So a bunch of ex-Ensemble Studios people and some company calling itself Hidden Path have put out an updated version of Age of Empires II, and it is causing me to have some complicated feelings. Here, then, is my attempt to work through them.
I think the best way to do this is to start with the details, then try to work up to some sort of bigger, more abstract thesis about things. So I’ll start by saying that this is a remake that gets things mostly right. Except that the things it doesn’t get right are such weird, consciously-made yet wholly inexplicable decisions about something to not get right, which is almost a bigger failure than getting things mostly wrong.
What I’m talking about is the decision to update a few of the in-game effects and textures for no reason other than to update them. Take a look at the farms in OG AoE2:
Now, for some reason that is still a mystery to me, here is what farms look like in the HD edition:
Gross. They don’t even look like they’re from the same game.
There are other visual changes, too. A few fonts got changed, the cliff texture got an overhaul, water now shimmers and moves instead of being just another texture, the fog of war is smoother, the resource icons are different, and the flames that indicate building damage got recoloured.
I cannot understand this thought process. I have tried to rationalize it a number of times now, and every time, I have failed. Why would you change those farms? How can you not realize as you are making the change that you are actively making things uglier? Look at those original farms. Look at how natural they look, how well they fit. But the new farms stick out like an angry zit.
The new flames have the same problem. The old ones are a dull yellow-tan sort of colour — which looks a bit odd, yes — but the new ones are a bright orange, and while this might be more ‘realistic’ insofar as depicting fire goes, the result is that they look totally out of place in-game. They ignore the original’s somewhat flat, low-saturation colour palette.
I understand the motivation to make the water move, but that backfires too, because it’s a visual anachronism — it looks too good for the game it’s a part of. And the resource icon changes are just bad UI design — the classic steak icon representing food has been changed to a corn ear, presumably in some inexplicable attempt to placate vegan players, but from the corner of your eye (which is where peripheral elements of a HUD, by definition, spend most of their time), you can’t tell it apart from the wood or gold icons. Vegans be damned, I never had this problem with the bright, blood-red steak.
Come on, Hidden Path. It’s like you don’t even understand why people hate the Star Wars special editions so much.
• • •
Some time ago, I had an epiphany about video games, which was this: my appreciation and enjoyment of a particular video game is at least as much about my memories of playing it as it is about the actual quantifiable ‘goodness’ of said game.
In other words, nostalgia is a huge component of video game appreciation — maybe even the most important component.
Are modern games better than ‘old’ games? That sounds like an impossible question, but let’s break it down. Are modern games prettier? I think this is almost impossible to argue against. Even games with a throwback aesthetic — Fez, Shovel Knight, Retro City Rampage, etc. — look significantly better than the material they’re aping; the technology is just exponentially better. Same thing for sound and music: I don’t know that new games necessarily have better-written music, but I do know that composers in the ’80s would kill for the sonic capabilities even the most basic of handheld electronics have today.
Things get messy if we bring design and writing into the discussion. As far as basic game mechanic design goes, I think things like falling block puzzles and paddles that deflect balls have gone about as far as they can go. But modern technology allows for all sorts of amazing design possibilities that, again, would knock the socks off programmers even 20 years ago. (I’m mostly talking about Portal here.) Writing is also hard to call one way or the other. There are certainly old games that are well-written. But as the medium matures, we’re starting to get lots of new, exciting, sometimes very meta takes on what game writing can be, and how that differs from other media. (Again, I’m mostly talking about Portal here.)
It’s mostly a question of maturity and experience: modern games tend to be technically ‘better’ than retro games because we’ve got a lot better at making games over the years, and so has the technology. Even if you pick out specific examples of great older games, you have to concede that modern games are, on average, better made than their predecessors. And you certainly have to concede that a game that starts development today has more potential for technical, maybe even artistic greatness than a game made even 20 years ago.
But there’s something very powerful about nostalgia — more powerful for video games, I think, than for any other medium — that keeps people clinging to old games. From a strictly clinical standpoint, is StarCraft a good real-time strategy game? Yes. Is it better than StarCraft II? I would have a real uphill battle trying to argue that. But do I have as much fun playing SCII? Does it make me feel as warm and fuzzy inside as the original? Does the simple act of firing it up and hearing the opening tones of the in-game music and the babbling of my workers take me back to a simpler, happier time of innocence and good friends and carefree quality time spent with video games?
Not yet. It might, one day. But not yet.
• • •
Game publishers know this, of course. The HD remake trend may seem recent, but this sort of thing has been happening for a long time1. Game publishers know that nostalgia is a powerful force, and they also know that making new things is expensive, so the HD remake is one of their favourite tools: the cost/benefit analysis is a no-brainer. And the best part is that you can do it at least twice a decade — maybe even more, if you’re lucky enough to have the kind of game simple enough to be viable on handheld platforms. You can please old fans and hopefully even make some new ones and the fraction of the cost of developing any original IP.
There are only two, maybe two and a half acceptable ways of doing this.
The first way is to redo everything completely in the modern idiom. New graphics, redone sound, a more accurate translation, overhaul outdated and broken mechanics, the works. The Final Fantasy franchise is generally a good example of how to do this more or less right — the 25th anniversary versions of the original Final Fantasy goes for retro appeal with high-resolution, super-polished take on the original sprite-based aesthetic, and the remake of Final Fantasy III (originally for DS but now on iOS and Android too) ambitiously takes its source material to full 3D. At its absolute best, a remake can give an old game a fresh coat of paint, smooth out the bumps and really make it shine.
The second way is to do the absolute bare minimum you need to do to get the game running on the target hardware, and nothing else; essentially, to do a straight port. Obviously, this is a lot less work than a full-on remake, but it’s also more authentic. Not that full-on remakes are inauthentic or somehow not as valid — done well, they’re wonderful. But done right, a straight port will earn you top marks from the diehards, even if newer audiences may not find it as immediately palatable.
The second-and-a-half way of doing this is to do an almost-straight port, but attempt to ‘fix’ some things as you go. This is very delicate, and very easy to screw up, because the temptation is, I imagine, huge. You have source material that’s mostly good, except for a few imperfections, and now is your opportunity to right your perceived wrongs. In most cases, ports tend to fix glitches, or correct translation errors — minor stuff like that. It’s when you try to go beyond the basics that you get into trouble, because if you go to far, you start tampering with the very fabric of what made the game successful: the audience’s memories of the game. Which, after all, is the reason you’re doing this in the first place.
This is the problem that Age of Empires II: HD Edition has. It oversteps its mandate, and it does it in weird, inconsistent ways. A version of AoE2 that runs on modern machines is a great idea — the 256-colour palette and the lack of any multiplayer infrastructure means it doesn’t play nice with Windows 7 and upwards, and it’s hard to find anyone to play with. The UI is also stuck in the era of 800 x 600 native displays, and that time when we thought a 4:5 pixel ratio was a good idea, so some architectural shoring up is definitely appreciated.
But why change the farms, the cliffs, the water, the flames? Why use a different font in a few random places? Why change the goddamn fucking resource icons to something actually measurably less good? The result is a game that feels like little more than a sloppy fan mod, done by someone with an amateur eye and a very loose conception of what made the original the original.
It feels like it was reanimated in the Pet Sematary.
Releasing a work of art to the public is like giving birth. Yes, it’s your creation and you made it everything it is, but once it’s out, it takes on a life of its own, and you can’t put it back; you can only hope you did your best to set it on the right course. Your film, your game, your mural on a downtown utility box — it belongs as much to the public as it does to you, now. You are no longer the singular source of the work’s meaning. This is part of what Roland Barthes means when he talks about the death of the author.
That’s why you can’t just go back and start changing things — even little things. In fact, changing little things seems, paradoxically, to provoke an even stronger negative reaction than changing bigger things, at least among the diehards. It’s why the American version of The Office is one of the most wildly successful TV shows of the last decade, and yet I’ve now written a 2000-word screed about texture changes in a fifteen-year old computer game.
Am I being harsh? Maybe. But I have a lot invested here. Me and AoE2, we go way back. The inclusion of Steam Workshop functionality means that, less than a week after the game’s release, I can already get texture packs to change everything more or less back to how it looks in the original. But why do I have to? Why be so faithful, so true to the original in so many respects, just to try and make a few things pop? Is it actually the change that bothers me, or just the fact that it’s poorly done? Would I care if they popped in a way that didn’t look so garishly wrong2?
Well, it might just be the temporary unemployment talking, but apparently I care enough to write 2000 words about it.
I’m not sure on which party that reflects most poorly.
1. The first example that comes to mind is Super Mario All-Stars, released 20 years ago, but I expect there are even older examples. And of course this happens in every other artistic medium, too — remastered records, Blu-ray re-releases, updated and abridged editions, etc.
2. Why does George Lucas get so much shit for the Star Wars special editions? It’s the same reason: he’s messing with people’s memories of the originals. He’s changing narrative details and updating the special effects to fulfill his vision, or whatever. The special effects have the same problem as the AoE2 water — they stick out for looking too good. But the narrative changes are comparatively minor, and yet they bug people an inordinate amount — because they’re so minor. To use the best-known example, Greedo shooting Han first is such a small, insignificant change in the broader scope of the movie, but people went ballistic. Changing a minor detail for no apparent reason other than to change it feels like a betrayal.
And you thought I was just going to make a Star Wars jab and not follow up on it.