Culture //

Emulation: is it enough in video game preservation?

How do you preserve such a personalised genre?

Art by Amelia Koen.

I have spent a remarkable amount of time playing video games during lockdown and with Steam acquiring more than 2.6 million new customers, I’m not alone. Many players who have never touched another game in their life have found themselves exploring the medium. Among Us took the charts by storm and has been downloaded over 100 million times. But when the servers eventually go offline and we clear space for more important things, how will this piece of our collective memory be preserved? How will any of our games, for that matter?

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) houses the nation’s leading archive of digital artwork — including video games. I spoke with the Head of Collections and Preservation, Nick Richardson, to discuss the challenges of preserving work in this relatively nascent medium. Immediately, he noted that ACMI’s work differs from traditional conservation as they largely focus on the content of the object and its accessibility. For video games, this largely means digitisation and emulation of old media. The oldest video games came on magnetic tapes and transitioned to cartridges and discs, but the physical media are not necessarily the content of interest. He explained with an analogy from the traditional art world:

“The photographing of a sculpture enables wider and remote access to understanding that sculpture, but it’s not really an act of preservation in relation to the physical object.”

Critical features of the piece including its appearance, scale and relation to its surroundings, may all be captured through this process much in the same way that an emulated copy of Pokémon Yellow preserves an essential part of the work. However, there is much lost in the process and this is where I wanted to interrogate how ACMI approaches preservation in a more holistic way, balancing accessibility and authenticity.

Video game emulators are pieces of software that instruct hardware to run in the same manner as another piece of hardware. When you load Pokémon Yellow on your Game Boy emulator for PC, the emulator repurposes your computer hardware to run as if it were a Game Boy. If you were a disinterested Year 10 student like me, you probably played Pokémon on your CAS calculator in class. If you had played that same game on your Game Boy you probably also know that it runs like garbage on the CAS. When sourcing emulated games and software, ACMI goes to great lengths to evaluate whether the emulated version is faithful to the original. A lot of effort goes into developing the “game feel” of a game. The satisfying responsiveness of a kick or the recoil on a gun take months of development to develop and they are designed with the original hardware in mind. I could (illegally) download an emulated copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee to play on my relatively souped-up 2020 gaming PC with an HD LCD monitor. But as fans will tell you, the emulator feels sluggish, and the absence of a CRT TV will destroy the responsiveness of the controls. For this reason, going to a Melee tournament feels like stepping into the past, with chunky silver boxes and that unbearable whine taking centre stage. While the diehards will probably die hard, emulations can be fine-tuned to align with the vision and expectations of the designers. Collaboration with development teams helps validate the faithfulness of an emulation. 

Some would argue that the physical experience of standing at an arcade machine or inserting your dusty copy of Donkey Kong Country into your SNES is an essential part of the 80s and 90s video game experiences, respectively. The iconic Dragon’s Lair of Stranger Things fame is a standout in the collection, preserved in all its arcade cabinet glory. ACMI follows industry best practice when it comes to these behemoths. Motherboards are stored upside down in case something leaks, temperatures are controlled, and spare functioning and broken duplicates are kept in case capacitors blow up (they can and do). Fortunately for conservators in the video game space, many of our most culturally significant works were mass-produced, so sourcing spare parts is an accessible method for halting deterioration. These techniques may work in the short term, and playing an arcade in a museum is great fun, but their preservation is an experiment in progress. Nobody knows how long these machines will operate, so ACMI employs other techniques to preserve the art form beyond emulation.

Documenting the lived experience of original gameplay is one of these techniques. While the physicality of Dragon’s Lair adds to its charm and grounds it in the era, the delicacy of computer hardware may limit the availability of that experience. When adding new works to the archive, ACMI often films people experiencing the game for the first time with all their spontaneous reactions and live commentary. They also reach out to development teams requesting the same. Richardson told me they collaborate with games design schools to keep their finger on the pulse of emerging studios. The Melbourne-based studio House House was behind the 2019 indie classic Untitled Goose Game — a charming game about harassing townsfolk as a goose. The developers knew the game intuitively and provided insightful live commentary on expectations of the play experience versus actual experience. Stealing a child’s plane as a goose elicits laughter as a new player but is a satisfying conclusion to time spent coding for the developer. In preserving these works, ACMI also works with other cultural institutions to collect and store concept art, original recordings, sketchbooks, storyboards, and more. Many of my favourite exhibitions tell the story of the artist behind the work; they humanise and give context to it. When we reflect on a game development process years later, the unsavoury state of the industry today will contextualise the many poor design decisions as much as the game itself.

Despite the documentation of code, hardware, recordings, and original art, I worry that something is still lost as time marches on. Playing Star Wars Battlefront 2 (2017) as a 22-year-old feels very different from playing the 2005 original. I love the original, but picking it up is confronting. Everything looks and feels so… old. Modern design sensibilities and beautiful HD textures make engaging with the remake more natural. It kind of feels like playing the original at age seven again — in both instances I saw my favourite characters rendered in the best 3D graphics of the era. It is also no doubt a cash grab by one of the most infamous publishers in the business aimed squarely at suckers like me — I get that. I asked Richardson for his take on remakes and remasters. While he shared my cynicism, he also responded with a question.

“What does the new version bring to the conversation that is new and enlightens its audience beyond the original?”

Playing the remake next to the original is like looking at the before and after of a painting restoration. Playing them in sequence is like comparing an impressionist painting and an Instagram photo of the same landscape. There is a reflection of the zeitgeist imbued in the piece. While I didn’t convince Richardson Battlefront 2 was worthy of their attention, the sentiment spills into the way they present at the gallery. Mario Kart Wii is a fundamentally social experience. One could mod in online functionality, but it would lose that local multiplayer charm. The 2008 experience was playing on the couch with friends. This is how you play Mario Kart at ACMI. The game still looks old, but playing it there, like that, feels familiar.

In 20 years time, when COVID-19 lockdowns are a distant memory, how will you remember the games that got you through it? How would you like them to be preserved? Perhaps knowing that Tom was the imposter every damn time is enough. Revisiting the cartoonish graphics may drown you in nostalgia or make you gag. On the other hand, maybe they did, and you have footage to prove it. The preservation of video games is challenging because the way we make them, engage with them, and play them is so varied. I’m just glad that people like Richardson are dedicated to asking whether emulation is enough.