Why Preserving Old Computer Games is Surprisingly Difficult

fir3w0rx GameTime, Youtube
fir3w0rx GameTime, Youtube / fir3w0rx GameTime, Youtube

If you’re digging through your garage and stumble on a reel of 8mm film your family shot in the ‘50s, or home movies taped on VHS, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find somewhere to play them—it’s as simple as dusting off an old VCR, renting a projector from your local library, or enlisting the services of one of the many film transfer businesses. But if, instead, you open a dusty old box and find your favorite computer game from the ‘80s or ‘90s, finding a way to play it might be a little more tricky. 

That’s because computer technology has changed an incredible amount in an extremely short period of time, which means games made just a few years ago are often unplayable on today’s computers.

According to Rock Paper Shotgun, without a concerted preservation effort, many of the computer games of the last few decades could disappear. Not only have the original game disks become unplayable, but many of the companies that designed the games are now defunct—meaning original source code, in some cases, has been lost.

Fortunately, there are a few dedicated digital archaeologists out there committed to tracking down code and preserving old games. Of these, the company GOG is perhaps the most prominent. GOG—which originally stood for Good Old Games—hunts down classic PC games, purchases the rights, and restores them. While that may seem like a relatively straightforward process, it’s surprisingly difficult. 

Just tracking down distribution rights involves real detective work, since rights often change hands several times when old companies go out of business. GOG’s legal department must research the history of each game studio’s mergers and buy outs in order to figure out who to contact.

But the real challenge is restoring and re-writing code. For many games, the original source code has been lost, so engineers are often forced to work off of “retail code," the less malleable code rescued from original retail copies of the game. According to Rock Paper Shotgun, that’s like “film restoration using only a VHS recording of a television broadcast, the original negatives having been destroyed.”

The process is not wholly unlike archaeology. Sometimes engineers even stumble upon hidden messages within a game’s code. For instance, while restoring Dungeon Keeper, GOG employees found a note written by the game’s original creator and lost for nearly twenty years, which thanked his employees for their many sleepless nights building the game: “This game has been written with a passion I am proud to be a part of. I do not just hope you like it, I also hope you are aware of the huge amount of work we have all done.”

It’s fascinating that restoring media created such a short time ago can be such a difficult process—after all, we’ve been able to decode and preserve written works dating back thousands of years. But rapid changes in technology have caused an accelerated aging process for the PC games of the last few decades. Though PC games have become increasingly ephemeral, there are still plenty of fans who remember them fondly. Which is why GOG’s restoration process is partially crowdsourced—the company not only restores games off a wishlist, but recruits the gaming community to help track down old games. 

[h/t: Rock Paper Shotgun]