Remasters and their subsequent demand from the gaming community are becoming a bit of a beast. Bringing back experiences from the past by applying a new veneer based on modern needs has become a bit of a problem really, and it’s causing a distortion in the market of products available to gamers. It’s also changing what gamers expect from developers and what developers expect from gamers and the relationship is leaning the entire industry towards a stagnation, even while upstart and indie devs are furiously pushing out fresh titles. What are the consequences of a remaster culture and where does it come from? For video games to move forward as an art form and as an industry, these are questions that must be addressed.
The Same Ol’ Same Ol’
The biggest and most egregious consequence of the proliferation of remasters is they discourage the development of brand new IPs, especially from industry heavy hitters. This slowdown in the amount of new games to learn about and discover adds to the sludge of recycled ideas and names that are backed by recognition and resources and get the most attention. Just a quick visit to any number of news sites and aggregrators shows a rotating short list of topics and news on games we’ve all played for years: Final Fantasy VII, Skyrim, Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy XII, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Resident Evils, Ratchet and Clank, God of War, did I say Final Fantasy?, Devil May Cry, Dark Souls and those are just the ones that are a reality.
When I was young, there was a local buffet nearby called the Carousel Buffet. It was a revolving carousel of food, which consisted of a handful of options. It was a revelation at first, helping ourselves to as much as we could and we loved it. But over time, it wore, as we all stood and watched as the same 5 dishes rotated past us, hoping that when the mashed potatoes came back around, they’d be as golden as the first time we had them. It was a sad scene for everyone involved and the food became as poor as the atmosphere.
This discouragement of risk permeates the industry similarly and trickles down so deeply that these remasters become mega announcements on convention show floors. It’s like being told there’s a big surprise in store for you, you’re brought into a room surrounded by all your friends in a huge party atmosphere and you’re presented with your middle school picture in a nice frame. Everyone screams, they tell you to get hyped and you’re wondering if someone has spiked your drink and holy crap did I can’t believe I wore glasses like that and did my hair that way.
Furthermore, remasters retread the old, so it rarely breaks any new development ground with innovations. It just pretties up dated experiences. The adage of putting lipstick on pig applies here 100%. These games are usually old and by modern standards, are now bad. This is not just visually. They may feature poor controls, outdated conventions related to gameplay or designed around technological principles that were modern once but no longer.
However, even in the case of a game considered a classic, like FFVII, it’s perceived perfection is a function of it maximizing the potential of the development at that period in time. Re-skinning it is anachronistic and awkward, putting the game in a weird uncanny valley. It’s as odd and arresting as asking Paul and Ringo to re-record the White Album using more modern instruments and recording equipment. What would come out the other would be good, but it would not be the masterful experience that changed music and allegedly drove other competing musicians into despair and insanity when it released in 1968.
Overall this is development time and resources wasted that could be better spent exploring new frontiers and technologies with processing and peripheral architecture. This is even more ridiculous when the game being demanded is from the most recent gen. It’s still cooling down from its first pressing and is already on its way to the rigmarole of remastering. Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually feasible and profitable for a company to make one game ever, and just remaster it for re-release every new gen. The thought that this is something even within the realm of possibility is terrifying.
Fool Me Once
Moreover, remasters rip off gamers. You shouldn’t have to buy a non-consumable product twice, providing it hasn’t broken. Sometimes, the marketing powers obfuscate this production and give the game a slight rename, not only adding to confusing but exacerbating the psychological problem of excess of choice. Appending Mega Redux Ultra Definitive Version and other ridiculous suffixes is A. Confusing and B. Infuriating. I can’t look at that title and determine if it’s even a game. Once you do surmise that this is the same game you spent sunrise to sundown playing while eating Cheetos and drinking soda, you’re faced with a decision. Should I spend my hard earned money that’s possibly tied up in bills and needs on a game that 20 years ago, I already purchased with my hard earned part time job money that was earmarked to wine (soda) and dine (burgers) a high school flame at a local diner? Having something drive a wedge between you and a choice once is unfortunate. Twice is masochism. Having it separated by decades is something new altogether and it’s nothing nice.
Games are expensive. Yes, they provide value. But, they’re expensive. My first car was an 89 Corolla and it’s probably still running. I’m just really not in the market for an 89 Corolla right now, even if it had a new paint job, all the dents were fixed and the engine was cleaned up. I have new needs and I’m certainly not interested in something that was suitable in the past, especially at full price, and especially when I can typically reacquire the original, used, and for a fraction of the cost.
Even reboots and sequels are a better alternative because they are freshly developed experiences that can often take the genre forward. Not all sequels are bad, and some can even be better than their progenitors. Reboots, similarly still exist in the modern development architecture. Crash Bandicoot is a perfect representation of the problem. While there is something to be said for the nostalgia of keeping the experience in the past, a reboot of the franchise could transport the character into an adventure setting that takes advantage of modern hardware, providing a completely brand new experience. However, it’s a remaster we’re getting. It will look nicer, but it will be familiar and uninspiring. They run the further risk of ironically alienating fans by attempting innovation within the remaster, which is a terrible position for a developer to be in.
How Did We Get Here?
But why are these such risk free moves? Why is so much attention and so many resources poured into these experiences? It’s because of us, the gamers who demand these remasters. This is our fault and our appetites will have to change for the industry to move forward. There isn’t even anything inherently wrong with the nostalgia. I love connecting my NES and playing Mario Brothers and Captain Skyhawk and the incredible demand for the NES classic is a testament to that.
The issue is we want our childhoods back but we don’t want to boot up the old console or load the backwards compatible old version. It’s a twofold combination of laziness and hedonism. First, we want things to be easy and don’t want to have to manage a bevy of old consoles and chords. The console makers are partially responsible in this case, as their inability to create consitent backwards compatability creates a hoarding issue. This is probably the only unique situation where I can concede the point a tad, especially if you don’t own the old console anymore. Still I’d gather you could get lucky and buy a used console and the original game for about the same price or close. Just a quick shopping search of the Playstation One shows that for $60, I can get the console, controllers, and a few games. It’s ultimately the better value as you have an entire new platform to explore on the cheap.
However, the desire to be scintillated constantly is an increasingly common byproduct of the digital era, where enhanced visual experiences are the rule. This results in a general distaste for anything low res or outdated looking. Graphics, graphics, graphics. The pursuit of which is fine as I love the photorealistic experiences of Uncharted 4 as much as anyone, but if it comes with an inability to appreciate the past as it is, it can result in a troubling bit of revisionism. Yes there are new generations who did not experience the game in its prime, but these are opportunities to cultivate an appreciation for the effects of time on art. Modern visual art takes advantage of tremendous new technologies, working with new tools, materials and other tech advances like we see in Jeff Koons’ work. We know the renaissance painters did not have access to this and couldn’t possibly create an impeccable stainless steel balloon animal, but that does not mean both the young and old can’t appreciate the work of Da Vinci in its original state, and in fact be inspired by it.
We wouldn’t ask our aging loved ones to get a remaster and although games are not people, the fondness and memories attached to them can be just as powerful a prompt of a time or place we’ve been in life. Personally, I’d prefer to remember them as they were, because that is when they were at their most meaningful. It does no one justice to re-purpose our old memories for today’s desires and instead just encourages us to forget the value of the past and the potential of the future.