I remember a weird kind of game that some attendees of the annual E3 expo would play (you know, back when E3 was a thing). They would attempt to quite literally lift the curtains on publisher exhibits before the event officially kicked off. Part of the motivation, I’m sure, was to nab some kind of hot exclusive. Maybe you could reveal some major, previously-unannounced game and get the jump on the publisher. Let’s not forget, though, that most of us in the gaming industry are — by definition — gamers. Passionate gamers, at that. We’re always hungry for any tidbits of information about upcoming releases, especially from franchises we love.
Man behind the curtain
That desire to peek behind the curtain isn’t limited to brand new games, either. As I get older, nostalgia becomes a more prominent dimension in terms of how I engage with and enjoy video games. These two concepts dovetail into something that becomes a central pursuit for many games writers of a certain vintage: we want to keep behind the curtain retrospectively. That is, we want to know how our favourite games were made. This hasn’t always been a straightforward pursuit, either. For years, the only way you’d really glean valuable insights was from direct interviews with game creators. But game creators — understandably — are often highly protective of whatever bits and pieces constitute their secret sauce. After all, the value of a video game, in business terms, is almost entirely reliant on intangible assets like intellectual property. This is why some game creators might be reluctant to pull the curtain back too far. It’s also why large game companies — Nintendo, most infamously — aggressively pursue whatever legal channels are available to them to guard their precious IP. There are many occasions where we might justifiably argue that a company like Nintendo is being too aggressive or drawing too broad a target. But again, remember: their entire business relies almost entirely on intellectual property. While there has always been a desire to protect IP, the emergence of the internet (and the almost-incalculable channels through which IP can be stolen and distributed) has a way of keeping the entire industry on perpetual tenterhooks.
I suspect Nintendo could be knocked down with a feather given the recent gigaleak, which is making news all over the internet at the moment.
So, what is the fabled gigaleak? It emerged — perhaps unsurprisingly — on the 4chan message board in late July. Users began posting a bunch of material from Super NES and Nintendo 64 games. The material in question is wide-ranging, but it largely consisted of all sorts of assets from multiple games including early work-in-progress designs and components from projects that never saw the light of day. Some of the material confirms long-held suspicions (for example, a model of Luigi was found in the source code for Super Mario 64 — he was rumoured to have been planned for the game but ultimately dropped from the final release). Other material includes sprite artwork from a cancelled remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
It’s a treasure trove of information. In the short time it has been online, huge numbers of enthusiasts have poured through it to extract all the juicy details. And it’s absolutely been confirmed to be genuine, thanks in part to tweets from folks like Dylan Cuthbert, who worked on Star Fox and Star Fox 2 for SNES.
There is a sense in which the leak might seem harmless at first. And there is a line of argument — for which I have some sympathy — that much of this material arguably belongs in some kind of video game museum. Given the nature of digital assets (that they are, well…digital), it’s frighteningly easy to imagine a scenario where huge amounts of culturally-important work is entirely lost forever. It’s happened multiple times in the past, actually. Square Enix, for example, admitted to “losing” the source code for several iconic games. As time goes by, and the game industry grows and becomes a more established pillar of pop culture and human creative achievement, there is growing concern about game preservation. Losing the source code for, say, Super Mario Bros. is absolutely the equivalent of losing the original animation cells for Steamboat Willie. The time it has taken for society to arrive at this recognition has unfortunately created a vacuum where many important works of art and culture have been lost, never to be recovered.
This situation should provoke companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, Sega and many others to seriously consider their obligations around the preservation of digital artefacts. I think the argument could be made that although these materials are owned by said publishers, there is a growing public interest in preserving and protecting artefact that are of great historical and artistic importance.
However, much as many of us would like to see video game developers and publishers approach their classic works in this way, the theft and distribution of intellectual property is highly dubious and obviously illegal. The illegality of the act doesn’t necessarily make it ethically or morally bad (I’d argue that plenty of things have been illegal at some stage, but this was entirely separate from their real ethical or moral implications). But there is a question of ethics here. Among the fascinating game-related content included in the leak are private communications between staff discussing all manner of sordid topics (including pornography in at least one case, and other deeply personal matters in other cases). You can debate all day long whether or not these communications were appropriate (especially at work), but that misses the point by a wide margin — the participants in the conversations certainly expected that they were private at the time. And as is usually the case with leaks like this, snippets of communication are being distributed entirely without context. Creators may also understandably feel uncomfortable with various works-in-progress or shelved ideas being distributed (again, with no context). I know I probably wouldn’t want first drafts of many of my articles being published everywhere without my knowledge or consent.
Rocky road ahead
Nintendo haven’t officially responded to the leak at this stage. But whatever their response (or not) in the short term, I really wonder what impact this leak will have in the longer term.
For example, as someone who works in the gaming media, I am very familiar with the increasing sensitivity around leaks and the negative consequences this has on journalists. It’s becoming more and more difficult to review games now because publishers are placing substantially more onerous embargo requirements on writers and publications. The embargo conditions around The Last of Us Part II — while understandable in terms of spoilers — were ultimately a real problem for many writers. And when something is a problem for a writer, it invariably becomes a problem for the gaming audiences who read these publications. There are also escalating contractual penalties involved when writers violate embargo conditions, accidentally or otherwise.
I mention this because the gigaleak — while interesting for enthusiasts and useful for gaming historians — is very likely to lead to dramatically increased opacity on the part of many game developers and publishers. It’s ironically less likely to lead to constructive and collaborative efforts to preserve gaming history in sustainable ways. That may be, by far, its most worrying effect.
Note: In case you are wondering, none of the art assets used in this article come from the “gigaleak”. They are all publicly-available assets supplied by Nintendo.
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