Even now, with a growing number of expert texts, themed museum shows, discussions and organizations (both private and independent) centering on preserving games, it’s still disorienting to remember that 2019 interview with Yosuke Matsuda where the CEO and President of Square Enix admitted he did not know where the source code to some of the company’s classic titles were. Considering how much Square has contributed to both game design and culture over the years, it’s hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction to Matsuda’s comment. But a lot of us forget that games have only very recently been re-evaluated as objects that are worthy of preservation.
Whether you believe games are interactive art (a la The Smithsonian) or interaction design (a la The MOMA) it doesn’t change the fact that up until now the industry viewed them as merely toys-or, to put it even more simply, commodities. Matsuda’s follow up comment was illustrative of this: “Back in the day you just made them [games] and put them out there and you were done—you didn’t think of how you were going to sell them down the road.” Of course these comments came to light during a discussion with Square about its dedicated project digitizing and making available all of its back catalogue, with future plans of a dedicated streaming channel similar to Bethesda’s Orion.
With all this in mind, the release last month of Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is quite significant. Not only for the inclusion of Radical Dreamers, a rare text adventure game that had previously become that much rarer after Nintendo cracked down on ROM emulators, but for what a digital-only remaster of a classic game means for the ongoing discussion of game preservation. The main game itself, set in the same world as its beloved predecessor, Chrono Trigger, is about a character whose memory is fragmented as he traverses between parallel worlds and histories. Both Chrono Cross and Radical Dreamers are also concerned with a paradoxical and mysterious artifact called the Frozen Flame which many characters seek to possess. Although I don’t think it was intentional on Square’s part, digitizing these two games in particular makes me think about how slippery and complex the journey towards standardizing game archival continues to be at the AAA level.
Although it’s not an ideal remaster, Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition has become an artifact similar in nature to the Frozen Flame—something that’s both a valuable gem and emblematic of the instability and constant flux affecting the process and systems of stakeholders in game preservation. Emulation, as Frank Cifaldi points out in a 2019 GDC talk that is in some ways a reprise of an argument he had previously made in 2016, is still demonized in the game industry with few exceptions. And Square Enix’s current fixation on digital-only products, and threats of moving towards blockchain, AI and the Cloud, don’t necessarily bode well for their strategy to make their back catalogue accessible by both future players and stakeholders in game preservation.
When games are digital-only, with no way for players to physically archive them for posterity, they’ll most likely only be available for as long as the platforms that host the digital version last. That’s a fate this Chrono Cross remaster might possibly face. Game objects in general could be characterized as Frozen Flame-like entities this way; they can be material commercial products that are often under or over-valued at the same time that they are immaterial and emergent experiences created by the embodied interaction of players. When we preserve games, we hope that we don’t just save whatever attendant documentation gives the games context, but also the playable game artifacts themselves. Here I think of instances like Silent Hill’s P.T., and how once Konami took the game off of console game stores, players like me can only distantly access the gameplay experience secondhand through videos and opinion pieces and reviews.
Currently, the onus of preserving games has been put mostly on the public and, outside of larger museums mentioned above, indie organizations that to varying degrees face many legal and financial challenges in the project of making the game industry’s cultural history a lasting presence. Not to mention how some of these game history institutions, like Oakland’s The MADE museum, were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some AAA companies, like Square Enix, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, have made efforts to start preserving games, but not in any standardized fashion. Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition and its digital-only availability really underscores Laine Nooney’s argument that we need to “punch up” and advocate for game history to be funded and supported by the industry’s stakeholders. I agree that we need a better, less fragmented, less crowdsourced solution to preserving game history. Without such advocacy, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of companies that don’t value the past, with a lot of their playbooks for preservation kept fairly opaque (or in some cases nonexistent).
While Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is definitely a blessing, it’s a decidedly mixed one. We got a rare game that otherwise might’ve been lost to time out of this remaster, but it’s also a reminder of how complex and insufficient game preservation is. As Jason Scott characterized in a recent DevDiscuss podcast roundtable on the subject, the industry’s approach to preservation has been like realizing the value of paintings in only the last couple of decades. He also likens the process of preservation as “a three-or four-way race” against time, working with rapidly decaying or missing items, and many stakeholders who both undervalue or overestimate the value of the items.
When I encounter remasters or ports of games that had become forgotten or overlooked, it’s hard for me not to associate it with Kentucky Route Zero’s metaphor of decomposing archives filled with indie games and a game prototype that has become a monstrous, half-organic, half-digital experience. Even more than Chrono Cross’s unknowable Frozen Flame, that captures what that race to preserve important games history and culture is like: a misunderstood, undersupported effort in the face of indifference and obsolescence.
There is a physical release of Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition, but it’s a limited edition exclusive to Asia and Japan, making it very expensive and difficult to acquire for players in other markets.
Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find her work at Unwinnable, Videodame, Third Person, and her portfolio. Her stream-of-consciousness can be found at @phoenixsimms.