Unseen Interviews: Frank Cifaldi from Lost Levels

Unseen Interviews: Frank Cifaldi from Lost Levels

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As you probably already know, the Unseen 64 Staff is not the only group of beta geeks that loves to talk about the cuts and changes in the gaming development: online we can find some other great sites dedicated to the beta-researches. Often these groups of gaming archeologist are hidden under the fame of the traditional gaming websites. It’s not always easy to find places with informations about the lost games, but if we can linking togheter all these resourches, we can have a better look at the beta world. The cooperation between the different websites related to the unseen games can help us to better archive, retain, filter and protect those gaming informations and documents that could be forgotten. With this series of interviews we would like to try to introduce the various beta-websites that exist out there, to know a bit more the staff behind them and their thoughs about the gaming unseen. In this first interview we have interviewed Frank Cifaldi, also know as RedEye, the editor in chief of Lost Levels Online.


Unseen64: Hi RedEye! Thanks a lot for this interview, we know that you probably have better things to do than reply to our questions, but we’ll try to be fast :) Would you like to introduce yourself and your site to our readers?

RedEye: My name is Frank Cifaldi, I’m the creator and Editor-In-Chief of LostLevels.org, a site dedicated to games that never made it to market. I am also the Editorial Manager of GameTap.com, Turner Broadcasting’s games-on-demand service, the former features editor of the Webby award-winning game development and business resource Gamasutra.com, a card-carrying member of the IGDA Game Preservation SIG, and an occasional freelance journalist and game dialogue writer.

Unseen64: When did you decide to open Lost Levels and what is the purpose of the site?

RedEye: Lost Levels started life as a natural extension of TheRedEye.net, a strange site I ran from about 1998 to 2001 or so. I enjoyed discovering unique old games, and one of the ones I discovered and uploaded to the site, Hero Quest, happened to be unreleased. To my delight, the game’s programmer, Chris Shrigley, was delighted to be able to play his game in an emulator and share it with anyone else who might be interested. Based on that, I decided that a site dedicated exclusively to unreleased games might be interesting to a certain section of the classic gaming community, so I got the troops together and launched Lost Levels in the summer of 2003, just in time for the Classic Gaming Expo in my hometown of Las Vegas.

Another reason for creating Lost Levels was because I liked writing about games, and thought it might be a good job. A lot of editors ended up liking the site, it was good resume material


Unseen64: How coordinated is the Lost Levels staff? It’s hard to be the “boss” of the site?

RedEye: I honestly don’t even know how we define “staff” anymore. None of us, myself included, dedicate much time to the website these days. The initial list of “staff” members was a tight-knit group of the friends I made online, both through TheRedEye.net and the message board on my friend Danny’s site, The Sardius Experience, that all shared the same passion for unearthing and preserving video game history. You’ll notice that Lost Levels is heavily skewed toward the Nintendo Entertainment System; this is not necessarily intentional, it just happens to be the system that brought us all together in the first place.

I don’t know if I’d consider being the boss difficult, considering how very little we actually manage to get done. It’s hard leading by example, as I’ve become an extraordinarily lazy person since I started getting paid to write about games. Coming home after 8 hours and doing it for free is not something I want to do very often, and my main staff writers – Danny Cowan and Chris Collette – probably feel similarly, as they’ve both become journalists since the site’s launch. That said, I’m extremely pleased with the amount of activity we get on our forums, which has kept Lost Levels alive well past its shelf life.


Unseen64: Which is your favorite “lost game” and why?

RedEye: My favorite unreleased game would have to be Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors for the SEGA CD. I thought the concept behind Desert Bus was absolutely brilliant when I read about it in an article in EGM way back in the mid-90s, and hadn’t realized the game didn’t come out until recently. Now that it’s on the internet, I’ve seen some amazing stuff, including a nod from Penn Jillette on his podcast, coverage in major print magazines, and a charity run that raised $22,805 for Child’s Play, an organization I support 100%.

Unseen64: Why is it often so hard to find information about lost games?

RedEye: Most publishers can’t officially disclose information about games that they have cancelled or otherwise chosen not to release. These reasons vary from the professional to the legal to the forgetful; people move on, and the remains of the project are buried, lost or worse, destroyed for legal reasons. This is all part of a larger epidemic, what we really need is a funded organization dedicated to preserving video game history. Archives are growing at Stanford and at the University of Texas Center for American History, and I’m starting to see some real headway into preserving history before it’s too late.


Unseen64: Games can be art or at least an important piece of gaming-history, and it’s sad that sometimes we can not have information about their changes or cancellations: how can we convince developers to share their beta stuff, at least after some years from the final game release?

RedEye: I think getting stories and assets safely documented and preserved requires a much larger, sanctioned, organized effort than either of our sites are capable of, something like the ASIFA Animation Archive but for games. I dream of a world where underground efforts like Unseen64 and Lost Levels are no longer necessary. Truthfully, I’d take my site offline and never look back if I became part of a larger, concentrated video game preservation effort (hell, I’ll leave my job behind too if you can keep a roof over my head, anyone listening?).

Unseen64: What are some of your favorite released games?

RedEye: Ten years later, my favorite game is still Grim Fandango, I have never been so completely immersed and in love with a game before or since. The writing was absolutely impeccable, and the art style took me back to my complete adoration for Batman: The Animated Series as a kid. Similar to that, my favorite games are a series of experiences that have never been replicated: Ico was the only game to make me feel true longing and emptiness, the Ouendan series made me understand why people like to dance, Wario Ware made me feel like knowing how to play video games was as much of a cultural institution as knowing the lyrics to Beatles songs, The Secret of Monkey Island was an atom bomb that made me realize that games could be cleverly written pieces of fiction (and singlehandedly revived my interest in them and made me who I am today), and Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures is by far the most overlooked and underappreciated experiment in what an interactive story can be, a statement that I’m sure will sound just as crazy when I’m saying it on my deathbed.

Other games I like that I’m not as poetic about (aka, I just think they’re cool): Deus Ex, the Grand Theft Auto series, the first Katamari Damacy (once was enough, sorry Konami), most of the Lucasarts adventures not mentioned above (Monkey Island 2 and Full Throttle chief among them), Sonic 3 (especially with the add-on), Rock Band (with a group) and Shenmue come to mind at the moment, I’m sure I’m forgetting tons though.


Unseen64: How do you see the “beta culture” that lives in the gaming underground (collectors, beta-nerds, etc)?

RedEye: This is a bit of a loaded and vague question, but I’ll do my best to answer it. I think the “beta culture” is similar to (if not exactly described as, which is the case with me) the person who listens to the commentary track and watches all the bonus features on every DVD that comes through his or her house, even if the movie wasn’t particularly good. I think we’re all completely enamored by the kinds of feelings and experiences video games have given us, and we want to know everything we can about them, how they were made, what strange experiments developers have tried, the absolutely real human drama that happens behind the studio doors, etc. I think humans are naturally curious and voyeuristic creatures, and I think that being interested in information we’re not meant to have is a natural extension of that. I won’t necessarily comment on the tact used by some to get this information, or the strange behavior of those who wish to keep it to themselves, but I think in general we all share this common trait.

Unseen64: We know that the major “traditional” gaming websites are often in competition, but in our opinion beta websites should be different, because they need to search for something that could be lost forever: do you think that they could work together to research the beta stuff, maybe sorting their work in different specific parts (articles, video/screens archive, hack research, etc), or are they destined to be lost in our human egoism?

RedEye: If there is any competition among “beta sites,” it’s news to me! As rare as this information tends to be, multiple sites are an absolute blessing. If there is any kind of friendly competition, it is ultimately an advantage for games preservation in general, as we’re all going to find and expose different stories and assets to the world. Lord knows how very little this scene would accomplish if Lost Levels was the only site that cared about unreleased games, or how much would be lost if the owner of the one singular beta/unreleased site got hit by a bus and his web hosting lapsed.

On a similar note, the one thing that “competition” tends to produce that I absolutely can not tolerate is watermarking unique assets and images. If you’re in this for the web hits and the recognition, your heart is in the wrong place. I’d hate to think that fifty years from now, the only surviving footage from a game that people consider historically important is overshadowed by an advertisement for a website that is no longer relevant. Or, worse, the only surviving playable build of a game has had its code tampered with by someone who had absolutely nothing to do with its development. If anyone who partakes in these sorts of practices is reading this, I urge you to please get over yourself, and if you’re unable to do that, please find a hobby that doesn’t involve destroying history.


Unseen64: Did you ever receive any beta information that could not be shared with the public?

RedEye: I suppose I have, yes. I have a lot of friends in the industry, and I just live under the assumption that any casual conversation about game development is considered off-the-record. I’m not holding on to any kind of earth-shattering information that many people would care about, and I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember.

Unseen64: Your favorite food?

RedEye: Good sushi, big bottle of sake, and whatever beer is on draft. Especially if it’s in one of those fancy places with mood lighting and fish tanks, and I’m with the right company.

Unseen64: What do you think about U64. Be honest :)

RedEye: I think U64 is doing the world a service by capturing and hosting information that might otherwise be lost forever. It is not (and neither is Lost Levels) the ultimate, organized, academic effort that I dream about, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. You guys have much more energy than I do, and I’m incredibly thankful for it.

Unseen64: That was the last question, thanks a lot for your time! :) Do you want to add something about beta stuff?

RedEye: I can’t think of much else to say, but I’m completely open to further questions if you have them!

Unseen64: Naa, we have bothered you enough  for today ;)


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