Digital Indie Games Are Endangered… Unless We Preserve Them

Digital indie games aren’t invulnerable to the passage of time.

Braid

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are far too many video games these days. Over 180 new games are released on Steam every week, according to Gamasutra, and that’s just Steam. Uncountable hordes of prototypes, game jam entries and test projects squeeze themselves into the itch.io ‘new releases’ page every single day.

Right now, you can download and play every single one of those games, whenever you like, indie or otherwise. Got a hankering for bonkers vehicle construction game Cargo! The Quest for Gravity? Go download it from Steam. Meanwhile, Sony and Nintendo are releasing ‘classic’ versions of their earlier consoles, using the nostalgia factor to sell people games they already own in a cute plastic casing. I’m sure Microsoft will follow suit soon enough.

These physical consoles will still work even if the company that created them is long gone and, of course, the mainstream nature of these devices ensures they’ll always be in the public consciousness. But what happens if, in ten, twenty or fifty years time, Valve goes bankrupt? What if itch.io shuts down?  Who’s going to make sure that those games are preserved? If we don’t start considering how to preserve gaming history – particularly indie gaming history – then one day it’ll just vanish.

As it stands, the law is really not on our side. Any copies of a game you make without express written consent from the publisher are, technically, illegal. Whilst this is unlikely to stop someone at home making a cheeky copy of Braid, the legal ramifications are a serious roadblock for more organized efforts. Even your Steam account isn’t really yours. You can’t, for example, leave it to a loved one in your will, as Eurogamer pointed out. If you had a PlayStation 4 and a stack of games, however, you’d be totally within your rights to distribute them however you choose; you own them after all.

Digital ownership has always been a tricky mistress. Without ownership, the agency to preserve and collect is reduced dramatically; people clean consoles and ensure games are stored in ideal conditions, but rarely do players consider the future of their Steam library. This is just one example amongst many of how the law is yet to catch up with the digital age. And every day that it doesn’t, more remnants of gaming history are lost.

So, you’ve got fully legal DRM-free versions of all your favourite indie games downloaded onto flash drives, burned onto DVDs and saved onto a backup hard drive, locked in a vault, guarded by a series of intricate locks and deadly traps and sealed in a bunker which you alone know the location of. Your games are safe forever now, surely? You can rest easy, safe in the knowledge that your great-great-great-granddaughter can play Subnautica in the year 3000, right?

Nope. You forgot about bit rot.

Seriously, did you know about this? I didn’t, until just now. Put simply, bit rot describes the phenomenon of physical deterioration in digital storage media. CDs and DVDs will eventually decay, floppy disks and traditional hard drives eventually lose their magnetic orientation and start to die. Even solid state storage is not immune. No matter how well backed-up a file is, if the physical object on which that data is stored starts to decompose, there’s not a lot that anyone can do to stop that besides copy it onto a fresh storage medium. Your original floppy disk version of Lemmings has maybe ten more years left before it stops working altogether.

What this means is that archiving can never be as straightforward as simply making a backup and forgetting about it. Preserving digital media is going to require future video game librarians to perform regular maintenance and have plenty of backups and contingencies, to ensure that nothing is lost. That’s work, and that work is going to require somebody who actively cares enough about maintaining a particular game’s existence. While I’m sure that formative pieces of mainstream gaming history like Space Invaders, Pong and Doom will always have someone looking after them, can the same be said for classic indie titles? Surely genre-defining games like Kerbal Space Program, Gone Home and Spelunky are just as deserving of a spot on some future museum’s shelves.

So, please. Keep copies of games (legally, of course). Back them up when you can. When the time comes for the Great Gaming Library to open, which I’m sure it will, I hope you’ll join me in making sure the indie voices are heard.