Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Coded Canons: Videogame Alteration Practices and Negotiating Authenticity

This is a conference paper presented at the 2020 History of Games Conference.

Iantorno, Michael. “Coded Canons: Videogame Alteration Practices and Negotiating Authenticity.” History of Games Conference, 21-24 October 2020, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland. Held online due to COVID-19 pandemic.

the introductory slide for "coded canons"

Hello, my name is Michael and I am a PhD student in Concordia University’s Communication program. This presentation is titled Coded Canons: Videogame Alteration Practices and Negotiating Authenticity

Before I get started, I’d like to acknowledge the Residual Media Depot, the Technoculture, Art, and Games Lab (TAG), and the mLab for supporting my research — as well as the Fonds de Recherche du Québec — Société et Culture. 

One of the recurring themes in digital videogame alteration — sometimes referred to as hacking or modding — is the clash between what fans and developers feel should be “canon” or “authentic” in a videogame franchise. In this conference paper, I will touch on three different game alteration projects that are at the center of such conflicts: Pokémon Sword and Shield, Super Smash Bros Project M, and EarthBound Uncut.

This is meant to be less of a comprehensive approach to this topic, and more of an exploratory one. I am seeking out commonalities and divergences in these negotiations of canon and authenticity, sifting through examples from across the last few decades of videogame history. This is a first step toward further research that I intend to undertake throughout my PhD at Concordia.

My presentation is heavily influenced by Natasha Whiteman’s research on nostalgia in Silent Hill fan communities as well as Maria K Alberto’s observations on the co-creation of canon in tabletop roleplaying games — both of which I will touch on later in this presentation. Additionally, much of this research arose from my master’s thesis, in which I interviewed various videogame hackers (including members of the Smash Bros and EarthBound fan communities).

Pokémon Sword and Shield

I originally wrote my pitch for this conference in late 2019, which now seems like a lifetime ago. It was inspired by an article on Polygon about a, at the time, new project created by Pokémon fans. Disappointed with the roster of creatures available in the franchise’s latest release, Pokémon Sword and Shield for the Switch, fans began tweaking the code of the title to add Pokémon which they felt Game Freak had unfairly omitted. Through posts on Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube, these hackers noted that the long term goal of the project was to expand Sword and Shield’s limited roster in order to recover Pokémon that they felt were integral to the series.

a headline from a gaming press magazine that reads "Reddit is furious about Pokemon Sword & Shield"

Obviously, it’s been a while since I first wrote the proposal, so I decided to check back in on the project a few days ago. It appears that, within weeks of the initial reporting, hackers had managed to insert all of the missing first generation Pokémon into the game. Although it is difficult to pin down the current status of the project — which is, perhaps more accurately described as a collection of loosely affiliated hacking endeavours — it seems that things have progressed quite a bit since last winter, and it is becoming possible to add more and more of the so-called “missing” Pokémon to Sword and Shield.

Sword and Shield hacking touches on a persistent theme in digital videogame alteration practices — the competing discourses between fans and developers over what they believe are the essential elements of a game or media franchise.

These debates are often framed as what should be “canon” or what constitutes “authenticity”. In the case of Pokémon Sword and Shield, fans were upset over the removal of Pokémon that they felt were integral to the series. Some users went as far to claim that Game Freak was betraying its core audience and tried to initiate a boycott. How could they play a game, after all, that featured Charmander but not Bulbasaur or Squirtle?

Of course, these sorts of debates are not limited to games, and can certainly be found in movies, television, and other media fandom. However, videogames are an intriguing medium due to their particular affordances for alteration and remix. With the proper tools, it is possible to change almost every aspect of a title, ranging from the aesthetic (such as graphics, text, and music) to code (such as mechanics, physics, and gameplay). Adding a new Pokémon to Sword and Shield can result in a fan-altered, but fully playable version of the original game — one that can be distributed through relatively small patch files and standalone hacking apps.

Natasha Whiteman and Silent Hill Fan Communities

I’ve found Natasha Whiteman’s research with nostalgia to be extremely useful in navigating this sort of fan dissent in videogame communities. Through her work with the Silent Hill franchise, Whiteman explores how fans reconcile their love for a videogame text that often exists in multiplicities — various entries in a series, for example. In particular, she discusses the negotiation of textual authenticity. Heavily inspired by Svetlana Boym, she outlines a type of relational nostalgia in which fans construct an ideal version of a game (a meta-text), before judging new entries in a series by their adherence to this constructed, ideal state.

Turning to Henry Jenkins’ work with television and movies, Whiteman notes that these sorts of debates are quite common in varying fan communities. Individual episodes of a TV program are often judged using an idealized conception of the whole series, casting decisions for films are criticized based on whether or not they are “true” to a character, and aesthetics are often gauged against what is deemed to be a set of core artistic values of a franchise. These point to a negotiated fan ideal that at-times embraces or rejects new developments as they emerge.

a slide featuring a screenshot from silent hill and some summary of the above article points

Whiteman’s key case study involves the backlash in Silent Hill’s fan community that occurred after the 2004 release of Silent Hill 4: The Room. When the game was first released, fans were incensed by a number of changes that they felt betrayed the overall vision of the series. Criticisms were leveled at everything from the game’s narrative structure to its core gameplay mechanics, including:

  • The game did not take place in Silent Hill, but rather a neighbouring town.
  • The game used a first person perspective, rather than third person.
  • Two iconic items were removed from the series — the flashlight and radio.
  • And, perhaps most debated, the game moved away from a linear exploration model to a cyclical vignette structure, centered around entrapment in a haunted apartment.

In both supportive and critical responses to Silent Hill 4, these elements were used to support individual readings of the game that debated whether or not it was an authentic representation of the series. Fans appeared to be pointing toward a meta-text composed of both textual elements (such as narrative and setting) and technical elements (such as items and camera angles). Any changes that deviated away from this idealization were viewed as unwelcome, unwanted, and corrupting to the Silent Hill franchise. In this excerpt from Whiteman’s paper, a fan seems to suggest that Silent Hill 4 doesn’t even feel like an entry in the series, but rather “feels like a spinoff, a bad spinoff” (41).

a quote from Natasha Whiteman's article on Silent Hill fan communities

Whiteman’s research is almost entirely focused on reactions found on Silent Hill fan websites, and she only lightly touches on the role that fan-fiction, game modifications, and other fan activities play in this negotiation of canon and authenticity.

Negotiation and Circulation

Maria Alberto traces an interesting line in this regard, particularly through her work on canon in tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons. She notes that, traditionally, canon is the assumption that “some text(s) are authentic, authoritative, and reliable, and thus are worth taking as the basis of some value system” (Alberto). However, Alberto outlines how this becomes messy in the context of table-top roleplaying games, as players constantly pick-and-choose elements from an established canon — such as a campaign setting or a game sourcebook — on the fly, creating their own canons which are then reified in textual form. These meta-texts are often shared through online campaigns and by way of written materials, and may be oppositional readings to the dominant canon texts that were initially sourced from.

a slide titled "tabletop games" and featuring a dungeons and dragons group around a table

Of course, tabletop publishers actively encourage this sort of practice both explicitly and through the design of their games, whereas digital games are much more “locked down” in comparison. However, digital game alteration practices are, similarly, variations on an initial published form, and can still be shared and may even manifest in unexpected ways.

For example, Pokémon Sword and Shield hacks and mods are often so convincing that they slip past Game Freak’s cheat protection — meaning that many unauthorized Pokémon have been showing up in online matches and trades, rather than just local instances of the game. Thus, players who have no knowledge of these fan activities may find themselves fighting against, or in possession of, Pokémon that technically do not fit into the current canon of Sword and Shield.

Pokémon Sword and Shield is an interesting case study, but for the remainder of this presentation, I’d like to explore other hacking and modding projects that negotiate authenticity and canon through the alteration of game code. The focus of my analysis will be on two popular game alteration projects — Super Smash Bros Project M and EarthBound Uncut. The former example leans heavily into mechanical (gameplay) changes, while the latter is more focused upon aesthetic (textual) changes.

Project M

Project M is a modification of the 2008 fighting game Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Nintendo Wii — the third entry in the popular Super Smash Bros. franchise. Upon Brawl’s release, members of the game’s competitive community were critical of how the mechanics of the fighting series had been changed between installments — particularly, its inclusion of chance-based elements, an alleged “floatiness” to its physics, and its slow pace when compared to its predecessor, Super Smash Bros Melee (Iantorno 74). Noting that these changes had made the game less attractive to its competitive community, a group of modders began to alter Brawl to better match the gameplay and mechanics of Melee

an archived version of the Project M website

Originating as a small restorative hack for a single character from the game, Project M’s scope quickly expanded to address a number of elements that had been introduced in Brawl which were viewed as corrupting to the core essence of the series. In addition to reversing intentional design decisions by Nintendo related to game physics, the modders also restored glitches and exploits that had been deemed integral to competitive play. The end result was a version of Super Smash Bros. Brawl that played more like its predecessor Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Project M can be viewed as a negotiation of technical canon as well as a rejection of developer ideals by fans. Project M hackers claimed that certain game mechanics had become so important to the franchise’s competitive scene that they needed to be preserved, and pushed back against updates that reduced the speed and complexity of the title. Some of the development team members I spoke with during my research claimed that Project M helped fill a void for players who felt let down by the direction in which Nintendo had taken the franchise, and the mod’s popularity is reflective of that. The final iteration was downloaded over 60,000 times, and Project M was (and sometimes still is) featured at many big Smash Bros tournaments, despite its unofficial status.

Whiteman would perhaps describe such activities as a negotiation of authenticity by fans that “privilege[s] nostalgia, in terms of a desire or longing for a return to an idealized state” (33). By carefully articulating what aspects of the game were necessary to maintain an idealized form of play — using previous entries in the series as a guiding meta-text — Project M modders made a judgement call on what aspects of Smash Bros. gameplay should be canon.

EarthBound Uncut

I’d like to turn toward another videogame hacking project that takes a different approach: EarthBound Uncut. A hack of the cult-classic 1994 role-playing game EarthBound for the Super NES, EarthBound Uncut is one of many fan projects that claims to deliver a more “authentic” version of EarthBound by, allegedly, reversing textual and graphical changes that were made during North American localization.

Localization is the process by which a game is tailored to a regional market, ranging from translation of text to content changes based on audience preferences and national policies. While it was very difficult for fans to keep track of these types of changes in the early days of videogame consoles, the emergence of an accessible web in the nineties and early 2000s made it possible for North American fans to gain access to Japanese ROM images and industry paratexts, and form fan communities to consolidate resources. With these new resources in hand, many fans were upset to learn that their favourite titles had been tweaked on their trip across the Pacific.

a screenshot from the game EarthBound Uncut

What changes were EarthBound Uncut hackers interested in addressing specifically? Some examples include:

  • The uncensoring of content that Nintendo restricted in North American releases (such as nudity, drugs, and religious references);
  • The tweaking of the game’s script to better match what was present in the Japanese original (as English fonts and text can take up more space than other languages, scripts are often cut down in localization);
  • The inclusion of copyrighted images and sounds that would have posed a problem in an official North American release (such as EarthBound’s tributes to the Blues Brothers and the Grateful Dead).

EarthBound Uncut is interesting because of how it deals with various imaginaries. First, fans have cultivated a sort of nostalgic longing for a version of the game that they never played and was never intended to be accessed by a Western audience. Furthermore, although hackers are ostensibly mimicking a real text — the original Japanese release of EarthBound — due to the imperfect nature of information gleaned from online sources, many of these types of restoration hacks are speculative in nature. Clyde Mandelin, a translator and author who has written extensively on the localization of EarthBound and other titles, has commented that EarthBound Uncut was likely based off of incomplete notes that he posted on his blog.

Thus, through the aggregation of various imperfect sources, fans have constructed a meta-text on which they have based their hacking work. While determining how successful such efforts are is a difficult value judgement, it is interesting to look at how such projects crystallize community ideals and interests. For example, some of the most prominent changes in “uncut” hacks involve reinstating so-called “graphic” content into games — pointing to a fascination with the dissonance between censorship practices in Japan and North America.

Conclusion

To close things out, I thought I’d bring forth an interesting facet of these discussions. One of things that I’ve touched on throughout this presentation are the locations where these fan negotiations of authenticity and canon can manifest — such as shared ROMhacks and online fan communities, for example — and I think it is interesting to contemplate how these ideas have appeared in consumer contexts.

a selection of Ebay images featuring EarthBound uncut

EarthBound Uncut, for example, is one of many videogame hacks that has been transformed into an unauthorized reproduction cartridge — complete with box art and instruction manual. Reproductions are essentially gray market versions of classic game cartridges, ranging from copies of existing titles to unofficial translations, homebrews, and fan hacks. Specialist game stores, such as A&C games in Toronto, use a variety of words to describe such products: “authentic,” “not a reproduction,” “real” not “fake,” and “homebrew.” All this points toward an idea of authenticity that not only holds value in fan communities, but can be leveraged as an indicator of monetary value, even when its claims are dubious and its very existence potentially illicit.

This is a manifestation of how fan-constructed notions of authenticity and canon can “travel,” oftentimes in unintended or unauthorized ways, and is an interesting avenue for future research. Thank you for your time, and I’m looking forward to your questions!

Works Cited

Alberto, Maria K. “Creating Canons in D&D.” Fan Studies Network North America Conference, 24-26 Oct 2019, DePaul University, Chicago, IL. Conference Presentation.

Boym, S. (2007). Nostalgia and Its Discontents. The Hedgehog Review, Summer, 12.

Iantorno, M. (2017). Sub-Versions: Investigating Videogame Hacking Practices and Subcultures [Master’s]. Concordia University.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, 2006.

Whiteman, N. (2008). Homesick for Silent Hill: Modalities of Nostalgia in Fan Responses. In L. N. Taylor & Z. Whalen (Eds.), Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games (pp. 32–50). Vanderbilt University Press.

Add Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By Michael
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer