Look at the USG Ishimura. Once a lavishly detailed far-future spaceship whose sprawling network of metal corridors and dimly lit rooms harbour menacing, zombie-like monsters, the Ishimura is now an even more lavishly detailed far-future spaceship whose sprawling network of metal corridors and dimly lit rooms harbour menacing, zombie-like monsters.
In 2008, when the original Dead Space was released, the Ishimura was a place made foreboding by the mystery of a creature-birthing infection, and the potential terrors that might wait around every corner. 15 years and a great expense later, the new Dead Space’s Ishimura is exactly the same, only more intricately rendered. Its dark rooms are darker than before, the textures of its pulsating, endoscopy-imaged alien walls more wetly gross than before, and the rumble of gunfire that pulses through the PlayStation controller more finely calibrated than before. Protagonist Isaac Clarke speaks occasionally instead of looking mutely on at dramatic and emotional scenes of comradely death and peril like a socially inept metal statue as he did in the past. And there are a trio of side missions plunked into the story in order to flesh out some of the backstory and pad out its runtime into the double-digit hour count.
These changes, though, are cursory. They do very little to change the game into something notably different from what it already was, and, because of this, Dead Space (2023) ends up feeling, basically, less like a revisitation of the past than a software update writ large.
As Yussef notes in a piece about the game from last week, we are unfortunate citizens of The Remake Era—a period in which even the brain-numbed safety of endless sequels and reboots, spin-offs and side stories, has given way to the padded, crib-like sanctuary of remakes that are even safer financial bets for mainstream game-makers and publishers. What’s most notable about these games isn’t the market conditions that create them, which are defensible to audiences who consider themselves savvy consumers of content rather than appreciators of anything like art, but what their creation suggests about mainstream videogames’ ankle-high aspirations for the medium.
With a remake like Dead Space, the promise is that this new release will somehow be a truer, better version of the original, despite that original already being a complete work. From this viewpoint, Dead Space (2008) is old. Though functional and finished for many years, the announcement of a remake has meant that the original has become instantly outdated and unfinished—a game that might have been acceptable to the brachiosaur brains of the ‘00s audience but now seems hopelessly out of step with the modern player’s requirements for passing a constantly-increasing polygonal threshold.
The late ‘00s Dead Space isn’t, by any means, unwieldly or ugly. Replaying it last year, it made the impression, instead, that big-budget action games haven’t changed all that much in the decade-and-a-half since its release at their core. It still sounds and looks good. It still feels good to dismember monsters with the plasma cutter. It still tells a story as competently as the one told in 2008+.
That this game was remade speaks to a desire not only for safe profits but, in its glowing reception, a medium-wide grasping at some sort of wispy, Platonic ideal of every videogame yet released. The promise of the remake is the promise of another step toward that perfect version—one that’s meant to await tantalizingly just ahead in a future where better lighting techniques, artificial intelligence programming, or technical advancements we haven’t dreamed up yet await. At some point, videogames teach us, perfection hides just at the golden line of the horizon. The past has nothing to offer but dusty historical notes and an education in how to do it better next time around. The present is a series of temporary satisfactions and disappointments in the ephemeral joys of fleeting accomplishments.
Videogames are a medium obsessed with what’s next. Their mainstream always looks ahead, dangling the promises of something better with every big-budgeted new release or, even more, the pending arrival of a new graphics card or console. Nothing is ever finished or good enough to exist for its own sake. There is always another improvement—another patch, another sequel, another remake—ready to render the old dull and ugly.
The new Dead Space provides the kind of excitement that a Microsoft Word update does. (Or, maybe more depending on what line of work you’re in.) It adds in a few features and makes the user experience more pleasant, like a software revision or update. It comes closer to some perfect utility that won’t be realized until the next decade refines the shadows on the wall into something a bit nicer to look at once more.
A remake is valuable in what it changes from its original—and, in the act of remaking, a change is always present. The best examples of the practice create something unexpected, functioning more as retellings and reconsiderations than revisions. Though not every aspect of its padded-out plotting is a success, Final Fantasy VII Remake at least considered the possibilities inherent in forgoing a faithful update in favour of using a remake as a method of novel interaction with the original text.
Dead Space, though, is just the latest drop in a steady drip of remakes with more modest ambitions. It is a totally fine game in a vacuum. Playing Dead Space (2023) is enjoyable in the same way that playing Dead Space (2008) is enjoyable. Remakes of this kind are anti-art in a true sense, make-work and wheel-spinning that reflects not so much anything of human thought and feeling but of the demands of capital and the production of quarterly reports-stuffing content. Eventually, the next remake will be even better. The USG Ishimura will look more striking than it does now, and, when it arrives, audiences will think back on the cobwebbed, creaky 2023 Dead Space as an antique from a different time.
+ The gamer-y concept that anything released more than a few years ago can be considered “too dated” to enjoy is tied into this whole brutal pattern of self-inflicted cultural obsolescence.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.