Don’t Call It A Remake

The latest announcement of the Final Fantasy VII remake’s episodic structure has triggered the expected blowback from those who hoped their beloved JRPG would never stray from the perceived perfection of the original. Square is in a no-win position, both trying to update the dated aspects of a strange and sprawling game while also honoring the spirit, scale, and narrative of the original. But what’s more interesting than both developer and fan rationale and reactions is the general willingness for the remake to exist.

Look at Hollywood as a counterpoint. That industry is rife with remakes, from critical darlings like this year’s Mad Max to ‘wait, already?’ reboots of Spider-Man (2002, 2012, 2017) to ‘wait, what?’ revisions of Point Break and Drop Dead Fred. Start Googling ‘Hollywood too many’ and its algorithmic helper will quickly insert ‘remakes’ as a suggested completion, spawning recent videos and articles from Vogue, Mashable, PBS Idea Channel, Huffington Post, and on and on. They decry Hollywood’s failure of imagination, vapid cash-in capitalism, and even Americans’ inability to grow up and look beyond the favorites of their childhood.

Fair points all, but I think our ‘accelerated remake culture’ is both more complex and nuanced than these accounts suggest. Consider the music industry, where remakes are so commonplace, so enmeshed in the culture of music making, that the idea itself goes by a different term—the cover. If you’ve spent any time learning an instrument, you know that you invest most of your early efforts playing other artists’ material. Your first band will likely form around shared tastes and you’ll jam on covers until you’ve developed your own repertoire. Browse your local shows listings and you’ll likely find cover artists for particular bands, eras, and genres. And this isn’t exclusive to budding musicians—the practice extends from amateurs all the way to the industry elite. Musicians of all stripes gain exposure covering other songwriters’ material, whether they are reviving forgotten gems, paying respects to (and often eclipsing) their forebears, or simply banking on a proven hit.

The cover can be many things: a work of fandom, a gesture of respect, a cash-in, a critique, a parody, a spotlight, a genre experiment, an homage, a learning exercise, a quotation, or a mixture of many of these elements. All are valid and interesting within music culture, and we see few breathless thinkpieces lamenting our cover-obsessed industry. Instead, you get articles like Paste’s ‘50 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals’ or the recent MTV feature that begins, ‘2015 has been a pretty fantastic year in music releases, but you know what? It’s been a pretty phenomenal year in cover songs.’ Covers have value for artists, producers, listeners, and critics alike.

So why is there such a discrepancy across media? For one, a cover song requires far less capital, temporal, and personnel investment than a movie remake. Any bedroom strummer with a guitar and a computer can tackle the latest Bruno Mars hit and post it online. We see this same phenomena in other ‘cover-rich’ media like comics and writing, where fan art and fan fiction (again, note the difference in terms) are commonplace. However, one crucial reason those examples are rarely commercial ventures versus their musical peers is that there are laws in place that allow even a rank amateur to cover and profit from a song owned by another more successful artist. In contrast, acquiring film, cartoon, or comic rights can be an expensive, labyrinthine process that automatically prices budding artists out of the remake business.

For videogames, there is an added dimension that makes the industry more amenable to remakes. Like sequels, remakes can benefit from technological and design upgrades. Processors speed up, textures gain resolution, tools change, and design patterns improve. Of course, technology upgrades are not a magic wand that automatically improve videogames, as the Silent Hill HD Collection demonstrated, but careful attention to technology can both honor a game and make it more accessible to new audiences.

Media industries, and especially critics of those industries, could benefit from the music model by reframing their expectations of remakes. How does our perception change when we call Tomb Raider (2013) a cover of Tomb Raider (1996) rather than a remake? Homage, quotation, cash-in, revision—it doesn’t matter. The structural, cultural, and economic reality of the newer installment is that it is made by a wholly different assemblage of individuals filtered through a wholly different assemblage of contexts, influences, and expectations. And even a personnel change isn’t strictly necessary to make a cover a valid cultural expression. Lead Belly, Cat Power, Jeff Lynne, Radiohead, Robyn, and Def Leppard have all covered their own songs. That’s weird and wonderful.

In many ways, the spirit of the cover already exists within videogames. Ports, especially in the era of radical platform differences (see: PCs in the 80s), often play like covers. Emulation is a cover. Miyamoto and company have arguably covered Super Mario Bros. across platforms and technologies for decades. Undertale feels like a cover of Earthbound. The Binding of Isaac is unquestionably a cover of The Legend of Zelda. Imagine videogame ‘cover bands’—‘cover devs’?—who spin out interesting variations of familiar hits or revive undervalued gems from the past.

Concepts are powerful, and a shift in terminology can shake off the baggage of familiar vocabulary. So let’s stop blaming remakes on a lack of imagination and embrace the ways we reinterpret, revise, and reframe our media. Let’s downplay the reign of originality biased by the Modernist impulse to ‘make it new’ and allow artists to workshop their skills through repetition and recycling. Let’s let Point Break be a good or bad movie on its own account. And let’s let Square, for better or worse, cover Final Fantasy VII.