The medium of video games slowly establishes itself as an art form in its own right, shedding its “just a game” visage with each Papers Please and each Disco Elysium to be released. And now, we look for ways to preserve and study its history. In this context, remakes and remasters have the privilege to help preserve gaming history, and the responsibility to do it right.
But history exists outside the frame, just as much as within. Without context, there’s little to be discerned about the importance of the Sistine Chapel or Pollocks’ Lavender Mist, for instance. It is, then, just as important to preserve the story of an art piece, as it is to preserve the piece itself.
The first movements to push for preservation are mostly archivist in nature. These efforts are driven by organizations akin to and including actual museums such as the Video Game History Foundation (US), the National Videogame Museum (UK), the Game Preservation Society (JP), and the Retro.hk Gaming Expo (HK).
But even in this first step, there are challenges along the way. Games and hardware from the first generations are, generally speaking, hard to come by. And there are troves of mobile games that vanished after leaving their app stores. Not to mention live service games that are dependent on server-side code. Even if you get them to run, you still can’t recreate the experience of playing MMOs without a massive community to play them with you.
Just as challenging is the mission of the Video Game History Foundation. They focus on video game adjacent items such as magazine publications, press kits, and studio documentation that chronicle the creation and distribution of these games, as well as their reception by the public.
We should note, though, that while these efforts are vital, their purpose is academic. These collections are meant to be studied by professionals and are, therefore, unlikely to have a direct impact on how gamers perceive gaming history.
For example, we all have a zeitgeist-fueled notion of what life in Victorian London must’ve been like. But that notion is often more informed by media consumption than peer-reviewed studies. There’s the history that happened, and then there’s the history we know.
Repackaging old art and selling it as a new product isn’t a practice exclusive to video games. Moviemakers and musicians do it all the time. But when handled carelessly, this process can have long-lasting negative effects. New recordings of old songs can supplant their originals, enabling the whitewashing of rock history, for instance.
And there are cases such as Dawn of the Dead where it’s not so much the original that disappears, but its ideas instead. George A. Romero’s 1978 original was a vehicle for arguments that questioned religion, wars, racism, and rampant consumerism. Zack Snyder’s remake replaces these messages in favor of a more… aesthetically driven, action experience that seems to be at odds with the values of the original.
If the remake is the only version that you know then, at least for you, Romero’s ideals aren’t canon in Dawn of the Dead.
Most people are unlikely to go looking for a decades-old movie that inspired the newest blockbuster or Netflix featured film. They’re even less likely to research the historical context, whereas remakes carry the benefit of being watched contemporaneously. The context of the remake is our own lives.
When it comes to video games, there’s an even steeper entry barrier preventing us from reaching into the past. Playing through a twenty hours long video game is much more demanding than, let’s say, sitting through a ninety-minute-long old movie. And you won’t just have to grapple with outdated graphics, you’ll have to deal with outdated mechanics too.
These challenges may not be worth any given player’s time, making history that much more likely to be lost. This makes, in turn, the responsibility of video game remakes and remasters that much greater as well.
As a current (and ongoing) example, Final Fantasy VII Remake treads a very fine line between remake and reboot. “Its ending diverges pretty sharply from the original story — not only changing the game’s canon but turning the existence of canon into a plot point,” as explained by The Verge’s staff in their discussion of this topic.
The episodic nature of the Remake makes it hard to tell how extensive the changes will be, but the first episode paves the way for a drastic revision of the storyline. It can be argued that both projects share key artists, such as writer Kazushige Nojima, that would protect the artistic integrity of the source material. But that won’t always be the case.
And that’s not to say they shouldn’t make changes. But at what point do you change a story so much its meaning gets lost in translation between past and present tenses?
Gamers should expect and demand studios to be responsible for the privilege they’re given to retell classic stories. Ideally through remakes that are faithful to the core messages of their predecessors. Or, at the very least, by providing the necessary context for understanding what those were.
Yet other changes may be related to design instead of narrative. FFVII Remake traded turn-based combat for a modern Action RPG style, for instance. But it also provides a Classic Mode that is closer to the original combat system, which is a good way to let newcomers experience the game as it was originally intended. And though the combat system wasn’t integral to the original FFVII experience — symbolic? Yes. Integral? No — alterations to gameplay can still have unwelcome consequences.
For example, remaking Alien Isolation with a 3rd person camera would affect how claustrophobic the game is meant to be, which is the reason they chose 1st person instead. Even something seemingly as trivial as fog can have a great impact, as demonstrated by the Silent Hill HD Collection. Screenshots of the HD remaster prompted Masahiro Ito, art director of the original trilogy, to surmise his disapproval with a succinct “OMG!!!”
And the next chapter of this discussion might be the imminent release of Demon’s Souls Remake, by Bluepoint Games. An example that should provide a somewhat unique case study.
The original Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, collectively known as soulsborne, have a long-standing tradition of “lore hunting.” Soulsborne games never tell their whole story, leaving players to hunt for clues and piece together these games’ narrative on their own. The problem, then, this Remake might create, comes from changing what seems like inconsequential details but that can, ultimately, change the original story. Or rather, change the story as it’s perceived by players.
Adding chains and pustules to the Vanguard boss, adding new items (with new lore-infused descriptions), and even possibly recreating an entire area that had been previously cut; all these changes have the ability to alter the lore of the game. Many players spend years trying to figure out soulsborne lore and if Bluepoint isn’t careful, they might end up disrespecting a community of dedicated gamers, while also modifying one of the core aspects of the game. One that’s helped keep its memory alive for years on end.
Guernica is one of Picasso’s most famous works. With context, the mural depicts the bombing of the town of Guernica by the Luftwaffe and the Aviazone Legionaria, amidst the Spanish Civil War. Without context, it depicts a dead soldier, four women, a bird, a horse, and a bull. The painting didn’t change but the context, or lack thereof, changed its meaning.
Likewise, Far Cry 5 can either reflect the fear of living in a politically divided US, or it can reflect hillbillies on drugs led by a televangelist. Whether you play a game on release or twenty years down the line will affect your perception of it, based on your knowledge of what cultural and historical circumstances may have influenced its creation.
For publishers, remakes present the opportunity of a quick cash grab. For gamers, they present the opportunity to rekindle that knowledge. One possibility would be making it a best practice to, whenever possible, add an interview with some of the original developers. Just one of the many steps that could help remakes fulfill their responsibility toward preserving gaming history.
There is another aspect to historical context, though, that might prove harder to address: the experience of playing something that was once groundbreaking, but is now just par for the course. Resident Evil 4’s popularization of the over-the-shoulder camera and Dead Space’s genre-redefining, horror-drenched experiences can’t be replicated by playing a remake. No matter how good that remake may be.
In the end, this matter comes down to how much we, gamers, care about the legacy of our classics. And to how much we’re willing to demand from the companies that own them. The power to reshape culture may be too great to always wield properly, but we should at least ask them to be responsible with it.