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June 2, 2011

Filed under: gaming»perspective

The Backlog

There are three consoles stacked behind our TV. They're the retro platforms: my SuperNES and Dreamcast, and Belle's PS2. I think they're hooked up, but I can't honestly remember, because I rarely turn them on or dig out any of the games that go with them. They just sit back there, collecting dust and gradually turning yellow in the sun, like little boxes of electric guilt. I'm almost starting to hate them.

Most people probably have a media backlog of some kind: books they haven't gotten around to reading, movies they haven't had time to watch, music they can't give the attention it might deserve. But I think gamers have it worst of all, for two reasons. First, the length of the average game, especially older games, is a huge obstacle to completion. Second, there's a lot of hassle involved for anything going back more than a generation.

Belle and I are trying to reduce our physical footprint, so having to keep older consoles around "just in case" grates, but emulation's a mixed bag even when it works. Worse, I have a really difficult time tossing old games that I haven't finished: how could I get rid of Virtual On, Chu Chu Rocket, or Yoshi's Island? Those are classics! I'm also prone to imagine unlikely scenarios during which I'll finish a game or two--my favorite is probably "oh, I'll play that when I get sick one day" as if I were in grade school, a plan that ignores the fact that I'm basically a workaholic. If I'm sick enough to stay home, I'm probably too ill to do anything but lay in bed and moan incoherently.

Having realized that I have a problem, one solution is simply to attack it strategically--if I can only decide what that strategy would be. Should I work backward, from newest to oldest? Or start from the SuperNES and go forward through each platform, gradually qualifying each one for storage? Clearly, the "play at random" approach is not narrowing my collection with any great success.

There is, however, another option, and ultimately it's probably for the better: to simply accept that the backlog is not a moral duty. I don't have to play everything. I think gaming culture is very bad about this: the fact that many gamers grew up with certain titles lends them a nostalgic credibility that they probably don't entirely deserve. And frankly, if the titles I'm considering were that compelling, I wouldn't have to force myself to go back and play them.

I'm hardly the only gamer I know caught between practicality and sentiment. The one plan that would unify both would be digital distribution on a neutral platform--the current XBox and Wii emulations fall far short of this, since they just lock my classic games to a slightly newer console. I'd love to see a kind of "recycling" program, where I could return old cartridges in exchange for discounts on legitimate ports or emulations on a service like Steam or Impulse. After all, even without the trade-in value, I sometimes buy Steam copies of games I already own just because I know they'll then be available to me, forever, without taking up any physical space.

Game publishers probably won't go for that plan. I can hardly blame them: the remake business, just as with the "high-def remaster" film business, is no doubt a profit machine for them. But I don't think it'll last forever. Just as I buy fewer movies these days, since I'd rather stream from Netflix or rent from Amazon Digital, the writing is probably on the wall for buying software in boxes. That won't eliminate the backlog--but it'll certainly clear up the space behind my TV set.

Our cat will be thrilled.

Future - Present - Past