Video game remakes are too timid in how they actually remake things, from The Last of Us Part I to Dead Space to Resident Evil 4.

It feels like everyone’s going ga-ga over Dead Space. Apparently, there’s a good reason for it; from what I gather, Motive Studio has done a bang-up job of resurrecting the too-long-dormant survival-horror brand. Even knowing that, though — and having loved the series back during its first run — I can barely find a single care to give. I have the same problem with The Last of Us Part I, Demon’s Souls, and Destroy All Humans! These video game remakes are such timid little things.

As much as I detest the argument that “you can still play the originals,” there’s a point to that. Sure, these games offer visual updates and quality-of-life improvements that bring them into line with the expectations of modern players. To me, that’s not enough. It’s not enough to make the USG Ishimura a seamless play space or to give Isaac Clarke a voice. It’s not enough to add hokey little collectibles, a la Shadow of the Colossus or time-consuming sidequests like in Resident Evil 4.

These changes fritter at the edges of what’s possible and in their utter flaccidity leave me unconvinced that there’s any point to picking up these games in their new forms.

Why is that?

Video game remakes are too timid in how they actually remake things, from The Last of Us Part I to Dead Space to Resident Evil 4.

Remakes exist on the same continuum as adaptations and translations. Adaptations move a piece of work from one media format to another. Translations move them from one language to another. And remakes move them from one culture to another. An extreme version of that is the remake of Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven, which saw Akira Kurosawa’s distinctly Japanese tale transformed into an archetypal Western. Likewise, West Side Story remakes Romeo and Juliet as a tale of youth gangs in 1950s New York. Those are both examples of complete transformations powered by the movement of narratives across time and space.

I wrote “culture” just a moment ago with intention. It’s important to keep in mind that culture doesn’t just mean the differences between Sengoku-era Japan and the Wild West of America. It can be as small as people being more likely to wear masks when ill now than they were in 2019. Such smaller ideological shifts also make their way into remakes. In Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story from 2021, Anybodys is a trans man instead of the tomboy of earlier incarnations. Scott Derrickson’s 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still updates the reason for Klaatu’s visit from the Cold War-era concerns of total war to the more recent issue of environmental destruction.

A remake shouldn’t just be viewed as an excuse to make something prettier. However, it’s understandable that, in the video game realm, that absolutely is the driving force behind production. As AAA budgets and time frames balloon, there comes a need for stopgaps to provide a sense of security. Remakes are seen as a convenient way to do so.

Video game remakes are too timid in how they actually remake things, from The Last of Us Part I to Dead Space to Resident Evil 4.

In our recent interview with Ken and Roberta Williams, the duo explained that they chose to remake Colossal Cave because the core design was already in place, so they assumed everything else would be relatively simple. Similarly, Frogwares producer Denys Chebotarov has released a public statement about why the team is remaking Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened that provides a similar sentiment: “By working on a title that has the bulk of its content, scope and narrative all locked in place after just a few weeks, we are giving ourselves a much more predictable and structured development cycle. And stability and predictability is exactly what we need right now while the rest of our days remain so uncertain.”

It makes complete sense. And maybe it’s silly to apply the expectations of one medium to another that has completely different workflows and protocols. And maybe it’s silly to assume that the audience will accept the decision to do so. After all, many fans didn’t seem to take kindly to Final Fantasy VII Remake apparently being aware of its original incarnation. On the other hand, Mafia: Definitive Edition underwent a substantial rewrite to flesh out some side characters, in addition to overhauling every story mission to take advantage of new mechanics or rebalance difficulty.

Either way, I can’t help but wonder what if… What if The Last of Us Part I questioned whether the modern world would actually end because of a pandemic? What if Dead Space were reinterpreted with reference to the rise of indie horror and the post-truth era? What if more video game remakes actually were remakes and not just glorified remasters?

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