This is a question not isolated to video games. The same question could be applied to films and other media. In terms of films, I think most people would say that remaking films is a bad idea. Just have a look at the Gus Van Sant’s botched remake of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and you’ll see why. Of course, there are positive examples too, like Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface, but these seem very much like the exception rather than the rule.
So what of video game remakes?
Attitudes are generally more positive. Throughout the article, it is worth bearing in mind the relative youthfulness of video games as a medium compared to other artistic media. Have a glance at the recent adulation poured upon the Shadow of the Colossus remake. Or the sheer excitement the announcement of a Final Fantasy VII remake brought. These examples shed light on the industry’s attitude to remakes. Gamers like them. So why this marked difference between games and other mediums? What is it about games that allows them to remade in a positive and meaningful way?
Like I mentioned, games are still young. Many classic games were made on what would now be considered primitive hardware. Remaking games supposedly allows for a clarity of the original developer’s artistic intentions. The hardware limitations of the past no longer apply and so the game should be objectively better. The trouble with films is that technology is not as vital to the artistic process. A film from the 1970s looks much the same as one made today. Yes, there have been many advances in camera, lighting and editing technology but these do not impact films the same way as improved processing capabilities and memory bring to video games. A game from today appears light years ahead of those in the 1970s. So, allowing remakes improves the original game in objective ways. By objective I mean aspects such as texture size and resolution. Higher resolutions are objectively better than lower ones.
What a difference 39 years makes.
Yet, better hardware doesn’t always make for better games. In fact, technological limitations can drive imaginative work arounds which often produce better results than anyone could have hoped. For example, with the original Silent Hill on the PS1, the atmospheric fog which has almost become synonymous with the franchise was a result of draw distance limitations. Often games are designed around these limitations rather than actively striving for the outer limits of imagination.
An example of both of these comes from Team Ico. Specifically, Fumito Ueda. With Ico, Fumito Ueda pushed the PS1 to its limits, so much so that the project was eventually moved to PS2. Not being able to pursue his vision on the PS1 frustrated Ueda to the extent that he considered cancelling the game altogether, before being convinced by the team that the game would be better served on the PS2. His next game, Shadow of the Colossus would be designed with technological limitations in mind, according to Koji Hasegawa, a graphical designer for the game.
Improved technological fidelity is both a curse and a blessing. Yes, it allows for things like clearer image quality and increased frame rates, but often at the cost of imagination. Photorealism is not automatically the objectively best aesthetic by virtue of its closeness to reality. It is stylised visuals and aesthetics that leave a permanent mark on your memory by setting themselves apart from reality, by presenting themselves as artistic endeavours. Look at games like Killer 7 or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and this will become clear. A 1966 interview with legendary film director, Jean Renoir, can tell us much about the relationship between art and technology.
In the interview, Renoir argues that “the arrival of perfect realism has coincided with a perfect decadence”, suggesting that “technical perfection” is essentially the “death of art”. As video games get ever closer to reality, it is worth bearing these considerations in mind. With Shadow of the Colossus, the graphics are improved immensely over the original. But the question we must ask ourselves is this tantamount to the destruction of the original art? Or perhaps the remake is a different game entirely?
Intuition tells us that the answer to that last question is a resounding no. Of course a remake isn’t a different game. Right? Again, consider different mediums. A remake of a film is usually considered to be a different film, unless it is a shot by shot remake by the same director. See Michael Haneke’s Funny Games for an example of this. But we certainly wouldn’t say that Van Sant’s Psycho is the same film as Hitchcock’s. Why not?
The answer lies in subjective interpretation. Directors are artists or, rather, authors under auteur theory, and thus they interpret and represent the same material in different ways. Films are largely a collaborative process, games are even more so. It is difficult to find one driving voice among a large team. Yes, development teams have creative directors and whilst they are responsible for a game’s overall aesthetic they cannot be given full credit for every input into a game.
The film director is in the same position, just to a much lesser extent. Auteurs are generally thought to be responsible for most aspects of a film, provided you accept auteur theory of course, that the director is in fact the author of a film. Games have no such theory. Whole teams are credited with the creation of a game, rather than one individual. There are indeed big names in the industry such as Shigeru Miyamoto, Todd Howard, Hideo Kojima, and Sid Meyer behind certain games. But we do not recognise their achievement in the same way we recognise the achievement of a film director. Comparisons to other media in this regard are pointless. Writing literature or painting a portrait is a solo endeavour and cannot be compared to video game creation. Film as a collaborative process is the closest base for comparison.
Returning to the earlier question: is the Shadow of the Colossus remake destroying the art of the original? This isn’t an easy question to answer. Personally, I would say, no. The artistic vision of the original is not harmed in any way by the remake. The reason is they are two different games. Before even considering things like aesthetics and artistic merit, there are differences in gameplay and basic presentation. Features like new quality of life improvements, a new control scheme and a new user interface already set the remake apart from the original.
Bringing in wider considerations on philosophy of art and more specifically, axiology I argue that the two games are different based on Leibniz’s Law. All it means is that one thing is identical to another if they both possess the same features or characteristics. Evidently, with the remakes this is not the case. Some are radically different than the original. The upcoming (hopefully) Final Fantasy VII remake shows this perfectly. The gameplay has been changed completely from a turn-based RPG to a more active and action focused one.
So, we should consider remakes as different games because they do not possess identical characteristics. It is best to consider them not as entirely different games, in the same way that Gran Turismo is a different game from StarCraft. A remake is simply a different interpretation of the material. However, most remakes are not approached like this within the games industry. Attempts are made to preserve the original vision and intention of the game. Ultimately, this is pointless. There is no point in preserving the original vision. A remake will always be different regardless, due to different team members and different interpretation of the material.
The original vision will always be there, unaltered, thus preserving it in a new format is otiose, it cannot be done. It makes more sense to add your own, fresh interpretation. The fear then, especially among purists, is that these new ideas and interpretations harm the legacy of the original. The recent Secret of Mana remake is a good example. Although, I’m not a fan of the original game, I can understand the frustration of many fans. It appears as a mockery of the original in many people’s eyes. Respect for the original vision is always important, but people should also recognise that the remake has no bearing on the quality of the original game.
To finally answer the question of this article, should video games be remade? Yes. Remakes can offer new ways to experience old favourites or give a reason to replay something. But we should see a remake as separate from the original, as a new interpretation rather than a glorified preservation of the original intent.