The National Film and Sound Archive has announced this morning that it'll be adding locally-made video games to its collection of more than 3 million items. But given that the department hasn't archived video games before, and the difficulty of archiving games that require online authentication, or multiplayer games that require an always-online environment, I had to ask: how exactly does the national custodian plan to archive these games in the first place?
To answer these questions, I got in touch with Thorston Kaeding, a curator at the National Film and Sound Archive for over 23 years. Along with the exact archival process, I wanted to know how the NFSA became interested in video games in the first place, what some of the initial limitations were as a national body, and how local developers can ensure their works are preserved for future generations.
As games become ever more tied to an online environment, the industry is struggling to find ways to properly archive and preserve the medium's incredible history. Fortunately, Australian creators are getting a little help in this regard thanks to the National Film and Sound Archive, which has announced that has begun the process of archiving all Australian games.
"The rise of games as a multibillion-dollar industry has signalled one of the biggest cultural shifts of the last 50 years," Kaeding explained in an interview with Kotaku Australia over email. "As our collection represents all Australians and their interactions with the creative industries, we’ve long thought this was an area we needed to investigate. Around the end of last year, we started talking about how we would go about collecting and preserving games and interactive media."
The initial plan is to begin preserving games in a similar manner to other mediums. The archive already collects podcasts and interactive media along with more traditional forms of literature, so the logical jump from a podcast to a video game isn't that far.
Practically storing video games is another challenge altogether, of course, but it makes total sense particularly as video games are the largest entertainment medium on the planet. But the archive has a set a huge challenge for themselves, revealing to Kotaku Australia that they intend to archive "all the versions and platforms released for each game".
"In some cases, a particular version may be better for long term archival preservation, but we’ve learnt from experience with other media that It’s always a good idea to collect all versions and we also want to represent all of the different ways that games are released and enjoyed," Thorsten said. He added that the archive will be storing a lot of the other material that gets released with a game: publicity materials, preview coverage, walkthroughs, merchandise, artwork, and pre-release assets like storyboards where available.
The archive won't be limited by classification, so games that were once refused classification or rated R18+ will be available for preservation. The NFSA curator said the classification rating might influence what archival material is accessible online, but it won't have an impact on the actual archival selection.
The eight games being archived initially are as follows:
- The Hobbit (Beam Software, 1982)
- Halloween Harry (Interactive Binary Illusions / Sub Zero Software, 1985/1993)
- Shadowrun (Beam Software, 1993)
- L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, 2011)
- Submerged (Uppercut Games, 2015)
- Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017)
- Florence (Mountains, 2018)
- Espire 1: V Operative (Digital Lode, 2019)
Thorsten explained that choosing these eight games, which range from mobile titles to VR and to older cartridge games, will allow the archive to sort through the majority of practical problems that arise during the preservation process. "We expect that by mid next year we will have worked through most of the issues and can increase our [collection] of games," he said.
I asked whether the archive would be looking to store online-only games, particularly given the increased mobile development in Australia where titles are built around an always-online infrastructure or some other kind of permanent connectivity. Thorsten said he was confident the NFSA would sort out those issues, saying that "we are and will be an archive with an analogue past and a digital future; that's exactly why games are such an important part of what we want to do".
"We’re are confident about our ability to preserve games into the future, but there is no doubt that mobile-only games particularly will be our biggest challenge over time. That’s why we are working closely with developers and studios to look at the issues and come up with the solutions."
The archival process is part of the NFSA's hosting of Game Masters, an exhibition celebrating the medium of video games that will run for six months from tomorrow.