Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Remakes and Re-imaginings

I always imagined (heh) that the term "re-imagining" came into existed because "remake" stopped testing well with focus groups.

"Goddamnit," said the tired 18-35 white male who decides what we are sold, "not another fucking remake."
"No no no! This is different, this is a re-imagining!" the panicked marketing director pleads.
"I find myself turgid with anticipation," the ideal consumer replies.

But enough of that. I want to talk about what makes it work, and I have an amazing example.

In 1994, a game was released where you took the control of an international organisation given the task of defending the Earth from alien invasion. It was called X-COM: UFO Defence (Or X-COM: Enemy Unknown, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, varyingly depending on your locale). It feature a very light, almost non-existant plot and story (even for the time) that was revealed almost exlusively through text-info dumps from your science researches.

There were, in effect, two games being played at the same time! One half was on a global stategy level, where you built your bases, managed your funds, researched technologies and built new equipment. The other half was a turn-based tactical combat interface, where you sent out a bunch of your soldiers to fight the alien threat face to face.

The game begins with little to no fanfare or story. You begin, you chose your difficulty, and then you are faced with a globe map of the Earth. You place your first base. Eventually, a UFO shows up on radar and you shoot it down, then send your troops in to mop-up and grab whatever alien technology you can. Get back to base, queue up some research on the new artifacts and repeat as required. When you finish the research, you get little info-dumps giving you insight into the alien physiology, psychology, purpose and goals.

Then something magical happens.

Since all you have in the game is a world-building framework, you begin to create your *own* story. Your soldiers (all of whom have names and unique stats, and fairly wide-ranging portraits and sprites) begin to take on personality traits that were never coded into the game. You have Willis, your heavy-weapons specialist who only ever misses his shots if he sees one of his comrades die. Franklin, that asshole who panics at the fight sight of actual battle and routinely frags X-COM members. Victoria, the cool sharpshooter that not only never misses, but survived six missions where she got shot without armour and lived to payback that sectoid fucker.

No two X-COM games are the same, and no two players play the same. You begin to grow attached to this story of a desperate fight for human survival against overwhelming odds, not because of careful scripting or dialogue or multi-million dollars cinematics... But because of the simple interaction with this open world, and the effects your choices have.

There are few moments I can recall, in gaming, that are as brutally tense as a UFO recovery mission gone horribly wrong. You pile your troops out of the Skyranger, and begin to explore the area. The sun is down, visibility is shit, the only light source you have are the dying fires from the crash sight. Move one of your mans a little too far, and a burning bolt of plasma screams out of the darkness and destroys him. You re-deploy your troops, trying to find the source, but more of your soliders are quickly felled by the invisible sniper. You desperately send rockets and heavy cannon shots exploding into the distance, and are rewarded with the dying scream of a single alien.

You've lost half your troops and expended a third of your ammo. And you know that there are five or six more of the x-rays out there, somewhere... Waiting for you.

The experience intensifies ten-fold on the first actual terror mission, where you don't have a focal point of your search. Just a city, filled with civilians being murdered by alien invaders.

The experience is something most modern games have no idea how to reproduce. They are so bent on holding your hand through their carefully crafted and linear plot that you don't grow attached to your experience. It becomes something you watch, not something you've created. And when 2K studios announced a reboot of the X-COM Franchise (which hasn't seen a new game in years), fans were excited.

Until it was announced it would be a shooter.

The backlash was something to behold. The more information was released about the new X-COM game, the angrier the fanbase began. It had nothing to do with the franchise, except it had to do with aliens invading earth. There was no strategic depth, no open-world, no option to rename your hordes of poor defenceless goons after your friends and gleefully march them into a burning plasma barrage.

It would be a linear, scripted plot bringing you from fight to fight, giving little to no true interaction and feedback. It was an obvious marketing ploy to slap the X-COM name on this new game, to give a mediocre shooter some legs from brand-loyal purchasers (and one of a parade of remakes of classic, varried games as first person shooters). It was, to be blunt, insulting.

Then a miracle happened. Firaxis, the makers of the Civilisation series (and, ironically, also publishing their games under the 2K banner) announced that they were working on an X-COM game as well. A game featuring a strategic layer, where you built and maintained a base, did research on advanced technology, built new equipment, and managed a squad of soliders. A game where you sent out your troops to a crash site or a terror site and launch into a turn-based squad tactical combat mission.

When it was finally released (Before the shooter version of the game, despite being announced almost a year after), it met fan expectations. It was not the perfect remake fans may have wanted, but it captured everything that made X-COM one of the best games every created. The plot was given in cinematic cutscenes, but it gave the same kind of information that the text-briefings did in the original. The rest was open world, sandboxy. Your soldiers (with some amazing customization options) took on a life and personality of their own independant of their stats and script.

The shooter was released a week or so ago, rebranded as The Bureau: X-COM Declassified, and will probably be forgotten within a year. The proper remake is still being played, updated, and has a sizable expantion pack being released by the end of the year.

The lesson to be learned here is not that remakes or reimaginings shouldn't be attempted. X-COM showed that it is possible to do it, and properly. The lesson is that when you remake something, you should look at what made the original popular, or (if it's a cult or niche property), what gave it the identity it holds. There is no requirement to hew exactly to the original; the requirement should be to hew to the originals mood, theme, and ideas. Do that, craft your new product with a love and respect for the original, and you will find yourself basking in the glow and adoration of a fanbase, thankful that you obviously understand why they enjoyed the original and willing to forgive differences.

Don't, and you'll end up making another third-person cover shooter with aliens in it.

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