Electron Dance
31Jul/1713

Discussion: Past Unmade

martian-chronicles

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the July edition of the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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  1. Aaargh tell me about it. Do you know the sad story of Blood & Laurels? The Second Life people cut Versu loose, which put an end to updates to the app and then Apple updated iOS and it broke the app. So now there’s no more Blood & Laurels. I had really wanted to replay it but at least I managed to play it one time while it was still working (I murderated the fuck out of Artus).

    Stephen’s Sausage Roll: I have been replaying some of it and am stuck for days on a level even though I obviously solved it before. That game, man.

  2. I didn’t know about Blood & Laurels. I’m not surprised. I find it upsetting that a platform owner is happy to kill off old stuff like this and cared not a jot for the past. It’s almost like they blame developers for not keeping up. Developer passed away? Ah, well. Shame.

    Even the evil Microsoft managed to implement compatibility modes (even if they don’t work in so cases). Although it feels more like obsolescence by accident rather by design.

    I suspect part of the problem with Apple is that they encouraged console like design in the beginning – build just for this resolution and hardware. Then again, I know what a batshit environment Android can be to work on, because the only standard is that there is no standard.

    SSR: I’ve got nothing left to do in the second section except The Great Tower. It’s stopping me playing. I can’t face that for a quick fiddle at 10pm. I’d just rather go to bed.

  3. Holy God there are a lot of typos in the newsletter. I was really rushing to get it done last night. I wrote it, was unhappy, then rewrote it all again then I thought I really had to get to bed. Sorry everybody.

  4. I don’t think it’s that hard, really. If you’re a developer, try to keep to open standards (OGL instead of fucking directx and such). Ignore Apple, ignore UWP, ignore consoles, ignore seamless multiplayer. Try to steer clear from anything that even resembles a walled garden. Share your source code. If fucking Derek Yu and fucking Vlambeer can, so can you. Choose life.

    If you’re a player, just pirate the shit out of everything. Seriously, don’t even think twice. I’ve got a Russian for everything. I don’t give a shit that the publishers of a rare late 70s Japanese rock record don’t care about preserving it, because somewhere, a Boris does. I’ve got that motherfucker flawlessly ripped in lossless quality, and I’ll be seeding it until the end of time.

  5. I’m happy with your comment, Ketchua, but I wonder how likely that is! People ran into the mobile ecosystem because it was next thing and it became a gold rush. Few were seriously thinking about walled garden problems: make money today, sort out the cultural incarceration tomorrow. NO BIG. Of course, now you can only win the mobile lottery if you can buy enough tickets and the effort required to make a winning F2P game is just too sophisticated for most indie devs. (I don’t want to hear that “just make a great game” angle.)

    Archaeologists are just pirates of the future, right? They dig shit up and keep it, or put it in a museum for cash when they clearly didn’t make it and put in any of the hard work. I think few would self-justify in this way, but we know that pirates turn out to be the archaeologists of the present. Because god damn those corporations don’t think that far ahead.

    I guess we’re saying this:
    I need money -> Pirates, don’t copy my game! -> ooh DRM strategies -> Why doesn’t history remember me?

  6. I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I wanted to give you a genuine compliment that will sound backhanded. I don’t typically like the mixing of opinionated essay with fictional short fiction, as it often sounds cloying. But I just really liked your metaphor in this news letter.

    You also make some good points about the problem of preservation as it applies to digital media.

    Scholars of ancient times like to complain that only books that were deemed “valuable” by all intervening generations were preserved (that is, if even one or two generations decides not to copy a book it will typically rot and disappear entirely).

    The modern age of computing was originally supposed to solve this problem by reducing the cost of reproduction to near-zero. How much does it take to copy a digital novel now? A millionth of a cent maybe?

    But I think we have run into a new problem with digital media: as our ability to copy media has increased, so has our ability to create media. Even ignoring all the games and movies and books that are produced, look at all the tweets and blog posts and news articles and youtube videos coming out every day. These more “minor” forms of media aren’t even all that minor, as I can think of several blog posts that have become very well known, and tweets have also taken on quite a bit of cultural significance.

    Even if copying all the media that is being produced (that is, the actual 1’s and 0’s) is still somewhat doable (as archives like the Wayback Machine try to do), preserving the ability to interact with that media as it was originally intended is not. This is somewhat visible for books and music and movies, where special editions can erase prior editions, but it is very visible for games and other software, where every new operating system tends to break older games.

    When I first read articles about this problem I was on board with “solutions” like Good Old Games that had the possibility to preserve EVERYTHING so we wouldn’t have to worry any more. But having seen the reality of that “preservation” (that is, incomplete coverage and not-always-perfect updates) I have started to feel like this is just a reality of modern society. Preserving our past in its entirety simply doesn’t make economic sense, so a mostly-capitalist society such as ours simply won’t do it. (Note this isn’t an argument for non-capitalism, as many other social structures would still struggle with the basic question of economic value. I am simply pointing out that it seems like we can only achieve the goal of total preservation if society as a whole overvalued preservation to the detriment of other concerns)

  7. What is most interesting about the archiving of videogames history is that the majority of the work has been done by people of their own volition, for no extrinsic reward (except perhaps that of status among online communities). I am thinking chiefly of those who create emulators, who reverse engineer old technologies, and so on. And then there are those who set out to curate collections, whether that’s online or – in rare but I feel growing frequency – off.

    I’m far too tired to extrapolate anything out from this but it is striking. Oh, actually: I’d argue that the rise of GOG.com, and similar commercial efforts, were incipient on observing these voluntary efforts and recognising a largely untapped market. Neoliberal capitalism colonises all spaces, after all.

  8. Hi Sandy

    Although you hadn’t posted for a while, I still knew you were there, it’s all good. I used to write a lot of this children’s parable form of prose and I’ve weened myself off it these days – I don’t like it that much myself. The original version of the newsletter was just the fiction without any explanation and I imagined anyone following the newsletter would know exactly what I was talking about.

    I think it’s a definitely a valid suggestion: let most of it rot. How can you save everything? When a single thought becomes “permanent media” is it important to preserve that as if an important historical artifact? I guess we can say that any society and culture are never static, trapped in a constant process of upgrade and reform. There are no version numbers, but we know things are changing. We’ve always looked into the past and done our best to recreate snapshots or impressions of those cultures/societies using the artifacts that survived.

    However, what surprises me the most if that the promise of the digital age, a type of enormous, evolving encyclopaedia and memory bank, has turned into something immediate. Something that has a habit of wiping art, people and cultural places off the map every few years. Netflix mainly shows the new. Our videogame chatter focuses on the here and now. Store obfuscation and app obsolence means the App Store is mainly about the current favourites at the top of the queue. Careless approach to preservation means we’re losing stuff merely a few years old. The games we’re losing do not have a physical footprint – no one is going to turn up an old box in twenty years time and take pictures of it on social media.

    The Martian Chronicles falls through the cracks.

    Shaun

    Yes, this thought was bubbling at the back of my mind, that games preservation has been done by the public – thanks for drawing it out. But I keep hearing that going forward how difficult it will be. And if you preserve a game, what do you preserve? Earlier versions that some people think are better? The last version only? All of them? There have always been collectors who wanted to grab all of the different versions of an object – the international versions in different languages, the slightly different box code, the updated manual version etc. etc. Yet the modern fluid state of game software is kind of maddening. There can be hundreds of iterations between a game’s launch and when it’s put out to pasture.

    Your second paragraph is striking. I feel like I might need to write this one down.

  9. Joel: Not very likely, as evidence suggests. I was just arguing it wasn’t hard. All the more reason for us to do our part. Save the stuff that could perish that you personally appreciate. Download htmls of Twine games. Keep running that vanilla WoW server from Russia or Cypruss or wherever.

    We don’t really need a database of all this stuff. It’s ok if it’s scattered all over, without a proper index. It’s just super important that it exists, and we need to raise awareness of the fact. Nudge and nurture the people Shaun mentions.

  10. Joel – the fluid nature of modern software is a major conceptual challenge for preservation, isn’t it? It’s one of those problems that, I think, tends to offer more than it withdraws, and so it’s a problem that I’m content to mentally let go of and roll with. But then I’m not trying to preserve games history outside of my head or my hard drive!

  11. Lots here!

    Joel: “I need money -> Pirates, don’t copy my game! -> ooh DRM strategies -> Why doesn’t history remember me?”

    Like, I’m not even sure it’s like that with the DRM. Part of it is “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommit die historic preservation.” The designers have to go where the money is, whether or not that space is conducive to archiving. Tying back to a previous iteration, with Blood & Laurels a big part of it was going to work for Big Game Company which in the end made a calculation not to support it–Emily Short got to pay off her student loans, which makes up for a lot of having your work disappear. (That post is from when it seemed like it wouldn’t get released at all, except for a few copies that had escaped–eventually it did get released, but since Emily was on her own she couldn’t maintain it, and I’m not even sure she had the right to keep messing with it. Also, student loans might not be as resonant outside the US? They’re a big deal.)

    Sandy–In my day job as a philosopher I have a project which is partly about the idea that we can never completely reproduce anything that anyone else said, or even that we said at another time–the context always changes the utterance. But we can do more or less good jobs of it. What you say kind of reminds me of that–there’s a way in which we can never replay things in their context (like how we can never read “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and appreciate the mystery the original readers experienced–everyone is all like “What’s going on here? What mysterious hold does Mr. Hyde have over Dr. Jekyll and you’re like THEY ARE LITERALLY DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE). But in a more practical sense there are definitely going to be glitches in the emulation and things like that, as you say. We can do some of it but there isn’t necessarily going to be a good wholesale solution. I can imagine sometime people deciding that a Culturally Significant Game needs to be hand-restored, because just whapping it down into the emulator isn’t capturing it right. And even the hand restoration won’t get us exactly what the original players had.

    Ketchua: My lossless archiving habit (ahem) for obscure old jazz records played hell with my games, because I switched to a computer with a solid state drive that was half the size of my old one, and suddenly there wasn’t enough room for anything but those lossless drives. I’d look at The Beginner’s Guide and think “Shyeah, I can’t put another gigabyte on my hard drive without everything going to hell.” Eventually I worked out a way of fairly smoothly mass-mp3ing my flac files and now an increasing number of the lossless files reside on a backup drive, for posterity.

    SSR: OK, even though “you have to keep playing this game it’s so awesome even though you hate the genre” bros are terrible, I’m going to be that bro, because I did stall out on the Great Tower in basically the exact same way, and once I got past of it the rest of the levels were not not not like it, but I think the design idea is sound. Someone in the other thread said that TGT seemed like it belonged in the next world, which is absolutely true from a mechanical point, because TGT is all about ladders and the next world is the World O’ Ladders. But those ladders, and sausage stacks, introduce a lot of new mechanics, and what TGT does is basically to force you to play around with those mechanics until you get some idea of how they work. Like, you’re going to need to know what happens when you walk on top of a sausage, and also how you can and cannot get off a sausage that you’re on, and–well, I guess most games tutorialize you with some short levels to do that kind of thing, but that’s not how Stephen’s Sausage rolls.

    What got the level for me was eventually, when I figured out the mechanics, I managed to envision the end state. Then it was a question of getting there, and there are a lot of ways to do it–the first one I did was hellishly inefficient, but I was able to do some other ones on replays. This is sort of an open world level compared to most of the others; even when later levels are on more of an open plain there’s usually a couple of problems you have to solve in specific ways, and with TGT that’s only true of the end state. But…think of it kind of like a sandbox, like you’re just building around in Starseed Pilgrim and you know that triple lock is waiting for you but you’re just not going to bother with it until it’s time, maybe?

    Also, the other day my wife wanted me to roll out a yoga mat to face a computer, but it was on the floor at the wrong angle. I lifted it onto a newel post, climbed a stair so it was on my head, turned ninety degrees, and walked sideways into the wall so it fell off. She found this absurd. (And this isn’t too much of a mechanical spoiler because you can’t do half of that in the game. I didn’t even have a fork!)

  12. Sorry for sitting on these comment for such a long time. Gearing up to shoot a third series of Side by Side this weekend. And to do that, I’ve been playing games. I know, I know. But someone has to do this dirty job.

    Matt

    Student loans are slowly becoming a bigger and bigger deal here in the UK, but I think most of readers would be aware that US student loans are serious. Money was first on my list too so I guess what you’re actually arguing is: DRM isn’t the choice being made, but the platform (access to audience). The fact that the DRM comes with it is incidental. That does sound more likely.

    On SSR, I haven’t gone back to it for over a week. I will go back but when I’m more awake and focused! I’ve figured out the rolling and managed to get half the sausages into position. I can’t quite see how I can complete it, yet, and putting any sausages on the grill sets at the back seems impossible.

    Your yoga story highlights that one of SSR’s fundamental design choices: the awkward movement of the player. You’re constantly figuring out how to rotate your fork around without mucking things up – oh my god, without an undo this game would be the worst. Some of the puzzles stop you because your fork gets stuck. Everything is perfect… but you can’t get the fork into or out of a particular position.

    Shaun

    Yes I don’t think anyone has figured out what constitutes proper “archiving” in the electronic age. Right now we’re still pretty fixated on physical instances and boxes you can wheel out in a museum. To what we consider as “authoritative archivists”, how attractive is the conservation of… a shiny hard drive with terabytes of history…?

    Although everything is stored somewhere, I can think that people might look back and see this era as a crazy dark age. The internet is full of broken links everywhere. The Wayback Machine helps… sometimes. Many comment flame wars have been deleted from history (although I was pleasantly surprised to see Nightmare Mode has been archived, comments and all).

    I’ve been doing plenty of research (for the book) where I go back and revisit certain arguments and, fuck me, it is hard work sometimes to establish “the state of the discourse” at a particular point in time.

    Example: Amazon taking on the casual market was a big deal, but tracking down what actually happened and the order of events was freaking hard. You cannot see what various companies websites really looked like at that time.

    I don’t have a point here except to wave my arms in exasperation.

  13. Honestly I’m not even saying that DRM for the game itself is the biggest factor, at least in the specific case I’m talking about. We could have all the source code for Blood and Laurels and almost nobody would be able to run it… because it doesn’t run on the currently available versions of iOS, and nobody has the code for that. That’s what makes the environment so hostile to archiving; the platform itself is effectively gone. I hope someone at Apple is working on preserving it a little.–I mean, I don’t think that we have any deep disagreement here, I just don’t see the stumbling block here as so much beating pirates as the company that controls the walled garden wants to keep it walled because that gives them more money, for reasons from being able to keep a brand identity to retaining the ability to censor stuff so you don’t get shut out of China to just plain getting your share of the profits. Some good stuff from The Digital Aquarian’s series on Tetris that touches on Nintendo’s walled-garden model, which I don’t think had much to do with cartridge piracy.

    (Also I should make clear that Emily Short wasn’t the only person behind Versu; I’m not sure whether she still had a working partnership with Richard Evans, the cofounder of Little Text People, at the time when the iOS updates made B&L unworkable. Credit where due and all that.)

    The Great Tower: Yeah, I mentioned having taken a break at least that long from The Great Tower. Figuring out how to get a sausage on the upper grills is key, and when you figure out how to do one without burning it the rest of the level may come quickly. At least that’s how it happened for me… you know what, that’s a lie. But once I figured out what I needed to do at the end it turned from slack-jawed staring to “I’m making progress!” And there are lots of ways to get to the end state.


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