The servers that support the mostly-offline video game The Saboteur are scheduled to go offline tomorrow. With that flip of a switch, we will lose the ability to make some of the women in the game topless.
Will you cheer this development? Will you boo it?
It doesn't matter much what you think of a game that lets players download a $3 content update that lets you see some breasts. It doesn't even matter that that feature, designed to incentivize people who bought new copies of the game—buy it used and those women in the cabaret won't be naked!—was crass.
What strikes me as odd is that, when publisher EA takes down the servers for this game, supposedly tomorrow, we're supposed to lose the ability to make this tweak in the game. And that will mean that anyone from April 14, 2012 and onward who finds a copy of The Saboteur and a gaming console to play it on, will only ever be able to experience the non-nudity version of the game. The topless version will be locked inside of consoles like my PS3. Should my PS3 break, then I'll lose that experience too, since the topless thing isn't tied to the disc but to the download. (It is possible, I should note, that the downloadable version of the nudity mode will still be available and EA is just turning off the ability to redeem the content through new copies of the game; we'll find out soon enough, but the point stands.)
What happens in a decade if a scholar wants to see the topless version of the game? What code will they be able to access? It shouldn't matter, right? We're just talking about the tawdry topless mode in The Saboteur a good but not great open-world action game that casts the player as an Irish freedom fighter in German-occupied World War II France.
No big loss, right?
Last week, in Boston, I was talking to a game designer who is releasing his game later his year. Someone told him that the Library of Congress will accept any game developer's code for storage and posterity. He's going to send his code. He's doing it because, he told me, he wonders who in the world will be able to play his game in 10 years. Ten years! That's not long ago at all, but think about it: which games did you have 10 years ago that you can still play?
Big publishers shut down servers for games like The Saboteur to save costs and, often, because not many people are playing them anymore. Say goodbye to the game's topless mode. Good riddance, you might think, but as it disappears, part of that game likely becomes locked to just a few consoles and then, eventually lost.
Books decay. Records warp. And so, it seems, the games we like one year risk disappearing bit by bit.
(For more on preserving old video games, read this.)