Video game preservation is about more than the games themselves

Video game preservation is a hot topic right now, as you’ve doubtless seen.

The impending closure of the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita and PSP stores has, unsurprisingly, made the news all over the Internet recently. And while Sony doubtless has what they believe to be valid business reasons for shutting the stores down, it’s hard to find anyone who believes this is good from either a public relations or a game preservation perspective.

Battle Princess of Arcadias - a target of game preservation efforts
Battle Princess of Arcadias (PS3)

Microsoft and Nintendo are no less blameless in the matter of game preservation, mind you.

Nintendo closed the Wii Shop Channel in January of 2019, leaving a number of download-exclusive games completely inaccessible via “official” means, and more recently withdrew the Super Mario 3D All-Stars Collection from sale both digitally and physically as a means of creating artificial scarcity, forcing those who wanted the game to buy now or miss out.

Microsoft, meanwhile, appear at first glance to be taking game preservation most seriously, but dig into things a little bit and there are still issues; Xbox Game Pass, inexplicably regarded by some as the saviour of the entire games industry, is nothing more than a glorified rental service where no-one owns anything.

Meanwhile what the company refers to as “backwards compatibility” is actually nothing of the sort, instead being an online service that allows users to download recompiled executable and data files for selected older games, using their original discs as a product key. It’s better than nothing, for sure, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental game preservation issues at play here.

But those fundamental issues have already been discussed to death elsewhere online over the course of the past week or so. What I want to talk about today is another aspect of video game preservation which I think we — particularly those of us in the games media — need to start taking a bit more seriously. And that is the question of how we talk about games, and how video game criticism works.

Super Mario 3D All Stars - raising questions over game preservation
Super Mario 3D All-Stars (Switch)

At present, the terms “video game criticism” and “reviews” tend to be used somewhat interchangeably, and they also tend to take the same form: a buyer’s guide. Is this game worth your hard-earned money? Does it work properly? Are the graphics good? If you had to rate it out of 10, what would you give it?

There are, of course, numerous flaws to this way of doing things, most notably the question of subjectivity versus objectivity, which likewise has been discussed to death elsewhere online.

But I think as we stare down the end of a distinct era of video game history and start to ponder how we can implement some form of game preservation before it’s too late, it’s worth considering the different ways that we can talk about games — and how the things we write about games (and the videos we make or the podcasts we record, for that matter) can form an important part of the video game preservation process.

Many of you reading this have doubtless been through some form of education in literary criticism to one degree or another. Literary criticism, as we learn it at school and university, is not about making value judgements of something; it is not about saying whether or not something is “good”, or whether we “liked” something. While that sort of thing has value in casual conversation, in the long term it’s not all that helpful — particularly as different people respond to things in different ways.

Instead, we’re taught to analyse the things we’re looking at in a variety of ways. What was the author’s stated intent for this work? What can we infer from the creator’s work if their own commentary isn’t readily available? What things about this work help us understand what sort of person this character is? How does the style in which this work is created reflect the time in which it is written — or pay homage to another period in history? It’s hopefully obvious how exploring these things can help with game preservation in its own way.

Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, a game whose contemporary reviews doubtless didn't help game preservation efforts.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (PS2)

To put it another way, through reading a good piece of literary criticism, we can come to understand a work in detail — even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves as yet.

One’s reaction to said piece of criticism may result in a desire to rush out and get your own copy of the work in question — or avoid it at all costs — but that’s an opinion you come to by yourself, rather than being told what to think. Instead, we’re presented with facts, analysis and interpretation — a combination of objective and subjective commentary — and invited to reach our own conclusions.

This is something that, at present, doesn’t happen nearly enough in gaming outside of academia. There are people out there who are writing books and theses and dissertations about video games, but the popular games press is still hung up on “is this good?”

And the net result of all that from a game preservation perspective in the long term is going to be that the only record we have of several generations of gaming history is whether or not a select group of people who had been chosen as “opinion leaders” at a very particular moment in history liked a small selection of the video games that were ever available.

This is already happening to a certain degree. Look back on reviews of PlayStation 2 games that released after the HD era got underway with the Xbox 360, for example, and you’ll see many writers clearly phoning it in — if they even bothered to cover these games at all.

I’ll refrain from naming and shaming specific writers and publications for obvious reasons, but I came across a great example of this when I played the 2006 PS2 game Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm for the first time recently.

As part of the Atelier series, Grand Phantasm is actually rather fascinating when taken in context — as well as being a genuinely great, beautifully presented game in its own right. Yet one noted reviewer at the time lambasted it for being “too conservative” (as in “not adventurous enough”, rather than criticising its politics) and, in doing so, didn’t really explore any of the things that made the game noteworthy.

Nier, a game that was very fortunate from a game preservation perspective.
Nier (360/PS3)

There are more recent examples, too. Look at Taro Yoko’s masterpiece Nier, for example; today this and its sequel are quite rightly regarded as highly influential and genuinely unique modern classics. But at the time of its 2010 release the first game was criticised for a variety of reasons including its graphics, its mechanics, its atmosphere, its story, its “identity crisis”, its “surfeit of content”, its “squandered potential” and the fact it was “only suitable for Japanophiles nostalgic for the early aughts”.

As a result, it has been burdened with a score of 67 on Metacritic ever since, which meant a lot of people passed up a fascinating gaming experience when it first came out, and have only come around to it since it became fashionable to like it.

Nier was fortunate that people picked up on it after the fact, because these reviews from 2010 barely tell us anything about what the game is actually doing. They tell us that the reviewer didn’t like the game, or that they found the game boring and all manner of other completely subjective opinions — but they don’t talk about how, say, Nier’s oft-shifting mechanics reflect its narrative, or how the deliberate drudgery and morose tone of the game’s sidequests encourage the player to “method act” as someone living in the game’s post-apocalyptic setting.

In other words, if all those reviews from 2010 were all we had to look back on, Nier would have been completely forgotten by now, and no-one would have given it a second thought from a game preservation perspective. We’re very lucky that someone — it’s hard to pin down exactly who — decided to revisit the game and sing its praises… and that people actually listened.

This is a particular problem when it comes to games regarded as “niche interest” for one form or another, whether it’s because they’re aimed at a very specific audience, or perhaps because they have fanservicey content. Because very few of those games get the second chance that Nier did, leaving it almost entirely up to the fans of those works to celebrate those games and keep their legacy alive.

Hyperdimension Neptunia, a niche interest game that is nonetheless worth some game preservation efforts.
Hyperdimension Neptunia (PS3)

Idea Factory’s Neptunia series is an excellent example of this. While positively received in Japan, the original Hyperdimension Neptunia was panned by western publications on its original release, with one publication in particular branding it a “sexist, senseless and ultimately stupid cultural curio” while simultaneously failing to explore the game on anything more than the most superficial level.

As such, the series as a whole has flown by almost entirely unnoticed by most of the major western publications ever since — many seemingly believing it’s not particularly worthwhile from a game preservation angle — and yet Neptunia has gone on to be Idea Factory’s most successful franchise by far. It spawned a variety of spinoff media including follow-up games (of varied genres) and also, perhaps more importantly, emboldened Idea Factory to become more and more adventurous — and technically proficient — with their subsequent work.

That’s a story worth telling in the context of gaming history, surely? Everyone loves a nice “reversal of fortune” story, particularly when the protagonist of said story clearly manages to better themselves over the long term; these days Idea Factory is known and loved by many not only for its broad range of RPGs, but also for its commitment to the underserved otome market.

What this all boils down to is that when we think about the video games medium in the long term, it’s important to consider not only the games themselves — which, as we’ve regrettably seen a few times, can end up completely lost under particularly unfortunate circumstances — but also the other media we leave behind about those games. That media we leave behind is as much a part of game preservation as the games themselves — sometimes it’s all we can leave behind in the case of things like Final Fantasy XIV, which by their very nature as online-only games have a finite lifespan.

Final Fantasy XIV, a game for which game preservation will only be possible through other media.
Final Fantasy XIV (PC/PS4)

In twenty years’ time, what’s going to have more value from a game preservation perspective to someone looking back on this period of gaming history? Complaints about the supposed “sexism” in Neptunia (a franchise with a highly capable all-female cast, lest we forget)? Or an analysis of how each game deftly satirises a very specific event in gaming, thereby allowing each individual installment to act as an interesting cultural artifact that inherently carried the most meaning when it was “current”?

Would you rather be reading about how a single reviewer felt uncomfortable at the average size of the Senran Kagura cast’s breasts, or how the series combines elements from slice-of-life and shounen anime with aspects of Japanese mythology, and how it displays a markedly more progressive and open-minded attitude towards female sexuality than even certain parts of Japanese society did at the time of release?

I could go on. But I won’t, for the sake of your own sanity; hopefully you get the idea by this point. Game preservation is important; and it’s as much about the information we leave behind about these games as the actual games themselves.

Suffice it to say for now, you can be sure we’ll be doing our bit here on Rice Digital to ensure there’s something interesting left behind about all the games we cover. Because games deserve to leave a mark on the world as much as any other art form or type of media — and together we can make sure that happens.

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Pete Davison
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