Lost in Emulation
"In many cases, it’s impossible to perfectly preserve a game."
That’s according to Jerome McDonough, a professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. His research focuses on how to preserve video games, computer games, and interactive fiction for future generations.
One popular approach to this challenge is a technique called emulation. Emulation allows old games to run on new hardware, so your shiny new laptop can pretend to be a vintage Commodore 64 or your tablet can pretend to be an arcade console.
But emulation isn’t perfect.
"We can get close to the original appearance, the original sound," says McDonough. "But the changes in software and hardware over time make it impossible to do a perfect reproduction."
This week on Spark, we take a look at what gets lost in emulation.
According to internet archivist Jason Scott, the look of old monitors can be lost when we play old games on new systems. In a blog post called “What a Wonder is a Terrible Monitor" he compares the look of an original Asteroids machine:
With its modern-day emulated equivalent:
Scott describes the distinctive look of a CRT monitor: “It had a certain amount of fuzz built into when the beam hit the glass, and it was just a little glow… All of these little imperfections built up into a very specific, almost fuzzed look that now, we’ve almost forgotten about.”
It may sound subtle, but the characteristics of old monitors had a profound impact on game and character design. For instance, in a recent Spark interview, Jason described that Super Mario’s moustache can be traced back to fuzzy old monitors:
"When we think of a game like the very first DOS version of Doom, people don’t think of the music as one of the first things that’s important about the game,” says Jerome McDonough.
"But if you start playing the game, and the music isn’t right, every gamer notices it immediately. It’s a subtle, background thing, but it’s absolutely essential to the atmosphere of the game."
McDonough says that his colleagues Chris Egert and Andy Phelps “tested some thirty different combinations of emulation software and operating system software, and of those, I think we found two that actually reproduced the music on the game Doom successfully.”
It’s not just in-game music, either. Emulators don’t always reproduce the hum of monitor deflector coils, or the clicking of disk drives. In some cases, these incidental sounds contain useful information.
"Sometimes kids would play these games and if they heard the disk drive buzzing they knew it was going to [write to disk] that their character died," explains Jason Scott. "And they’d they’d jet over and undo the disk drive so they wouldn’t lose."
"Nowadays, some of the emulators show a little light to mean, ‘the disk drive is being activated’ but many of them don’t."
"There are controllers that were made for video games — very specific things like trackballs, and levers and all sorts of buttons that are gone," says Jason Scott.
"You can find them on the original video games, but if you play them on your computer, you’ve now replaced a joystick and its responsiveness with a set of keys… Some of the video games can definitely seem terrible when you’re using keys."
Scott says classic game controllers don’t always translate well to modern devices.
"You have people putting video games on the iPad, and it’s like, at no point in video game history were you supposed to smash the screen with your hand to indicate you wanted to do something. That’s weird now."
Pong, Pac Man, and Super Mario Bros. are relatively static. Their gameplay is the same today as when they debuted. But increasingly, games include vast virtual worlds shaped by the players themselves. Second Life and World of Warcraft are good examples.
For academics, this can pose a real preservation challenge.
When it comes to Second Life, Jerome McDonough says, “I can preserve the server software. I can preserve the databases. I can preserve the client software… but I can’t preserve the people.”
He says that in 50 years, all that historians will have left is “the neutron-bombed version of Second Life.”
So what? Who cares?
"You get that reaction from some people in the gaming industry," says Jerome McDonough. "We’ve had people who work for gaming companies look at us a little cross-eyed when they found out about our project. They go, ‘Why are you worried about preserving this? Don’t you have better things with your time?’”
"This is the emergence of the first really completely new artistic medium we’ve seen in a while — probably since the emergence of TV. So documenting this early history of this art form, we think is actually pretty important."
What do you think? What (if any) aspects of video games should be preserved? Are there games you’d be especially sad to see forgotten?
(Images provided by the Ontario Science Centre, and Jason Scott)