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What’s the best way to remake a beloved video game?

From left: The Last Of Us: Part I (Screenshot: Naughty Dog), Final Fantasy VII Remake (Image: Square-Enix), and Resident Evil 2 (2019) (Image: Capcom)

From left: The Last Of Us: Part I (Screenshot: NaughtyDog), Final Fantasy 7 Remake (Image: Square-Enix), and Resident Evil 2 (2019) (Image: Capcom)

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[This column contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.]

This week, I penned and then posted my review of The Last Of Us: Part I—a brand-new, very shiny video game that was extremely difficult to talk about outside the context of 2013’s The Last Of Usthe formerly new and shiny video game that it’s a nearly exact carbon copy of. Writer Neil Druckmann, and the rest of the team who worked on the game at Naughty Dog, have assured fans that there’s a fair amount of stuff that’s different, mostly behind the scenes, in I left, but I’ll be damned if I could pick it out. (More environmental debris when people shoot at you? I remember them saying something about there being more debris.) TLOU:PI is actually kind of revolutionary, in the increasingly crowded world of video game remakes/remasters/reprises, etc.; if this isn’t the first time that a studio has not just remastered, but literally rebuilt their own game from the ground up—recreated every map, redrawn every character, etc.—for a slightly more modern audience, it’s the most prominent example that I can think of.

(And, yes, please consider this paragraph break my acknowledgment of the PS5 Demon’s Souls remakewhich is conceptually even stranger, in some ways, since it was rebuilt by a wholly different studio than the still-very-active developers who made the original game.)

The “remaster” route is far easier, after all—which is presumably why The Last Of Us itself indulged in it a few years back, for its PS4 re-release in 2014. Clean up the textures, optimize some backend stuff, maybe bundle in all the DLC, and you’re golden: Same old game, brand new market. It’s a bit mercenary, sure, but at least it’s more comprehensible than spending months, and god knows how much effort, remaking your own game from scrap and then opting to change nothing except some accessibility features and a gussying-up of the visuals. Druckmann and his team have talked about how this new I left is meant to be howThe Last Of Us is supposed to be,” but it’s mind-boggling how close to their own, admittedly very good, original design that they’ve hewn with it. There’s no urge to treat this revisit as self-critique, to ask The Last Of Us to exist in conversation with itself. Maybe this is projection, but the whole project carries a certain sheen of arrogance: Why change something when it’s already perfect, right?

For the most contrast possible, let us whiplash over to a game that includes “remake” in its actual title (even though that actually sort of turns out to be a complete and total lie): Square-Enix’s 2020 Final Fantasy 7 Remake. FF7R isn’t just a game ostensibly in conversation with its earlier version: It’s a game about it, the culmination of 20-plus years of self-obsession with this one particular story. In fact, after 20 hours of stretching, twisting, and sometimes outright discarding the design of the original game, remake eventually breaks down and admits that it’s not even a remake at all, but an outright time-traveling sequel. Not an exaggeration: This is a game where your heroes (whose aesthetics, and basic personalities, are pretty much the only thing that’s been left intact from the original game) literally kill the forces trying to make them stick to the script; I’ve never seen a game so happy to drop a big metal plate on the head of its source material.

FF7R‘s approach is bold, exciting—and undeniably deceptive. For players actively trying to get the thrill of playing a new version of an old favorite, it was certainly a disappointment. (One major plot revelation from late in the game, for instance, will only make sense if you’ve played the original game—and a whole bunch of its supplemental material; not ideal for a project that was marketed as a standalone update.) In a way, it’s as disinterested in assessing the merits of its original as The Last Of Us, simply using beloved source material as a launching point for a whole other story about taking a sledgehammer to existing stories. Its artistic aims are so destructive, it barely qualifies as a remake at all.

So, is there a happy medium here? An approach that finds the mid-ground between “Let’s recreate every atom of our masterpiece” and “Let’s blow it all to shit?” Happily, there is. And happily, it involves zombies.

Because, really, there is a better model for the video game remake market—which we probably need to just go ahead and accept isn’t going anywhere, in a world where the “safe” choice and the “profitable” choice are generally synonymous —than Capcom’s resident Evil games? With three remakes (2002’s resident Evil, and then especially 2019’s Resident Evil 2 and 2020’s Resident Evil 3) under its belt, Capcom has charted a course with its reprises that’s respectful of its flagship zombie-killing series’ history, without being utterly beholden to it.

The most obvious example to draw from is RE2, which captures the spirit of its 1998 original so well that you can miss all the ways it cleverly diverges from it. Toying with expectations, and rewarding veterans, in equal measure, Resident Evil 2 (2019) don’t try to recreate Resident Evil 2 (1998): It tries to recreate the feeling of playing it. Nowhere is that more obvious than in its treatment of unkillable trench coat-clad player-hunter Mr. X, who, in the memories of kids who wet their pants playing the original game, was a terrifying and unshakeable stalker who pursued them across the length and breadth of the entire game. Ignoring the fact that he’s actually a pretty limited presence in the 1998 title, the remake instead simply opts to make that emotional truth a practical one, reinvigorating a 20-year-old terror for a new generation. The end result is a remake that says something about the game it’s copying, without completely trying to smash its reality apart.

Of course, Capcom will be facing its own acid test in this field soon enough: The previously announced remake of Resident Evil 4 is, after all, on its way. original RE4 has persisted in the modern consciousness (thanks, in part, to its own endless remastering) in a way that its predecessors haven’t, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the team handling its remake continues the bold inventiveness that’s marked the company’s efforts to date—or if they’ll follow in Naughty Dog’s footsteps, declare the original a masterpiece, and then just give it a new coat of polish, instead.

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