A few weeks ago, I went hunting for something I had written a long time ago, only to find that it no longer existed. The website that I had written it for was gone, and there was no trace of it on any archive. I don’t want to get too sanctimonious about this, but it’s a creepy feeling. As a writer, I make things and put them out for the world to see. And I know those things aren’t permanent, that I’m just trying to make things that people enjoy and find stimulating as we all hurtle toward the heat death of the universe. But it’s one thing to know that and another to see it happen to something I wrote only three years ago. Poof. Gone.
Remember how, in The Social Network, they say that the internet isn’t written in pencil, but in ink? Isn’t that some bullshit? Sure, okay, there’s always the Wayback Machine and Google indexes everything, but, years after being impressed by that “deep insight,” it strikes me as hollow Sorkinian nonsense. What strikes me most, lately, about the internet is its ephemerality. Servers can go offline and years—lifetimes—of information can just disappear without a trace.
As a young person, I spent a lot of time reading about video games. They held—and hold—a grip on my imagination. Reading about a game I didn’t have, or reading someone else’s experience of a game I did, felt like renovating my imagination, adding new rooms, new possibility spaces. That’s what good games criticism, good criticism in general does for me: it activates my potential for empathy and allows me to imagine a part of what something I can engage with looks like from someone else’s point of view. This can be as complex as long, experimental essays about weird games I’ll never play, or it can be as simple as a good, engaged review.
Joystiq was not usually a place for the former, but it had the latter in spades. It was reliable, informative, and personable, which is perhaps even more important to me. Its writers have, over the many years I followed the site, made me feel a bit of their experiences here and there. Reading them was one of the things that made me want to be a games writer. And now, according to the news that came out earlier this week, Joystiq is going to be shut down. Another game site, Edge Online, is also going to be shut down, to be rolled into Games Radar, hastening the foretold future wherein there is only one games site, a mammoth Voltron of opinions and review scores, a VALIS with IGN and Polygon as its effervescent eyes, a gaming leviathan with the power to birth universes and a Twitch channel you should, like, really consider subscribing to.
Which doesn’t bother me. Not really. Things change. What bothers me, though, is seeing so much writing that I care about, that I made or that helped make me, disappearing, and the people who made it suddenly out of work. When those servers turn off, weeks or years from now, what then?
What do you do when something disappears? You look for it. In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you’re looking for Ethan, a kid in a rural midwest township gone to shit. The character you play as, a stereotypically gruff detective named Paul Prospero, explains that the place had seen better days, before the drift toward urbanization had pulled shipping routes more central and obviated the need for resources dug up in the local mine. It’s a typical small town Americana story, one that’s easy enough to piece together from the scenery. The doors to the mine are both chained shut and nearly falling off their hinges. A rusted railroad track winds through the landscape like a scar. It’s easy to mentally recreate the place as it used to be, bustling, the air sweet.
As a detective, recreating the past is your whole job. The town and its surrounding woods are filled with scars more obvious and literal than the railroad. There are dead bodies, burned houses, big trails of blood. Surrounding these crime scenes, there are clues scattered for you to find. Find them all, and Prospero enters a flashback state, where the game gives you a chance to explore the area and put possible events in chronological order based on what you think happened. When you get the right order, the scene plays out, rebuilt for your eyes.
In real life, the past isn’t recreated so cleanly. Even the best inductive minds can’t jump into the past when they find all the right puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces are usually there, though, in some form or another. Like I said before—scars. The physical world has a way of leaving bits of itself around even after it’s gone, little imprints that gesture toward a former something’s existence. You burn wood, it leaves smoke and ash.
Data’s trickier. Digital information exists on a physical medium, and even after it’s deleted, remnants of it can remain—there’s a whole cottage industry of data retrieval to point to that fact—but it exists on that medium in an aphysical way. Data is ideational, representative, and by corrupting it it can be made permanently inaccessible. What’s more, it’s inaccessible in a way that leaves no memory of its presence. Information—digital information in particular, which transcends its physical medium through layers of abstraction and translation—doesn’t leave scars or remnants when it vanishes. The digital landscape just moves on without it, as formless and adaptable as water.
Information preservation is a pressing issue in video game culture. As hardware ages and more and more websites change or go offline, important parts of our past run the risk of just fading away. It feels a bit like running out of a collapsing cave sometimes, chasing the new while the old is buried behind you. It makes me anxious, and, if this post is any indication, a bit existential. I want the work I care about to last long enough for new people to find it. The Internet Archive—an ongoing project to make old games preserved and playable in a browser, which recently put up 25,000 DOS games—is a fabulous start. Maybe somebody needs to do something similar for old games sites.
Good detective work is like good games crit, now that I think about it. It reconstructs experiences. It activates empathy. What I do as Paul Prospero is not that different from what I do as a good reader. I’m just looking, hoping to put it together in the right way, matching it up so I can see the world as someone else. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m grateful for everything that’s given me that chance, and I hope we find ways of keeping it around so others can enjoy it, too. Ways of preserving the evidence.
To Joystiq, as long as your servers may last, and to all the information and ideas lost to the digital ether. May you find a good detective some day.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to writing for Loser City, his writing appears on Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.