Saturday Soapbox: Past Remasters

Are remakes preserving the classics of yesteryear or are they obliterating them?

Games have an incredibly complicated relationship with their past. This is an industry that's fixated with the future, but too often it's one that holds its history at arm's length.

We're embarrassed by what's gone before, it seems, sometimes going as far as to compartmentalize older games under the horribly banal banner of retro gaming, a tag that's as pointless as it's revealing of the disdain we hold for anything that's over five years old.

With indie gaming re-appropriating the aesthetic of the 80s and early 90s, there has at least been a bridge built between now and then; titles like Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV or Brian Provinciano's Retro City Rampage show that there weren't any retro games after all - they were, as they always have been, just games painted with fewer pixels.

But there's a new and worrying trend in how we view our past, and it's one that's potentially more problematic. Remakes and HD remasters, of which this year has seen an unprecedented number, can do more than just distance us from the past - they threaten to trample all over it.

It's a tough position to take, and there's no denying what the recent spate of remakes can offer us. It's hard to argue against the likes of Grezzo's retelling of Ocarina of Time, which brought a tender touch to the aging original and presented a version that, in the here and now, is more playable than the game that spawned it. And it's just as hard to argue against Bluepoint's work on Team Ico's games that lent clarity to Ico's castle, and added further grace in motion to the beasts of Shadow of the Colossus.

Saber Interactive's take on Halo: Combat Evolved is much easier to object to, and its revisionist approach shines a stark light on the problems inherent with all remakes and remasters. Never mind the awkward marriage of the original mechanics with the modern visuals - in Anniversary, the eerie minimalism of the original alien architecture is obscured, painted over in huge, garish strokes. Gone is the muted beauty of Bungie's artwork, and in allowing players to switch back to the 2001 game the pointlessness and clumsiness of this remake is only further exposed.

There's something lost in the retelling, and while it's explicit in Halo Anniversary it's equally true of other, more sensitive remasters. In Ico we lose the warm impressionist world created when a PlayStation 2 works in tandem with a cathode ray monitor, while in Shadow of the Colossus the shuddering frame rate that told you the console was struggling in sympathy to render this giant as much as you were struggling to defeat it is smoothed out of existence.

They were imperfections, yes, but they were blemishes vital to the authentic experience. In removing them, these remasters aren't merely works of restoration or conservation - they're revisionist to a degree that obliterates the original.

Film has an analogous tale, of course, something warned against by one well-known director over twenty years ago. "Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material," he said, "Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with 'fresher faces', or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor's lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new 'original' negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires."

"This would be a great loss to our society," our bearded friend concluded, "Our cultural history must not be rewritten." Those, somewhat shockingly, were the words of George Lucas, speaking at a 1988 congressional hearing about copyright. He had a point, dear George, even if it's one he conveniently forgot in his systematic destruction of the original Star Wars trilogy over recent years.

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Saber's reimagining of Halo brings Bungie's classic in line with modern expectations, but obliterates some of the original appeal in the process.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary - and, to a lesser extent, other recent HD remakes - are guilty of the same sins for which Lucas has been rightly lambasted, presenting works through a modern filter, rewriting the originals rather than acting to preserve them.

But why should we strive to preserve the originals if they're seen as technically inferior? Because, despite the fact that they may be less appealing to the eye, their cultural significance far outweighs that of any subsequent games modelled in their image, and the issue here is much the same as that which blights the original Star Wars trilogy; in years to come, and with the accelerated obsolescence of old hardware, it'll be the remasters by which these classics will be remembered, a tragic fate for an artwork no matter what the medium.

There's a broader problem that's excused the trend in games, and it's one that'll be tough to solve. Games are delicate things, and incredibly tricky to preserve; partly thanks to the frailty of their physical form - chipboards decay, code is lost or erased while display technologies rapidly move on - and partly because, perhaps more so than other medium, a game only truly comes alive in experiencing it. It's only through play that we can appreciate past efforts, their appeal held in our interaction with them and ensuring that they're unsuited to a life behind Perspex.

It's a problem that people are slowly getting to grips with - the importance of the work of Iain Simons and James Newman, co-founders of the National Videogame Archive, cannot be understated - but it's one that's largely ignored by a videogame culture that's geared towards hungry speculation of what the future holds rather than reflection and exploration of what's come before.

It's something we must strive to remedy if we don't want our heritage to crumble to nothing, for our classics to be replaced with smooth-faced replicas. Contrast the disdain dished out towards the recent Blu-ray rereleases of Star Wars with the open arms with which the recent wave of videogame remakes were welcomed - it's disheartening that what's seen as a crime in one medium is hailed in another. To see people so readily embrace shiny new editions in favour of the old sets us on a worrying path, and if we want to keep our history intact we must learn to embrace it, for all of its faults.

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