Remastered Games and the 'Newer is Better' Problem
Written Monday, July 21, 2014 By John Robertson
In amongst all the talk of cloud streaming, maturing subscription models, virtual reality and social connectivity, one next-gen phenomenon currently stands tallest and most prominently above all others. Despite the lofty, near-Biblical promises designed to convince us that the latest wave of consoles are set to revolutionise video games, that they're somehow going to take everything you knew before and make it look like it was designed by a dog fumbling over a keyboard, it's currently the provocative 're-release' that's dominating the console landscape.
Look at the line-up between now and Christmas. The promised Holy Grails of Destiny, Alien Isolation and Evolve sandwiched between The Last of Us Remastered, Metro Redux, The Walking: Dead Game of the Year Edition, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Diablo 3: Ultimate Evil Edition and PS4/Xbox One editions of Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V PS4/Xbox One.
While the list is substantial (and longer than detailed), the prevalence of the re-release should come as little surprise. The optimistic view of their existence is that they provide another chance for people to experience them; either because they haven't owned the system/s upon which they were originally released, they were busy with other games or they're looking to play them again. The cynical view is that they're cheap to produce, their exalted status makes them a definite sale and it's easy to take advantage of people's willingness to forget their old system/s existed as soon they buy a new one.
Both viewpoints are likely correct depending on perspective; the side you gravitate towards probably dependent on how many of these games you've already played and how eager you are for genuinely new experiences.
It has been suggested that the re-release phenomenon represents a dramatic shift in how we think about games, that we're getting over the caustic mindset of the newest games being automatically the best games. This mindset, incidentally, is one of the most poisonous elements inherent to the technology-obsessed video game industry at large - preventing back-catalogue products achieving the same revered status as examples from film, literature and music.
We tend to think of old games, particularly those that originally appeared on 'legacy' consoles (i.e. pre-PS1 era), as being part of a landscape that no longer exists and has only the most threadbare link to our present. If the re-release approach can solve this issue of transience then more power to it.
Does repackaging The Last of Us, Diablo 3 and GTA V genuinely suggest that we're finally embracing and celebrating older games, though? No, it doesn't. Diablo 3 is a little over two years old, The Last of Us has only just celebrated its one-year anniversary and GTA V is still suckling at Rockstar's teat it's so young. These are not the games of yesterday being re-touched and brought to a new audience, they're the games of today delivered with a sparkly new paint job.
In a sense these releases only serve to strengthen the idea that the bulk of consumers are interested only in the prettiest, newest games. How many people that haven't already played The Last of Us would think about picking up a PS3 copy today? Conversely, how many people would buy the PS4 thanks to the (presumably) improved visuals and its status as a 'new release'?
That's still not the say that such releases are an entirely negative thing (not least because there are people that won't have had access to them in the past, especially given PS4's success in attracting fresh Sony loyalists), but they're most certainly not indicative of a consumer base willing to look to the video gaming past and view it as the equal of the present.
Another school of thought says that the fact such re-releases feature improved visuals means that they're closer to what their developers had always intended them to be. Again, this view only demonstrates further that video games' understanding of 'better' equates to 'more technologically advanced'; that somehow moving closer to photo-realism is the ultimate goal of game design.
The idea that The Last of Us on PS3 should be the equal of the PS4 version would be ridiculous in this context, despite its status as the original (and originally celebrated) proposition.
Could you imagine someone saying that a Charlie Chaplin movie would be 'better' if it was given an HD upgrade, had colour added and voices dubbed over the top? Such movies stand as wonderful examples of the kind of entertainment that characterised their time and place, altering them to fit a new consumer base is akin to erasing (or at least brushing over) their original history.
Similarly, you wouldn't repaint the Mona Lisa simply because a new compound of paint was invented capable of adding a little extra gloss.
When extra care and attention is given to a re-release it can, however, provide a good opportunity for fans of the original to experience a game from a different viewpoint. Metro Redux seems to be a good example for this, 4A Games going the extra step to add new features, redesign whole levels and shake things up with game-changing difficulty alterations.
This care and attention taken to provide something tweaked and different, rather than solely upscaling the visuals, makes Metro Redux interesting as an additional companion piece to the original games - a director's cut as opposed to a remastering, an alternate vision to the original rather than a replacing of it.
For certain is the fact that re-releases are here to stay, the cycle of hardware improvements that dominates the video game ecosystem will make sure of that. What's less certain is the lasting value of the majority of these products beyond the obvious financial gain. While it's nice for new players to have a convenient way to explore pre-existing games that they've not yet played, the idea that older games are somehow immediately superior (worth playing at all, in fact) when they appear on new hardware is a view that undermines video games as a means of expression and creativity.
Furthermore, there's another interesting question surrounding this topic pertinent exclusively to the PlayStation brand and the upcoming PlayStation Now launch. The whole idea of PS Now is to provide access to back-catalogue games, so why release remastered editions at all other than to prove that newer really does equate to 'better'?