One of the most contentious aspects of this site is my decision not to include PC games in the Quest. This decision is not borne of some hate for the PC as a game machine, as some have supposed. Nor does it stem from some imagined key difference between PC horror and console horror. You would not believe how much e-mail I have received over the years asking why I am snubbing games like System Shock, White Day, Clive Barker’s Undying, the Penumbra Series, The Path, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Phantasmagoria, 7th Guest, or even obscure titles like Realms of the Haunting. My choice not to include those games has been the source of much internet angst over the years.
My rational, as explained briefly in the about page, is that PC games represent too wide a spectrum. To draw real results, I need some sort of focus in this research project, and the decision to concentrate on consoles over PC has to do more with setting actually achievable goals than the content found on those respective platforms.
There is another important reason to exclude PC games from the Quest. It’s simply impossible to play the majority of them any more. First, I don’t have a Windows computer. But even if I did, I’d need one running the latest version, one running XP, one running ’95 or ’98, and probably one dedicated DOS box. I’d also need a System 6-era Mac, a 7.1 Mac, a 7.5.5 or 8 Mac, etc. Not to mention the other sorts of obscure computers I’d need to keep around just to play the odd niche title that came out to limited success in 1984 or whatever. Games tend to bit-rot very quickly, and as versions of operating systems and video drivers change, it’s usual for games to simply stop working after a few years. And since games bit-rot so quickly, it’s pretty hard to actually buy old games for PC–even the used market is pretty slim. Logistically, including PC games doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The cost / benefit ratio is too low.
This is the point in the argument where some smart-ass pipes up and asserts that virtualization can solve this problem. Virtualization is the process of running an operating system within another operating system, booting one OS up inside a little region secretly controlled by a real computer. This can be a form of emulation (if the virtual hardware differs from the host machine), or it can simply be a way to boot old software on modern chipsets. You can run Windows in a window on your Mac, for example, with software like Parallels or VMWare Fusion. You can run Windows applications from Linux with software like WINE. In theory, it should be possible to take whatever hardware I’ve got (a Macbook Pro), get the right emulator or virtualizer software, install some ancient OS on it, and then play old games. And in practice, this is probably actually feasible. But it’s not easy, and it’s not quick.
Let me give you an example. A while back I ran across an original (unopened!) copy of The Last Express, a game that frequently makes top-10-adventure-games-of-all-time lists but didn’t actually sell that well when it came out. The Last Express is a game by Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia, Karateka), who is one of my game development heroes, and I have wanted to play it badly. This game came out in 1997 for PC and Mac (hybrid on one disc). 1997 wasn’t that long ago, right? I went to college in 1997. I should be able to make software from that era run, right?
So what are my options? Well, popping the disc in my Mac brings up the Mac partition, which is a PowerPC executable binary. Apple had a PPC runtime translator called Rosetta that came with the OS, but they deprecated it for the most recent release, which of course I just upgraded to. If I want to run the Mac version, I’m looking at a PowerPC emulator. There are a couple (PearPC seems to have come back to life, but doesn’t have OS X binaries). I tried Sheep Shaver, which let me boot into Mac OS 8 (it brought a tear to my eye to see that UI again), but wouldn’t run the game (it crashes immediately). Well, my Mac is an x86 device now, so maybe running the x86 binary is a better idea. I tried DOSBox, which is purported to run The Last Express, but it can’t see the PC partition of the CD. I spent the better part of three hours experimenting with different ways to mount that separate partition to no avail. There’s Cross Over, which is a WINE wrapper for Mac that lets you run some Windows games without actually having to install windows. I downloaded the trial, and while it was able to run the installer without issue, the actual game didn’t run at all. There’s VirtualBox, which will run Win95 or 98, but those are unsupported and to use it I’d need to go buy a copy of ancient Windows somewhere (remember product keys? yeah). After a couple of hours of reading online I realize that others have successfully ripped isos of the CDs that I legitimately own in such a way that DOSBox can see both partitions (apparently this game has some interesting copy protection mechanism that makes this operation difficult). A torrent later I have iso versions of the CDs sitting on my desk. These I can mount in DOSBox, and get the Last Express installer to run. The game doesn’t work though–to solve that I actually needed to manually copy some files from the CD into a specific location that people with too much free time discovered. So now the game runs (hooray!) but the colors are all screwed up. Another set of searches reveals this to be a Mac-only problem, and one that nobody has a fix for.
Long story short, virtualization does let me run this game. It cost about as much time as beating the game itself will probably take me. And none of the setup I performed will be particularly useful in running the next game–each case is specific and problematic in a different way.
So now I’m looking forward to playing The Last Express, albeit through a bright green-tinted lens. But this is pain that I cannot abide by very often, and is certainly not worth the time for the thousands of other potential PC horror games out there. So, I stand by my assertion that omitting PC games is a reasonable restriction; though it might slightly warp my understanding of the genre, the logistics involved are simply too time consuming. Better to have a warped view based on the (not insubstantial) console catalog of horror games than waste time trying to get ancient software to work and have no view at all.