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What makes a remake? Not even developers really know.

(The Washington Post illustration)

In the world of movies, the term “remake” is easy to understand: It’s an old movie, re-made. This might be by going from animation to live action, a la Disney’s “The Lion King” (2019) and “Aladdin” (2019). It may be by giving us the old story with some new twists, in films such as “Pet Sematary” (2019) and “Jacob’s Ladder” (2019), or a fairly straight retelling of an older movie with a more recognisable cast, as with “The Upside” and “Call Of The Wild.”

This regular reliance on reusing pre-existing movies has been common practise in Hollywood for some time now. In gaming, the improved graphics and technical capability of the PS4 and Xbox One have led to a similar rise in remakes — some of the best-received games of the year have been remakes, such as “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2” and “Final Fantasy VII: Remake.”

But things get a bit more thorny when it comes to definitions.

All of the movies listed above are remakes, and when it comes to film, a remake is easy to define. In gaming, however, the terms remake, remaster, port, definitive edition, deluxe edition, demake, optimized version and more are sometimes used interchangeably. While each word has its own meaning, publishers and players use them in different ways. It can be difficult to keep up.

The Washington Post spoke to the developers of three games from this year, each of which revisited and functionally “remade” an older title: “Final Fantasy VII: Remake,” “Resident Evil 3” and “Saints Row: The Third Remastered.” But while each game is officially labeled as either a remake or remaster, internally, the development teams often created their own, more specific vocabulary to more precisely describe their visions for their games, and how much inspiration they sought from the original games.

Each set of developers spoke not only about the language around these games and what it means in their specific circumstance, but also about why they opted to retread old ground at all, how development of a pre-existing game differs from a fresh sequel or new IP, and ultimately, what makes a remake.

What are remakes?

Let’s start with something simpler and more commonsense. What is the difference between a remake and a remaster? For Yoshinori Kitase, the producer of “Final Fantasy VII: Remake,” the answer is clear.

“If the characters, world settings/lore, and game design can still pass in the modern day, but the graphics need to be updated, then that would be considered a ‘remaster,’” wrote Kitase in an email to The Post. “As for ‘Final Fantasy VII,’ not only did the original graphics feel outdated, but I felt the turn-based battle design also felt dated for a modern audience, and so we decided to reimagine the title as a ‘remake.’”

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“Final Fantasy VII,” first released in 1997, is widely viewed as one of the most influential games of all time, helping to shape the landscape of gaming in the decade which followed its release. This year’s remake of the game brought with it substantial changes. First, it shifted the core battle mechanics from a turn-based system to a more action-focused one. It also only remade a chunk of the original, expanding the Midgar section of the 1997 game — initially only around five hours long — into a 40+ hour deep dive.

Kitase added, however, that Square Enix doesn’t abide by a clear definition for either remake or remaster. The labeling, in practice, is fluid. After all, the term “remake," if broken down to its component parts, implies some kind of fidelity to the original. But by Kitase’s distinction, a remake might entail dramatic changes to a game’s story or gameplay. And what happens if the changes to gameplay and story stray in significant ways from the source material?

“We like to think of the recent ‘Resident Evil 2’ and ‘Resident Evil 3’ releases as ‘reimaginings’ of the originals,” said Peter Fabiano, producer for “Resident Evil 3,” adding yet another term into gaming’s already crowded remake-adjacent lexicon. “Terms like ‘remakes’ and ‘remasters’ are not always specifically defined. ... While we looked to the original games for inspiration and story content, and especially with Resident Evil 3, the games are not a one-to-one ‘remaster.’”

The idea of a remaster raises its own questions. The term originates from the idea of a master copy, usually of music, meant for distribution. Remastering, then, means preparing music for redistribution, often upgrading audio recorded to older formats to newer, clearer ones. But in the case of games, what happens if the remastered visuals — say, the change from a gray sky to a higher fidelity, bluer sky — change the tone of a remastered title? Does that bring something new to the game, blurring the line between remaster and remake?

“We think the language can be very subjective,” wrote Nikolay Stoyanov, lead art director on “Saints Row: The Third Remastered” in an email to The Post. “Our own goal … was to build a remaster that came as close to being considered more of a ‘redux’ (without being a remake) as possible.”

The phrase “redux” highlights the extensive work that went into “Saint’s Row: The Third Remastered.” Given that the core playing experience of the game has not changed — the plot, gunplay, voice lines, mission objectives, etc. remain identical to the original — the game does not qualify as a remake, by Kitase’s definition. (The Post, in its review, described the game as looking “so good, it’s almost a remake,” perhaps muddying the linguistic waters a bit.)

However, the level of rebuilding undertaken by the developers exceeded the usual expectations of a remaster. While “Saint’s Row: The Third Remastered” largely kept the game’s mechanics the same, the scale of the graphical overhaul was akin to that of a new game. A traditional remaster is usually relatively straightforward, and involves cleaning up, improving, and tweaking existing assets. In “Saint’s Row: The Third Remastered,” however, a lot of the original assets were thrown out, with new (but identical-looking) ones built in their place. For example, each vehicle had new individual undercarriages, engines, interiors, lights, grills, and bumpers redesigned from scratch for a new engine, designed to look like a more polished version of the original model. You might even say the game’s assets — all the stuff you see — had been remade.

The ‘Saints Row 3’ remaster is so good, it’s almost a remake

Let’s recap. Think of older games as creaky houses. Remasters — and by extension, the redux — are repairs to that house. “Saint’s Row: The Third Remastered” tore the house down completely, but rebuilt an identical one in its place, making it, in Stoyanov’s words, a “redux.” The game went above and beyond the expectations of a remaster, but still fulfilled the basic function: Don’t change the base game, just make it look better.

But while tearing the house down is uncommon for remasters, it’s policy for remakes; the latter also has license to alter the blueprints before commencing rebuilding too.

During these interviews, both Kitase and Fabiano often switched between ‘remake’ and ‘reimagining’ at will. It is perhaps best to consider the two phrases synonyms, but applied for different purposes. Remake tends to be the public facing descriptor, one which lets players know they are getting a completely new and different version of a game they have played before. The gameplay, larger world, side quests, and cutscenes will differ, but the characters, core story, and general spirit and direction likely remain. Reimagining is more inward facing vocabulary, part of the developer vernacular as they work on remakes, reminding themselves and their team that their job is not just to recreate what once was, but to reimagine it for modern audiences.

One problem is that too many descriptors are used interchangeably. Ports, which involve an existing game being recoded to allow play on a console it was not initially designed for (“Saint’s Row IV” was ported to the Nintendo Switch earlier this year), typically involve less work. Often, they will change very little about the game besides what is absolutely necessary; games built for a PS4 Pro often face a graphical downgrade to fit on the Nintendo Switch, for example. However, players occasionally refer to these as “remasters,” even if developers rarely do so.

There are also “definitive editions” and “deluxe editions,” as well as a handful of other superlatives, which sometimes refer to the same game repackaged but with all of the downloadable extras included. However, “deluxe” can also sometimes refer to a remaster. “Mafia: Definitive Edition,” which releases in September, is a remake on the scale of “Resident Evil 3,” while 2014’s “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition” was just the standard 2013 “Tomb Raider” with a couple of bug fixes, extra multiplayer features and all of the DLC included.

Why are remakes?

While the ‘what’ of remakes may remain slightly murky, the question of ‘why’ garnered a much clearer answer: To bring a great game to a new generation of fans. Stoyanov and Fabiano both pointed to the games their projects were based on — “Saints Row: The Third” and “Resident Evil 3: Nemesis” respectively — as titles beloved by fans. The latter, Fabiano explained, had helped popularize the survival horror genre.

Kitase, meanwhile, spoke of the power of “Final Fantasy VII”’s leading man, Cloud. Despite being widely recognizable, even to younger gaming fans, many of those who knew of Cloud incidentally had never had the chance to play his origin story.

“Final Fantasy VII has been a beloved title for 23 years, but I felt we needed a restart this time around, so that it would continue to be loved for further into the future — for 20 years, for 50 years, and so on,” wrote Kitase.

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Video game technology has improved rapidly since the 1990s, when both the original “Final Fantasy VII” and “Resident Evil 3” were released. Not only do graphics look much better, but developers today have a much broader horizon when it comes to mechanics and gameplay. But this growth raises questions for developers seeking a balance between modernizing the flow of a game and nostalgia.

“Coming back to Resident Evil 3 with all the modern technology available to us now ... really helped us realize some of the goals of the original game that were hindered by limitations at the time,” said Fabiano. “In our effort to keep it fresh for returning fans we’ve made some changes that we felt would be a good fit with modernized gameplay, but again we wanted to stay true to the essence of the original game.” These changes, such as improved graphics, more substantial cutscenes, and a switch to an over-the-shoulder camera perspective, were made because 2020’s technology “helped us realize some of the goals of the original game that were hindered by limitations at the time,” said Fabiano.

Often, the spirit of the original is an invaluable resource. “What’s appealing about developing a remake is that creators who were captivated by the original can come together to work on the project,” said Naoki Hamaguchi, the “Final Fantasy VII: Remake” co-director. “In this way, it’s easier for the development team to align their creative intent, and development itself becomes something very fulfilling.”

Stacey Henley is a writer who covers pop culture. She has previously written for IGN, Polygon, Eurogamer and more. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey.

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