Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Now for a Word: Backwards Compatibility

It's no secret that the current generation of gaming consoles will soon come to a close. This generation has witnessed more changes to our precious medium than any other, and not all of them have been for the better. Among the more heated changes, like achievements and digital-rights management, is the idea of backwards compatibility. It certainly receives less attention than those other, noisier issues, so some may be forgiven for assuming it is, perhaps, not quite so important--but that is not the case. Very often when seeing other gamers discuss the idea of backwards compatibility, I see the same thing happen. Someone will criticize how backwards compatibility is implemented (or not implemented at all). The response to this is always either tacit agreement, or simple derision. After all, they say, backwards compatibility is not really an issue. If you want to play older games, simply buy the older console they were made for--or use an emulator on a PC. And every once in a while someone will express the most shameful sentiment of all: it's not an issue because old games are not worth playing, they're all terrible and outdated and anyone who thinks otherwise is blinded by nostalgia.

And we seem to respond to these retorts either with violent bursts of profanity and ridicule... or not all.

But backwards compatibility is an important issue, now more than ever with rumors circulating regarding the next iteration of the Playstation console series, code-named ORBIS, stirring up tales of locking-out used games, forcing constant online connectivity, and not being backwards-compatible with prior Playstation consoles. The backwards compatibility naysayers seem to be growing more common and vocal with each passing day, and all there arguments stem from inattention and ignorance. As gamers, it is our duty to discuss our hobby with civility and respect, and as human beings we have a duty to speak the truth in the face of ignorance. It may accomplish nothing in the end, but at least the truth will be there. So let's get down to brass tacks, shall we: just why is it that backwards compatibility matters? And what is it about the arguments against backwards compatibility that isn't valid?

The most infuriating argument against backwards compatibility is that it doesn't matter, because older games don't matter, and our affection stems solely from nostalgia-fueled delusion. Beyond the fact that the "nostalgia-goggles" argument is inherently meaningless and exists only as a method to insult another human being's opinion without making any valid points or leaving one open to any real response, this argument fails because it relies on an incorrect assumption. Basically, it assumes that games are perishable--like fruit, or that milk you've kept in the back of the fridge for so long because your afraid of what it might smell like when you dump it out. Silly, right? Games don't go bad: that's nonsense. The root of this sentiment, were one to articulate it (and honestly I've never really seen anyone even try) is that the quality of a game is dependent on numerous outside factors, from the cultural environment of the era to the technological limitations of the time. Because these older games come from a time and technology removed from our own, we can no longer enjoy them. Furthermore, our understanding of game design has improved immensely over the past many years, so beyond the visual and narrative elements that have aged poorly, we also must deal with outdated mechanics that render those older titles near-unplayable.

Dragon Quest (1986)

Well, as many of the more vocal critics of Final Fantasy XIII will tell you, game mechanics are not dependent on anything beyond the skill and ability of the development staff, irrespective of time. The basic mechanics of Dragon Quest have remained virtually unchanged since the original title launched in May of 1986--nearly twenty-seven years--and today Dragon Quest is one of the most popular game series on the planet. Final Fantasy VI was released eighteen years ago--in 1994--and is still widely regarded as one of the greatest stories ever told in a game. And twelve years ago Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn was released, a western role-playing game that to this day remains the quintessential example of RPG storytelling, gameplay and visuals.
Starry Night (1889)

No, we can still appreciate Starry Night one-hundred-and-twenty-four years after it was painted, in complete ignorance of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, absent the understanding of Van Goghs internment in a sanitarium. We can still appreciate Citizen Kane without knowing who William Randolph Hearst was, or how ruinous the film was to Orson Welles' career. Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2 is just as likely to move us to tears with the knowledge of his relationship to Tchaikovsky as not. So, too, are we able appreciate the quality of a game regardless when it was made, or where it was made, or who made it. Such circumstances are superfluous--they have no bearing on the quality or worth of a game.

I know I've been talking for a long time now, and I apologize. You're at the half way point, so lets have an intermission. Take a break. Stretch your legs, use the bathroom, drink some juice (I'm gonna go fetch a glass of pineapple-orange myself). I think the issue of backwards compatibility matters (which is why I'm here, after all) so I'd really appreciate it if you could come back after that brief repose and read all the way to the end, if you don't mind.

Let's end with the most common argument against backwards compatibility: it's unnecessary because those older games we love so much can still be played, all we have to do is purchase the proper console. Sure, the Wii U can't play Gamecube games like the Wii, but that's okay--just buy a Gamecube! Sure, the Playstation 3 can't play PS2 games, but that's okay--just buy a PS2! The problem with this argument is that it's based around an assumption that, frankly, is wrong. Here, once again, we are relying on an invalid assumption. In this case that it's possible to purchase older iterations of console hardware. But is it? The Gamecube and Playstation 2 are no longer in production, and they have not been in production for several years. As a consequence, they are no longer sold in retail stores and no longer available -anywhere- new. If you want one, you have to go out of your way to a gaming specialty store or the Internet to purchase one used.

In our immediate world, this is not much of an issue. But the Gamecube and Playstation 2 are only a single generation removed from our present. What if we go back one generation? Or two? Or Three? What happens when we want to play Nintendo 64 games? Or Super Nintendo games? Or Nintendo games? Do we go out and buy an N64, a SNES or a NES? Of course not. They stopped making those things years and years and years ago. So long ago that many of them have been tossed aside into a rubbish pile, been broken or fallen into disrepair. Scarcity being what it is, we are forced to find alternatives, either playing those games legitimately through emulator services like Nintendo's infrequently-updated Virtual Console, or resorting to pirating those games (which is, you know, illegal) to play on PC emulators. That the same fate will soon fall upon the games of our current generation is not a question, it is an inevitability. One made worse by one simple truism: the more complex an electronic device becomes, the more likely it will suffer catastrophic failure. The reason you can still, conceivably  purchase a used SNES on Ebay is because the SNES was a very simple electronic device. Is the PS3 simple? Of course not. Ask yourself this: of all the Playstation 3s and Xbox 360s manufactured in 2006, how many of them are still fully functional today? What percentage do you think that number amounts to? And what will happen to those figures tomorrow, or next year?

And, almost by accident, we've stumbled upon what may be the single greatest problem effecting the gaming industry: preservation. Think about it. Look at the worlds of art, music, cinema, literature. What do they all have in common? A shared, cherished history. We still know the names of Michelangelo, Vang Gogh and Da Vinci; of Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff; of Hitchcock, Scorsese and Spielberg; of Shakespeare, Hemingway and Dickens. We know these people, we know their work. Even after decades and centuries we can picture their faces, see their art, hear their music, experience their unique vision and witness the literal expression of their souls. The great artistic classics of humanity have been preserved for posterity, and we are all the richer for it.

But not all those classics have been saved. Perhaps you've heard of the Library of Alexandria? In the ancient world, it was a beacon of knowledge. Countless scrolls were preserved in the library--and all of them are now lost to us. Burned in Caesar's fire and gone now, forever. So much literature has perished from the world because for so long, for years and decades and centuries, no one grasped the importance of preservation. Western civilization fell into the Dark Ages, a period ruled by superstition, ignorance and fear because the people were unable to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of the past. The great rebirths of humanity, the renaissances  were only possible through the rediscovery of those ancient works, carefully preserved through the ages by small communities of dedicated monks. But they could only preserve so much, and most of what once was written has vanished from the earth like so much dust in the wind. Every other artistic medium has suffered the same fate. Early Christians defaced art in a misguided attempt to conceal elements deemed incorrect, utterly destroying works deemed heretical. We have no music (not at all) from before the 15th century, because there was no unified system for musical notation, and what notation did exist we no longer know how to read. Paintings and books have been ripped and burned by the billion. With so much artistic achievement lost forever, surely humans would have learned the importance of preservation?

But we didn't. We never do, because we don't respect new artistic mediums. Just as a debate exists (it actually exists!) today over whether or not games are art, a century or so ago when cinema was the new artistic media, it, too, was scorned for its perceived lack of artistic integrity. Countless early films were either destroyed when their use was over, or stashed away in storage, forgotten. So much of cinematic history is gone because a century ago no one thought it was worth preserving. A half-century ago, television grew big and quickly suffered the same. Countless television shows are gone now. Doctor Who is currently one of the most popular science-fiction franchises in the world, second only to Star Wars and Star Trek. It has been on the air since 1963, and is currently (50 years later) enjoying the height of its popularity.

But it is not complete. Whole episodes from those early years are gone. Missing. Lost. They no longer exist. This is a tragedy and a travesty and a fate that has already claimed countless games. Our hobby is a new one. It has only existed for a few decades. With the Internet, we like to think that anything that exists, will exist forever. That uploading is somehow analogous to carving a thing in stone on the side of a mountain. But it's not. Many of the earliest games are gone, forever. I grew up with gaming, almost literally. The earliest games I played were simple affairs stored on enormous floppy disks. Most gamers don't know what those are these days (they were so big you could flop them up and down, which was often as fun or more fun than the actual games they contained). I had to learn tedious boot commands to load the games in  MS-DOS. They were simple games, consisting of crude pictures drawn with garish green pixels on a black screen. They taught me simple math. They taught me how to read. Those games no longer exist. Countless titles more recent, too, have perished. And gaming suffers from another, more unique problem: of those few games who have been preserved, are they all the same? Many classic games have been ported to other consoles in an effort to preserve them, but in that process much has been changed. Is Silent Hill 2 the same experience on the PS3 that it was on the PS2? Does the iOS version of Final Fantasy III produce the same experience as the NES version? Be wary, for we are rapidly approaching a future where the great classics of our medium--the Final Fantasies, the Dragon Quests, the Baldur's Gates, the Fallouts, the Chrono Triggers, the Zeldas--are either lost forever to time, or only partially preserved in a new format that doesn't quite manage to convey the original experience.

And make no mistake, as has been the case with every artistic medium of the past, with sculpture and painting and music, with literature and cinema and television, those precious few items which are preserved will represent the vast, vast minority. So the issue here, really, is a broad one that stretches far beyond the concept of gaming alone, or even art in general. It's a question of culture. Does culture matter? Does history matter? Does human civilization--does humanity itself--possess any real merit? Would we, as a species, be better off--would our souls be any richer--without Final Fantasy VI? Without Dragon Quest VIII? Without Shadows of Amn, or Planescape Torment, or Grim Fandango, or Monkey Island, or  the Ocarina of Time, or Mario?

These are questions I don't need to answer.

So do me a favor, would you? The next time you wander into a conversation about next Playstation, or whatever, and the issue of backwards compatibility comes up--the next time you see a rumor that the next Playstation might not be able to play PS1, PS2 or PS3 games, or hear someone say,  "that's okay--just buy a PS1, a PS2 and a PS3," stop for a bit and and think and remember and respond not with vitriol or passivity, but with patience, intellect and the desire to elucidate. If we stop demanding the ability to play those older games, we will eventually lose that ability  and in time those older games will disappear. Backwards compatibility matters, it matters a lot. We are gamers and it is quite literally our shared cultural heritage. We owe it to ourselves--and to our children--to do all that we can to ensure the preservation this new, fantastic art form, so that the greatest master works of the medium may never be forgotten.

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