game history

What Do Video Game Remakes Say?

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the first essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

It catches my attention that a significant portion of the film-watching audience lets out a groan whenever it hears about a classic movie being remade. A number of people will even act like they’ve swallowed puke after one mentions the very idea of a movie remake. This type of reaction goes beyond personal taste. That so many show obvious repulsion speaks to a culture larger than the individual, a culture that holds particular works of art sacred.

Even though video game fans can be among the most rabid fans of anything on this planet, I don’t see as much dismay among gamers when, say, another Resident Evil remake is announced. It’s of course possible that some of us are so jaded about the greed of the game industry that we can’t be bothered to become disgusted by such an announcement — particularly when the announcement comes from Capcom, a company whose output suggests that it can’t grasp the principle of leaving a good game alone. But given the extremely warm reception to remakes like Resident Evil 2 or Final Fantasy VII Remake, a great many players are not cynical about industry trends, much less critical of the notion of tampering with masterworks.

Game remakes often arrive with similar justification. Game consoles have short lives, meaning that countless people may never experience the original versions of all-time significant releases. Companies, or one of their unpaid shills on social media, can simply remark that the industry is broadening the contemporary audience’s exposure to the classics — and updating that which no longer works, that which has aged too much.

Indeed, if historical appreciation were the point, there would be more emphasis on faithful, painstaking restoration of the games in question. The industry and fans, by and large, share a conviction that modern technology and modern design norms can improve games created with older technology and older design norms. Or if you want to get right to the point: modern games are inherently superior. Now you might say, “That is a revolting thing for the industry to push!” Well, not if you ask those who call these remakes brilliant and needed. There’s a big market for remakes of what we might call canonical games. Compared to film lovers, gamers are strangely willing to accept, or even request, remakes of canonical works. The explanation for these contrasting behaviors lies in a simple cultural difference: the gaming world doesn’t revere or respect that which it claims is great. I think about all the years I listened to people say Final Fantasy VII is the greatest RPG of all time, only to see glowing approval in 2020 for the remake of the supposed existing masterpiece. At best, greatness in games amounts to socially reinforced dogma with an expiration date. At worst, it is forgotten or discarded history.

Perhaps there’s something likable about the lack of sacredness in the gaming world, especially if we argue that art and entertainment shouldn’t be a religion. And yet there’s a rigged nature to the promotion of video game remakes, a religious tautology that tells us that today’s productions are better. How are they better? Ask no more:

Smoother polygons.
Smoother controls.
Smoother translations.
Fully animated figures.
Fully orchestrated music.
Fully tested experiences.
More items.
More songs.
More enemies.
More dialogue.
More minigames.
More mechanics.
More characters.
More voice acting.
More sound effects.
More detailed sprites.
Bigger worlds.
Shorter loading times.
Streamlined menus.
Flexible save systems.
Hints.
Maps.
New visual effects.
New settings.
New story.
New engine.
New levels.
New quests.
New game plus.
Redone.
Revamped.
Reworked.
Revived.
Reimagined.
CONTENT.
BE CONTENT.
BE CONTENT WITH CONTENT.

Try arguing with the bullet points above, you no-good consumer morons! That’s what video game remakes are saying to us.

Loaded Questions Vol. 6

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Julio Cesar: What do you think of good art made by bad people? And I’m not talking about little things like not washing your hands before lunch. I’m talking about really bad, awful, and despicable people, like rapists or Nazis. Should we buy their art and support their careers, knowing that their behavior is not the the best? I don’t think piracy is the answer, because if you look at the case of a film director, more than one person is involved in making a film, so piracy is not fair to the whole crew.

If a director is accused of having child pornography, and we buy his films, aren’t we helping him? I’d like to know what you think.

Jed Pressgrove: I can look at these questions as a critic, and I can look at them as an everyday person who lives under a capitalist system.

Here’s what I think as a critic:

You can’t ignore good art by bad people if you want to be a serious critic. It’s quite likely that critics regularly appraise games that involve immoral artists (or artists they would deem immoral), and they just don’t know. And why should they know what all of these artists do in their spare time? Critics are here to interpret and evaluate art. Although I encourage all critics to consider their moral responses to art, a critic’s purpose is not to judge the personal lives of artists.

One rule I follow as a critic is that I don’t tell people to buy anything. It’s marketers’ jobs to tell people to buy stuff. My work is here because of my urge to express myself.

Here’s what I think as an everyday person who lives under a capitalist system:

I can’t tell anyone how they should spend their money because I’m not sure moral consumption exists. You could argue that if you know someone is bad, you shouldn’t buy, experience, or even talk about their work. But what if you don’t know if someone is bad and they actually are bad? Is your ignorance a good enough excuse, especially given that ignorance isn’t an excuse in other cases of moral character?

Your point about movies being made by multiple people raises another question: should you refrain from purchasing a film just because one person is immoral? What if the rest of the crew is a group of great folks? Should the work they’ve contributed to be completely dismissed and avoided? And if the “knowledge” we have is only an accusation (as in your child pornography example), is it right to assume guilt automatically? Or is it better to not buy any art until you have a good idea of where every artist stands morally?

I realize I’m raising even more questions than you did, but the implicit point here is that people must decide for themselves where they draw the line, as we could spend hours raising different questions about this issue. It’s nowhere near as simple as some make it out to be, and no one should feel forced to comply with another’s philosophy.

Having said all of that, I admit some individual cases could be very straightforward: if there’s an independent guitarist you like but you learn that he is a neo-Nazi, no, I wouldn’t recommend buying his new album titled “Kill ‘Em All, For Real” off his website.

Guillermo Tizón: I’m a 22-year-old dude from Spain who has a short history with video games. I didn’t pay attention to games as a serious thing until one or two years ago, and now I want to study them and their history. How should I, a noob, face video-game history to improve my cultural background on the subject? Any tips? Should I follow a specific path? Also, I can deal with games like Super Mario Bros. 3 or the original Legend of Zelda, but there are others, like the first Metroid or Castlevania III, whose language I find really difficult to understand, like I don’t know what I’m doing or if I’m making any progress.

Jed Pressgrove: This is just a thought, but it’s something I want to mention before I answer the main question: I would never call you or anyone else a “noob.” Gamers often use words like “noob,” “casual,” and “hardcore” to divide themselves, but I believe it would be better to forget all of these terms.

There are a lot of ways you can improve your game-history knowledge. I don’t know what systems/platforms you have access to, but the simplest way to study the history is to play as many games as possible. I’ve learned more playing than I have reading. Pick a genre and start as close to the beginning of that genre as possible. If you ever get a chance to visit an arcade, spread the quarters around. And as you play the games, make sure to look up when they were released. If you can can go into games knowing when they came out, that will allow you to recognize a chronology of trends and ideas organically.

There’s also a lot of good material to read and to use as a reference. You might want to check out a publication that focuses on game history. The magazine Retro Gamer is generally a decent read. Retro Gamer features interviews with classic game designers and often dives into particular franchises or genres. You might also want to tap into a community’s knowledge. Various forums, from Twitter to Reddit, can be used as resources.

You raise a good point about certain games being more difficult to parse depending on who you are. In these cases, I’d recommend watching some longplays on YouTube. Sometimes seeing how other people play can help you advance your skill. Worst-case scenario, you can watch someone beat an entire game and take notes.

I’ve only scratched the surface with what you can do. Sometimes the path depends on what type of games you want to learn about. If you’re looking for anything specific, please feel free to contact me, and if I don’t know the answer, I can try to find someone who does.

Jim Bevan: (1) What is your opinion of theory channels? What separates a good channel that offers a serious look at hidden meanings and implications in a piece of fiction from one that just provides speculative clickbait?

(2) What kind of gaming videos do you like to watch? Do you prefer ones that delve into the science behind elements presented in a game (like Lockstin & Gnoggin), those that look at themes and mechanics (Snoman Gaming, EmceeProphIt, Super Bunnyhop), or those that specialize in obscure facts/trivia (like Guru Larry’s Fact Hunt)?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t speak about theory channels because I never watch YouTube for theory. My favorite game theorist is Chris Bateman, who happens to be a writer (here’s his blog). One thing I love about Bateman is that he seeks to include rather than exclude. For example, I had a conversation with him about the definition of “role-playing game,” and he was open to considering the perspective of anyone who might use the term; he didn’t suggest that we should pay a greater amount of attention to the Dungeons & Dragons tradition, even though he recognizes this tradition as a critical piece of RPG history. And while he is a fan of games, Bateman analyzes them as a scientific/philosophical observer. Theorists have to be willing to consider multiple angles for me to take them seriously, so I hold them to a different standard than I do critics, who frequently interpret games from particular and personal angles.

I don’t watch a lot of gaming videos. I watch longplays when I need to verify facts or want to learn about certain games. Years ago, I watched a lot of the Angry Video Game Nerd because he effectively parodies the feelings of many people, including me and my sister, who played NES games while growing up. Every once in a while I’ll watch Cyril Lachel’s videos (Defunct Games) because of the rhythm and tone of his voice.

The “science” in games doesn’t interest me for the most part; breaking down things like that can take the fun and magic out of the art form. Here and there I’ll catch a video that looks at themes and/or mechanics. Chris Franklin is really good at what he does, and I saw a recent video by Amr Al-Aaser that I liked. For trivia, I’d rather check out a magazine like Retro Gamer.

Ryan Aston: Have you ever thought about making a game? If so, what kind of game would it be?

Jed Pressgrove: A few years ago I considered the idea of developing a text-based adventure or tile-based dungeon crawler, but that line of thought didn’t last for long. I’m just not interested in making games, and the last thing I would want is to develop a game and then feel led to write an article titled “Go Easy On Us, Critics: Developing Games Is Super Hard.”