Is our obsession with video game remakes hurting the potential for new ideas?

This last week alone, we heard of the remakes for ‘Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’ and the ‘Mafia Trilogy’. But rather than finding new ways to reinterpret the past, developers should turn to face the future

I read the news this week about the recently announced Mafia: Trilogy, where 2K described each entry in the collection curiously. The original Mafia will be a remake, Mafia II will be a remaster and Mafia III will be a re-introduction. I was blindsided by this new bit of jargon. I’d just about got my head around the difference between a remake and a remaster, but a “re-introduction”? What does that even mean?

As video games have plateaued in graphical fidelity and platforms have become more open and accessible than ever, the promise of a remake has become a tantalising opportunity for developers and publishers looking to cash in on the loyalty players feel towards old games and franchises that have had their heyday.

But is this getting in the way of the potential for new IPs? As well as the Mafia: Trilogy, in the past week alone we’ve had news about a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater remake and a potential Diablo II remaster. In the next two months, remakes, remasters and re-introductions of Destroy All Humans!, SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle For Bikini Bottom, Burnout Paradise and Command & Conquer will all launch to an audience keen to don their rose-tinted glasses and experience the not too distant past.

I don’t have a problem with this in practice – in fact, I’m excited for a number of the remakes coming this year. Mafia: Definitive Edition looks fantastic, and I’ve got a soft spot for Battle For Bikini Bottom. I just worry that our laser-focus on remaking the same old games will inevitably stifle creativity across the board.

spongebob battle for bikini bottom remake
‘SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle For Bikini Bottom’

From a business perspective, it makes total sense. New IPs are an inevitable risk, and sequels and remakes are easy money. “That game did great… so do it again!” is a phrase most likely echoed by executives throughout development studios worldwide.

This is not to say that a remake can’t be innovative and fresh. Look at Final Fantasy VII Remake or Resident Evil 2, for example. Bluepoint Games have turned the practice into an art form recently with their take on Fumito Ueda’s Shadow Of The Colossus. But it’s worth remembering that these hallowed titles we love to regurgitate had to start out as a new IP.

Maybe our obsession with remakes stems from this need to play every game that was ever good – every gamer has an endless backlog and that one elusive series that they’ll get to someday.

But there’s nothing wrong with experiencing the classics via a new IP that takes those hallmarks into account, twisting them into something truly special. I’ve never played Earthbound, but I feel like I understand that game more because I’ve played Undertale.

outer wilds
‘Outer Wilds’

In particular, 2019 was a great year for new properties, even if there could always be a few more. We saw singular games like Control, Outer Wilds, Disco Elysium and Death Stranding receive the spotlight – all imaginative experiences that gave us all something new to think about.

But unless there’s something they desperately want to say, I hope we don’t just get direct sequels to any of these games. I’d love to see the developers take what they’ve learnt from the process of making something new and funnel that genius into something even more experimental and interesting.

It’d be great to see them answer the curious questions raised while making them, which they had to leave on the cutting room floor.

Elsewhere, the indie game market is constantly innovating and dredging up new ideas. Unfortunately, the best of the bunch often get co-opted by AAA studios when they hit the mainstream, where they can slap a name-brand on the side and sell gangbusters. But this lucrative font of creativity is the future, and a simple scroll through itch.io on any given day will show you that.

Ghost Of Tsushima
Ghost Of Tsushima. Credit: Sucker Punch

The stratified way in which we compare games to one another and the pigeonholing of ‘genre’ has made us all too harsh a critic before we can get our hands on something new. A common retort you’ll hear online is that a game looks good, but it’s not quite The Witcher 3 or whatever game currently has the critical consensus. Yet if we hold every game to the unrelated heights of last year’s best offering, especially prior to its release, how will we ever move forward?

Out of all of the so-called ‘big games of 2020’, only Dreams, Ghost Of Tsushima and Cyberpunk 2077 are inherently new, and not hanging on to the name of a franchise as a point of reference for players.

I think a more welcoming attitude to new IPs and a keener focus on indies would help the games industry grow and broach new avenues for interaction. We always talk about the bleeding edge of technology, but we can’t truly make the most of it unless we disengage from the comforting embrace of the games we’ve played before.

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