The Electronic Media Review, Volume Four: 2015-2016
Unexpected cancellation can strike any time in the software business, forcing developers to re-evaluate their recent projects. This paper examines one such cancelled project, the Sega home video game Sonic X-Treme, in development between 1994 and 1997. After the project’s cancellation, collectors and bootleggers began to trade development materials with members of the Sonic X-Treme production team. Today, former lead designer Christian Senn has emerged at the center of a grey-market, peer-to-peer preservation effort. This paper suggests that such unauthorized preservation efforts can help to produce robust historical records of their era, allowing multiple narratives and collections to be constructed in the process. Using a sociology of knowledge approach to this phenomenon, the paper treats Senn, his collaborators, and the materials themselves as active participants in the ongoing construction of a Sonic X-Treme archive. The Sonic X-Treme project provides a pertinent case study in recovery from data loss, emphasizing that many preservation emergencies are caused by social, legal, and business factors, rather than by physical degradation.
Tracing the history of materials collected in Senn’s current X-Treme Archive, the paper addresses three specific iterations of the material, in terms of their audio/visual formatting and social/historical context. In each case, the materials’ formal characteristics are emphasized over their specific contents. While the collection contents possess obvious value as primary sources in the business history of the video game industry, focusing on their formal and material traits helps to reveal the role that individual actors play determining the legacy of both a project and its developers. Examining the format of image, video, and software contents in multiple Sonic X-Treme collections, file formats become key players in the ongoing production of historical narrative surrounding the unfinished game. In conclusion, the paper notes significant ways in which Sonic X-Treme, far from unique, provides an illustration of processes that can also be found at work in nearly all technological development. For Latour and Woolgar (1979), for example, technical artifacts and the knowledge thereof are constructed over the course of various social operations. Human actors attribute meaning to physical objects in a process of inscription, while the successful stabilization of an object’s form can only take place in a social context that makes it legible. In terms of Sonic X-Treme, each collection of game-related material is the result of an attempt to stabilize social situations in a way that give the game its desired significance.
Latour, B. and S. Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.