Video game remakes and the harm of gazing backwards

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The relationship between video games and new technology has traditionally meant it’s perceived as a forward-facing art form. But has our nostalgia become toxic to innovation?

I can still remember the first time I heard whispers that Square were planning on remaking Final Fantasy VII. This was many years ago, back when the PS3 reigned supreme, and long before remakes and remasters lined the shelves of major retailers.

My excitement was palpable for two reasons. Firstly, I never actually managed to complete the lengthy original, despite enjoying it greatly, and a remake seemed to present the perfect opportunity to correct this minor transgression. Secondly, the technological limitations of the first PlayStation really did hold back the game’s scope and vision.

The pixelated pygmy character designs, while iconic, ultimately worked against player immersion. But at the time there was no realistic alternative; Final Fantasy VII already required four CDs to contain its epic story, and compromises quite simply had to be made. Besides, these shortcomings hardly proved critical considering the esteem the game is still held in today.

Fast-forward roughly 15 years and Final Fantasy VII Remake finally arrived – much later than anticipated, but welcome nonetheless. It was quickly heralded a triumph, receiving plaudits and acclaim that nearly matched the legendary original. We, the people, had finally received what we wanted.

But here’s the thing. While a huge achievement both in terms of technological progress and conceptual realisation, the game’s very existence sparked an uncomfortable question that took up residence in the back of my mind.

What was the cost of this remake? Not the dollar amount, but what had been sacrificed to realise this resurrection?

final fantasy 7 original
Image: Final Fantasy VII / Square Enix

A horde of remakes advances

Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t an outlier. Over the last decade we have seen the number of remasters and remakes multiply exponentially. Titles such as Demon’s Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, Resident Evil 2The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword are just the tip of the iceberg.

Hell, considering how little changes between franchise instalments like FIFA, NBA2K, and Call of Duty, one could argue that they belong in the same category.

These updates prioritise superficial technical upgrades, relying on sparkly new visuals to steal the attention of gamers. The underlying assumption is that old fans will repurchase the game, while a new audience will also be drawn in. And the truth of the matter is that it seems to work.

resident evil 2 remake
Image: Resident Evil 2 (2019) / Capcom

In its first week on the market, the Shadow of the Colossus remake outsold the original by 73 percent. The Resident Evil 2 remake sold 8.1 million copies, eclipsing its precursor by a wide margin and becoming Capcom’s third highest selling game ever. These examples aren’t exceptions to the rule either, they are illustrative of it.

The development costs of these remakes and remasters are generally lesser than starting a new game from scratch too. If you already have an acclaimed game as a blueprint, then it stands to reason that only tweaks are required. Coming up with a new story, something which requires investing in creatives, isn’t necessary either because you already have one that plays.

resident evil 2
Image: Resident Evil 2 / Capcom

But is that a bad thing?

It isn’t difficult to see why studios have continued with this formula: it’s extraordinarily good business. What is somewhat surprising though is how little backlash they have received from consumers and critics.

However, before we can understand why that’s the case, we need to examine if it’s actually a problem.

Let’s get this out of the way then: many of these remakes are undeniably good games. The fact that they also were great games 10 or 20 years ago doesn’t change the fact that they still are today. What is relevant though is the triviality of their existence. These remakes appeal to our sense of nostalgia, but offer little towards the continued growth of the art form.

remakes
Image: Demon’s Souls / Bluepoint Games

It isn’t that remakes are inherently bad or unscrupulous. But the sheer amount of space they now occupy means there is less room for games looking to try something different. Similarly, funding within the industry that could enable an innovative title to be fully realised will often be allocated to a less risky project such as a remake.

The unpleasant truth that lurks behind this wave of remakes is that money is being prioritised over innovation and ambition. And to be clear, if you think of video games as an art form, and not someone’s cash cow, then that is bad news.

demon's souls original
Image: Demon’s Souls / FromSoftware

Art vs. money

It’s tempting to point the finger at AAA studios and blame them for trying to commodify ‘the art’. But the truth of the matter is far more subtle – the studios, the media, and consumers are all part of an interconnected process that has led us to where we are now.

Studios want to create games that people want to play. They didn’t decide remakes were their best bet at making money. Decades of market analysis and feedback, from the media and consumers alike, led them to the conclusion that remakes are what we want.

At this point it’s important to make a distinction between what we want and what we say we want. No one likes a hypocrite, and I will admit I’m currently standing on some pretty thin ice. At the beginning of this article I reflected on the excitement I felt when I heard Final Fantasy VII was getting a remake, and yet here I am condemning the very thing that made me happy.

The crux of this is that not everything that makes us happy is good for us, or indeed the ecosystem that we are a part of. Feeding your firstborn a tub of ice cream each night might bring joy to them (and you), but both parties are gonna pay for it further down the line.

An obvious allegory exists between the current state of the environment and our desire for more shit, but for the sake of brevity let’s keep things moving.

remaster
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

Too much of a good thing

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing to indulge in, despite the obvious comfort that it brings. It dulls our desire to seek out new experiences by suggesting nothing will ever be as good as it was. In the context of the video game industry, it’s difficult to not see the parallel between this and remakes.

By buying a remake you are essentially buying into the past. You are voting, in this case with your money, that you believe that which already existed is more worthwhile than something new.

It’s like buying the album of a dead musician. That artist no longer needs your support, they have since moved on, and what remains in their stead is a hungry beast that barely understands the meaning of the word ‘exploitation’. They barely understand it, because to do so would be to jeopardise that which they prioritise.

super mario original
Image: Super Mario Bros. / Nintendo

Now I’ll admit that I might be being a little overdramatic. I’m not suggesting we cancel all remakes and remasters and insist on only playing video games that pass some arbitrary test of artistic merit. But I am asking that we all think about the consequences of where we choose to spend our money, because as consumers, that is where our power lies.

If you value creativity and innovation in video games, then make sure to go out of your way to support these kinds of games. Otherwise, quite simply, they won’t continue being made.

Imagine a world where the creatives behind Super Mario decided they should focus their energy on remaking Tetris, but this time with even more colours or some other boring shit. That world might well be the world we are living in right now, we just don’t know it yet.

Because that’s tragedy of art that doesn’t get made – you don’t know what you are missing out on and you never will. It could have changed your life. Whereas a remake, well… you kind of know how that one goes, right?

Written by Alastair Cairns

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