Essays, Not Rants! 375: Obsolescence
I have a floppy disk lying around somewhere with stuff on it I must have written when I was around eight or ten years old. I don’t know exactly what’s on it and I’m not sure where it is at any given moment; it’s one of those things that I’ll happen on occasion and think to myself “hey, I should get the files off of this some time.”
Of course, there is the whole issue of finding a floppy disk reader. My laptop doesn’t even have a CD drive anymore and what once seemed so standard a feature on computers has become quite rare. I’m sure that with a measure of effort I could find somewhere that would transfer the files for me, but that would require forethought (and actually knowing where that disk is).
I’m kinda sure modern software still supports opening Word docs saved in a format twenty years old, but if it doesn’t there’s yet another hurdle. Tech has moved on enough as to make some stuff inaccessible.
Take Flash games and videos, for instance, the hallmark of my adolescence. As the internet develops, it’s shied away from the format to the point that some browsers no longer support it. In light of that, some websites have shut down (pour one out for YTMND) and with it has gone years of content, unlikely to be seen again. Granted, some of these do live on as recorded videos and what not, but it’s not quite the same. You can still watch Harry Potter Puppet Pals on YouTube, but you can’t click on a certain frame during Trouble at Hogwarts to watch a hidden short about Ron bothering some butterflies. Sure, there’s a recording of it on YouTube too, but that little hint of interactivity, that secret easter egg that you could find and tell your friends about, isn’t there. Should Flash fall further into disuse (with a planned end slated for 2020), it’ll only be a matter of time until you need an older machine to watch an older video.
But what about when that old content is no longer there? Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a wonderful game: an old school side-scrolling beat-’em-up based on the eponymous movie, its pixel art graphics and local four-player support made it a staple of my PS3 library. Then the game’s license with publisher Ubisoft expired and the game was removed from the PSN Store and Xbox Live Arcade and it could no longer be bought or downloaded. Just like that, it’s gone. I might have it on my PS3, but it’s not something I could recommend to a friend to get, nor can I grab any DLC I might have missed. Barring a rerelease of some sort, anyone in the future looking to have the game, well, can’t. So if someone’s trying to create an archive of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups or games based on movies based on a comic inspired by games, they’re out of luck.
This sort of digital obsolescence is an actual concern of digital archivists. Consider any game designed for the Vectrex, a console I adore if only for how idiosyncratic it is. The game Minestorm, a knock-off of Asteroids designed explicitly for it, mayn’t have much that sets it apart from its ‘inspiration.’ The Vectrex, however, allows for vector graphics that create a particularly brilliant display of the game (which is actually just like the arcade cabinet of Asteroids). You can emulate the game and console all you want, but that particular experience is gone lest you can get your hands on a vector display. How do you preserve something when you lack the hardware to do so?
I mentioned last week that I’d always have the old stuff to go back to, but sometimes that’s sadly not true. Ms. Pac-Man just isn’t the same without that arcade stick, and Asteroids without the vector graphics is a lesser game. Maybe the lesson here is to be present and enjoy stuff when you can.
Or maybe it’s to get your files off the darn floppy disk.