I recently watched the Jacob Geller video about RE4, the HD Project, and game restoration. The HD Project is an interesting idea with tons of passion and dedication that’s well covered in the video. However, I have a few problems here.
Firstly, RE4 is only 15 years old, and when historians start discussing restoration processes they’re generally talking about physical art (such as paintings) that’s several decades or centuries old. This is framework doesn’t make sense for a game, which is digital, especially considering it’s barely what any other mediums would even remotely consider being old.
Second, I think this HD Project, while thoughtful in concept and fueled by the best of intentions, illuminates a serious issue we as an industry/community have with regards to preserving games. Put bluntly, we’re overly obsessed with graphical/technical fidelity and this obsession is causing us to view any perceived technical shortcomings as shameful or grating. This obviously comes to a head when we seek to revisit older games, our nerd drive for nostalgia is in direct odds with our gamer need for technical supremacy. It’s as if we’re ashamed of our nostalgia, and in order to resolve this conflict we seek remakes, HD projects, remasters, definitive editions, free next-gen upgrades, graphics mods, reboots, etc. We want our nostalgia as long as we can now have those sweet frames, res bumps, HD textures, gameplay improvements, quality-of-life improvements, patches, etc.
This gives me the impression that gamers love the IDEA of older games, not the actual games themselves. This framework of the idea of the game fits well with recent remakes, especially those done by Bluepoint. Many gamers love the idea of Shadow of the Colossus or Demon’s Souls, even if they’ve never played them and have no intentions to play the original versions. So, with a rock-solid new team and awesome new technology, gamers think they can experience these games now that they “live up to modern standards.” As long as it “feel like I remember,” then it’s all fine from this framework, the idea is “preserved.” This framework views games as temporary products, with an idea at the core and everything surrounding being a technical stepping stone to said idea. And since it’s a product separate from it’s creation, it’s constantly subject to whatever the current “modern standards” are for any given time. There’s a saying that games are never finished, they’re only shipped, and I think this framework of the idea is a natural extension of this notion. When speaking to others online about this issue, I’ve gotten plenty of responses that boil down to “well, the original creators were constricted by the technology of the time, I’m sure they would’ve wanted the original release to look like how the remake/remaster looks now if they had the tech.”
The major issue I have here, and the core of my argument against such remasters/remakes/HD Projects, is that games are not a simple product in a vacuum to be upgraded as deemed necessary to our whims. Games are, in fact, the collected work of many artists and designers from that specific moment in time. RE4 isn’t an idea, it isn’t a single product devoid of context, it’s a collection of the work of numerous artists, designers, programmers, musicians, directors, producers, etc. The work of the original creators matters, their technical limitations matter, their clever workarounds and technical mishaps matter. When preserving games, we should be preserving their work, not the idea or vague feeling of their work. I know that it’s near impossible to preserve games in 100% of their original form, GCN, CRT and all. But I think we could be doing a lot better, and I think if we changed our perspective on preservation from preserving the idea, to preserving the original artists work (warts and all), we’d be able to more clearly identify what is and isn’t faithful preservation. That’s why I’m such a huge proponent of emulation and faithful ports. These are the way to preserve games properly in my eyes, not some sort of “enhancement” that only seeks to bury the work of the original artists.
And isn’t it funny, that our constant cries for better and better graphics falls squarely in line with the interests of giant corporations that seek to weaponize our nostalgia? They’re more than willing to re-sell you games you own, classics, but in order to justify the the re-sell they claim to have the “definitive” edition this time. It’s the games you love, only better! Now please open up that wallet, you know the deal. A deal gamers are willing to make, for they get an improved version of the idea, their nostalgia and technical desires are satisfied by the glorious free market.
Will we be able to preserve 100% of the original creators work? Probably not, and that is a genuine shame. But we could be preserving 90-95% of their work, and we should. Instead of celebrating the efforts of those who would “improve” games that are not their own, we should celebrate what the original artists were able to accomplish at the time. When I play RE4 now, I don’t see a dated game in desperate need of a graphical/mechanical facelift, I see a game that countless artists/designers crafted with the utmost care. Of course it has shortcomings compared to modern games, I’m not expecting it to stand next to them (even though I still find it more enjoyable to play then 90% games released in the past decade). When I play an older game, I’m transported back to a time when games were made differently, with different standards and expectation for what was successful game design. We can still learn much from older games, but it’ll be hard to learn much from the original creators if we constantly ask for their work to be painted over.