Everyone you ask has a different opinion on what is a remake versus a remaster when it comes to games. For films it’s an easy distinction, but thanks to gamers and marketing teams alike – the distinction is rather messy when it comes to video games.
The recent announcement of The Last of Us Part 1 makes for an interesting discussion. This new version is billed as a full remake, though reading discussion online you’ll probably find the general consensus is that this is yet another remaster. To get to the bottom of this, I think it’s useful to give a my personal definition of what each means.
This is the one that generally has the least difference between the new game and the source material. A remaster keeps the vast majority of the game intact and unchanged, but allows for the power of newer technology to present the game in higher quality. A higher rendering resolution, higher audio quality and higher frame rate caps are all common features of a game remaster. You could cynically think of remasters as making console players pay for a game again to get the benefits a PC player gets just by turning up the settings – and a lot of the time this isn’t too far off the mark.
Often though you’ll find things like updated character models or graphics options (see Spider-Man or Tomb Raider) which can help justify the price of entry, but generally the game will be pretty close to the original, just closer what you’d expect from a game on a more modern platform. Often publishers allow a free upgrade for remasters, especially now where they don’t need to print new discs to adjust graphics options and frame rate caps – it can often just be a patch. It’s a new coat of paint over an existing game, rather than being rebuilt from the bottom up.
This is the next step beyond a remaster and generally means you’re using an original game as a basis and making it mostly all over again. I like to think of a remake as a developer saying “If we were making this game today, with all the technology and game design lessons we’ve learned until now, what could we do?”.
An important distinction to make is that a remake is not a purely visual change. Environments, characters, artwork and gameplay systems are totally rebuilt. It’s not a coat of paint, it’s demolishing the house and building it again.
Shadow of the Colossus is a particularly interesting example of the difference between a remaster and a remake since it’s had both. The remaster, Shadow of the Colossus HD, is for the most part the PlayStation 2 game running on a PlayStation 3 at a higher resolution and more consistent frame rate. The game plays exactly as it did originally on PS2 but with improved visuals. The remake on PlayStation 4 on the other hand rebuilds the game from scratch. Characters, environments and bosses have been entirely remade using the original game as a reference rather than a base. As a result, gameplay is noticeably different and adheres more to what modern players expect. The fact that it plays differently as well as looks better is an important factor to show that it is a remake and not a remaster.
When it comes to remakes, the Resident Evil series is both the most remade series I can think of as well as a shining example of how to do a remake right. 2002’s Resident Evil on GameCube came out six years after the PlayStation original and made it into something immediately recognisable as Resident Evil, but with graphics and gameplay that felt like a generational leap forward. Much later on, Resident Evil 2 and 3 took things even further – adapting those PlayStation, tank-controlled originals to third person action horror games that keep the soul of the games they were based on while making them much closer to what gamers want today. Resident Evil 4’s remake coming next year looks to continue this tradition. While it is keeping the third person action style of the original RE4, it looks like the story and gameplay will be much more in line with games from 2022 than 2005.
So is The Last Of Us: Part 1 a remake or a remaster?
To be blunt, we don’t know anything more than the trailer has told us. The answer seems clear as long as you believe the marketing which explicitly states that Part 1 is ‘rebuilt from the ground up for PlayStation 5’. To me, this reads as a full remake. Taking the original game as a point of reference and making it all over again as though it was made on PS5 to begin with, along with all the improvements and lessons from later games in the series.
It’s easy to see why people lean straight to the “it’s just another remaster, why bother when the PS4 version looks good already” conclusion, cynical as it may be. The trailers so far haven’t really shown gameplay, and people have jumped on comparison shots showing how little difference there is in specific scenes but I like to think that’s missing the point. If this game plays exactly like the original did on PS3 I’ll be very surprised. I can’t see PlayStation and Naughty Dog going to the effort of making yet another version of the game if they don’t bring it up to the standard of Left Behind and Part 2. I fully expect that while the story will hit all the same beats, the opportunity will surely be taken to improve areas in storytelling, level design and moment-to-moment gameplay control.
It’s interesting to note that it will have been nine years between The Last of Us in 2013 and the remake when it comes out later in 2022 – even longer than the time between Resident Evil and its remake. While game visuals haven’t changed as drastically as they had in the years between Resident Evils, a remake of The Last of Us has the potential to be refined with all the lessons the developers have learned in the meantime in the same way Resident Evil was.
What the game ends up being we’ll just have to wait to see. Until then, it’s really up to you whether you think it’s a cynical, low-effort cash in to push people to a $120 full priced game over an older and therefore cheaper remaster or a worthwhile reimagining of a highly regarded game. Until we know more, it’s just speculation – but I’m keen to find out.