Wexner Center's Cinema Revival series highlights video game restoration and preservation

For the first time, the annual Wex series on film preservation will feature a free virtual event centered on preserving and restoring video games

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Rich Whitehouse featured in a photo illustration for "Spotlight on Video Game Preservation" virtual event at the Wexner Center on Friday, Feb. 26.

For the past seven years, the Wexner Center has hosted Cinema Revival, an event celebrating the art of film restoration. This year the programming will look a little different. For one, all Cinema Revival screenings and events are free and will take place online beginning Thursday, Feb. 25. But it’s also the first year the Wex is expanding the scope of this annual tradition to include video games.  

At 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 26, Rich Whitehouse will deliver a virtual presentation (followed by a Q&A session) about his work as the Head of Digital Conservation at the Video Game History Foundation, a self-described “nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, celebrating and teaching the history of video games.” (Whitehouse's presentation will remain on the Wexner Center website afterward; RSVP for the livestream here.) 

While video game restoration may not be something most people spend a lot of time thinking about, Dave Filipi, the Wexner Center’s director of film and video, said it shares many parallels to film restoration and preservation, and Whitehouse concurred.

“Talking to Dave, they've experienced a lot of the same struggles that we have, especially when it comes to trying to convince people that it is important,” Whitehouse said recently by phone. “Video games have a lot of inherent value, and they inform us a lot about the society that produced them and the society that consumed them. … It’s the creative culmination of a whole lot of people, and it has a whole lot of different artistic visions that go into it. There's so much that you can get out of that, culturally and historically.” 

Rich Whitehouse

Video game preservation looks different depending on what kind of original artifacts remain intact. The holy grail of restoration is a game’s source code. “If we get a hold of the source code for a video game, that's the most ideal thing that we can have for preservation, because that gives us all the materials that were used to produce the game. We can build the game from the source code and experience the game as it was intended, either on the hardware that it was made for or through emulation,” Whitehouse said. “Often that will have a whole game design document, which is like the bible of the game. … All of that stuff tells such a huge story about the game, the people surrounding it and the ideas they had.” 

Sometimes, though, the source code goes missing. Even major franchises, such as Final Fantasy, have lost the source code to games. “We’ve gone through some really weird phases as an industry in terms of how we value that material. Even from a company standpoint, a lot of companies don't seem to realize that eventually that material might become valuable to them again. So even outside the [cultural value], there's good reason for them to preserve it from a pure profit motivation. But a lot of that stuff has fallen through the cracks over time,” Whitehouse said. “That's something that we're really working hard to try to address.” 

Still, when the source code is gone, all is not lost. If the game itself — the “binary-level” presentation experienced by the user, such as the actual disk, cartridge, etc. — is intact, then the experience of the game is preserved, and often Whitehouse and others can reverse-engineer the binary. It’s the second-best scenario.

A distant third, however, is when video footage of the game on YouTube is all that remains. “A lot of people will say that’s good enough,” Whitehouse said. “There's a lot of problems with that idea, and that's something I get pretty deep into in the talk that I'm going to be giving on Friday. Suffice it to say, I do not agree with that assessment.” 

Resurrecting lost games of the past can be an extremely tedious endeavor, involving thousands of lines of code, but the payoff is worth it. Last year, the Video Game History Foundation detailed the process of reconstructing “Days of Thunder” from 30-year-old source code on floppy disks, and recently the nonprofit revealed the discovery of “Power-Up Baseball,” a lost game that would have been baseball fans’ equivalent to the now-legendary “NBA Jam.” 

Whitehouse anticipates more preservation challenges on the horizon, especially as PlayStation and other consoles heavily encrypt their game data. (“There is a very strong worry that we will not be able to preserve some of this stuff as encryption schemes get more aggressive,” he said.) But Whitehouse is up to the task. “It’s my job to look at those situations and say, 'What can we do about this? Is there any way that we can reconstruct the missing parts, rebuild this thing and restore it to what it was originally intended to be?’”