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film nostalgia videogames

Remake Fatigue, or Lack Thereof: What Hollywood Could Learn from Video Games

Remakes, reboots, and revivals abound in every facet of entertainment today. To name the smallest fraction, Spongebob: The Musical in the theater world, Godzilla vs. King Kong in film, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life in television, and Taylor Swift’s new renditions of her old discography dominate their respective headlines along with scores of other rejuvenated content. However, what is more and more frequently following on the heels of these popular projects is the suggestion – often the lament – that remakes are overtaking entertainment and creating a saddening lack of originality. The only medium that has been able to repeatedly offer successful remakes without simultaneously generating disappointment is video games, as Patrick Shanley notes in his THR article “Remake Fatigue? Not for Video Games.”

In his article, Shanley notes that in 2019, “of the top 10 global earners [in film] only two – Captain Marvel and Joker – were not direct sequels or remakes of existing franchises.” The same was true for video games, with remakes making up eight of the top ten games of the year. While remakes are currently saturating both industries and generating financial success, video game remakes appear to be avoiding the criticism and accusations of lost creativity that Hollywood is currently suffering.

Nostalgia is the main appeal in remakes of both games and films, but that nostalgia is implemented very differently between the mediums. Shanley comes close to identifying this key difference when quoting Paul Yan, co-studio head of development for Toys for Bob: “there’s a unique component with games where there’s a muscle memory built into them. I don’t think there’s a parallel to that in film.” This is a key point that is at the root of the difference between film and video game’s nostalgia, yet Shanley fails to identify and expand upon the implications of these ideas, of which I believe there are many.

With video games, the nostalgia is in the mechanics. There is familiarity in the controls, the structure, and the format of the gameplay. This allows game creators to create entirely new stories, characters, worlds, and challenges, without sacrificing the game’s nostalgia factor. With film, on the other hand, there is generally little variety across the medium in terms of structure itself. The heart of a film, the thing an audience misses, is its characters.

On the whole, this seems limiting for film. Characters certainly can develop lives that transcend their film and generate genuine audience interest in their lives beyond the events of the film. However, by and large, characters are also developed to fit their film, with their most interesting personality points intentionally resolved by the film’s end. The reboots we’re seeing so many of today had not been envisioned when the original content was being created; when the characters were being developed, these stories were not what the creators had in mind for them. Of course, there are many instances where a new story for existing characters is organic, well-executed, and manages to be both original and nostalgic. Yet, among these skillful remakes, are equally as many (if not more) instances of characters being forced into situations they don’t naturally fit into for the sake of nostalgia- and audiences are noticing.

To contrast this current dilemma for film, I’ll give an example of my favorite video game franchise. The Fallout video games bring the player into a post-apocalyptic world, where players are able to explore a very detailed and dilapidated future America. While there were a couple early PC Fallout games, there are three in the franchise that are widely popular and playable on every major gaming console: Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4, which are set in the Mojave Desert, Washington D.C., and Boston, respectively. All three games allow the player to design the look and skillset of their character and freely explore the world around them, while still offering the structure of a main quest that provides some background on the player character.

As these games are all set geographically far apart from each other, there are no overlapping characters between games, and the player characters all have unique personal backstories that drive the game; even if a player designed their character exactly the same in all three games, the plots of the games eliminate the possibility that it could be the same character in all of them. Nonetheless, Fallout 3 completely filled the Fallout New Vegas sized absence I felt after completing the game in its entirety. The gameplay was exactly the same, as was the culture within the game, which made it feel like I was simply expanding my Fallout experience and learning more about a universe that was bigger than one game could capture. The consistency between the games allowed the changes in character and plot to be an exciting challenge rather than disorienting or jarring.

I couldn’t say the same for Fallout 4. I was immediately pulled out of the experience. The gameplay was different enough that the muscle memory I had from the past two games led to mistakes rather than ease. More importantly, though, the universe did not have the same feel as the previous games. The in-game radio, which used to play 50’s-sounding tunes, now played rock music, and there were major features of the game that were brand new and confusing. It didn’t feel like the same world, and therefore didn’t have the nostalgia factor that I craved after completing both previous games.

Realizing the source of the nostalgia in film and video games can offer some key insight into how films could capitalize on nostalgia and existing intellectual property without sacrificing creativity and originality. As some creators appear to be realizing, the answer may be franchising. Expanding the story world of an existing film, rather than creating a brand new one for characters who were designed for the story of their original film, gives creators options rather than limiting them.

Television has embraced this approach, with the nature of spinoffs changing in recent years. While spinoffs used to focus on one character from an existing show (Joey after Friends, and Frasier after Cheers, to name two), spinoffs today primarily aim to expand the world of an original series and create a wider universe with new characters. The Walking Dead has done this with its prequel Fear the Walking Dead, as has 9-1-1 with its Texas-set spinoff 9-1-1: Lone Star. Perhaps most notable is the world of Chicago’s emergency and law-enforcement services that spans Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Justice.

Film most certainly has its franchises as well. It is now near impossible to miss the massive worlds of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, film’s franchising seems to still be limited to the sci-fi genre, and generally those already based on comic books. The key factor in a work’s potential to be franchised is the personality of the universe itself- the setting’s ability to still feel familiar and interesting if it were filled with entirely new characters. It’s understandable that this is easiest to achieve in the sci-fi genre where the setting is often a large part of the appeal. Nonetheless, Shanley’s drawing attention to the difference in reception of remakes in film versus video games suggests that Hollywood’s struggle with remake fatigue, and the current challenge creators are facing, may ultimately be a question of world-building.