Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mulling things over in a Press of Words, and something with Gamasutra

This post is just to inform those who read this that there is now a WordPress version of this blog (it can be found at and my username there is JPLC). It will be similar to the LiveJournal version in that it will have the same content as this one, essentially acting as just a mirror (except maybe in rare occasions). One day, I may choose just one place to mull over the multiverse from, but as of now I do it from three locations: here, LiveJournal, and (once again) WordPress. However, as of writing this, I still consider the Blogger location (here) to be the primary location. Take that as you will.

Also, in an unrelated matter, in my previous post (the one about console video game archival), I stated that I had also posted it on gaming news site Gamasutra in my free Member Blog. Well, it seems that it was a wise thing for me to do: the post netted me a lifetime subscription to Gamasutra's sister publication, Game Developer Magazine! You see, every week the Gamasutra staff collects stand-out Member Blogs of that week and makes a post about it (this week's post can be found here). Out of the ones they choose, though, only one is selected as their favourite, and to the person who wrote that post they give the aforementioned subscription. In this week's case, mine is apparently the favourite! I am deeply grateful and I am looking forward to receiving my first issue; it has been quite some time since I've had a subscription to a gaming magazine.

So, yeah, this is basically just a "state-of-the-blog" post. The next one should be actually about something (whenever I decide to post). Stay tuned...?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing.

In the video game industry, much time and effort is put toward new ventures. Whether this means merely a new instalment of a franchise, an entirely new IP, or the next console/graphics card down the road, the industry tends to keep its gaze future-bound. At least, this is how it seems to one presently outside of the industry (like myself). While the future is definitely important, it should not stand without acknowledging its history. In this case, "history" meaning "older video games". Essentially, I am saying that before going too far forward, it would be wise to archive old games.

Before going further, it would be wise to establish what I mean by "archival". In this case, I am not referring to mere records of the existence of past games and consoles. I am also not referring to the matter of actually archiving physical copies of games and their respective consoles (although this is a very important endeavour). No, in this case I mean digital archival: the digital preservation of games and consoles via the process of emulation (I am staying out of the concept of PC game archival due to my lack of knowledge on the subject). Also, I propose that these emulated games and consoles be made public for the average consumer.

Granted, the concept of digital emulations of games and consoles is nothing new. ROM downloads and the like have been available online illegally for years now. While some may claim that these illegal methods* are good enough for archival, I beg to differ. What I propose is legal emulation of old games and consoles, something which is still in a state of infancy.

Nintendo was the first to support the idea of legal emulation for console games with their introduction of the Virtual Console. It allows consumers to purchase and play digital copies of older games for older consoles (like Super Mario Bros. for the NES). Sony has a similar system in place with their PSOne Classics available on the PlayStation Network, and Microsoft has made some Xbox Originals available for download over the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. While all of these initiatives are good starts, they still have some major caveats in terms of acting as archival systems.

Firstly, each system only seems concerned with their "Greatest Hits", so to speak. Sure, one will be able to find nearly all of Mario's earlier titles in the Virtual Console, for example, but niche/unknown games are generally left at the wayside. It's understandable why this is done, though; more money is likely to be made with hits, and it would be financially unwise to keep games around that do not necessarily sell. Still, it's disheartening to see that a vast multitude of old games (including even some of the greats) are not being preserved for future generations, especially since their being digital makes it much easier to archive than it would a physical product. Server space may cost money, but it could hold digital copies of all video games ever made easily; the illegal emulation websites can attest to that.

Secondly, these systems are generally updated at very sluggish paces. At least in North America, the Virtual Console, for example, usually only dishes out one game a week (sometimes not releasing anything at all, and very rarely releasing multiple titles). Sony's PSOne Classics, in recent times, has a somewhat better track record of releasing usually two PS1 games a week (although there are weeks sometimes where only one or none are released). The Xbox Classics, lastly, do not seem to be updated at all anymore, standing still at 29 games in North America. Now, while the Japanese counterparts for the Virtual Console and PSOne Classics seem to generally fare better with more releases a week, the systems are still lagging far behind the number of titles that can be found online illegally in an instant. (This is especially evident in the case of Sony; they are a full console behind with their digital offerings since they seem to be shying away from PS2 emulation on the PS3 at the moment. Hopefully that changes in time.)

Thirdly, only home consoles seem to be the focus of these systems. Sony has changed this trend somewhat in recent times by making some of their older UMD titles available via the PlayStation Network now that the PSP go lacks a UMD drive. Nintendo, however, despite the successes of the various iterations of Game Boy, has yet to release a handheld Virtual Console equivalent now that the DSi has sufficient memory capability and an online presence. This may change in the future, though, so this complaint may be somewhat premature, but the fact that DSi Ware cannot be transferred between DSi handhelds does not bode well for such a system.

Which leads to my final complaint: these systems have some holes in regard to purchasing these old titles. While most purchases are tied to their respective systems' accounts (e.g.: Xbox LIVE accounts, PlayStation Network accounts), they are still limited to a certain number of downloads for certain things, and as stated before, transferring these purchases to replacement consoles can sometimes be a hassle (if not impossible). Granted, this is due to the industry's rightful want to avoid any piracy, but it does not bode well. This may become especially troublesome when the next generation of consoles arrives; will PSOne Classics purchased on a PS3 be transferable to a PS4, for example? One can only hope that these digital purchases are "future-proof". Then again, gamers are used to having to re-purchase back catalogues of games, so the industry may not see a need to keep this compatibility. For the sake of archival, though, it would be wise for them to do.

Solving all of these problems will not necessarily be easy (especially in the case of the ownership of the digital purchases), but it can be done. This becomes especially evident when focus is put once again on the illegal emulation scene. Vast catalogues of ROMs and ISOs have been collected by enthusiasts and hobbyists, and consoles have been emulated by people who have never worked on the originals. If this amount of progress can be made by those outside of the "Big Three" (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft), it is only reasonable to assume that more progress can be made from within. For example, a stable PS2 emulator would probably be much easier to develop from within Sony than from without.

But this all leads up to an interesting question: do the Big Three really care about preserving older titles? After all, old games go out of print rather quickly and yet the Big Three still make money with their newer titles. What incentive would they have for archival?

It's a good question. Some may say that good money can be made from the sale of older games, but that may merely be a drop in the bucket. Really, I don't think the Big Three really care about archival. It is my hope, however, that game developers themselves care and will persuade the Big Three to be interested. I would expect that many game developers would only support game archival, just like how most writers would support the preservation of old literary works and film makers the preservation of old film. History is important in any field, and being able to experience that history first-hand is invaluable. Being able to play an old title trumps any write-up describing it. Granted, my emulation proposal does not replicate the entire experience of playing a real old game on a real old console, but it is much better than having nothing at all.

Essentially, I suppose I'm saying that people will be emulating games illegally anyway. If we want to curb this piracy, why don't we just make a legal alternative for those who would be interested? It would be naive to assume every pirate would convert, but it would probably convert some, and maybe it would deter some of the future piracy of our past titles.

After all, how can we stand on the shoulders of giants if the majority of the giants are lost to history?

*I understand that emulation of a console, in some cases, can be legal by itself and that the illegality lies more in the ROMs and ISOs themselves. I refer to the emulation as illegal in this article, though, to illustrate the differences between the emulation solutions made by the Big Three and the emulation solutions made by the public.

(This post can also be found on Gamasutra at my free Member Blog.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Creative Curveballs: Cowboy Bebop: You're gonna carry that weight

(This is the first installment of Creative Curveballs, a series that will examine and applaud works of fiction that depict the unexpectedness of reality. As stated last post, this will be spoiler-ridden. Also, it assumes the reader knows the piece in question to avoid too much explanation. You have been warned. If you don't know the piece in question, though, the following may still be worth your time. Maybe.)

The crew of the Bebop, from left to right: Jet, Spike, Faye, Ed, and Ein

Cowboy Bebop was a classic sci-fi anime of the 1990s. The show, despite being Japanese, had a western flavour to it: the episodes were, for the most part, self-contained like in North American animation, and the music was rife with blues and jazz (specifically, the titular "bebop"). As such, Cowboy Bebop's fandom tends to encapsulate not only die-hard anime fans, but people who usually don't like the genre.

It was with this knowledge that I wanted expose my younger brother to the show. He is very much aware of my love for anime (and, more cringingly, my love for cheesy J-Pop), but he has never been too interested by it. However, we usually have very similar tastes on a number of other things, and I was curious to see if Bebop would jive with him. After much delay, I finally got him to sit down and watch the 26 episode series and the movie that followed. The results were what I had hoped: he had enjoyed it.

Something interesting came up, though, while we discussed the show's end -- or more specifically, Spike's final decision to take on his former crime syndicate after the death of Julia. My brother was disappointed by Spike's last actions. He noticed that throughout the series, Spike was very focused on the present (despite his occasional run-ins with his former life), and would even dissuade others from living in the past (Faye in particular). Thus, Spike's choice to knowingly end it all in a battle with his past was something that seemed beneath him. Spike knew better.

The reason I bring all of this up is to illustrate that Cowboy Bebop is a show that depicts the unexpectedness of reality. The show throws a curveball, and asks the audience to deal with it.

Now, I agree with my brother. By all intents and purposes, Spike should have realized that his actions would prove nothing, and they would most definitely not bring Julia back. He ignored his own advice, and death was his repercussion. It was his punishment for being out of character. But was he really?

We learn from Spike's final exchange with Faye (taking place just before he goes to fight the syndicate for the last time) that he lost an eye in the past and that he now has a robotic replacement (something which the show had hinted at previously). Spike claimed that, after the operation, one eye always saw the past with the other seeing the present. He was thus unsure if he was really alive, or if reality was a dream passing before him (this, in my interpretation, makes the assumption that Spike was unsure he survived "faking" his death when he left the syndicate years ago). This information, metaphorical or not, changed the idea of who Spike was. In an instant, his laid-back attitude was altered from being merely how he was to a possible coping mehcanism for his "dream-state".

Spike's eye disparity is only rarely made visible. During this scene is one of those times.

Faye herself was taken off guard by the revelation:

"Don't tell me things like that... You never told me anything about yourself! Don't tell me stuff like that now!"

She even goes as far as to tell Spike of her own run-ins with her past, which she had, until recently, no recollection of:

"My... memory came back. But... nothing good came out of it. There was no place for me to return to..."

It wasn't long before she got straight to the point:

"Are you telling me you're going to just throw your life away!?"

In turn, Spike responded:

"I'm not going there to die. I'm going there to see if I really am alive."

I include the above excerpts because I think they hone in exactly at my point. In the exchange, Faye embodies the mindset of the viewer, one which cannot accept the incongruity of Spike's choice with the way he had been presented up to this point. The audience may now know Spike's reasons, but it still does not seem to fit. The audience, sitting upon the expectation of knowing the ins and outs of things as they occur, is thrown, just as they would be in real life. Human beings rarely know all sides of an event, let alone what someone's true person and motives are. Cowboy Bebop recognizes this, and decides to use its main character as the vehicle for this aspect of reality.

Now, to be fair, the series does hint at Spike's deeper bonds with his past throughout the series -- especially when he encounters the syndicate -- but he still tended to look forward rather than back. The point still remains that his death was wholly avoidable, and as such Cowboy Bebop is a great tragedy. Sure, the series is on the whole an action-comedy, but there is always that twinge of sorrow, culminated in the last two episodes. And it was real in a way many works of fiction aren't. We did not wholly expect or agree with Spike's decision, but he went through with it anyway. He was not forced to do what he did, he chose it. And that's the most real thing of all, in a sense. Humanity will never act in pure logic all the time. Like it or not, it is an important aspect of life, one that should not be excluded from fiction.

(Some blog-notes: being inspired by a certain Chocolate Hammer, I'm going to be a bit more lax with this blog in terms of content. If I feel like writing, I will write here, regardless of whether I have an "essay" or not. I've been neglecting this thing for too long. As such, my next two installments of Creative Curveballs may be interrupted by other posts, but I see that as a good thing. In short, I will still write "essays", but I will also just write if I feel like writing. That is all.)