The rise of remakes and remasters has been something that has intrigued me for the past few years. It was partly responsible for the shift in direction of my research. The main question being,
why is a medium that traditionally has been so enamoured by the next best thing in technology is now looking towards its past for inspiration?
This has presented itself within the medium and wider industry in different ways, but regardless of indie, AA, and AAA, the spectre of the past is ever-present.
Last week saw another instance of this during Sony’s PlayStation Showcase 2021. A show that could have easily slotted into this year’s virtual E3 event alongside Microsoft, Nintendo, and other publishers, yet was seemingly “delayed” so as not to share the spotlight. This decision is understandable, and with a system that is still incredibly difficult to obtain it made sense for Sony to not feel the need to hype up software when the hardware supply isn’t there to match.
In the couple of months since E3 the hardware situation hasn’t improved much, but with the Christmas period (and the first anniversary) coming there is still the need for Sony to provide justification for the PS5’s existence.
Typically consoles would focus on newness to help justify the existence of a new system. The PS4, especially the base model, was showing its age, but so far the new consoles (the Xbox Series’ included) main argument is better versions of last generation games. Before I get into the PlayStation Showcase, consider the recent release of Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut or the imminent release of Death Stranding Director’s Cut; there is a theme here. Both are PS4 games released fairly late in the system’s lifespan. Yet both PS4 versions also ran better on PS5, why the need for a PS5 rerelease? The short answer would be money but also about power and control.
Nathan Brown in his Hit Points newsletter provides a good explanation of the recent moves by Sony in this area which I’ve linked below.
This is a very different approach to Microsoft under its “Smart Delivery” system, which can be surmised as buy once play the relevant version on whatever system you’re using. This upends the approach used by platform owners for generations. How many times have you purchased a rerelease/remaster of a Nintendo game? I’m certainly at fault having purchased multiple Legend of Zelda games more than once and will continue to do so. Microsoft meanwhile is content with players paying once with the expectation that those same players will stick around in the Xbox ecosystem. The carrot approach perhaps?
Meanwhile, Sony wants full control of their ecosystem and could be argued to see console generations as a way of maintaining that control. Doesn’t matter whether a player owns a physical or digital version of a videogame, Sony decides which version a player is entitled to. If a player wants the “best” experience, they need to pay up.
With this in mind, it helps us understand the motivation as to why Sony are seemingly so keen on remasters and remakes. If players don’t have true access to their past catalogue, Sony can sell it to them again. Can Sony be blamed though if consumers keep buying these videogames? Maybe not, but those with an Xbox Series X (and to a lesser extent Series S) do have that choice or at least more of a choice.
This brings us to the “Showcase”, where Sony kicked things off with a teaser trailer for Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic Remake. A timed PS5 console exclusive and PC release. The series has never appeared on a Sony platform, so it is good to see PlayStation owners get the opportunity to play the classic RPG, but considering this is a series that (despite also being on PC) is known for its presence on the original Xbox you might understand why some people are displeased by this announcement. Then again, and this is where the difference in strategy becomes apparent, Xbox owners (on any Xbox) can play the original right now. If you have the original disc then you can play it on all but the One S Digital Edition and the Series S and even then you can still download it from the Microsoft store. Would it be nice to have updated textures and presumably modernised UI and menus? Sure, but the original is regarded as one of the best RPGs (and Star Wars videogame) of all time, and you don’t have to wait for an unspecified date or pay £70. Plus, that’s assuming the remake will actually be good. This is not to discredit Aspyr who are remaking the game, they have done an excellent job remastering other Star Wars videogames, including KOTOR, but this is the first instance in a long time where they are creating something more extensive, even if it isn’t completely from scratch.
Aspyr still has a very difficult task, what do you keep the same and what do you change? Then there is the issue how do you keep fans of the original happy? Not all fans will want the same thing, some will want it to be the same but with more polish, others will want it to seem new but recognisable. Although there are also considerations to be made for those who have not played the original and are coming to it fresh. This is a balancing act that is very difficult to manage and I do not envy Aspyr. These are the difficulties you don’t quite get with “new” videogames.
I have focused on Aspyr’s situation (and KOTOR) more than I anticipated but for me, it does illustrate the direction that Sony seems to be going in. This is further evidenced by one of Sony’s other announcements revealing the Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection for PS5 and PC. This contains remasters of the PS4 games Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Putting aside the PC port aspect, both of these PS4 games already work on a PS5. It’s not clear what these newly remastered versions actually do differently? Like my remark for Death Stranded and Ghosts of Tsushima, these videogames could be patched to run even better than they already do on the more powerful hardware. It is unlikely, and Sony hasn’t said otherwise, that these remasters will receive any additional features, so aside from money, there seems little reason to repackage these videogames in such a way.
There were other videogames shown at the PlayStation Showcase, many new, but there was a sense of playing it safe. With these remakes and remasters in particular though, it gives off a signal (regardless of intent) that Sony is looking to the past for solutions to its unsteady future. By that, I don’t mean that the PS5 is doomed, but rather that in terms of the big-budget blockbuster videogames that Sony is shifting towards the path forward is long, costly, and not as clear as they would like. Therefore it does make sense for Sony to focus on the safety of remasters and remakes to keep PS5 owners satiated whilst they occasionally dole out a big release like God of War: Ragnarok or Spider-Man 2.
However, this also signifies a wider problem that exists within the videogames industry, especially from the AAA publishers and console manufactures. New IPs are considered too risky and new interpretations of existing franchises can also be a gamble. Given the composition of the larger studios, creative innovation is difficult to foster, let alone execute. Even if from a technical side videogames are bigger than they’ve even been with highly detailed models. What exists behind this might not actually be all that different.
This is the dilemma the console manufacturers and larger publishers are facing. Resulting in an increasing inability to imagine a future videogame form, if not the ability to create something truly new. So for now, the efficient option is to remake the past.
It was indeed a two week (and one day) gap. The start of a new academic year is as hectic as expected. I had another idea for this issue, which would have directly followed on from last time. But it is something I want to explore a little more first before publishing it here. In the meantime, the PlayStation Showcase and some of the reactions to it caught my interest. Kyle Bosman’s latest video (a bonus aside to his series Delayed Input) in which he considered whether Sony was playing it safe or rather not taking enough risks was probably the main motivation for this issue, even if I went in a different direction. This was a longer issue than planned and hopefully doesn’t come off as me being too anti-Sony.
See you again in a week or two.
What I’ve been reading/watching online
Aside from the links already directly included in this issue and Nathan Brown’s excellent newsletter Hit Points I’ve actually used my spare time to catch up on some YouTube videogame essays. In particular the underrated Writing on Games channel by Hamish Black. I somehow never got round to watching the updated version of his examination of Her Story a fascinating piece of research around this unique detective experience.
Also want to mention his two-part re-examination of MGSV: The Phantom Pain. Like me, Hamish thought MGSV was a phenomenal videogame at launch, but as you begin to think back, the cracks in both gameplay structure and the narrative begin to become very apparent.
Hope you enjoyed this extended piece from me for this issue, speak to you next time in the following issue. Remember to subscribe for future updates and share with those who might also be interested.