Ex­tra Life: Keep­ing Old Games Alive

Paul Walker-emig in­ves­ti­gates the many games that refuse to die, thanks to their fans

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by paul Walker-emig

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.

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