Every Wednesday in Bit Slap, Dan Chruscinski breaks down the latest in gamer culture, and examines these sometimes contentious, sometimes just silly items in closer detail. This week, he gets into the dirty (but sometimes worthwhile) business of rebooting and remaking video games.
During a boring train ride into work the other day I decided to watch an entry in one of the greatest film franchises of all time: Step Up. Let’s put aside the awesome dancing and twisty plots for a moment to talk about what the movie does right. Each one tells a story of a group of dancers, and the subsequent movies might feature some reoccurring characters but otherwise it’s a new plot, new city, new everything. It’s the Final Fantasy way of movie making. What this style of movie-making prevents is the dreaded r-word: Reboot. Game developers are taking a page from Hollywood and taking some of their most beloved franchises back to the beginning and that’s not always the appropriate approach. Does what works for Hollywood work for game companies or should the industry be taking a different approach to the franchises that look a little worn around the polygons?
The actual concept of a reboot is a bit hazy when it comes to video games. In films, a reboot is generally a film that goes back to the beginning to tell a new story and ignores all previous works. The Dark Knight saga rebooted the Bat-Franchise while Amazing Spider-Man de-Tobey’d the saga of the wall crawler. Then we have remakes, such as Footloose that aimed to retell the same story while ignoring the previous work. We can view games in a similar light. Tomb Raider Anniversary is a remake of the original 1996 release of Tomb Raider while the 2013 release is a reboot. All those HD re-releases are akin to releasing Titanic again in 3D. New coat of paint, but that’s all that’s changed. I’m going to ignore re-releases because those are just an easy way for a company to make some quick cash while allowing me to play the Sly Cooper series again. Instead I’m going to stick to reboots and remakes. Got it? Good. Let’s start with remakes.
The GameCube was home to two of the most high profile remakes in gaming history: the Resident Evil remake and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Both took games originally released on the Playstation and made them a product of brand spanking new technology. In the case of MGS, we saw what the original game would have been with the technology of Sons of Liberty while the 2002 Remake was a taste of what players could expect when Resident Evil Zero hit later that same year. Both aimed to achieve a similar goal, to better create an experience the original designers had hoped for when creating the original. The results, however, offers a point/counterpoint to the welcomeness of remakes.
Resident Evil Remake took the survival horror genre that the original made popular and cranked up the horror to eleven. The Spencer mansion became a living, breathing house of death that kept even the most seasoned players on their toes. Zombies didn’t stay dead, new creatures roamed the halls, and the mystery of the T-Virus deepened with every new file found. Puzzles were frequent and combat was still classic Resident Evil, making this game the definitive version of the entry. To paraphrase from Scream 4, it didn’t frak with the original.
The second entry in the Metal Gear Solid series refined the graphics, added a few new game play perks, and took the series into brand new nutty directions that it would never find it’s way back from. We knew The Twin Snakes wouldn’t drastically alter the storyline of the original, just borrow some elements from the follow-up. Well, be careful what you wish for. The Twin Snakes is a great game, but it suffers from managing to try and jump over the head of Sons of Liberty in terms of sheer over the top storytelling. Remember when Snake flipped over a missile? Yeah, that happened. Beyond the extended cut scenes, the game had a little problem of updating Snake’s move set without updating the world around him. Where the Resident Evil Remake upgraded the challenges, Twin Snakes had Snake able to pick off soldiers in first person, vanish from sight almost instantly, and you could just blast your way through lasers you originally had to sneak past with slow, steady movement. The game sacrificed challenge for style. It is not the definitive version of the game, just a prettier version.
Remakes in games can work when you remember the original is held in high regard by fans. What about reboots though? I always think reboots occur when whomever holds the rights aren’t creative enough to continue the story. This is how we get games like the recent Mortal Kombat, which chose to literally reboot the series in-universe using magic and time travel and Freddy Krueger. Was this needed, though? What grew stale in the franchise wasn’t the story, it was the game play, which was overhauled in the new game. Why the reboot, though? Why not push the story ahead several years, new combatants, a new villain, but the same story structure: fighting to keep Outworld out of Earthrealm. With the success of the reboot, where does that leave the next game in series? Mortal Kombat Reboot II? At that rate we’re going to get ANOTHER reboot of the franchise in ten years.
Now, about Lara Croft. Let’s not go into the controversy surrounding the new game, but rather talk about why exactly we need it. The Tomb Raider Anniversary remake served a dual purpose in that it also retconned the series to fit into the timeline set up by Tomb Raider Legend. The final game in the trilogy, Tomb Raider Underworld, was actually a lot of fun and served to finish off a complete story. So how come the next game can’t set up a brand new story for Lara to partake in? How come the developers at Crystal Dynamics need to strip Lara of the growth she finally began to experience? Are developers worried that Croft has become too competent? Unfortunate implications aside, if this is the case, up the challenge for the player. If the player feels he is the best, show him the game world can still kick his ass. Don’t take Lara back to zero. Hell, if Crystal Dynamics strapped for ideas, get your crossover on and have Lara Croft and Nate Drake team up. Co-op game play, a globe trotting adventure, two gaming icons? You’re welcome.
Storytelling and game design need to progress as we gain new graphical technology. A game series can continue to be viable if developers look at what made them successful and how they can add new twists to keep the series fresh. Don’t take away the experiences of a player, give them bigger, better, more refined experiences with their favorite characters. Tell new stories while honoring the old ones. It’s ok to go back and make what you once did better, but remember that once you close that loop it’s time to move forward or you’ll be caught in an endless cycle.