September 24, 2021

Software Oblivescence And Preservation.


First up, apologies for the away-cay. I’ve been recovering from a minor operation and I needed some R-and-R, feeling groggy and not in the mood for much of late. That, or I’m just trying to sleep out the last week until I take delivery of a Nintendo Switch. Hmm. I’ll blame the medication. Yeah, it must be the meds. Can’t possibly be the wait for a new games console. Ahem.

Anyhoo, I caught wind the past few days of something interesting – namely, many CD-Based games of the 90’s are beginning to stop working.

The reasons for this aren’t exactly unusual (or even unheard of) but they may surprise some people. It turns out that the protective layer on your average CD happens to have a particular shelf life, being made of degradable plastics and chemicals. Once this protective layer begins to wear, the aluminium reflective layer – now exposed to the air – begins to tarnish and once this layer begins to oxidise, the exposed portions of data are corrupted and destroyed, never to be recoverable again.

For most people, this isn’t much of a loss. I don’t know many (aside myself) who have twenty year old CDs lying about the place. However it is proving to be terrible news for those who collect video games and particularly retro games, as it turns out that CDs have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years tops – meaning many of the titles they’ve paid hundreds of dollars/pounds for will effectively be unusable and unplayable whatever the conditions they are stored in. The chemicals and materials just rot away over time, and there is little – if anything – that they can do about it, aside you know… open the boxes and resurface the discs which will impact the actual value of said discs in the long run (though one might argue that retaining some value is better than ending up with a disc that has no value).

For me though, it raises a point I’ve written about before. Only now there may be more of a sense of urgency behind it.

Hardware suffers from obsolescence – the process of becoming outdated. It’s the natural way of hardware – we’ve advanced a long way, and hardware does end up obsolete. And now software faces the issue of oblivescence – the process of being destroyed and/or forgotten. We exist now in a time where we’re looking back at the late 16-bit and 32-bit eras of the PSX and Sega Saturn and suddenly confronted with the problem that much of that data and work could, in the coming years, be completely lost to us. In effect, the problem isn’t so much the notion of a sort of  ‘CD Rot’, but rather of Data Extinction – the wholesale loss of programs and code from these periods.

We like to think, as gamers, that our software has artistic merit. I’ve believed for a long time in the artistic nature of the industry (no less artistic than movies these days with huge teams and multi-million dollar budgets), and with that said it must be paramount to manufacturers that they begin the process of making digital backups of many of these games. Even the crap ones. If we’re to believe in our artistic merit as an industry then preservation of the past should be considered an important endeavour. To make the journey from two-dimensions to three-dimensions available to generations to come. And whilst CDs are now being found to rot, cartridges will probably fare no better in the long run; yes, they can be far more durable (Atari games still work), but they’re still prone to the wear and tear of use and, of course, the realities of rust.

Especially if you’ve been blowing on the cartridges. Seriously, my gramps knew this was a bad idea back in the 80s and 90’s. Your breath contains moisture. Moisture + metal = oxidisation.

It is sort of basic chemistry when you think about it…

The idea of having an archive of old software has always been an odd but noble endeavour, however facing the prospect that the materials of yore aren’t standing the tests of time those of us who do advocate for this sort of archiving process now find there is a slightly larger sense of urgency to it. I don’t think it is realistic to expect all software from the 90’s to be preserved and archived – some games sadly may have already achieved oblivescence – but procrastination is the enemy here. It’s the difference between preserving 80% of these games, or 50% or less of these games. The longer that we wait, the harder it may become to find functional copies of the software – until the point is reached when finding a functional copy is if not impossible then statistically highly improbable.

Thing is, there’s a commercially interesting upside to this.

All those digital backups/copies can be sold to consumers. Oh yes, we now have the single best argument for things like PS Now! (If Sony don’t just abandon it like they do with all their least successful things) and Virtual Console. It’s not just a solid, instant library of content – it’s historical preservation! And the more games you put up for sale, the more money you can take from us so you can venture out and do more data preservation. And the cycle can continue. Sony and Nintendo have huge back catalogues which they can preserve. The time for being selective is kind of slipping away from them – now they’re going to have to aggressively work with third parties to… ahem… “save” these games from oblivescence!

The end result for us, as gamers, is a ready selection of retro content on demand that could – and of course should – help fund and push for more of it, as well as possibly provide funding means for future games to boot. Which is the whole point of classic gaming on modern platforms, isn’t it? It’s money, and whilst most of us will of course disagree with pricing on some of these things it’s hard to dispute the reasoning that we should, at least, be paying something towards this. It’s not like we have people out there advocating that because they personally disagree with pricing points that we should just wholesale pirate everything, right? Right?

It also gives companies the chance to get things right second time around too. I mean, the first game that springs immediately to my mind is Overblood 2, and that game was b0rked on its release and I don’t know if preserving it will magically repair what was a very twitchy, unreliable bit of software to begin with. But if preserved, at least perhaps someone might have the chance to fix it up (which would be nice, because it was an interesting game even if it was ripping off Final Fantasy 7 a little). And there are perhaps lots of games with those issues that, given the time and opportunity, could actually end up being better pieces of software after a little tender love and care.

Thing is, we know now the clock is ticking on much of this older software. I’m sure many companies have some data backups – and I know there are thousands of ROM Dumps out there on the Internet of some very obscure games (piracy is bad, mmkay?) – but they’ll suffer similar issues of degradation over time. This isn’t to say that we can (or maybe should) save absolutely everything – but we should try. Even Superman 64. As much as that makes the acid in my stomach want to leap out of my body and slap me across the face for saying it.

E for Everyone… well, we did all learn how to hate this game…

These things happened, and they paint the story of an industry that has grown so much and come so far. Thirty years ago, we were still staring at a few large square pixels loosely packed together in the shape of an egg. Now we’re pushing photo-realistic graphics. It’s an incredible journey that we’ve all been on and I’m of the viewpoint that it is important that we don’t let this pass into myth and legend like the whole E.T. thing. Having good back-ups keeps the story of our industry alive, and allows us to trace back our roots and get perspective, because heck knows we exist in an age where perspective is a rare thing indeed.

Preserving our history is a noble endeavour. But on a more selfish level… I like to go back from time to time. I like a retro game or two in my to-do pile. And there are so many I never got to play, even though I might have wanted to or still do want to. If I can actually just buy a copy online, or heck – sign up to a service which offers me access to a huge library of preserved games, that’d be awesome!

And for the industry, it’s about keeping their past alive. Even Activision and EA should be concerned about that. And hey, why not sell those games digitally? If you’re keeping this stuff alive, why leave it sit around in a dusty cupboard? Rather like many Nintendo IPs over the years, we can very easily deduce exactly how much some of those games are making sitting around in a closet gathering cobwebs (the answer is nothing).

I don’t think it’s worth being upset at the notion of dying CDs. It was a different time and we used pseudo-exotic materials in order to drive us to this point. It’s not great news for the Optical Drive, itself facing a bit of a technological crisis now solid state and card-based media has started to become more affordable (see Nintendo Switch), but I’m not angry. The CD did what it had to do. It got us here, where we are now. This isn’t about bashing the CD. It’s been a hugely important media standard for a long time.

But with this, I think we’re all at least in part faced with the limitations of our media. Nothing lasts forever.

So maybe stop arguing with the tape measures and bloody enjoy your video games. Because in thirty years, what you’re playing now may no longer exist…


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