Exhibiting old games
Posted at 00:10 on 13th October 2016 - permalink

Earlier in the year I visited the ‘Power Up!‘ games event at the Science Museum in London. I realised that I’ve been attending showings of old games (in various settings) for over a decade now. Arcades may be long dead in the West, but putting a load of old consoles and micros and CRT monitors on trestle tables still exerts a powerful draw.

Over the years, some of the assumptions that the early exhibitors made out of convenience have ossified into an unquestioned Way of Doing Things. This is a problem. Public exhibitions are the only way a lot of people get to experience the medium’s history at first hand, so if convention dictates we’re only able to select games from a limited pool, it’s less likely the historical account will be accurate.

It’s illuminating to compare the ‘Power Up!’ event to the Science Museum’s earlier effort, ‘Game On‘ (2006).

This Summer’s event was unencumbered by the need to explain the history of the medium from its earliest beginnings, and included few games predating the early 1980s UK home computer boom. PC games were now represented, although conversely coin-ops were almost entirely absent. (There were virtually no handheld games in either show.) There was even a healthy showing of multiplayer LAN games. The newer show’s curation was vastly more intelligent (not only picking good and interesting titles, but usually the best available versions of them as well) and the presentation was more welcoming and geared toward social play.

The most pronounced difference was that the 2006 show treated old games as existing in complete isolation from the modern medium, while the 2016 version was more convincingly able to present a continuum – for example showing Batman, Disney and Street Fighter games from different eras side by side. It’s strange to think that not so long ago it seemed that games would be defined by multi-million dollar blockbusters distributed on physical discs in perpetuity, and to suggest that old (or 2D) games still held any relevance or commercial value was a heretical notion for the industry.

Both of the Science Museum shows (along with every consumer show, industry event, games party or ‘arcade bar’ I’ve attended in the intervening time) unswervingly followed two rules:

1. All games must be running on the original, contemporary hardware and media.

2. The most familiar context for presenting games in a public setting is an amusement arcade.

(There’s also the unwritten third rule, that the lineup must include Micro Machines 2, which inevitably follows when your selection criteria stipulates sourcing games that give the most ‘bang for your buck’ from eBay and flea markets. Could Codemasters have known, when they built those two extra controller ports into the cartridge casing, that they were making a bid for immortality?)

Exhibitions of old games are held back by organisers’ irrational aversion to emulation, and by focusing disproportionately on quick, simple, non-persistent arcade action games in service of their default metaphor.

Games are a digital medium. In the vast majority of cases, the experience of playing a game isn’t inextricably bound to a specific set of silicon chips and plastic buttons. The artifact being presented is the running program, not the playback medium. If we accept that there are other reasons to show old games than to evoke nostalgia (or for parents to impress on their children how much better they have it today), we need to move past the insistence on always using original hardware.

Emulation allows us to show games for which physical instances are rare and expensive (either through genuine scarcity or thanks to the efforts of collectors), or for which the original host hardware is too fragile or temperamental to withstand the rigours of extended public use, multiplying the range of viable games at a stroke.

More intriguingly, emulators and related tools allow us to unpick games, letting us zero in on the pertinent parts of the experience and edit out inconveniences.

Games can be made to better fit the event format. Save states can be used to skip loading pauses and present edited highlights of games that would take too long for an individual to play through in the time allowed. Gameplay can be rewound and stepped through frame by frame to illustrate specific techniques.

Accessibility can be improved by remapping controls and offering input macros to simplify or modernise interfaces (Ultima Underworld and System Shock spring to mind here), as well as by tinkering with the game state in realtime (i.e. ‘POKEs’ or Game Genie codes) to modulate difficulty.

We can even channel-hop between different games from different eras and systems to better illustrate our arguments, as demonstrated to great effect by Bennett Foddy‘s Videobowl, a megamix of one-on-one player challenges that essentially turns a broad and eclectic set of ROMs into a big game of WarioWare.

Extrinsically tracking gameplay events also suggests ways to get visitors more involved – for instance keeping a running tally of achievements to be met across all the games (checking in at each terminal with an app or venue-provided RFID tag, perhaps), implementing high score tables, and ‘ghost cars’/player replays to let visitors compete against each other asynchronously and anonymously.

With more sophisticated emulators (and specially built or modified tools and game files), it’s even possible to open up the clockwork of games at runtime, to better explain the design and development process.

The possibilities here are endless, with some more obvious ones hinted at in the developer commentary modes of Valve’s games. In 3D games, we can pause the action, move the camera around, turn elements of the scene on or off, add visual annotations (displaying hidden objects in the environment such as bounding boxes, triggers, etc.), spawn objects and so on ad infinitum.

For technically simpler games, we can delve into the world data and game logic and represent them visually, for instance mapping out the rooms in an interactive fiction story or point and click adventure game on a second screen, or showing what’s happening in memory versus on screen in a 2D platformer or shooter, or showing how a procedurally generated level is built or how particularly ingenious visual effects work.

Beyond direct emulation, for some games there are also restoration projects that better show the authors’ intentions by fixing contemporary shortcomings (such as Sonic remakes that fix slowdown and control latency, or Quake source ports that support modern screen resolutions without altering the already perfectly beautiful artwork).

All of these ideas require more work on behalf of the exhibitors than plugging a machine in and walking away, but would result in vastly more informative and imaginative exhibits.

I don’t know if there have been any exhibitions that have taken this approach. It’s surely something that has occurred to others before now.

Of course emulation shouldn’t be seen as a panacea. Not only are there a number of more recent systems for which fast, accurate emulators don’t (yet) exist, but also many games (particularly coin-ops) where specific hardware and peripherals are crucial to the experience. There are also certainly cases where the sensations and ritual of using the original hardware contribute significantly to the experience (although perhaps not as many as proud retro collectors would argue).

The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park makes a strong case for this, astonishingly allowing visitors to play Colossal Cave Adventure on a room-filling 1970s mainframe. Even more modest exhibits (such as an original mid-1980s Macintosh) serve as a reminder of the crude chittering, flickering, mechanical and analogue nature of early home computers that our rose-tinted memories (and javascript facsimiles) tend to edit out. (The Musée Mécanique in San Francisco provides a similar experience for arcade machines.)

Outside of these few exceptional venues with the skill and resources to do things properly, the results are somewhat less appealing. Hip East London bars are particularly notorious for sourcing arcade cabinets indiscriminately. If you’re lucky they might have one or two lovingly maintained pinball tables or perhaps a classic racing wheel/lightgun/golden age game taking pride of place, but more often you’ll find knackered cabinets with broken sticks and blurry screens that seem to have been ‘rescued’ after twenty years’ service in a chip shop. (Or worse still, those awful imported cocktail cabinets offering pages of glitchy unlicensed MAME ROMs.)

It would be so, so easy to equip these places with well-made new cabinets with good quality sticks and monitors running MAME/MESS, allowing games to be swapped in and out easily and removing the constraint of only being able to offer games they can find original, working boards for. A project for some aspiring Dragon’s Den contestant there.

Returning to the world of museums and galleries: With the benefits of emulation so clear to see, why do exhibitors still largely avoid exploiting it?

Emulators are still stigmatised by the widespread misconception that they’re somehow legally dubious, or still some way off being accurate enough to match the ‘authentic’ experience. (Frank Cifaldi discusses this topic in depth in this excellent GDC presentation.)

The main 20th century formats are now emulated accurately enough that only an observer who knew specific quirks to look out for would be able to tell them from the real hardware in a blind test.

Frustratingly you will still see journalists dredging up the by now ludicrously outdated argument that one needs to buy the original consoles to play Mega Drive and SNES games ‘properly’. (We can expect to see a lot more of this talk in coverage of the NES Classic.) This is the kind of irrational authenticity worship that you can find in many other hobbies (hi-fi, real ale, cameras, cars) where old timers want to keep the riff-raff out.

The main difference you’d notice playing a real PAL SNES would be that the games would be running at 50hz letterboxed on a fuzzy CRT screen with no save states or language patches and no games that didn’t get a European release. Should you want to sample a decent selection of the real top-tier classic games, you’d also get to enjoy the authentic experience of forking out hundreds of pounds.

I’d speculate that even though it can be fairly trivially proven that legality and accuracy aren’t issues, exhibitors planning to use emulation might still face the hurdles of explaining this to hosts’ legal departments and the companies whose games they were seeking permission to show. I can understand why taking the path of least resistance would seem like an attractive option in such a (hypothetical) hostile climate.

More cynically, I’m sure that for some professional old games exhibitors, keeping the myth of authenticity alive works in their commercial interest. Van loads of equipment and arcane engineering skill to keep things running are the sort of rigmarole that can justify a higher fee.

Finally there might be the lingering doubt of whether punters would accept not playing on the original hardware. I think the adjustment would be quick and painless. We seem to have been able to accept some degree of abstraction in most other media. The BFI’s video library doesn’t run 100 year old scraps of film through a projector every time a visitor wants to view them. Composers of classical music predating recording technology would barely recognise the sound of modern performances. The essence of the thing isn’t lost by decanting it into a more suitable vessel.

Once we’ve established that emulators aren’t the work of Satan, we can tackle the limitations of assuming visitors want an arcade experience.

(I should stress that I’m not having a veiled jab at the National Videogames Arcade in Nottingham here. I’ve not visited personally, but have only heard positive things about it – and anyway I suspect the name was chosen more as a punky statement asserting the medium’s legitimacy than any attempt to dictate the styles of game that are welcome there.)

I don’t have a concrete idea of how best to present games that aren’t quick, self-explanatory, pick-up-and-play experiences, but can suggest some starting points.

‘Power Up!’ reminded me of computer games shops of the 1980s and early 1990s which served as social hubs in the manner of comic book and record stores.

If it’s important to display the hardware, make it particularly exotic and interesting looking hardware. Let us pick up and browse game boxes and see the assortment of manuals, code wheels, maps and ‘feelies’ they contained.

Or recreate contemporary studio offices or trade show stands based on photos and videos. Or a living room. With the rise of YouTube and Twitch, should playing be more performative, with some visitors happier to watch and interject than play directly?

Or perhaps the answer is to come up with a completely new set of conventions for a game space that act as cues to let visitors know that their interaction is expected (in the same way that the furniture of art galleries firmly hints at what is appropriate there).

As long as we don’t have another decade of exhibitions of the same over-familiar set of games running on a gradually dwindling pool of working original hardware ahead of us, I’ll be happy.

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