Meet the Guy Preserving the New History of PC Games, One Linux Port at a Time

Ethan Lee has been keeping your favorite indie games running for years by porting them to Linux. Now he wants developers to start thinking about “maintenance” instead of “remasters.”
A screenshot from Thirty Flights of Loving.
Thirty Flights of Loving. Image: Blendo Games.

Historically, video game preservation efforts usually cover two types of games. The most common are very old or “retro” games from the 16-bit era or earlier, which are trapped on cartridges until they’re liberated via downloadable ROMs. The other are games that rely on a live service, like Enter the Matrix’s now unplugged servers or whatever games you can only get by downloading them via Nintendo’s Wii Shop Channel, which shut down in 2019.

But time keeps marching on and a more recent era of games now needs to be attended to if we still want those games to be accessible: indies from the late aughts to mid twenty-teens. That’s right. Fez, an icon of the era and indie games scene, is now more than a decade old. And while we don’t think of this type of work until we need it, Fez, which most PC players booted on Windows 7 when it first came out, is not going to magically run on your Windows 11 machine today without some maintenance.

The person doing that maintenance, as well as making sure that about 70 of the best known indie games from the same era keep running, is Ethan Lee. He’s not as well known as Fez’s developer Phil Fish, who was also the subject of the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, but this week Lee started publicly marketing the service he’s been quietly providing for over 11 years: maintenance of older games.

Usually, when video game publishers talk about revisiting older games they talk about “remasters,” lavish reproductions that not only make them playable, but update their graphics or make them more modern in some way. Lee chose the word “maintenance” intentionally to describe what he does.

“The way that I've been pitching it is more of like, the boring infrastructure,” he said. “Let's make sure the current build works, whereas a lot of times, people feel like the only way to bring a game into a new generation is to do a big remaster. That’s cool, but wouldn't have been cool if Quake II just continued to work between 1997 and now without all the weird stuff in between? That's sort of why I've been very particular about the word maintenance, because it's a continuous process that starts pretty much from the moment that you ship it.”

As he explains in his pitch to game developers: “the PC catalog alone has grown very large within the last 15 years, and even small independent studios now have an extensive back catalog of titles that players can technically still buy and play today! This does come at a cost, however: The longer a studio exists, the larger their catalog grows, and as a result, the maintenance burden also grows.”

Just a few of the other indie games Lee ported include Super Hexagon, Proteus, Rogue Legacy, Dust: An Elysian Tail, TowerFall Ascension, VVVVVV, Transistor, Wizorb, Mercenary Kings, Hacknet, Shenzhen I/O, and Bastion.

“People think of the PC as this completely invincible platform where once you get a PC version it lives forever,” Lee told me. “And to some extent it certainly lasts longer than other platforms.”

With an Xbox 360 game, Lee explained, the game is available only as long as you have a functioning Xbox 360, unless you create another version of it for another platform. With the PC, people assume that once a game is on Windows, it can live on forever with future versions of Windows.

“In reality, what makes a PC so weird is that there's this big stack of stuff. You have an x86 processor, the current-ish era of like modern graphics processors, and then you have the operating system running on top of that and its various drivers,” Lee said.

A change to any one of those layers can make a game run badly, or not at all. I’ve personally used MS-DOS emulator DOSBox to play PC games from the early 90s, but admit that I also assumed that any PC game I played in the last 15 years will just magically keep working forever. But just last week, a viral video detailed how many PC games from Rockstar Games run poorly or break down entirely because they haven’t been ported properly to newer operating systems. Sometimes, official versions of those games on Steam are actually cracked versions, because the piracy community does a better job of maintaining them than one of the biggest video game publishers in the world.

Lee became the guy to do this work by working with Humble Bundle, a company started in 2010 that sold bundles of mostly indie games and allowed people to donate part of the proceeds to charity. Humble Bundle asked participating PC game developers to also be able to run on macOS and Linux. Lee had some experience with the latter from porting a small game called Waveform to Linux.

“At the time, it was like a small group of us, we were all working together on this giant Excel spreadsheet of 100 games, and I think at the time we were divvying it up. Each one of us had, like, 15 games to support at a time,” Lee said. “It just snowballed into, do this port, then do another port, then do another port and now here we are 11 years later.”

Humble Bundle is not as prominent as it used to be, but Lee has continued to get work through the developers he met during that time, and word of mouth. This week, he publicized his maintenance business to keep getting work, and hopefully get a few more developers to change how they think about preserving their game.

Much like the Humble Bundle days, there’s only one explicit requirement for a game to qualify for his maintenance work: it needs to have a native Linux version available to customers. If developers don’t have one, Lee offers to make one as part of his service. It’s the environment he’s most comfortable developing in, but because Linux is open source, it’s easier to keep Linux versions of games running. Rather than wait and hope for whatever solution Microsoft comes up with to make old games work on newer versions of Windows, the open source community can create its own. It’s also a far more appealing proposition now that Steam has a Linux platform, SteamOS, which has a dedicated device, the Steam Deck.

Sometimes, porting old games requires a bit of detective work. In 2021, for example, Lee was hired to migrate 64-bit support on MacOS for Thirty Flights of Loving, Blendo Games’s short first-person adventure game built on the Quake II engine. The problem was that Thirty Flights of Loving was actually built on a user-made branch of the engine known as KMQuake2, not Id’s official release.

“It was very specific data,” Lee said. “I couldn’t find it anywhere because Thirty Flights of Loving was based on a version that was not public. So I just look at the commit log or whatever, and I email the person you hope for the best. Luckily, because there was that prior relationship [between Blendo Games and the developer], Knightmare, the alias of the person who made KMQuake2, came back to me and said, you know, okay, yeah, here's the build.”

Fifteen years ago, Lee said, the idea that independent games could be so successful was so new, people were not thinking 10 years ahead. Now that he’s been doing it for so long, he has a new way of thinking about it.

“What I always ask people is: how do you think people are going to run your game 50 years from now? And most of them don't have an answer to that,” he said.