Looking Back to Move Forward
Remaking classic games for new hardware isn't a sign of creative drought; it's a much-needed dose of commercial and cultural respect for our medium's history
One of the most notable aspects of the software line-ups for the PS4 and Xbox One thus far is the extent to which they're populated with remakes of games from previous console generations. The PS4 version of The Last Of Us did extremely well in the charts last week, and will be joined relatively soon by a next-gen update of GTAV, probably one of Sleeping Dogs, a box-set of Halo games, a remake of the original Resident Evil... Even ignoring the swathe of titles designed to span this generation and the previous one (from launch window titles like Tomb Raider and Assassin's Creed: Black Flag through to the likes of Destiny), the sheer volume of remakes turning up on the new hardware is pretty much unprecedented.
Understandably, this trend has been met with scepticism from many quarters. Just as the nigh-on inevitable diminishing returns of endless sequels is viewed as a symptom of creative drought, the rising tide of remakes is seen as further evidence that publishers would rather milk their existing franchises bone-dry rather than focusing resources on new IP and more creatively interesting, commercially risky ventures. Indeed, for many commentators, remakes are even worse than unending sequels; at least sequels are new games to some extent, and some companies even innovate hugely within their existing franchises (Nintendo's treatment of Mario as a convenient standard-bearer for otherwise enormously innovative games being a good case in point). Remakes, regardless of the effort that goes into them, aren't innovating or creating anything new; they truly are recycling past glories.
While I can understand this scepticism, I do not share it. On the contrary; I think that the enthusiasm for updating and relaunching past classics on newer hardware is an extremely positive trend. Not only does it make commercial sense, it is also creatively and culturally something which stands to yield profound benefits for the industry. I'd even go so far as to say that it's a necessary and beneficial step in the evolution of the medium as a whole.
"I think that the enthusiasm for updating and relaunching past classics on newer hardware is an extremely positive trend"
Let me address the commercial side of this first, since this is undoubtedly the aspect that publishers themselves are most concerned with (the creative and cultural aspects being unintended albeit welcome benefits). The games industry is almost uniquely hobbled by comparison with other creative industries (film, TV, music, books etc.) in terms of how it receives its long-term revenue. In most creative sectors, publishers and indeed creators make a significant portion of their revenue not from new releases but from long-tail revenues generated by creative works first launched decades ago. This effect often goes too far; the completely inexcusable extension of copyright terms, especially in the USA, has been designed to protect long-tail revenues on works whose creators are long-dead and whose continued protected status constitutes a chilling effect, rather than a stimulus, for future creativity, thus utterly perverting the entire justification for copyright. In general, though, the effect is positive; it provides publishers and creators with solid, reliable income streams from past hits, giving them a baseline of financial security which, in theory, allows them to be more experimental and creative with new works. It doesn't always work like that, of course, but when it does the results can be spectacular; there are a great many bands and authors, for example, whose later works have been allowed to take huge creative risks thanks to the security offered by revenues from earlier releases.
This is a model which has, by and large, been denied to game publishers. The problems are primarily technological; for the most part, it's quite hard to access the hardware required to play older software, for a start. This aspect is challenging but not insurmountable - of late it's mostly been solved through emulation, in the form of anything from Nintendo's Virtual Console through to PSone classics on Sony's systems or relatively untouched digital re-releases of older games on Xbox Live or iOS. This only gives us a clearer view of the second major problem, though. While some older games remain pretty much perfectly playable thanks to their simplicity, others are much, much more challenging to access as a direct result of their technological outdatedness. A book, a music recording or even a film from the 1960s remains perfectly accessible today - its style may be dated but little else has changed. A game made as recently as the late 1990s, though, can be entirely unplayable today - a consequence of both advancing technology (larger, sharper TVs do no favours to older games, and can render them extremely difficult to play and enjoy) and changing perceptions.
"even games which we truly enjoyed 15 or 20 years ago can seem awful to us now"
One can watch the gloriously smooth, high-tech special effects of The Avengers and still enjoy the miniature effects in the original Star Wars, but it's a lot harder to play games with reasonably modern graphics (particularly with regard to frame rates and visibility, rather than actual visual quality) and controls, and then go back to the crawling frame rates and low-detail, often murky visuals of the past. Oddly, even games which we truly enjoyed 15 or 20 years ago can seem awful to us now; two personal favourites, Silent Hill (PSone) and Starfox (SNES), transpire to be unplayable for me today, even though I devoted countless hours to them in the past without any bother. Expectations move on, just as technology does, and it hurts videogames far more than it hurts any other medium simply because of the complex technical requirements posed by interactivity.
Updating the medium's classic titles to take advantage of more recent hardware is the way to solve this problem. Although the work involved in this is more significant than in other media, where a film or album may be remastered with relative ease, the objective remains the same; the publisher wants its biggest hits to remain on the shelves, continuing to generate revenue and continuing to reinforce the importance and popularity of the franchises which they spawned. IP left unused is practically worthless; only IP which is kept in the public eye, continuing to delight old fans while also attracting the eye of new generations of consumers, has any real value. Putting a game like the original Resident Evil or the original Halo on current generation hardware makes commercial sense from many angles, then; it costs less to develop and incurs less risk than a brand new game project, secures a revenue stream from old (albeit updated) content, and helps to keep the brand in the public eye, thus increasing the value of the IP.
Even if we accept the commercial value of such projects, though, isn't the bigger problem that this represents a paucity of creativity? I disagree; in fact, even if the decisions to remake old games stem from commercial calculations, the end result is that publishers are showing a degree of respect and reverence to the industry's historic classics that deserves to be welcomed. In part, our criticisms of these projects may stem from a misconception of what they involve. We tend to think of these updates as entirely new projects, but this is mistaken; many of them are really not so much "remakes" as "remasters". Nobody complains that the creativity of the movie industry is being sapped by efforts to create beautiful HD versions of old movies by rescanning and touching up old prints of those films - instead, we welcome the ability to enjoy classics in a manner that is not limited by old technology, and are glad that new generations get a chance to experience them without being distracted by the poor display or playback systems of the past.
"We tend to think of these updates as entirely new projects, but this is mistaken; many of them are really not so much "remakes" as "remasters"
We should feel the same about remade games. Certainly, the amount of work going into something like the remake of Resident Evil (actually a remake of a remake, since the GameCube reissue is the source being utilised) is more significant than touching up an old film, but that is to be expected; simply boosting the resolution of old assets is a process whose diminishing returns kick in very early, so it works reasonably well from one generation to the next, but skip a generation and you stop seeing much value. For an older game to work on newer hardware, a more in-depth redevelopment is required, but as long as it remains utterly respectful of the original design and intentions, I think the label "remaster" remains valid. Remakes can have value too, of course; for example, I hugely enjoyed Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, an imaginative remake of the first Silent Hill game, although I'd still dearly love for Konami to create a "remastered" Silent Hill that was true to the original while being playable and enjoyable on newer hardware.
Such remasters are as appealing culturally as they are commercially. Much of the value of a medium lies not in what was released this week, but in its history and back catalogue; indeed, much of the value of what was released this week lies in the context created by that history. If games are to be a serious creative medium (which they are) and an attractive space for imaginative artists to ply their trades (which they also are), then making the medium's classics accessible and playable - not just as exercises in history but as truly enjoyable experiences - is an essential task. When we seek out the history of film, of music or of literature, we are not expected to dig out ancient hardware or significantly downgrade our expectations of enjoyment in order to access them. Gaming classics deserve the same treatment; the ability to access and enjoy a library of remastered classics on contemporary hardware will strengthen, not weaken, the creative culture of our medium.