Playing PC Games is Hard

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.

10 thoughts on “Playing PC Games is Hard

    I usually just silently nod my head in agreement with most things you post but this struck me as wrong on several levels.

    First off, nothing worth doing is easy. Isn’t our favorite genre the crowning example of that? The reason to not include computer games has long irked me since it means the quest can never be complete, in fact the very basis for the modern version of the genre is omitted.

    It’s difficult to take anyone who talks about survival horror seriously when they go “Huh? The 360 game?” at the mention of Alone in the dark. No, no, I’m certainly aware that you must have played them at some point, that’s not what I mean. There’s just a frightening amount of players who believe the RE/SH-style spawned on consoles, and in Japan specifically. To omit the very basis for modern survival horror strikes me as extremely questionable.

    I can entirely sympathize with your lack of desire to fiddle with emulators, however. But with the advent of Good old games (entire AiTD series was $3 recently by the way) getting the games to run is as simple as downloading, installing any way you prefer (I prefer vmware fusion but bootcamp, copying from a windows box, etc will also work) and then simply running dosbox (with the shipped config) from the game’s directory. Every GoG game will work the same way.

    Sure, if you don’t want to spend the time to get a game to run then don’t, but do review the ones that you -can- easily run. If you don’t, then there really is a bias against computer games. And, as such, an ignorance of the genre’s roots is forced upon visitors. Which is sad considering this is by far the best genre site I’ve ever found.

    I’ll gladly wave the interactive fiction flag in case anyone disagrees with me on the genre’s true roots. I’ve painted the flag neon pink for effect, beware.

  2. Perhaps you could instead ask your fans to help create a 10 ten list of PC horror games for the quest, complete with guidelines on how to play them on modern hardware. Create a PC specific page that lists the current lineup and virtualization instructions so that we can all look into playing these games. This can be done wiki style or be a part of the forums to take the time requirements away from being solely yours.
    Everyone has their own top 10 lists, so the page could be dynamic, allowing for votes to decide the order.

    Continue to separate PC games off from the quest, and consider the PC page to be a recommended supplementary list.

  3. Money is also a factor. I don’t have the cash to but every ancient obscure console, but I sure can emulate a lot of them as well as pc platforms. Chris, how many consoles do you own, total?

  4. I guess I wasn’t clear enough.

    I’ve played Alone in the Dark, Undying, Uninvited, The Lurking Horror, Penumbra, Amnesia, the Path. I really enjoyed those games, and I’ve written about a few of them here (though mostly not because I haven’t completed them yet). I have no problem playing and enjoying and researching PC games.

    But I don’t think it’s feasible to include them in the Quest. This is a research project; it has to have measurable end goals. One of those goals is playing everything (and I mean everything) that meets whatever criteria I define–that’s how you get a sampling of a genre across a wide variety of titles. The criteria I’ve stipulated is intended to make this goal actually achievable. If I included PC games, the scope of this research would balloon by several orders of magnitude. How many horror games have been released for PC since 1980? Hundreds!

    Not to say that there’s no value to be had there. Just that, as I said in the post, the cost / benefit ratio is too low. Playing “just modern games that still run” is just another arbitrary criterion, and one that still doesn’t make sense to me.

    I said it in the article, but I’ll say it again here: the decision to skip PC games is entirely due to the logistics of playing PC games, and has nothing to do with the games themselves, the PC interface, etc. It might be true that things worth doing are hard, but not all hard things are worth doing. Being hard doesn’t make an action valuable.

    > Zeroth, I have about 10 consoles hooked up to my TV right now. I’m not interested in pirate or even “abandonware” games. I want to buy my titles and play them.

  5. Playing older games is not hard at all, you can run most of the older games on PC with or without little fiddling with DosBox or using a front-end. Setting a PC for older isn’t exactly complicated, it just takes a bit time.

    That being said, I do understand what you’re saying about the scope. PC has too many titles, if you want to play everything, although its possible it will take a LOTS of time. So its better to keep the scope limited to consoles.

  6. Setting a PC for older isn’t exactly complicated, it just takes a bit time.

    Disagree. I think playing popular games that people have tweaked emulators for is pretty easy (although the Last Express is pretty popular and it still took me a few days to get it work correctly). The types of games I’d be playing would include super obscure titles that simply will not run, or not without significant effort.

    At this point I’m so busy that I’m only completing a few games per year. Increasing game playing overhead is not a way to achieve measurable results.

    While I can’t speak for the rest of the fine people commenting here I would like to make one thing clear; I don’t consider your refusal to add computer games to the quest unreasonable, it’s your quest after all, not ours. The reason why I’m commenting is because this page resonates with me. It’s a conservatory of knowledge and opinions (some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t). I want the end result to be perfect almost as much as you do, I’d imagine most of your visitors do.

    I suppose my initial post could be construed as a flame of sorts, it wasn’t meant as such. The vast majority of quality SH games are on consoles, and most of them are from japan (including my own favorites). Continuing on your current course will almost surely result in most games of value being covered.

    I also understand and applaud your decision to restrict the pool you’re sampling from. Over-extending oneself usually leads to a project being abandoned. The only thing I find peculiar is the restriction you’ve chosen. If you truly wanted a proper cross-section to draw conclusions from then you should have done “All survival horror games across all platforms and all regions during a certain timespan.” As it stands you’re not just limiting your selection to (mostly) a particular region (and its cultural heritage) but also a specific type of SH, namely the commercially viable one.

    Computers game are in general more varied than console games, primarily because they can be afforded additional freedom due to the corporate whip being smaller or non-existent. Consoles bring with them the moral, ethical and financial scrutiny of big business that can in the best of times equate to stifling innovation and in the worst of times to censorship. -That- is why the exclusion of computer games frightens me, and why it will taint any analyzes of the genre as a whole. But, since you disclaimer’ed before, you’re not analyzing the genre as a whole so it doesn’t really matter.

    Long story short; I wish your site -was- analyzing the genre as a whole. Alright, putting a sock in it. Please know that I admire your dedication to this project, no matter if your opinions differ from my own.

  8. The only thing I find peculiar is the restriction you’ve chosen. If you truly wanted a proper cross-section to draw conclusions from then you should have done “All survival horror games across all platforms and all regions during a certain timespan.” As it stands you’re not just limiting your selection to (mostly) a particular region (and its cultural heritage) but also a specific type of SH, namely the commercially viable one.

    This is a totally reasonable critique of my approach!

    And yes, to really have this complete, encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, I’d have to include PC games for the reasons you state. Perhaps once I am finished with the console titles I’ll tackle that problem.

    Thanks for the level-headed feedback. Your first post did not come off as a flame, sorry if I responded in a way that sounded snappy.

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