Last week I wrote an article about emulation and software preservation, so it seemed like fate--or at least a happy coincidence--when the first booth I wandered into at Maker Faire 2012 belonged to a non-profit group called the Digital Game Museum. With the original cardboard boxes of Grim Fandango and Zork proudly on display, I knew I'd lucked out and found some people with excellent taste in gaming history.
Ben Wilhelm, one of the Museum's trustees, outlined how difficult it is to preserve such a wide swath of culture. Some of the coolest material on display were the accoutrements that once shipped with games. These days, paper maps and dense manuals and hint books are rare treasures, and many of the companion pieces for the Ultimas and point-and-click adventures of the 80s and 90s have spent decades rotting away in attics. Getting one of those pieces often comes down to a lucky donation: the Digital Game Museum doesn't have the money or the manpower to buy up anywhere near as many games as they'd like to.
"Not enough money, not enough manpower" might as well be their slogan. If organizations like the Digital Game Museum were lavishly funded, people like byuu wouldn't need to spend $10,000 on preservation projects. The DGM is working on setting up a real museum in the Bay Area that people can visit, but currently their slice of history sits in storage not far from the San Mateo Event Center that hosts Maker Faire. They're going to need government grants to set up shop. While the Smithsonian exhibit on the art of games may have helped raise public perception of video game history, gathering the funds to collect and display game boxes and floppy disks from the 80s and 90s is an unenviable challenge.
Wilhelm gave me a concrete example of why the games and paraphernalia in the Museum's collection were important. When I asked about the rarest game on display, he led me over to a Beam Software text adventure from 1982. It was The Hobbit.
"This game sold over a million copies, and yet no one's heard of it," he said. I haven't played too many text adventures in my life (though The Hobbit has illustrations, so it's not solely text), but I know plenty of them. I know Zork. I know Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But this game predated Hitchhiker's Guide by two years, sold a million copies in the 80s, and was one of the most advanced text games of the decade.
The Hobbit played out in real time, and NPCs had the ability to move and take action without user input. Gandalf could wander off and get himself captured. Or killed, in which case the game was unwinnable. That was some seriously complicated programming for 1982. The text parser also supported complex sentences, including adverbs, prepositions and punctuation.
Sure, "no one's heard of it" is an exaggeration--it sold over a million copies, after all--but The Hobbit's faded from the historical spotlight despite being remarkably more advanced than its contemporaries. It shipped on floppy disks and cassette tapes, back then. How much longer will those be readable? A decade? Maybe two?
Thankfully, the game seems well-preserved. It's available on plenty of abandonware websites and playable in a Java emulator. I was even able to find the source code online. But I'm still glad there's a group out there dedicated to unearthing these games and making sure people know about them. They belong in a museum.