice to seriously claim that video games are not a true art form is gone.   I know we call them "games", which in some way denotes an inferior product, as if the fact that its fun and enjoyable means that its not a serious artistic achievement that should be remembered.  But that's really only the voices of the horribly snobby types who love Terrence Malick movies and read depressing novels about alcoholic mothers and tuberculosis.  On a cursory glance, "Terranigma" probably will not equate itself with Tolstoy, basically its an overhead brawler where you hang out with adolescent lions and have a talking cartoon bag.  However, just fifty years ago, you would have found an equivalent universe where snobby critics would say that "King Kong" was not worthy of preservation, and was nothing more than childish fluff made to appeal to baser interests, not great literature like books.  Obviously they're wrong.  You might not see many video game cartridges hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but this a new art form, and it should be preserved.

The only problem, of course, is how.  Preserving a painting is easy:  hang it on a wall behind some glass, make sure its out of sunlight, and clean it properly every century or so.  Film preservation has proven to be a considerably more difficult task, because a roll of film is a much larger medium, which requires every single frame be saved.  You have to physically hold onto the roll of film, put it in a temperature controlled vault, and require special instruments to play it, many of which are already out of date.  The term "film" is on the cusp of becoming technically anachronistic, as many films are made entirely with digital recordings, and stored digitally, only ever taking a physical storage form when they are uploaded onto discs for consumer sale.  Video games themselves are moving out of physical mediums.  But there's a real problem.  An ancient silent movie can be played as long as you have a projector, which are easily found and the analog technology is easily reproduced, they really haven't changed much in the last century.  But as for say, "Terranigma", it can only exist legally as long as guy exists:
This guy is only two years younger than I am.
And he's not aging gracefully.

Millions of Super Famicoms/Super Nintendos were made, they aren't in any danger right now of disappearing.  But again, its old technology.  It an entirely unique piece of machinery that, thanks to copyright law, can never be legally reproduced.  A "Terranigma" cartridge cannot be played by any old console you have lying around, but a very specific kind, one that is no longer being manufactured or supported.  As fast as things move, it is only going to become more and more outdated.  A bigger concern would probably be for systems that were never popular and weren't all that well made to begin with, say an Atari Jaguar CD.  That thing was such a disaster you can probably only find around 1,000 Jaguar CDs around the world that are still functional, and they're so badly made that they break constantly.  Eventually, probably within our lifetimes, the last Atari Jaguar CD is going to stop working, and at that point, there will be no way to play such games as... "Highlander: The Last of MacLeods".

Okay, not every video game that was released is actually a precious artistic achievement.  We probably don't need to save the "Highlander" game for our future generations, besides as an omen of terror.  But still, its a closing window of time.  Opportunities for playing "Highlander" are disappearing, just as opportunities to play something really valuable and important like "Terranigma" are disappearing, only not as quickly.

On the plus side, games like "Final Fantasy VII" are never going to disappear from modern access.  Because we still value "Final Fantasy VII", we're still willing to buy "Final Fantasy VII", and importantly, Square Enix has saved it and made it available for sale digitally in many ways.  But that's the worst way we could be preserving our video games, just by trusting publishers to hold onto them.  The only things that will get saves are those things that are still profitable.  "Terranigma" will, I'm reasonably sure, never be profitable again, even if re-released on the PSN.  Its just too niche and its title is too weird.  So what?  We just let it disappear?  And you never know.  In fifty years, "Final Fantasy VII" might be largely forgotten by the public, its player base limited only to scholars and nerds.

It gets worse.  Here's one really nasty example:

This is "Panzer Dragoon Saga", one of the best JRPGs ever made.
Sega lost the entire source code to it, so it can never be re-released.

There are severe barriers to accessibility that video games as a medium suffer from.  To actually be able to experience the whole vast width and variety of video games, one would have to own about 100 different pieces of machinery, all of them in good condition, and then thousands of cartridges, discs, and in the worst cases, arcade cabinets.  To even emulate a video game console requires a huge amount of effort from man power, we don't really appreciate what an achievement even the best functioning Emulators are, such as the ZSNES.  The Sega Saturn emulators that are available today are... frankly, barely functional, if you're lucky.  "Panzer Dragoon Saga" simply does not work on an emulator, unless you're willing to accept terrible performance, no music, no skybox, and weird glitches such as freezing constantly (I'm speaking from experience here).  Now you might say, "why pirate the game when you can physically own it?"  Well, the problem is that "Panzer Dragoon Saga", even used, runs up at hundreds of dollars.  Sega only ever sold it in extremely limited numbers because the Sega Saturn was generally a failure of a console.  An unopened copy is worth over $1,000.

Even then, you need a Sega Saturn, which certainly not everybody owns.  To watch a really niche movie like 1968's Toei-MGM extremely silly space opera collaboration, "The Green Slime", requires only owning a DVD player, which is a essentially a universe movie player.  Gaming has no equivalent.

The story gets depressing when you realize, the best method of preserving video games is the use or ROMs or ISOs.  There are entire communities which are supplying a very large percentage of our video game heritage for free, online, that can be played well enough.  Again, "Terranigma" is right there, ready to be played.  But again, all of that is illegal.  Its illegal to download, its illegal to share, its illegal to even make a digital copy.  This for a game that the developer has basically decided that they do not care about anymore, whose original development team no longer exists.

Luckily, so far developers have been extremely live and let live with the ROM communities and the emulators.  But that's again, trusting the future of "Terranigma" and other games on the good graces of Square Enix, or their ignorance.  Currently the copyright on "Terranigma" should last Square Enix until the year 2070*.  The batteries within most cartridges will die out within a few decades, meaning that "Terranigma" might remain playable for over a century, but you will not be able to save.  We have the technology to make our games immortal.  But we can't use it, because our legal system and society are stuck in the past.

Don't let our future be lost.

Last week I imagined a Netflix-style video game database that could be easily accessible to all consumers for a small fee.  That was just a utopian vision of what a post-console world could possibly look like, the best case scenario.  But now it seems like that's not just the gaming world we should be asking for, but its the world we're going to need.  We need a Universal Gaming System.  That's the one positive of the inevitability of console gaming disappearing.  Hardware used to be something that was company-specific, a game built to play on the Super Nintendo would be nothing like games built for a Sega Genesis.  Now generally things are moving towards online, more PC-like architecture, to the point we could eventually have just one kind of system, only made by different companies with different specifications.  We're already halfway there with the PS4 vs Xbox One, which have the same underlying architecture but mostly different interfaces, or more exactly, an iPad vs. an Android vs. any other kind of smartphone.  Modern gaming is moving towards a singularity, we just need past gaming to catch up.

The only thing standing in the way is,of course, copyright.  We just need the gaming companies to come together, to agree to give up some level of control over their IPs, for the good of themselves and everybody.  Right now, as I said, Square Enix isn't making any money at all with "Terranigma", but if "Terranigma" could be available on a Netflix-style online gaming service, then they would be again making cash, for virtually no loss.  People in general would probably rather pay than pirate, especially if you could offer a more convenient, legal, and consistent service than the underground pirate sites.  It would of course require a lot of work to make such a database, but I feel like its necessary.  Am I wrong?  We really don't need to worry about games disappearing just yet, most of them are still fully functional.  But if we wait decades, it really is going to become a crisis.

More importantly is this:  consumers almost certainly value video games more than the producers do.  Its in nobody's best interest to just let the gaming past rot away as magnetized information slowly fades away, or hardware inevitably crumbles.  If companies think its in their best interest to let their old products disappear, they are more than stupid.  Let me just say this:  if it comes down to it, stay out of our way.  Once you decide that a medium is truly art, you can't claim that your individual property rights and your investors' profits are more important than world heritage.

Now why did I use "Terranigma" of all the classic SNES JRPGs as my example?  It wasn't just because its a great little game.  It was because that's a game about preservation, revitalizing the planet, bringing back to life what was lost.  You bring back the continents, then you save all the forms of life that lived on the Earth, starting with the plants, then the animals, and finally mankind.  Let us do that, bring back the 8bit games, the 16bit games, let it all be available for everybody.

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* I'm actually unclear on what the lifetime of a video game copyright actually is.  Since gaming as an industry hasn't even existed long enough for even Atari 2600 games to enter the public domain, I have no idea how long it will take before even "Pac-Man" can be freely shared and enjoyed by everybody.

2 comments:

  1. I love how you write, great article! :)

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  2. There are a few game in the public domain. Ultima 4, for example. That ended in the public domain because of some strange copyright mishap or something, though.

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