The Key Difference Between Video Game and Film Remakes

Final Fantasy VII Remake Game Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Square Enix
While Hollywood has been hounded by critics for a "lack of creativity" and terminal "sequelitis," the gaming industry has largely escaped such labels.

As sequels, remakes and franchise tentpoles continue to dominate the box office (to the chagrin of legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola), a trending duality of sorts has emerged in the video game industry — at least at first glance.

Video game remakes and remasters have become hot items in gaming. Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 (a remake of the 1998 original) has sold more than 4.7 million copies since it launched last January; Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (a redesign of the 1993 Game Boy title) bowed in September and has gone on to sell over 3 million copies; and October’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (a “reimagining” of 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) from developer Infinity Ward and publisher Activision was the best-selling title of 2019, grossing more than $600 million in its first three days of release.

But while the film industry (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the television industry) is continuously dogged by critics for a “lack of creativity” and terminal “sequelitis,” video games have largely escaped such labels, leaving one to ask a simple question: Why?

The answer is multifaceted. Very simply, there is a larger variety of games available now than there ever has been before and — unlike with Hollywood — games are global and the barrier between audience and developer is much thinner. Online storefronts like Steam and GOG have made it easy for independent game studios (some of which consist of literally a single person) to get their title in front of consumers. The result of that is a wide, eclectic range of new games, characters, stories, etcetera that flies in the face of the more-established ecosystems of film and television.

That said, the influx of remakes, remasters and “reimaginings” of popular game titles is undeniable (not to mention sequels and yearly, incremental sports title releases). Perhaps the most anticipated title of 2020 is, in fact, a remake of a classic role-playing title, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII. There’s also the upcoming Resident Evil 3 remake, which hopes to match the success of last year’s predecessor.

What else tops the list of most-anticipated games this year? A sequel to 2013’s The Last of Us from developer Naughty Dog, the third installment in Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs franchise, the sixth main entry in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series and adaptations of Marvel’s Avengers characters from Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix. There’s also CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, a new game IP that is inspired by creator Mike Pondsmith’s 1988 tabletop role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020.

When comparing the lists of 2019’s top-grossing movies and best-selling games, the similarities are obvious. Only two films that were not direct sequels or remakes made the list — March’s Captain Marvel and October’s Joker — and both are based on preexisting, massively popular franchises (the case could of course be made that while Captain Marvel is a stand-alone film and the first for the titular hero, it is a part of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe and, therefore, a form of sequel). Meanwhile, for games, the year’s top-grossing AAA titles on PC and console were all either direct sequels (Borderlands 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division 2), yearly incremental sports releases (FIFA 19 and 20, NBA 2K20) or the aforementioned reimagining of Modern Warfare.

It’s not unsurprising that, as gaming enters its fifth commercial decade, there is a wide backlog of titles rife for rehashing for a modern audience. Hollywood (and, specifically, Disney) has been cashing in on that stockpile for years now. However, when comparing the two industries, there is one major factor to consider — and it is reflective of the respective ages of video games and film.

Despite their current financial dominance of the entertainment market, the game industry is relatively young and, as a result, the technology that produces them is constantly evolving. Classic games, therefore, can often be seen as incredibly outdated (though still quite charming in many ways) when contrasted with today’s offerings. While the same is true of certain special effects in films, rarely does a remake of a classic movie feel like it was done to more accurately portray the original intention of the filmmaker (George Lucas’ reissues of the original Star Wars trilogy notwithstanding, for better or worse).

The same is not true of games. Perhaps the most common refrain of game developers throughout the 1980s and '90s is that of being limited by the power of their technology. Information storage was finite, color palettes were restricted and even the music had to be approached with space-saving attentiveness (only three notes could be played on the Nintendo Entertainment System at a time).

Considering those imposed limitations that developers had to manage, the advent of high-powered modern game design technology is a strong argument for why remakes in the industry are a promising trend. Last year’s Resident Evil 2 is what the original game always strove to be, a claustrophobic survival horror with nightmare-inducing zombies. The remasters of classic Final Fantasy titles are now able to convey the rich, detailed worlds the designers created decades ago in a way that appropriately showcases their creative artistry.

Video game remakes work because, in many ways, they are the antithesis of film remakes. They honor the original vision by elevating it to what it was hoping to be but unable to achieve due to the limits of technology. The best remakes (in any medium) maintain the heart and soul of their source material while simultaneously modernizing them. In that regard, games have outshone film, delivering on the promise of the original while also updating them in a way that appeals to the nostalgia of longtime fans and the discerning eye of newcomers.