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A new way to think about the code of your favorite game

It is surprisingly difficult to back up a video game. The cartridges eventually disintegrate; the discs become illegible as their plastic degrades. Source codes are lost in corporate mergers and acquisitions. But the most dangerous thing about preserving game history is not a physical or corporate consideration: it is the prevailing attitude that games are playful, fading, and therefore not worth backing up.

Obviously this is not true, and the games deserve critical historical scrutiny, similar to what other, older media receive. Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Levin, co-directors of the Video Game History Foundation, are two of the people behind the accusation. I recently spoke with them about preserving the history of video games and their new program, the Video Game Source Project, which is based on the idea that there is no better way to learn a video game than accessing its raw materials.

They say there are so many things you can learn from studying the final product ̵

1; because learning the final iteration of a creative project abandons how and why it enlivened him in the first place. And Lewin and Cifaldi started with a classic: LucasArts’s The secret of Monkey Island, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.

“Primarily, [the project is] just a kind of appeal to everyone that these things are really important and useful. And at least when it comes to older material, it’s dying fast, “said Cifaldi, noting that most gaming companies don’t have source code archives. “But I think the most important thing is that we want to normalize the availability and research of video game source material, because at the moment, the source of video games is just a lot of our own trade secret.”

Which is true! And in modern games, cloning is a big deal, even if we leave the problems with the source code. “But from our point of view, it’s like if you don’t do anything with this game for 10, 20 years, why – why the lock?” He says.

Scene from The secret of Monkey Island
Video Game History Foundation

This is a great question that makes me think a lot about traditional video game archiving stories – rather, I have to say, in particular, a story about ET and the landfill. Look, the game ET The Alien is a 1982 adventure film developed for Atari in flames 36 days. When it hit store shelves this Christmas, it was an unprecedented failure; Atari buried the unsold inventory somewhere deep in the New Mexico desert, where it was excavated in 2014 by a documentary team. The following year, the game entered the Smithsonian’s collection and they created a podcast episode in 2019 to retell the legend.

This is a wonderful story, especially considering the fate of Atari in the aftermath. (Spoiler: They weren’t great.) But the problem is, that’s actually all people know. The real goal of Cifaldi and Lewin is to present more compelling stories about this kind of history to the public and to preserve the raw materials that make them possible. (The Foundation’s blog is excellent, at least in terms of great stories.)

This is not without controversy. The Nintendo Gigaleak, as it was called, happened earlier this summer and revealed a wide range of new data on classic games. He also revealed a moral dilemma: if the wealth from the leak was obtained illegally, as it probably was, does it change how historians think and use what they learn from it? This answer is an individual analysis, of course. But on the other hand: if Nintendo’s secrets were less kept, the leak wouldn’t be so monumental.

I don’t know that there is an orderly answer here. However, it is clear that historical research on games must be something that companies expect and prepare. The nature of the work of the Video Game History Foundation is important and necessary, even if the industry does not fully appreciate it. They just want a more open world.

“And to be clear, I don’t want to think we’re expecting a world where everyone is just like Great, let’s open everything up open source,” Lewin said. “It’s unrealistic,” Cifaldi agrees.

“But what’s realistic is to normalize that someone could actually study this, just for historical purposes, so that they can look at it and learn from it and tell the stories they find in it.” says Lewin.

The secret of Monkey Island is a basic game, not least for Cifaldi, who quotes it as “maybe my favorite game, depending on which day you ask me.” He says he learned what games can be – like that they can have fun, memorable worlds and characters. The foundation got the game the way they get a lot of them, which is to say, cunningly. (Cifaldi identifies this as another issue that the Foundation must address: ensuring the safety of people donating games and the like to the archive, even if they do not own the rights.)

However, when they contacted Lucasfilm about creating content around the game, the studio supported. “I mean, they’re the boys who do it star Wars“They understand,” says Cifaldi. “They understand that the fans really enjoy this behind-the-scenes material and that it directly benefits them if people talk about it.”

Aladdin’s running cycle from Disney’s Aladdin
Video Game History Foundation

This month, the Video Game History Foundation plans to reveal what it has learned The secret of Monkey Island, to fans, historians and everyone else who may be interested in the hidden corners of a 30-year-old video game. “We are able to recover deleted scenes from games that no one has seen before, because this data is literally not on the disk you receive, because it is not compiled in the game,” says Cifaldi. (The foundation also got Ron Gilbert, the game’s creator, to join them in a live broadcast on October 30.)

The perspective of Cifaldi and Lewin can be summed up quite simply: they want to expand the types of stories we can tell about video games, both as fans and as historians. “We really only had crumbs of game development by, you know, finding an unfinished version that might have been sent to a preview magazine, or by what was accidentally compiled in the final game,” Cifaldi said.

This, he says, has tarnished how fans view the development process – as something perhaps linear, rather than as a gradual accumulation of creative solutions. “I think the really interesting thing that can come out of this conversation with Ron is that we can show that when we find this unused character in the source code, it’s not, like, it’s a character with a finished biography,” Cifaldi said. . Sometimes an unused pirate is just an unused pirate.

“Sometimes it tends to give either a false meaning to something,” agrees Lewin. “If you only have two clues to something, you can come up with a variety of scenarios in which those two clues fit.” If you have 20 or 30 clues, on the other hand, the scope of possibilities narrows. “If you’ve seen it in an earlier version of the game, they may make you believe it’s something that absolutely wasn’t,” says Lewin.

Let’s take a real example from The secret of Monkey Island: the collapsing bridge. As Cifaldi explains, there are animation frames for a bridge that collapses in the original work of the game, but there is no code that requires it. It’s just there. So they took it to creator Gilbert and asked about it. Ron is like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not something that’s ever been in the game. I’m not really sure why it’s there, “said Cifaldi.

They also had access to Gilbert’s sketchbook from the time he made the game, which contained the raw ideas that eventually made it the end product. “There’s a page that just says’ bridge trap? “. And I think that’s all it ever was, “Cifaldi said. “It looks like the game isn’t designed enough, but artists have to work on something. So it’s like, I don’t know, “working on a trapped bridge, and maybe we’ll reconsider it,” and they’ve never done it. “This is not a puzzle; it means nothing more than an idea that failed to do so.

“It’s part of the creative process,” says Cifaldi. “You collaborate, there are a lot of people involved, and you try ideas, you make them rough, and then they can be cut before you even try to use them.” A collapsing bridge is just a collapsing bridge.

In this – demystifying the process of game development – the Video Game Foundation is something of a pioneer who actively writes the rules for archiving this kind of art. Its source is a comprehensive overview of how the games you love are actually made, which is just as important as the games themselves. In our conversation, Cifaldi likened his work to archeology.

“If you have access to raw source code for a game, at a minimum, you can understand how the systems work and talk to each other and things like that,” he says. But if you’re a good historian, it’s digging. “When you look at a mummy, you don’t have access to that person when he was alive or anything, do you?” But you can find clues to help you understand who they are and what their social status was and things like that, ”he says. And those clues eventually turn into a story we could tell, years later, into a podcast for the Smithsonian.

“It’s kind of like a new idea in the world to have source materials for all kinds of archived software. And I think there is a difficult road ahead, “said Cifaldi. “But it has to start somewhere. And it starts now. ”

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