It was a dark night in Guatemala, and Stephen Kick just wanted to play an old video game.
Specifically, System Shock 2, the 1999 first-person shooter lauded as one of the most influential PC games of its time. It was 2008, and Kick, who had recently left his job as a character artist for Sony Online Entertainment, was traveling South America with his girlfriend in search of inspiration for what to do next. He was holed up in a hostel, and a tropical thunderstorm was raging outside. The atmosphere was perfect.
"I went to GOG.com [an online storefront known for classic games] thinking, 'Well, it's one of the greatest games of all time, it has to be available on there,'" says Kick, now 35, "and I discovered it wasn't."
As he'd come to learn, System Shock 2 was one of many pieces of "abandonware"—games not supported or distributed by the copyright holder. Sometimes that means a game has been largely ignored or forgotten by its creators. In other cases, those creators are defunct. Abandonware games are at high risk of disappearing forever since, unlike other media, video games require proprietary hardware to play. That means the ability to play them is contingent on the availability of often-aging, out-of-print equipment and peripherals. Even on PC, where a multitude of online distributors exist, bringing classic games into the modern day can require a lot of reworking and restoration that copyright holders have little incentive to do.
Kick was amazed to find that a game less than a decade old could end up just vanishing like that. So he did some digging. He discovered the rights to the game had, somehow, ended up with an insurance company in Michigan. He sent an inquiring email, not expecting an answer.
A day later, the company's lawyer confirmed the rights were still in its possession —and asked Kick if he wanted to make the third game in the series. Kick had a different idea: Let him get System Shock 2 back into the world. He got in touch with old co-workers from Sony to help with the technical side of things. He christened the new team Nightdive Studios, setting up an office in Portland and later moving across the river to Vancouver, Wash.
"I went to GOG and said, 'Hey, I've got the rights. Let's sell it,'" Kick says. "At first, they didn't believe me. But I showed them the paperwork and they set the schedule."
The re-release launched in February 2013 and it was an instant success. Since then, Nightdive Studios has gone on to procure the rights to restore similarly abandoned games, including including the Turok games, Doom 64, The 7th Guest, and the Harlan Ellison adaptation I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. The company is even developing a complete, from-the-ground-up remake of the first System Shock game.
The process isn't always as simple as Kick's first acquisition. Often, the games are old enough that the legal particulars can be hard to untangle. "We've had times where we've licensed the rights for a game from one party, announced that we're working on it, then had people just come out of the woodwork and say, 'Hey I own the rights, what are you doing?'" Kick says. "Then we have to go back to our original partner and pull these contracts from the '90s. It just gets really messy."
Once the games are acquired, the Nightdive team uses an in-house engine to make them fully compatible with modern computers and consoles. The process involves reverse engineering, sprucing up old source code, and sometimes even making alterations to the game to fix loose ends. The goal is not necessarily to remake a game but to make it available in its original form, minus its original defects.
"When we remember video games from our past, they ran smooth, the controls were flawless, and it's this great experience," Kick says. "But then you go back and you play it, and it's like, this thing is running at 15 [frames per second], and I can't use the N64 controller anymore because you've got this one analog stick. It's just kind of a rude wake-up call."
Bringing older works into widescreen and higher-resolution formats also requires taking artistic liberties from time to time. Video games are careful constructs, and changing the field of view or increasing the resolution on older titles can be like pulling back the curtain. While remaking 1997's Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, for example, Kick discovered that the weapons the player uses are "literally just a floating barrel and nothing else. We had to model and texture the rest of it and make it match the style so that essentially you could see something that didn't even exist."
In practice, though, the effect is invisible: The games are essentially identical while simultaneously meeting modern standards of playability.
As old computers and consoles fall out of use, physical media deteriorates and software fades quietly away over time, many games stand to be lost. Sometimes, publishers cash in on old intellectual property in the form of remakes and re-releases, but for every triumphant franchise return there are a dozen forgotten works.
Groups like the International Center for the History of Electronic Games and the Museum of Modern Art work to preserve old software, but catching everything is not guaranteed. In 1996, Atari went so far as to throw the source code for several historically notable games, including Asteroids, literally in the dumpster behind its office in California. A total loss was averted only by a few fans recovering the diskettes at 3 am.
For Kick and the rest of Nightdive, contributing to that effort of restoration is a worthwhile pursuit.
"Famous directors grew up watching old movies and have gone on to create new things that we enjoy. We need that in the video game industry as well," Kick says. "Being a part of that and being able to maintain the idea that video games are art is probably the highest honor."