06.20.12

The plight of Metal Gear Online and the limits of videogame preservation.

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Metal Gear Online – which sought to bring stealth action into the HD online arena – has officially gone offline. Konami shut down the servers for the game June 12th. The game stood in staunch comparison to the majority of twitchy, fast-paced online shooters that were its contemporaries. Rather than pump along at a break-neck speeds, MGO rewarded players for sitting in a box for ten minutes. It was a quirky mix of action and waiting – and now its gone forever. 

Another PS3 game was scheduled to shutdown in North American this month as well: Demon's Souls. The title's publisher Atlus eventually backpedaled, deciding about a week before the shutdown to extend the life of the servers indefinitely. The company pledged to support the game's innovative online component so long as “user activity and interest remain constant.” But that, obviously, can’t last forever. 

Those still interested in experiencing the forerunner to Dark Souls should try to do so while they still can, because once Demon's Souls goes offline, it will no longer be be the same game.

The subtle connectivity afforded by Demon's Souls online mode unites players' individual experiences, transforming the slow progression through Boletaria into a communal plight. Temporal bloodstains warn us of dead players' blunders. Brief blurbs of text can be left for all to see. Cryptic lies line cliffs to mislead gullible travelers to their doom. In a seditious exercise of democracy, we can recommend such shifty messages. Sometimes, we help one another, dropping summon signs at the doors of demons. It is an interactive landscape where we all play a part in each other's success and failure. 

Navigating this dichotomy between trust and doubt, between dependence and self-reliance, is in part what makes Demon's Souls so enthralling. When the servers go offline, however, Boletaria will become an empty playground, originally built to be swarming with children, left to be enjoyed alone.

As game hardware advances, the infrastructures supporting old media vanish. Henry Lowood, who heads up the game archiving effort for the Library of Congress, warns we are “already late in attending to the special preservation needs of early game software,” but the deteriorative nature of gaming's earliest incarnations isn't the only problem. An increasing amount of games are made to be experienced with specific, supportive infrastructures in place. When their hardware becomes obsolete, and the technology supporting them moves on, these games lose a large part of what made them unique in the first place.

Take Nintendo's Satellaview games from the 1990s, for example. Released only in Japan, Satellaview was a Super Famicom add-on that received game “broadcasts” during set times over a satellite modem. One of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises, The Legend of Zelda, saw several spin-off titles exclusive on the platform. The first two to hit the system were graphically enhanced reworkings of the original NES title's overworld and dungeons, released as “Map 1” and "Map 2.” Each map was broadcast in four separate, hour-long segments, with the current time of day displayed on screen. Voice-overs streamed in-time with the broadcast, and at certain points in the clock, unique game events were triggered. When the broadcast ended, the game locked up, and once a new broadcast came in, the old game code was overwritten.

Enthusiasts have since mined old Satellaview memory banks to compile the broadcasts into singular ROMs, but the voice-overs, which were streamed from the satellite providers end, are missing. Miraculously, a full VHS recording of the broadcasts popped up on Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga nearly a decade later, and were subsequently uploaded to YouTube. These wavy videos are the only archival remnants of Nintendo’s first ever use of voice-acting in a video game. Had it not been for one unwitting archivist, they'd be lost forever.

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“Here is the main point from a curatorial perspective,” writes Lowood, “there is a difference between preserving game technology and preserving game content, which includes gameplay.” Unlike the disconnected games of past generations, simply emulating software won't always suffice. There are an increasing amount of temporal elements intrinsically intertwined with modern gaming: online infrastructure, publisher support, public interest. Demon’s Souls doesn’t only need servers to retain its identity, it needs a nation of players.

While future game historians will undoubtedly have an ocean of gameplay tidbits and Let’s Plays footage to sift through, they won’t be able to fully grasp a game’s more transient elements. Hardware can be preserved – people will replacing lithium batteries in golden Zelda cartridges for decades to come – but there will likely never be a rebroadcast of a Satellaview game. 

When the inevitable server shutdown does come, it will fundamentally alter the experience of Demon's Souls. The core mechanics will remain – combat, weapon systems, boss battles – but the experience surrounding them will become irrevocably isolated. When the last summon sign fades away, when the threat of invasion vanishes and the devious interplay between players comes to the end, the game becomes a shadow of its former self. In the darkness, a message appears: My heart is breaking.