Digital Archives – building on the bones of that which came before

I was recently having coffee with my colleague Meredith (who’s blog you should read here) when I blurted out what seemed at the time a rather silly topic. Are video games a prime example of pure Digital History? Stick with me, it gets better – I promise. Video games are born digital projects, they are one of the only mass consumed media forms where the digital isn’t deemed a mechanical reproduction of the analogue. Code and mechanics embellished in the earliest video games are visible today, akin to the current high rises of urban development built upon the foundations of those buildings that came before. In essence a video game is an archive of those that came before it.

Id software’s DOOM revolutionised the genre of first person shooters almost twenty five years ago. Since then the genre has grown increasingly po-faced from the hyper violent and admittedly silly “You versus the minions of Hell” premise that held up in the nineties. While the subject matter and themes may have changed, the mechanics haven’t necessarily varied that much. The code embedded and the mechanics of player input present in DOOM is still visible today in the likes of Call of Duty and Half Life. Does this make DOOM the born digital equivalent to Gutenberg’s Bible? Personally I’d disagree, Pong or the very first arcade games would be the correct comparison there. Rather, DOOM is similar to the novels circulated about Romantic Europe’s printing house culture. It set a template, a mould rather than invented the wheel as Gutenberg did when he introduced print culture in the 1450s.

As I type this blog post- two significant gaming milestones have come to pass; the ten year anniversary of both Halo 2 and Half Life 2, both games influenced by the above mentioned DOOM. Both games are seen as landmark achievements of the genre and are multi-award winning, million dollar earning releases. Yet, Halo 2 on its tenth anniversary received what Microsoft deem the “anniversary treatment.” This treatment sees the game itself upscaled to a new resolution, remastered to run at a smoother frame rate and given current generation standard of graphics. Is this a peculiar trend? Technically Nintendo have been pursuing the same philosophy with Mario for quite some time. What makes the Halo 2 example so interesting is the conscious design decision to keep the re-release on the same engine as the 2004 original. Indeed, at the push of a button the player is able to transition between the original graphics and the updated modern coat of paint.

This ability leads to two instances of the game running at one time, both utilising the same code but with different graphical settings on display. Ten years is a remarkably long time in the gaming world, that Halo 2 stands the test of time (albeit with new engine) is a testament to how well designed it is. But is such an anniversary treatment required? Analogue media equivalents do experience similar re-releases, whether through a new printed edition or director’s cut, rarely is it as bombastic and brash as the Halo 2 remaster where the original game is in essence hidden behind a pretty facade; it still lingers behind the veneer but it evidently is not the main focus. Compare this with the other example mentioned above, Half Life 2.

Half Life 2 has remained virtually untouched since its first incarnation, granted the initial release has received numerous updates to its performance; it remains the same game through and through. Ten years on, Half Life 2 mirrors a digital collection of artefacts, a museum of code and modelling assets that are occasionally dusted off by the developer to remain relevant. The repackaging of Halo 2 as a new release, while intriguing to watch, is a peculiar move that carries strange connotations. Are born digital examples of media expected to do this now? Can we expect that tomorrow’s new release is going to be repackaged in ten years time with an increased price?

What does all this mean to the humanities though? It’s been noted that web design is a key component in attracting audiences (rather akin to the graphics in a video game), does this infer that websites will need to keep updating their visual design to stay relevant to their audience? Or do the examples of DOOM and Half Life show that there is a place for archaic representations of the past to exist alongside these slick and newer alternatives?

To briefly conclude this train of thought, analogue equivalents have a rigid model to follow – a book is made of paper collected with a spine and read from beginning to end, a compact disk carries data read by a machine, but with born digital the rigid model doesn’t necessarily exist in the same capacity. The digital builds itself upon that which came before but this remake culture, the demand to continuously reinvent, seems to suggest that the past is best hidden behind a veneer.

Perhaps I’m completely wrong (and am quite willing to be schooled on it) but I’ll certainly be following this trend with a great interest.

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