A few weeks back I was having a digital couch chat with Mark Filipowich. Eventually we got on to the topic of criticism preservation. We talk about how things are disappearing from the web and how depressing the 404s on the Old Games Writing Twitter account are. I begin to tell him a story. I was checking up on some old posts from 2009 or so about Mirror’s Edge. As I’m telling him this I’m clicking through the saved URLs I have in a word document. I told Mark that I had trouble with them. Clicking them had brought me to a message saying the page did not exist. After some fiddling with the browser and eventually typing it in manually I arrive at what I wanted with the series of posts intact.
As I tell him this story I duplicate the process some 6 months later. It doesn’t work. I refresh. I cut the link back to get the home page and find the posts that way. It doesn’t exist. The domain is unregistered. The site is no more. I tell him this and we have a real time example of criticism dying.
Before I go further, a little backstory. As many of you know, at Critical Distance we have rare features called Critical Compilations where we gather all the writings about a single title and organize them into a single massive feature. We have such posts about Braid, Bioshock, Flower, Prince of Persia, Grand Theft Auto IV and others. We have many more in bits and pieces, some that exist only as link lists in word documents and text files. Many years ago, Justin Keverne handed me his list for a Mirror’s Edge Critical Compilation. He hadn’t the time to work on it and asked if anyone else would like to do it. I accepted.
It was a short list and missed a number of early conversation posts between critics. From memory I recognized a few big pieces of criticism were missing, so I went off to add them. One such absence was a series of 11 posts, named episodes, of a playthrough/critical examinations of the levels and story elements. They were half creative writing, half theory examining the game. One episode per level including the tutorial and prologue. It was entitled The Runner, written by an author known only as The Runner. The posts were on slick white webpages with splashes of single color that matched the aesthetics of Mirror’s Edge to a tee. Lots of screenshots were interspersed between the texts to highlight the point and give visual representation to the world. All of the posts were gone and the site they were hosted on were gone.
A similar thing happened with Dragon Age: Origins. Back in 2009, Kate Simpson and a few others began collecting links for an eventual Critical Compilation on GoogleWave. When Google shut down that service, the company informed users ahead of time to save any wave threads they wanted to keep. Kate did so. Last year, someone wanted to do a Critical Compilation and I mentioned the Dragon Age: Origins one now stalled. They wanted to pick it up. I asked Kate if she had the wave file. Luckily she still did and sent it along. I looked in it and found that many of the links were dead. They all belonged to the now defunct fan site The Grey Wardens. Checking Google’s Internet Archive was lucrative. The entire site with all the posts were in stasis, waiting for someone to find them. I included instructions as I passed the list along.
Back with my talk with Mark, I reacted immediately and headed for the Internet Archive. I typed in the URL and it came back with the table of contents. The webpage with the titles, links and a one line synopsis of each chapter. Some even had their banner images that went along with the posts. Relieved I begin to click through each of the links. And in each case I am rebuffed. One by one each returns the message “failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/finalsin/bluecasket.sekritforum.com/runner/index.php on line 17” two returned the message that the page hadn’t even been archived by the Wayback Machine when it had the chance. The page captures are from October 3rd 2013. The site existed a mere 4 months ago.
Only one chapter exists in the Wayback Machine. The final one, Chapter 11, remains intact text, pictures and all. For now.
I cut back on the URL to see if the site itself is archived and if I can’t find the essays another way. It was bluecasket.sekritforum.com/ and the final post from November 10th 2009 is a message that the site is going offline for a “considerable period of time.” He was back in school and didn’t have time to manage it anymore and would try to resume it in 2010. He would leave it up for people to browse the archives. He, Micheal Cook, didn’t come back it seems. The sidebar shows a number of game diaries. The top bar of categories shows a number of different types of content they featured. I click the previous page button at the bottom of the page to see if I can find anything in the main blog stream. It goes back a page fine and then no more. They weren’t archived.
This was a severely depressing turn of events. The Mirror’s Edge list of links is short enough as it is and frankly would be ill complete without The Runner series. Our chat moved on to other topics as I continue to Google for the essays. I push further back in pages with different keywords. I randomly click links wondering what they are. Some are like this forum thread at The Escapist about an essay by Michael Cook on the site. On page 3 of 3 the series is mentioned. This is what Google found.
I continue to aimlessly click around for 20 minutes as Mark and I move on to new topics. Then one link brings me to a forum thread at sekritforum.com. It landed me at the last page, 13 of 13. The last post was made on December 7th, 2009. A Monday as the interface is kind enough to inform me. I decide to click to the first page of the thread. And there staring me in the face is the text of the first chapter posted by The Runner. Where the images are is several paragraph spaces with the word “Image” in place. Apparently the image hoster no longer supports the forum or vice versa. I hope against hope and begin scrolling down the forum and click forward page by page. And there they are, all 11 posts. Text only, but they exist.
The Runner’s forum signature links to a Flickr account with the uncropped screenshots and as one post informs a few extra that weren’t used. The link works and I’m looking at 48 images of various points of the game. They aren’t all of the images. In fact they only include up to chapter 2 in the game. The rest aren’t there. The final chapter is preserved in full thanks to the Wayback Machine.
I haven’t read these posts since that summer in 2009 when they were posted. I remember them though. I found them. I can read them again 5 years later if I so choose. 4 months I ago I could have without all the effort. I can stitch the posts back together now, mostly. This find is thanks to in part, my diligence, Mark Filipowitch’s accidental reminder, and who are we kidding. This find was pure luck.
Since that day I’ve lined up all the links in tabs so I can insert them into the post for however long they last. In that time I identified Michael Cook as the pseudonym author. Had I been familiar with his site I might have learned he wrote all the content and wasn’t a collaborative site. I found his Twitter account and could ask him if he had the original text somewhere. I might ask him yet.
This is not about The Runner or of an evening spent scouring the internet for posts. It is not about the proof of existence or how it is based only on a single man’s memory. We’ve talked about the need to remember our history and preserve it. Some have made early steps to being a process. Critical Distance keeps thing collected so they wont be forgotten, but it does not protect work from being lost. We tried to set up something and it stalled. GoodGamesWriting tried to set up an initiative run by Mark Filipowich and it stalled.
This is a warning and it wont be the last.