• The vast, unplayable history of video games

    In 2008, the year I took my first Cinema class, a 16mm full cut of the film Metropolis was found in Museo del Cine in Argentina. It felt like a miracle. We'd all stop each other—have you heard? Some of the scenes were too damaged to repair, but it was genuine, and in 2010 Metropolis was re-premiered, as close to the original print as is possible. Undeniably influential and utterly, catastrophically lost, Metropolis had always fascinated me. And I would be able to see it, at last.

    P.T. was a "playable teaser" of Konami's upcoming Silent Hills horror game, an unusual endeavor in an industry that mostly markets on heavily-edited video trailers. It was exciting as much in its own right as for the promises it made. On April 26th, 2015, Konami announced that it would be pulling P.T., from the PlayStation store, after less than a year. No miracle will bring it back, and it's no special tragedy: This happens all the time in games. Losing great works is the norm, practically expected.

    No one will actually forget P.T., right? Won't its cult appeal last forever? Won't this article I'm writing about it always be live, always keep P.T. in our minds? I'd like to assume so. No one really forgot about Earthbound or its sequel Mother 3, either, or SystemShock or its successors. But will people ever be able to play P.T. again?

    My cinema classes offered me a very clearly delineated set of films I could watch in order to understand the history, technical advancements and artistic developments of American cinema. Workers Leaving the Factory, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and so on and so on, until we reach the present day. Games, an art form only about 30 years old, has no such canon of great works. Maybe that's due to the youth of the medium. But let's say we had such a list: Would we still have easy access to them all? Would they be archived in such a way that we could still play them, or might their platforms, their technology, have aged out of relevance, lost to the winds?


    One of the greatest hurdles in archiving games is that there is no surefire way to archive digital media across the board. Cinema is having its own crisis on how to properly archive video. Tape degrades quickly, and colors and sound wear out as the years go by. DVDs eventually stop playing from use. Hard drives, thought to be infallible, can dry up and spin their last, become aging, enormous bricks left in the wake of technological progress' march.

    Writer Shamus Young details how games face these issues and more: how companies that make graphics cards don't often document the changes to drivers they make for popular games, how the licensing for music gets very complicated as time moves on, how both consoles and operating systems are locked down to prevent backwards compatibility. But most importantly there is a harsh enforcement of copyright, even for games that are functionally unpurchasable. And now we see that the forces that hold those copyrights are often happy to will a game to disappear entirely.

    My friend Nico, who once worked for the Internet Archive, told me that she only ever dealt with works that had entered the public domain or had an established estate. The works she was archiving were, on average, over a hundred years old. She also told me that archived works are usually offered at a highly discounted price, or even free. Maybe we'll see P.T. again in 2115, if Konami decides that milking the Silent Hill franchise isn't worth it anymore.

    Konami's commitment to whisk P.T. away behind a vanishing curtain is really the same old story of these corporations aggressively protecting their intellectual property. It's because these companies see games not as an art form, but as a piece of technology. If archiving a work means that it may become free, or that some theoretical profits might be lost, why do it?


    Cinema can be traced the same way in history. Star Wars can be considered important because George Lucas invented cameras to film the scenes he wanted in the way he wanted them to be seen. But a reduction of art to a story of technology doesn't account for the societal and cultural importance of the works produced. Star Wars isn't just a story of technology, but a Kurosawa-inspired epic of the journey out of bondage. Can you explain Rothko in just an examination of his painting techniques? Or is he important because of what it feels like to stand in front of his work?

    Museums spend an extraordinary amount of money to preserve artwork in an optimal condition. You can't touch anything, or get close enough to have the carbon dioxide on your breath change the colors in the paint. Each room is climate-controlled in order to slow down the aging process of pigment on canvas. They do this because it is understood in the Fine Arts that seeing something in person can help explain how we got to where we are now. You can trace a line, like in Cinema, from cave paintings to the renaissance to abstract expressionism to now.

    Metropolis was technologically advanced, sure. But it was also produced at a time when science fiction was new, when the kind of story it was telling, about gender and the terrifying power of the Industrial Revolution, was still uncharted territory. That the Maschinenmensch is a woman is no accident: this was the Weimar Republic, the 1920s, where women internationally and specifically in Germany were rebelling against the hand they'd been dealt in life.


    Finding a full print of Metropolis wasn't simply about understanding how that film was made, or even just about seeing it in full—seeing Metropolis can help us understand how those people lived, how we live, how we tell stories. Konami doesn't care how P.T. will help us understand ourselves and our stories—and P.T. wants to tell a story, about masculinity, about fatherhood, about what scares us, about how men treat women. Konami cares about profit, and P.T. will not make them a profit.

    Our failure to cultivate a full appreciation of history within games extends beyond just the games themselves and into our collective database of knowledge, criticism and practices within our field. "Collectively, we have a short memory, mostly back to the childhoods of whatever generation is currently not yet fed up with games enough to romanticize it," says author and professor Ian Bogost.

    "It makes our belief in our current novelty innocent on the one hand, but it ensures we build on a very limited version of the past on the other," he continues. "Yes, there's always some truly new novelty in games. But the bigger trends always seem to start from scratch, unaware of what came before, unable to incorporate and build upon it."

    Games critics seem to have the same arguments, the same discussions every five years or so; maybe we, all of us, think like Konami. What will get us the most hits? What is the freshest, hottest take on the topic du jour? What Op-Ed will get the readers that make sure that these sites stay open? My friend Max asked me why there's no annual publication of the best games journalism. This is why: none of us care about our history.

    "Gaming's old-timers grow weary and quit (or get driven out), and everyone forgets and starts over, patting themselves on the back for being young and clever and confident," Bogost continues. "I'd say 'all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again,' but even that's a reference that will likely be missed by many. 'Yeah, but that was like, five years ago. Everything's different now. It's a golden age.'"

    To make our history a priority, and in particular to prioritize the work of archiving, means that we have to take a huge cultural shift, and in the time it takes to shift perception we will lose things. There were PC games that came out in 1998 that we've already forgotten: technology, criticism has already marched on. This is our loss. When the games our children play are retreading the same ground design-wise as the ones we remember, we should know who to blame. When that print of Metropolis was found in the Museo Del Cine, it was a miracle. I wonder how I will feel if we see P.T. ever again.

  • I'm afraid to die in games

    I have a childhood memory: in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Link ascends a staircase. The candles in this space are glowing softly, and I can see a monstrous form at the top of the stairs. I know I am supposed to fight him.

    My heart starts racing. My palms are clammy. I don't want to fight, I want to escape quietly in the dark of night. I go back down the stairs, out of the castle, back to my boat.

    I had been enjoying the game — my brother bought it for me, for the GameCube my parents got me. They were both truly mine, for the first time. The world was bright, fresh and clear, and I hadn't been as frustrated by its controls as I was by the more technical games my brother liked. But I hadn't been especially good at this game, or any of them.

    I was a child. To fight that thing meant I was going to die, to fail. In life, I got up and turned off the console, went up the stairs to my bedroom and laid down on my bed.


    A few years later, I got a C in math. I was never particularly good at math, and I'm lazy even to this day, preferring to spend more time on things I'm already good at rather than to develop new skills. The letter from the school had arrived while I was in the car with my father, and he opened it, sitting silently in the garage.

    He turned to me and said, "Well. You might as well just drop out of school. Start working at McDonald's." We didn't talk to each other for a few days. I felt like a ghost in my own house.

    My freshman year of college I got an invite to a Facebook group. It was a memorial group for someone I had known my whole life, more a brother than just a friend. I posted, "Is this a fucking joke?" and someone replied, "No. Unfortunately, Matt died." It was a heroin overdose. We still don't know if it was intentional or not. I do know that his father had to break the door to his bathroom to retrieve his body.

    In games, we have the term "fail state" — a point when it is clear that you have lost, have not achieved the conditions necessary for "winning." Some people say that's a defining characteristic of a "game" in the first place, but I'm not sure I like that idea. I don't like when failure equals death.

    After the release of Bloodborne, my friends shared their screencaps of the game, large red text spreading across them: "YOU DIED." I won't be playing this one; nothing makes me more anxious. I remember walking Link up the stairs in Wind Waker, feeling as if I was sending him to his grave.


    I wonder how seeing yourself die — because your avatar is you, in a sense — changes how we see our failures in our own life. That C on my midterm review, and every C thereafter, were not things I could learn from. They were end of that timeline. If I can't achieve excellence, why continue to try at all? Every time I die in Persona 3 — a game where death is frequent and often unexpected — I put it down for at least a week, angry at myself for not being prepared. Last night, my sim in The Sims 4 failed to put out a fire and burned to death. It makes me wonder, should I even be playing these games, if I can't even keep myself from dying? Do not die: The minimum thing these games are asking me to do. If I can't achieve that, why am I even playing?

    My first year of college was a mess, academically. I was just happy to be out of the suburbs, far, far away from home, to be making friends and having my own schedule, smoking weed and drinking when I wanted. When I went home for winter term, I was almost ashamed. Did I deserve to be in college, if I was getting Bs? Did I deserve to be in college and doing poorly, when Matt wasn't even alive, wouldn't have the chance to even try?

    I thought a lot about taking time off, talked about it with my brother. He said that he knew people that took time off because they're felt inadequate, or sad, or needed to be out of school, and when they came back, they weren't necessarily better. Two years later, I got an A+ in a class. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, to accept my past failures as part of a journey to become a better academic, a better person.

    When you die in a game, no one is there to tell you how your work could be better. You've simply failed. People tell me you learn the rules of games like Bloodborne. Articles promise me the game itself will teach me how to improve, but I don't believe them. Every failure brings me no lessons — just shame and humiliation. Ridicule from other fans, even when I succeed.

    Is this really learning? Or is this being hammered down, until you give up a part of yourself?


    Later in my life, my father apologized to me. He admitted he was too hard on me as a child, that he felt he made me afraid to try new things. He thought he had instilled in me a fear of failure so vicious that I would never allow myself not to be good at anything.

    He was right. It's taken me my entire life to accept that failure is allowed, that it is natural.

    I think it's dangerous that games pair the evocative imagery of death with the concept of failure. It makes failure absolute, unfixable, without offering a course from which to grow. The only solution you're given is "just be better", without any idea of what "being better" will offer you as a player, as a human.

    The first time I came to my advisor for my senior project in college he told me he was almost angry at the amount of sources I was using. In the next sentence, he told me that I already had all my materials, that I was already there. I know now that in the first level of Wind Waker that I already had what I needed to get the job done. But if I had died, what would I have known, other than my failure?

    Before Matt died, he wrote poetry and sent me emails and talked with me as we skipped our study hall to go on long walks through parks. He was smart, certainly smarter than me, and genuinely kind. Matt's life was worth something. I don't think the message YOU DIED tells you what life is worth.

    In my sophomore year of college, ny father drove me out to school alone, and after the last box was unpacked, after we had gone out to dinner he stood with me behind my dorm, under the trees, and he looked at me with tears welling in his eyes. He said, "I'm proud of you."

    He said, "I couldn't have asked for a better daughter."

    I know he still remembers all the Cs, all the times I let him down, all the times I could have done better but didn't. The times I failed. I cried when I walked up the stairs to my dorm room. I laid down on the scarf Matt's mom knitted for me, and I cried for the rest of the evening.

  • We are not colonists

    In a recent Playstation television ad, we see some of Sony's most popular heroes—Solid Snake, Nathan Drake and Kratos—gathered at a bar, telling war stories about a man they call only Michael. They name him the hero and savior of their greatest battles, and raise their glasses to his portrait: an image of a young white man, holding a Playstation controller.

    The camera hangs reverently on Michael's face, before panning out to reveal a sea of other gamer portraits. But Michael is presented to us as the prototypical "gamer," the accepted idea of what a person who plays video games looks like, at least in the world of mainstream games. "You belong," this ad is saying, to people who look like Michael. "This community is yours. Here, you make the rules."