12 Apr 2010

Where Videogames Go To Die

Back when I was a kid, one of the first videogames I remember playing was Horace Goes Skiing. I was about three years old, playing this basic Frogger clone on a computer with a dead-flesh keyboard. It was great, even though it was frustrating trying to steer this character down a virtual slalom course. There were a number of other games that hallmarked my youth, from Fantasy World Dizzy through to Shenmue, stopping off at Sonic the Hedgehog, Doom, Unreal and Half-Life on the way.

It’s awe-inspiring in a way – as I’ve grown up over the last thirty years this whole new form of entertainment has grown up with me. It’s something that simply didn’t exist before my generation, yet it’s something I’ve lived with all my life.

And yet I can’t help but feel that somehow videogames are the only form of entertainment that has a built in shelf-life. I’m not talking about things like DRM or anything as draconian. It’s much more fundamental. Videogames are the only form of entertainment that is almost welded to the hardware it was created for. We expect that in time to come we will move on to better hardware, and with it newer videogames. Those older ones, the classics of forgotten generations of hardware, are abandoned and rarely see the light of day again.

Let me try and give a clumsy analogy. I have a bookshelf, on which lie a collection of books. Most of them I’ve read, some of them I’ve yet to start. But I’m in no rush – a book is a book is a book. I won’t open it one day to find the book technology has changed, or the book server has been shut down and my book service closed. It’s a kind of comfort, knowing that they will still be there and that I can get round to them, some day.

It’s the same with music – I listen to music every single day. Sometimes it’s on CD, sometimes it’s on my iPhone, sometimes it’s on computer. Sometimes I make my own music, cranking out badly plucked half-tunes on my cheap Squier Strat. But music is transient in nature, being easily movable from one medium to another. Notation on paper to bytes on a magnetic platter, it’s all the same. But I can still dig out the music I was listening to ten or twenty years ago and pull it forward, making it play on my latest gadget or gizmo. It never goes out of date.

I think it’s my fast-approaching wedding that’s thrown this into the forefront for me. One of the biggest joys in my life is being able to play videogames with other people, be they in the same living room or a different continent. I want to be able to share and pass on those experiences, and I don’t know why but I feel it all the more as I grow older. But although I can share the stories that shaped my youth and the music that inspired me as a teenager, the videogames that defined my gaming life will probably stay in the past.

Think about the games you’ve played, the characters you’ve created and the experiences you’ve had. In the case of Warcraft, you might have characters that you’ve been playing for five years or more. They have their own stories, their own paths. Even if you’ve never roleplayed, you’ve still fought battles and overcome the horrors of the world. There’s a history there full of memories.

One day the game will end. The servers will shut down and the hard drives scrubbed. Our characters will probably be long gone by then, probably only recorded in blogs like this one or merchandise like the plastic figurines or posters. And unlike a book that you can pull of a shelf and pass on to the next generation, a videogame is like a fixed point in time that we cluster around for a brief moment before moving on to the next one. Then the next one. Again, and again.

Consider that the creative endeavours of a single person might last for over four thousand years, it seems such a waste of effort that something touched by several hundred people might only live for a few years. For some reason it feels broken, as if a videogame is like a Nexus-6 replicant trying to live out beyond it’s dedicated lifespan.

In the meantime, I can only imagine that one day there’ll be a time when I’m asked about the Big Daddy figurine or the Wind-Rider plushie, and where these creatures came from. And I’ll reply:

“From worlds that once existed, but that exist no more.”

See you in-game.

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8 Responses to Where Videogames Go To Die

  1. Angelya says:

    Oh my goodness, that’s sad. I’d like to think that our characters will go on living in their Azeroth somewhere after we stop playing and the game shuts down… or perhaps they will go to hang out with Sonic or Mario or those cats from Alley Cat…

  2. Gazimoff says:

    I’d like to think they’d carry on too, eeking out some fictional life in a version of Azeroth somewhere. But think of it another way.

    I hope one day to have children of my own. As part of showing them the world we live in, I think it’s natural to show them the places we grew up, the books we read and the music we listened to. As a gamer, I’d aldo like to show them the games we played. But the consoles will be out of date, the games won’t run on the new hardware and the auth servers will be offline. It’s not just WoW, its the industry. That’s why I’m so sad: there will be no legacy to pass on.

  3. Wulfy says:

    Screenshots! Screenshots are one way to capture the memories. Whilst you are (quite rightly) comparing videogames to other artfroms such as literature and film, which can be stored indefinately, games are really more akin to a form of existence.

    Any game, even Horace Goes Skiing, contains a million different permutations, whereby the experience of each player is unique. Therefore capturing the memories of a gamer are more like capturing memories in the kaleidoscope of real-life – you can’t. Everything shifts and moves and time goes on; in real-life is ‘welded to its hardware’. Therefore all we can do is take pictures, record video and tell embelished stories to our grandkids about the good old days.

  4. Pindle says:

    What an awesome post. Definitely one of your best mate. And yeah, thinking about the history I’ve lost and will lose as games have died, servers have shutdown, savegames got deleted, it does make me sad. WoW isn’t a book, but a mostly undocumented lyfestyle. Guess thats why I try to get as many screencaps, frapses and am even writing a novel to try capture the spirit of the game, so I can tell my kids about the brave warrior that lived in a world that died in the year 2014.

  5. Vrykerion says:

    I once tried to explain to a kid that had never played a video game before the Playstation 2 exactly why the Opera scene from Final Fantasy 6 makes me cry. He couldn’t understand how a bunch of sprites could convey the emotions that I was getting from it.

    So I explained to him, in my own words, how the events of the game played out. Then I explained how that informed the perception of a 1 tile sprite and midi music performing an “opera.” All he could say after was, “That’s sad.” and I said “Exactly.”

    I know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but showing a screenshot of your WoW character to your grand child isn’t going to invoke an emotional response. Your stories will. I have captivated my college age friends with tales of a group of ten wandering the dark and haunted halls of Karazhan, weaving lore and our own actions in to the story together.

    My advice is to find a way to convey the emotion, not the actual game. There’s a level of understanding to things that are in the moment and cannot be replicated or will be tainted with hindsight and analysis. That will be the way to pass it on be it as a novel, a comic, a blog, or a humble bed time story.

    People die. Animals die. Hardware dies. A good story lives on forever.

  6. Zaeni says:

    Maybe they could do something like what guild wars is doing, having a monument of some sort to carry over to wow 2, that has screenshots of your triumphs and lists your achievements, complete with a stone statue of your previous character in yourr present game.

    Presumably memory would have gotten even cheaper and bandwidth even bigger for this to be a non-issue when wow 2 comes out

  7. Gazimoff says:

    @Wulfy

    I think you’re part-right – screenshots, merchandise and the like can remind us of the journeys we took and the choices we made in the game, helping us to recount them to others. But I think what I’m getting at is more fundamental.

    As interactive entertainment becomes more complex, the ability for individuals to create their own stories grows significantly, particularly in MMOs. Rather than recount how I felt – I want people to be able to try out the same world and make their own choices, write their own stories in the same game world. But since the game world itself is at best only temporary, there’s a real risk that this simply won’t be possible.

    @Pindle

    Thanks, I appreciate your comments!

    @Vrykerion I think this gets closer. But think of Heavy Rain, where you have a whole bag of possibilities. You may make one set of choices, while someone else would make another. Your differnt routes through the same world shape your experiences of it, yet you have this common link. But that link only extends to people who’ve bought into it. Once the PS2 is unavailable and the service shut down, you won’t be able to give the game to anyone for them to try out. It’s not just a story, it’s a whole world.

    @Zaeni, I think this could be interesting, but only if there is a WoW2. As it stands, I don’t think that’s likely to happen any time soon. I like the Mass Effect->Mass Effect 2 idea, but I don’t think WoW will have a sequel to move to directly.

  8. Pindle says:

    @Gazimoff Yeah I don’t see a WoW sequel as a feasability either. Expansions work, moving to a new world would break the userbase and lose followers for Blizz. They’ll rather milk the old cow till its dry and then launch World of Diablo.