Extra Life: Keeping Old Games Alive
Paul Walker-emig investigates the many games that refuse to die, thanks to their fans
We speak to the fans and developers injecting new life into the videogames they love to find out Why they do What they do and Why some videogames refuse to die
the dear readers of Retro Gamer will be more than aware than most of the issue of videogame preservation. The medium’s intimate relation to the technology it is played on means its history is always at threat, whether that be due to the degradation of physical media, or the more modern phenomenon of online services being shut down by publishers. But even putting aside the issue of literal preservation, videogames’ symbiotic relationship with technology also puts their legacy at risk in a less concrete way. This isn’t the only industry where the focus tends to be on ‘the next big thing’, but it is one where it’s progressively harder to revisit the games you’ve tossed aside over the years, or even the so-called classics you’ve heard of, but never played. It’s all too easy to leave them entombed as a vague nostalgic memory, a fabled turning point that many know the significance of, but few actually bother to experience themselves, or, worse, for them to be forgotten almost entirely. That is to say, even if videogames don’t face literal death, there is always the risk of a metaphorical one. Just as a cryogenically frozen person in a sci-fi novel does not truly live until they are thawed out, a videogame that’s stored as a collection of ones and zeroes on a hard drive must be played if we are to say it is still alive.
Fortunately, there are people fighting against videogame entropy. People who are working hard to keep old games going in a variety of ways and for a number of reasons.
Fabian Woltermann is the lead on one such project. The Freespace 2 Source Code Project is a fan-run initiative that’s been enhancing the Freespace 2 engine and keeping it running on modern systems since Volition released the game’s source code to the community in 2002.
“At first, it was just fans doing what they wanted to do,” Fabian replies when we ask him about the motivations behind the project. “The source code that was released to us lacked certain parts. The multiplayer matchmaking component had to be
ripped out. The cutscene code had to be ripped out, all for licensing reasons. And so, people recreated those portions to get the game to the point it was at on release.”
Fabian tells us that fans were also making their own missions, tinkering with the engine, and adding things to the game that they thought were cool, but that there came a point where a mission to preserve the game they all loved was formalised. “I think it was in about 2004/2005 where we as the people who are in control of the central source code repository decided that one thing we need to do is always make sure Freespace 2 retail is playable on modern machines. That became goal number one,” Fabian says. “We’re careful to make sure that any changes we make do not effect Freespace 2, or at the very least, only correct mistakes, obvious bugs that Volition introduced, to preserve what Freespace 2 was intended to be.”
However, what’s great about the Source Code Project is that it hasn’t stopped at keeping Freespace 2 alive through literal preservation. It’s also done it by turning the game into a tool for people to express their creativity, continuing in the spirit of the original game.
“Volition has always been very supportive of the modding community,” Fabian tells us. “Volition included the mission design tool that they had in the engine and basically told people to go nuts, be creative and share their missions.
That set the tone for what people were doing with this game.” Fabian explains that the game’s openness to creativity, combined with its efficient, minimalist storytelling, left players with a desire to fill in the gaps. “When Freepace 2 ended on a massive cliffhanger, and with the existing creativity in the community, that was the starting point for a lot of people to ask, ‘Okay, what’s next?’.
Or, ‘What happened in the time skip between Freespace and Freespace 2?’” hence the creation of the Blue Planet campaign, which follows on from the events of Freespace 2. Then there are undertakings like Babylon Project, which “took everything from the Babylon 5 TV show and turned it into a game”, Diaspora,a Battlestar Galactica-themed mod, and Wing Of Dawn, an attempt to use the engine to create a kind of visual novel.
“When we decided that Freespace was going to be the one thing that we are guaranteeing can always be played, we also had to make sure that those projects don’t get screwed over by that,” Fabian insists. “When someone comes around with new ideas, we don’t want to tell them, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ That’s certainly contributed to the longevity of our community as a whole and, as a result, this project.”
Marcos Abenante, better known as Sgt Mark IV, the creator of the Brutal Doom mod, echoes some of Fabian’s thoughts as he explains why Doom, the game that’s captured his imagination, has refused to die.
“Modding is an essential part of the Doom experience,” Marcos says, explaining that the ease with which Id Software made it possible to make levels for the game helped create the kind of community that would inevitably help sustain it. “There is virtually infinite content generated by the fanbase, around 50,000 or
60,000 levels maybe,” he suggests, while also pointing out that the evolution of the tools means it is far more flexible than Doom (2016) and its Snapmap editor.
That potential is what has kept Marcos with the game so long. He tells us that he first encountered Doom on the Sega Saturn in the Nineties, played it again on the PC in the early Noughties, and then dived into the modding scene towards the end of the decade. “I got fascinated with the capabilities of the sourceports like Zdoom and Skulltag (now Zandronum) and how much stuff they could add to the original game, so I started to dissect some mods such as Doom Reinforced, The Monster Resource Wad, Beautiful Doom and Neodoom, to see how their code works, and then I started working on my first mod, Armagedoom.”
Marcos describes Armagedoom as “a mess of half-baked ideas”, but it took him onto bigger and better things. His next mod focused on the core systems, adding more blood, the ability to perform headshots and weapon specific death animations. Brutal Doom was born.
It has become one of Doom’s best-known mods. We’d suggest its success can be attributed to the way it zones in on and amplifies the elements that made the original game great. When you play it, you still feel like you’re playing Doom, despite all the changes. It has the same intensity and gives you that same feeling of exhilaration you first had playing Doom. Or perhaps you could argue that it reimbues it with an intensity and sense of exhilaration that might be lost in the modern era. In Marcos’ words, it’s “Doom the way you remember it as a kid”.
And Marcos isn’t finished yet. “I have seen more and more people calling Brutal Doom, ‘What Doom should have been if id Software had the time and the technology to do everything they wanted,’ so this is the
direction I decided to take, making the ‘Doomiest version of Doom’.”
This has included “adding weapons and features that were planned in the Alpha version of the game”, drivable tanks, visual tweaks, and lots more. Marcos won’t be the only one keeping Doom alive and kicking. He argues that the combination of an implied bigger universe and accessible modding tools means not only that “Doom is still being modded over two decades after its release”, but that it “will probably still be for two decades more.”
Not every community keeping games alive is focused on a single title. Scummvm is a tool well known among adventure game fans as a resource for revisiting the genre’s roots. It’s also often misrepresented as an emulator. Fortunately, we have project leader Eugene Sandulenko to set that right.
“Scummvm is a collection of the game engine reimplementations,” Eugene tell us. “Many of those engines, including the Scumm, were in fact, Virtual Machines. Scummvm has many Virtual Machines with their own opcodes, address spaces etc. Basically, we rewrite the original games as they were developed with use of our hardware abstraction layer, Osystem, which in turn makes them work on any platforms where Osystem was ported. Emulators implement virtual computers, and then the original code is executed there. As a result, they demand much more resources than Scummvm does, as Scummvm, for instance, uses your operating system capabilities for writing to your hard disc, and emulators need to have a virtual HD for the same purposes.”
We asked Eugene whether the preservation of adventure game history was consciously on the minds of those who have chosen to spend their free time working on Scummvm and getting new games working on the platform. “Yes and no,” he replies. “I personally view it as preservation, thus we sometimes add seemingly non-used features such as CGA rendering, implementation of the original (and often limited) save/ load dialogs, and being faithful to some of the game options. But on the other hand,” Eugene continues, “the vast majority of our games were implemented by folks who just loved them and have nostalgia.”
Reviving an old game may be about personal passion, or, Eugene suggests, enjoying the challenge of solving complex riddles while reverse engineering game software, but Scummvm has become an important preservation tool nonetheless.
Eugene tells us the team has been enthusiastically contacted by developers whose games they’ve been working on with materials for the engines and Scummvm has been used to rerelease adventure classics on services like GOG and Steam, such as Toonstruck. Perhaps Scummvm can even claim some credit for the rereleased and remastered versions of several Lucasarts classics thanks to the way it kept their legacy alive.
The vast majority of our games were implemented by folks who just loved them and have nostalgia Eugene Sandulenko
» [PC] Brutal Doom utilises the retro aesthetic of old Doom and brings the gameplay up to modern standards.
» [PC] Brutal Doom ramps up the violence with a variety of death animations, dismemberment and splashes of blood.
» [PC] Ever want to flip the bird at an enemy you don’t like? Brutal Doom has got you covered.
» Marcos ‘Sgt Mark IV’ Abenante is the modder behind Brutal Doom.
» Fabian Woltermann is the lead on the Freespace 2 Source Code Project.
» [PC] Some more detailed models and updated effects courtesy of the Source Code Project make Freespace 2 a pleasure to revisit.
» Eugene Sandulenko is helping keep old-school pointand-clicks alive with Scummvm.
» [PC] Revolution Software released Beneath A Steel Sky as freeware in 2003, opening it up for use on Scummvm without any of those legal grey areas.