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National archive to preserve Aussie video games for the first time

The initial lineup of eight games to be archived covers almost 40 years of Australian development, and represents a variety of formats from cassettes to plastic cartridges to digital downloads, and even a game for virtual reality headsets. Müller says the diversity here is intentional, because the first step towards establishing games in the archive is to work out how best to preserve the various media.

For older games stored on tape, as with film and audio recordings, preservation is important as the data will likely be completely degraded within the next ten years. There’s also the issue of preserving machines that can play the games, and knowledge from experts who were there. With newer titles, issues include extricating games from the digital platforms they’re distributed on, or recreating an appropriate network environment for online play.

The first eight games to be added to the national archive

  • The Hobbit, 1982, an iconic illustrated text adventure based on the novel.
  • Halloween Harry, 1985, a platforming adventure game subsequently renamed Alien Carnage.
  • Shadowrun, 1993, a Super Nintendo adaptation of the tabletop roleplaying game.
  • LA Noire, 2011, a crime drama set in 1940s Hollywood that’s renowned for its facial capture tech.
  • Submerged, 2015, a serene exploration game set after a climate event has flooded the world.
  • Hollow Knight, 2017, an underground action adventure where all the characters are bugs.
  • Florence, 2018, a wordless love story utilising touchscreen mini-games.
  • Espire 1: VR Operative, 2019, an ambitious attempt to bring a tactical stealth action game to VR.

“We’re specialised in these sort of things; we specialise in solving,” Müller says. “It’s a matter of getting the right knowledge on board and, most importantly, that we work together on this preservation of games with the game collecting community and also the industry.”

Müller hopes that having a national agency leading the effort will encourage existing Australian game collectors to get involved, as the NFSA will in many cases be better equipped to deal with the sea of technical and legal problems that crop up, such as working with rights holders to comply with Australia’s strict copyright laws. In addition to the games themselves, contextual information like advertisements or packaging and development materials like storyboards will also be archived.

The earliest game in the initial collection, The Hobbit, was created in Melbourne by the prolific game developers at Beam Software during something of a golden era for the local industry. But while a number of factors have radically changed the face of Australian games over time — the global financial crisis being one of them — the popularity of indie games on digital platforms has once again shone a global light on Australian creators. One of the newest games on the list, Florence, was designed by Melbourne games studio Mountains specifically for touchscreens.

“I really like that now there’s a huge discussion about archiving games. Because we’re just like film and TV, but with an extra challenge for archival,” says Kamina Vincent, producer at Mountains.

“It seems like such a logistical nightmare. Mobile apps? They keep being updated, you need to keep old systems to play older things, and then there’s online connectivity. I’m so impressed with what the people who have to deal with all these challenges do.”

In collaboration with partners including ACMI and the Powerhouse Museum, as well as the Australian community of game collectors, Müller expects that within six months to a year there will be workflows in place to begin collecting and preserving a much larger representation of Australian-made games.

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