There has been a lot of gaming news today (a lot). One of the bigger pieces of news is that Resident Evil 4 is getting the remake treatment, and that it will release next year.
I have a big problem with this.
Resident Evil 4 didn’t need to be remade. That has nothing to do with the quality of the game – it is one of the finest horror/action games of all time – but I see no creative mandate for why a remake is necessary. The previous two Resident Evil remakes – 2 and 3 – were justifiable. In both cases, the games had reached the point where a modern audience would struggle to play them. Both games have challenging control systems that were a product of their time and, even for experienced players, need some adjusting to once you’re used to modern games. Fixed camera angles were considered to be incredibly atmospheric and cinematic at the time, but don’t have the same impact today. The way inventory systems and level design work has all been modernised substantially.
But Resident Evil 4 remains incredibly playable and “modern” to this day. It’s available on just about every modern platform, so download it and see if you have any difficulty playing it. I doubt you will. Most modern action games play like it. Consequently, anything that the developers do to Resident Evil 4 is going to be superfluous. The reality is that the base game doesn’t need to be touched.
I believe there are four reasons that validate a game remake:
1) You want to subvert the base game. This is what Final Fantasy VII Remake and Final Fantasy Origin: Stranger of Paradise did. They took the base game and challenged its core theme and concept as a way of looking critically at the base text. These games are almost a “response” than a “remake”, and it’s a well-established approach to metatextuality in other art forms (particularly literature), which makes it a worthy creative approach.
2) You want to completely change the game. If you remake a SNES pixel art game and give it 3D graphics, or take the early primitive graphics of a PlayStation 1 game and make those messy blocks of polygons look human, then you’ve got a worthy remake as it allows fans to have an entirely different experience of the game they love. For example, I love the remake of Final Fantasy IV into 3D for this reason. It’s the same game but it’s also fundamentally not the same game.
3) The original game isn’t available any longer. You could in theory simply port the original game to modern platforms, coding up an emulator as necessary, but a remake in this circumstance is also welcome as it allows people to experience a game that is otherwise unavailable to them. The recent Snow Bros. is a good example of this.
4) Something about the original is no longer appropriate. I should preface this by saying I would rather that game developers not remove controversial subject matter in the course of remaking something. Art is a source of discussion and debate and if we remove the things that cause discussion and debate we’re inhibiting losing the soul and social value of art. But, being pragmatic here, commercial reality might sometimes require that a remake modernise some of its themes so it no longer causes offence.
None of these apply to Resident Evil 4. It was never a controversial game, it’s readily available on existing consoles, a remake will make the graphics more detailed, but we can already see from the screenshots that the fundamental design is being left untouched and, based on the other two Resident Evil remakes there is no reason to think that Capcom’s writers will have discovered the art of subversion.
So why are we getting the remake? Cynical profiteering capitalism. Resident Evil 4 is a popular game, the previous Resident Evil remakes have sold well, so Capcom has decided that the relatively low-effort approach of a remake would allow them to have a best-selling game without the need to workshop new narratives, level design, characters and so on. There’s no concern here for the artistry or legacy of Resident Evil 4. Just the money it can make.
The thing is that every time there’s a remake that comes through that isn’t made for one of the four reasons above, the developer and publisher have effectively undermined the original work. A remake that doesn’t add to the original experience by being substantially different is effectively superseding it. Here it’s Capcom telling us that the original Resident Evil 4 is no longer a viable work of art. For it to be worth your time now, you need to replace that classic with the newer “better graphics” version. That’s just a lousy way of looking at art.
Capcom’s not the only one to do this. Not so long ago it was announced that the original The Last Of Us was also getting a remake, despite being a game that categorically doesn’t need to be remade and still looks like a top-flight game to date, let along also playing like a modern title. EA’s got a remake of Dead Space in the works, but if you trust EA to treat art with respect you’re fooling yourself (which is ironic, given what the “A” in “EA” refers to). Meanwhile, Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time remake is stuck in development hell, but I’m not sure it matters whether that game ever sees the light of day, since the project seems to be nothing more than a vehicle for DLC and microtransactions and will trash the memory of one of the all-time greats. Every time these things happen it seems like a cynical cash grab and demonstrates just how little respect the industry has for gaming as an art form.
Or, to be more blunt: In no other art form is there such a sincere effort to “fix” older works simply on the basis that they’re not as shiny as the newer ones.
Finally, the fact that these projects get cheered on by a sycophantic audience conditioned to spend money on these things and form their identity around spending money on them is also deeply concerning to me. The unthinking excitement to go and purchase a remake of a game that is sitting there, perfectly playable right now, is an excess that should be a point of embarrassment to this art form.
To be clear, I don’t have an issue with remakes, remasters or re-releases in principle. I am all for games that fit into the criteria above or are simply a re-release or remaster to ensure that the work is available on modern platforms. All that is fine. What I have no patience for is developers and publishers treating classics like they’re valueless content and remaking things that don’t need to be remade at all. We need to learn to have more respect for the classics in gaming. Yes, even if they’re not quite as photorealistic as the newest releases.