Everything Old is New Again: Remaking ComputerGames
by Richard Rouse III
|Several months ago, it was with a great deal of horror and disgustthat I learned that coming soon was a remake Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho,one my favorite movies by one of my favorite directors, and a film thatis today universally agreed upon as a masterpiece. Why would anyonedo such a thing? What hope would anyone have of bettering or evenapproaching the brilliance of the 1960 original? Why would they evenbother to try? Beyond just seeming like a bad idea for the likelihoodof inferiority to the original, remaking the film seemed to somehow bea disturbing proposition, surely motivated primarily by commercial considerations,that was in some way insulting to the existence of the original.|
It was with some confusion that I learned that a director - Gus VanSant - whose work I had thus far enjoyed very much - including My Own PrivateIdaho and To Die For - was directing the remake, a project which he hadpersonally wanted to undertake. What was this seemingly talentedfilm-maker doing working on such wretched stuff? From the fabulouscommercial success of his previous picture - Good Will Hunting - it seemedhe wasn't in a financial bind and desperate for work, so why would he undertakesuch a dubious project? I soon then learned that not only was Psychobeing remade, but it was to be a shot-for-shot remake. Not exactlya unique concept, many foreign films having been remade in Hollywood overthe years using this technique. But it's something you hardly everhear film-makers owning up to, since how original could he or she be ifthey are just refilming someone else's work? When one of my favoritefilm critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, blasted the filmwith both barrels giving it a "Worthless" rating, my worst fears were confirmed,and I stayed away from the remake.
The irony of all this is that I was Lead Designer on the recent remakeof Centipede. One of my favorite computer games of all time, theoriginal Centipede as designed by Ed Logg and Donna Bailey is just as muchan undisputed masterpiece in the computer game industry as Psycho is inthe film industry. Though not exactly a project I'd been hoping towork on for years as it seems Van Sant had been hoping to work on Psycho,when the opportunity came up to work on Centipede I jumped at the chance. Why was it that I viewed remaking Centipede as acceptable, while Psychowas such an obviously bad idea? Subsequent reflection on this paradoxmade me think of the different way I perceived a "classic" film and a "classic"computer game and the worthiness of remaking either in terms of my perceptionof their mediums as a whole.
Now I should clarify that I often take exception to computer game andmovie analogies when they're used all-too-often in the computer game industry. As an art form, I see computer games and movies as dissimilar as computergames and music, and think many analogies between films and games failto recognize this and as a result draw erroneous conclusions. Butboth are extremely commercial art forms; art forms whose content - or atleast the widely seen content - is in no small part determined by economicconditions, to put it simply, which projects get funded and which projectsget canceled or altogether ignored is largely determined by financial considerations. As such, making comparisons between films and computer games in commercialterms is, I think, a bit more justified. Both industries featuresystems where the creation of a commercially viable product is an extraordinarilyexpensive proposition, requiring extensive funding in one way or another,and subsequent distillation of artistic vision is often a direct result.
The Compulsion to Remake
Rosenbaum recently cut to the heart of the matter of remakes in thefilm industry in one of his movie reviews, interestingly a review of oneindependent film-maker's endeavor to remake an obscure 1960s documentary,Shulie. He questions: "What is it about American culture thatcompels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has beengrowing over the past two decades... Since the 80s we've been inundatedwith more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and lesssense of what to do with them. It's easy to explain the Hollywoodremake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before,why not do it again? Then there's the expanding youth market, whichencourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits canbe recycled for younger generations - one of the justifications offeredby Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho."
The points that Rosenbaum makes explaining Hollywood's current desireto remake at every turn are even more true in the computer game industry,which might explain why the latter is even more obsessed with remakes andretoolings than Hollywood will ever be. Though I'm only guessing,I'd say that 75% of all commercial games released in the past year - atleast those that were sold through standard retail channels - were eithera sequel, remake, or were in some way based on a licensed property. As such, marketing directors become concerned that every title must havesome way to "pop" off the shelf at buyers, and those without some sortof a name brand - be it the name of a previous hit game or the face ofa famous sports star - find themselves sorely at a disadvantage. Further complicating matters is the fact that computer game sequels tendto make more money than the original work upon which their based. I've heard several different game industry executives explain that whilein the movie business sequels tend to make 75% of the gross of the moviethey're a sequel to, in the computer game world sequels tend to make 125%the gross of their predecessor. And so the incentive to churn outan endless chain of sequels and remakes becomes too much for many gamingbusiness people resist.
Of course the biggest trouble of all may be the computer gaming industry'sown inferiority complex. Today, next to no-one will argue with theassertion that films are art, not even the most uncreative executive atthe highest level of the most commercial film studio. But in theworld of computer games, many of the programmers don't even perceive theirwork as art, let alone the producers and marketing heads. Recently,I was working hard on a project with a number of programmers and producersstanding around, and I said that, of course, none of us were doing thisfor the money, really, that there were easier ways to make as much if notmore money, suggesting that we were doing this for the love of games, forthe art of it all. I was taken aback when nearly all present lookedat me dumbfounded, saying that if they did know a better way to make moneythey'd be doing that instead, and what on earth was I talking about. Of course I had encountered this mind-set before, yet it never fails tosurprise me the number of people in our industry who don't even stop toconsider if there's any art in what they're creating.
And, as such, why not go for the simplest way to make the most money,to sell the most units? If there's no art to it, why not be a businessmanthrough and through, why even try to come up with something new and original? When an old retread is much more likely to move the product than the muchmore risky proposition of something no-one's ever seen before, why bothertrying something fresh? It seems an obvious conclusion that commercenot creativity is what drives game executives to constantly fund the retoolingof past successes.
But all of this isn't to say that creating a remake or sequel cannotnecessarily be a valid and successfully artistic method. It seemsthat Super Mario 64 as designed by Shigeru Miyamoto is a shining exampleof how a game based heavily on a preceding one can be an invigorating pieceof art that stands on its own, working with the qualities of its predecessorand refining them into something new and exciting. Even in the extremecase of the new Psycho, which was a "shot-for-shot" remake of Hitchcock'soriginal - using nearly exactly the same script, stagings, and camera set-ups- the resulting work isn't inherently flawed, as long as the reasons forthe remake were not merely a fast grab for some cash. As Rosenbaumsaid in his review of the remade Psycho: "Theoretically a nearlyshot-by-shot, line-by-line remake of any movie could produce somethingmarvelous, fresh, and revelatory, at least if an artist had a viable artisticprogram to go with it. Practically, I would argue, Gus Van Sant'sPsycho is a piece of dead meat."
In terms of computer games, then, what sort of qualities would one lookfor in a remake to determine if it had successfully avoided becoming a"piece of dead meat." Speaking as a designer, the central objectof concern for me working on a remake would be the gameplay of the originalgame. Figuring out how exactly that gameplay functioned and how thedifferent aspects of the game came together to create a stimulating experienceare both concepts one must first grasp in order to understand what cansucceed in a remake.
Often remakes are referred to as "modernizations" of the originals. Often the decision to modernize is more a business choice than an artisticprerogative. Publishers want games which will "fit in" to today'smarketplace, which will at once remind gamers of the games they playedlong ago, while maintaining some sort of familiarity with the other gamescurrently being released. The games being released today are extraordinarilydifferent from the arcade games of the early Eighties - those games whichare the subject of most of the now-emerging remakes. In just theirmeans of delivery the games could not be more dissimilar. The oldgames were sold to the consumer quarter by quarter; if the player wantedto keep playing, they had to keep putting money in the machine. Theremakes are - for the most part - aimed at the home market, be it PC orconsole, and as such are only sold to their purchasers only once. Home gamers, it would seem, want a game that they can finish, somethingthat they can play for a while and then put on the shelf, having withoutquestion "beaten" it. Arguments could be made that this is not necessarilywhat all home gamers want, but certainly the businessmen have decided conclusivelythis is the sort of games people will buy, and as such the developer isoften stuck making them that way.
Classic arcade games - such as Centipede, Battlezone, Frogger, and Sinistar- were very much an artistic form of computer games, a form with a verydefinite set of rules, just as Haiku has a very specific set of parameterswhich regulate whether or not a given poem is a Haiku or not. Forinstance, all classic arcade games offered the potential for infinite play,indeed winning the game was impossible; the game continues until the playerloses all his lives. Most all classic games offered the concept oflives, where the player could fail or "die" a certain number of times beforetheir game was up. They adhered to a simple, easy to pick up controlscheme; after a minute of play, anyone could fully understand the controls.
Obvious as they may seem, it is easy for game players to become confusedas to what the rules of the form are. One reviewer of the new Centipede,for instance, questioned in his review, "what would a shooter be withoutpowerups?" It is true that the new version of Centipede has powerupsin it, and that many other great games before it have as well. Theoriginal Centipede, however, has no powerups, and is in many ways a definitive"shooter." Even once these rules of the classic arcade game formare determined the commercial demands of the marketplace - be they realor as created by the financiers - demand that one cannot release that formof game and hope to make any money with it. As such, the designerwho endeavors to make a successful remake must consider how to get thegameplay mechanics of the classic game to work in a game environment whichbreaks many of the rules which allowed that gameplay to work in the firstplace.
Maintaining some continuity with a classic game's audio and visual stylingswill also often prove difficult in the process of a modernized remake. Computer technology having advanced the way it has, the more minimalisticgraphics found in games created fifteen years ago will be found unacceptableto modern producers. Even more troubling is the recent trend towardfully 3D games, which invariably lead project managers to decree that allgames must be 3D, even if such a decision isn't particularly conduciveto maintaining the graphical appearance of the original, and may even provedetrimental to the gameplay.
(As an aside, a particularly glaring demonstration of this is the recentlyreleased fully 3D game based on the South Park cartoon show. Theshow features art of a very cheap and certainly 2D nature, something whichone would think developers would want to preserve in a computer version. But, apparently, this did not occur to the creators of the game who seemso thoroughly locked in the 3D mind-set that the thought of anything elseis out of the question.)
Needless to say, maintaining the look of a minimalist 2D game in invariablylow-polygon 3D art presents challenges which may be all but insurmountable. Often graphic artists manage to maintain the game's original logo and generallook-and-feel in the new games menu system and title art. The ingame graphics for the new Centipede, for instance, bare little relationto the appearance of the original game. The design for the centipedeitself is based more on the hand-drawn art that appeared on the side ofthe stand-up arcade version of Centipede than the art that actually appearedin the game itself. But by maintaining the segmented nature and movementpatterns of the original centipede's behavior, some visual similarities- perhaps better described as echoes - are maintained. And by replicatingor limiting the modifications to the AI of the original creatures, visualrhymes are created in the play-fields in Centipede. Though all thecreatures look quite different from their counterparts in the classic,by moving in similar patterns the visuals in the game tend to remind theplayer of the original.
Some Recent Examples
The classic arcade games that have been remade recently have done sowith, in my opinion, varying results. The new Frogger is probablythe most commercially successful of the lot, appealing to a very mainstreamaudience who may remember playing the simple jumping game years ago, orwho may just like the whimsical, non-violent, and simple gameplay. (It bears mentioning that Frogger is published by Hasbro Interactive, thesame company that published Centipede, my most recent project.) Thegame does a good job of maintaining the core gameplay of the original,while expanding the environments that gameplay can function into a numberof different worlds, far beyond the scope of the original. Even thevisual appearance of the classic is brought to mind in the graphics ofthe new game, particularly in the early levels which most resemble theclassic gameplay. This visually similarity exists despite the factthat these new graphics are in low-polygon 3D. It would appear thatthe game succeeds as a remake, maintaining the core gameplay while enhancingit in fresh new ways.
But as a game it seems that Frogger fails. Many of the more "hard-core"game players have tended to dislike the new Frogger intensely. Mainlymarred by imprecise controls, a too-small viewing area (the game maintainsthe overhead camera of the original - a very good thing - but zooms thecamera in to such an extent that players don't get a large enough viewof the world they're hopping through, thus making the navigation of thoseenvironments more difficult than it should be), and sometimes overly-complexand confusing environments (what area can I safely jump to, anyway?) thegame provides mainly frustration to the more experienced game player. Of course, how can a work be a success as a remake and a failure as a game? Some would argue it can't.
Nearly the exact opposite problem plagues the remake of Battlezone,which I would suggest succeeds expertly as a game, while failing miserablyas a remake. Casey Chico, lead artist on the remake of Battlezone(agame originally designed by Ed Rotberg), wrote an essay describing itscreation for the May 1998 issue of Computer Graphics. In it he describeshis initial reaction to the Battlezone assignment: "'What?!' I responded. 'You want to remake an old vector graphics tank battle game?' Tobe honest, I wasn't particularly happy with the concept, never having beenthrilled at taking what someone else has done, and trying to one-up it." Chico didn't find the prospect of working on a remake very appealing atfirst, but soon changed his mind: "So when it came for us to decideon the Battlezone license, everything came down to concept. Did ouridea fit within the Battlezone universe? Did our game have the innovationneeded to be connected with such a well respected game? Our answerwas 'yes.' We were set on creating what was to be, at the time, anew hybrid of gaming: taking the fast pace and visually engrossing worldof action games and combining this with the intelligence and sophisticationof a real-time strategy game."
Unfortunately the original Battlezone had nothing whatsoever to do withstrategy gaming, instead fitting very much into the classic arcade gameform, despite the fact that it was in vector 3D. From Chico's articleit would appear that the Battlezone team had in mind a game that it wantedto create - a real-time strategy and action hybrid - and then decided -when it was suggested by management that a licensed remake would help thegame stand out on the shelves - that they would make their new hybrid gameregardless of how unsuited it would be to classic Battlezone. Whatresults is a game that's quite stimulating to play (and which was universallypraised by the hard-core gamers of the press) but which in the end bearsvery little semblance to the game it purports to be remaking. There'snothing very "arcady" about the remade Battlezone as designed by GeorgeCollins with Jens Andersen and Will Stahl. The elegant simplicityof the original title has been replaced by a impressively complex near-simulation,a game which may break new ground in gameplay but which fails to recallthe original Battlezone.
A remake of Noah Falstein's Sinistar is currently in development, underthe title Sinistar Unleashed. Though one must reserve judgment untilthe final game is available to play, a recent preview in Next Generationmagazine brings up a some potential problems with this particular remake. "Retrofitting may be the best word to describe what GameFX has done withOut of the Void, the name Sinistar Unleashed was called when we originallypreviewed it 20 issues ago..." Starting with an existing game, developerGameFX hopes to transform it into something close enough to Sinistar thatthey can sell it under that name in good conscience. But is theirown artistic agenda to remake Sinistar, then, or to release the game theywere working on before the notion of remaking the classic game ever cameup? Next Generation continues: "Of course, as the danger rampsup, players will gain access to new ships. And will any of them looklike the ship from the original Sinistar? 'No' was [designer Walter]Wright's surprising answer. 'Rather than trying to take Sinistarand put it into 3D,' he explains, 'we tried to develop the idea of theoriginal Sinistar as a contemporary one, given the tools we've got.' While GameFX should be commended for expanding the Sinistar universe, itseems they they've dismissed all of the visual inspiration of the original... As GameFX's ship is exactly the same as it was when the game was calledOut of The Void, Next Generation can't help but to point out to its readersthat the team seems to be somewhat attached to the former project." The fault here may of course not be GameFX's fault but may lay at the featof a publisher who decided to force a license on an existing game, theone GameFX is so reluctant to let go of. This situation may leadto results similar to the new Battlezone's problem: a great gamebut a poor remake. When remaking a game, when selling it under thetitle of an old favorite, the developer has a responsibility to make theirgame a remake the original game, not simply rename their own game afterthe classic in order to boost sales. In all fairness, though, wewill have to look at the final incarnation of Sinistar Unleashed beforewe decide how successful a tribute it is.
Classic Game Replication
One tactic that some developers are taking in the remaking classic gamesis to include the actual classic game, or a very close replica of it, alongwith the modernized version. This was the tactic taken by Jeff Minter'sTempest 2000, a remake of Dave Theurer's Tempest game from the golden ageof Atari. Included with Tempest 2000 was an exact replica of theoriginal Tempest, or at least the intention was for it to be exact, alongwith a new "modernized" version. (Interestingly, it appears thatMinter was allowed by his publisher to create an updating that was verymuch in the form of a classic arcade game; it didn't have to conform toany of the traditional modern home game's rules, nor did it look much likeany of the games that were coming out at the same time. This wasone of the first commercially released classic arcade game remakes to comeout, and this might explain why it was allowed to stay true to the formof the game it was remaking; the suits hadn't yet figured out that theirfocus groups wanted remakes to look as much like other modern games aspossible.) Unfortunately I haven't played Tempest 2000 very much,so I cannot speak to how well the original game is recreated in the "exact"replica.
The new Centipede includes a classic replica as well, something thepublisher wanted to have to firmly root the game in its history. Unfortunately the classic game recreation found in Centipede has almostuniversally dismissed by those playing it, many preferring to go straightfor the modernized game. The classic recreation found in the PC versionof Centipede features game mechanics which strive to be identical to theclassic Centipedes, while rendering all of the art in 3D and incliningthe play-field 45 degrees in order to firmly establish in the viewer'seye that this recreation has "new and improved" 3D graphics. Onecan easily tell by this strikingly different graphical style that thisisn't the original game.
For the Sony PlayStation version of the new Centipede, however, thedecision was made to take the recreation of the classic game one step farther,and actually use the same graphics as the classic, rendered in 2D. For the PlayStation version the game looks nearly exactly like the original,yet the gameplay is not precisely the same. Unfortunately, due tothe limitations of the release schedule involved and the general impossibilityof precisely determining insect behaviors based on observation alone, thisclassic recreation will never exactly replicate the original Centipede. As a result, I think, this replica has a deleterious effect on the entireenterprise. For here we have a game masquerading as the original,which to the untrained observer will look exactly like the original Centipede,and to those who have never played the original may actually conclude thatthis is the original. However, it is not as finely tuned asthe original was, and as a result new players of the game who mistakenlythink this is the real classic Centipede will be left with a false impressionof it.
Here then is a game which has a direct parallel to the shot-for-shotremake of Psycho which so disturbed me, something which seeks topopularize a classic for a "new generation" but which presents somethingflawed and inferior, with nothing original or new to say. Thoughthe inclusion of this classic Centipede recreation to be sold with themodernized version of Centipede posed interesting technical challengesin its creation, it is easy to get lost in such work, not really thinkingof whether the game is going to be relevant to anyone. The entireproposition of creating a new work of art solely to "popularize a classic"seems absurd to me. Why not just allow them to play the actual, authenticoriginal? Gus Van Sant gave the following reasons for remaking Psychoas he did: "I felt that, sure, there were film students, cinephiles,and people in the business who were familiar with Psycho, but that therewas also a whole generation of moviegoers who probably hadn't seen it. I thought this was a way of popularizing a classic, a way I'd never seendone before. It was like staging a contemporary production of a classicplay while remaining true to the original." Rosenbaum, in his reviewof Psycho, is quick to point out that "To ensure that Hitchcock's classicgets popularized Universal stopped distributing it on video and laser disca month ago." What's so repulsive to me in this whole propositionis that, to a new generation of viewers ,this recreation that doesn't comeclose to the vibrancy of original will be the Psycho they know, that sincethey've seen this newer version they won't need to hunt down the originalin a revival theater. Here the remake attempts to replace the original,to take its place in history, which seems a decidedly amoral action. In the end, without bringing something new to the table, an attempt ata precise recreation of a classic to show off to modern audiences seemsto be only so much artistic masturbation.
Emulation is the Answer
The recent flood of emulators in the gaming community - mostly availablefree on the Internet - represent a better way to re-experience classicgames from fifteen years ago. These programs successfully simulateold arcade or console hardware, allowing long out-of-use games to be playedon modern computers. Some emulators have even been released commercially,bundled with scads of games from the past, functioning exactly as theydid before. Game Week, a trade magazine dealing with the businessside of gaming and in which readers will find nary an artistic thought,inclination, or tendency, talked of the current "Retro-Gaming" trend ina recent issue. "This isn't another 'retro-gaming' fad where 2600sand NES [games] are dug out of the closet; rather it is all new softwarethat is based on classic games." The article speaks derisively ofthe rereleasing under emulation of classic games, but it seems that thisis a far more effective, authentic, and, in an industry which seems toquickly forget about games from a few years ago, this is a fabulous wayto replay past games, to analyze and study past works. Looking atwhat works have come before is something artists in all mediums do, andwithout these emulators this revisiting of games gone by is all but impossible. And by including the classic game under emulation, modern remakes can allowthe user to experience both the original as it was meant to be experienced,and then play the remake it inspired.
I think an important part of doing a remake is to never deny the existenceof the original, to never pretend that you are in some way replacing thatwork. Something that may not seem as all that big a deal but whichI think is symptomatic of a larger problem is the naming of recently releasedcomputer game remakes. Frogger, Battlezone, and Centipede were allnamed the exact same thing as the original games, despite the fact thatthey are all completely different gaming experiences. When a movieis remade the plot and characters are usually kept the same, and so itmay make sense that the name is retained as well. Psycho in its remadeform, whether it be superior or inferior to the original work, still earnsthe right to be called Psycho. Battlezone, Frogger, and Centipedeall bear some relationship to the original (the latter two more than Battlezone,I would argue) but introduce so much new material, in addition to the factthat they are home consumer products instead of arcade machines, that theyreally should be named something unique. Yet in all three cases thepublishers have opted to not name then something on the order of "CentipedeReturns" but instead just copy the name of the originals. To me,this indicates that these works are meant to replace the older, now allbut inaccessible works. Tempest 2000 and the forthcoming SinistarUnleashed both opted to modify their titles to indicate their new form,I think better communicating that they desire to supplement, not supplant,the original works. This seems a more honest approach to the wholeremaking process.
Of course not all remakes even use the name of the game they are remaking. Eugene Jarvis, designer of the classic Robotron 2084, has referred to SmashTV - a game he worked on some five years later - as the spiritual successorto the original Robotron. Similarly, Interplay recently releasedFallout, a game obviously inspired by their game of some ten years earlier,Wasteland, a title which they no longer had the rights to. In boththese cases, then, we see a driving artistic vision leading the way toa remake, where commerce seems to be less of a concern, since the nameof the game being remade isn't even used, and hence no "branding" has occurred. These games were remade because someone felt they could do something newand interesting with the concept, not because they could easily cash inon nostalgia. (Of course matters are confused in the latter example,since Alan Pavlish, the designer on the original Wasteland, appears tohave not been so involved in the creation of Fallout. The inspirationfor the game, though, was widely acknowledged by the design team.)
So what were my motivations in working on Centipede? Why had Ijumped at the chance to remake a classic, when the thought of someone remakingPsycho horrified me so much? I must confess that in part I realized thata remake of Centipede was sure to get lots of mainstream attention, wouldbe "noticed" so to speak, and it seems that nearly all artists, on somelevel, want to be noticed. But I also saw the opportunity to takethe arcade gameplay of Centipede and make it function in a new sort ofinteractive environment, using modern norms of game design. The arcadestyle of gameplay - with multiple lives, a high score, a "one-hit-one-death"combat system, simple controls, and a nearly never ending swarm of enemiesto overcome - is a mechanism not very prevalent in today's gaming environment,and as such Centipede could again be seen as something fresh and interesting. By combining the gameplay style of the original with a new artistic program,the new Centipede could be a game that could stand on its own, while allowingthe player to remember the old classic. Whether or not the new Centipedesucceeded at this is something for others to decide. On reflectionabout remakes I no longer see the recreation of Psycho as a necessarilyfailed endeavor; one would have to judge the film itself to decide thatfor sure. And in turn the remaking of such a great game as Centipedewas not an inherently flawed proposition.