So you’ve probably all heard by now: The Last of Us is getting a remake – a remake that no one was calling for, and which will probably sell well despite getting slapped with the $70 (a painful £70/$85 here in the UK) price tag reserved for premium first-party Playstation games. For perspective, that’s more than what The Last of Us: Part II–an all-new, years-in-the-making blockbuster–cost when it launched two years ago.
Naturally, the marketing machine behind The Last of Us Part 1 has been emphasising just how ‘new’ and ‘rebuilt’ it will be, but the tension between this and the reality was palpable in the very first exchange between Geoff Keighley and its makers at the game’s premiere a couple of weeks ago. Keighley led with the hype-building question: “this is a ground-up remake. Is that right?” to which Naughty Dog CEO Neil Druckmann replied “That’s right. We wanted to give people the definitive version of the first game, that isn’t encumbered by any technology.”
You see the paradox? The question of whether this is being built from the ground up was confirmed by the developer, who then described it as the ‘definitive version’ of the original game–essentially The Last of Us 1 3.0 (with 2.0 being The Last of Us Remastered, released in 2014); the ideas of the remake, remaster and update have all been merged, and apparently within the games industry that’s totally fine. Of course, ‘Definitive Version’ doesn’t sound quite as mouthwatering as ‘Remake’ so naturally Sony will be rolling with that one.
The term ‘from the ground up’ is a conveniently nebulous one, often used when promoting a game based on a few choice technicalities. It seems to mean that so long as new assets, textures and fancy graphics enhancements (usually resulting from a new engine) are used, a game qualifies by the publisher’s self-set standards as a remake, even if it will be a beat-for-beat, scene-for-scene retread of the original.
From what we’ve seen so far, The Last of Us Part 1 is retaining the same voicework, performances, level designs and cutscenes from the original game; a testament to the quality of the 2013 game, and the first big giveaway that perhaps a remake isn’t needed. At one point in the trailer, a Clicker zombie jumps out at Joel at exactly the same moment as it did in the original game, with the exact same camera angle and jarring zoom-in leading into a quick-time event. This whole artfully constructed scene–like every other scene in the trailer–was made over a decade ago; the entire cinematic structure is already in place, leaving only technical flourish to add. Yes, technically they’re rebuilding these scenes with all-new character models, environments and so on, but isn’t that a bit like drawing a picture by using (very high-tech) tracing paper over an existing image?
It’s worth adding that The Last of Us Remake (or ‘Part 1’) will be using The Last of Us Part 2’s engine, which means that as well as working entirely within the existing creative infrastructure, it also has much of the existing technical infrastructure in place too. The jury’s still out on combat AI and mechanics, which have apparently been overhauled as well, but given that the focus so far has been entirely on old scenes recreated in a new engine, you can’t help but get the sense that this ‘remake’ is mainly about extra visual dazzle rather than, as Druckmann put it, ‘getting even closer to the original vision unencumbered by any technology.’ Of course, the remake is encumbered by the PS5’s technology, so what’s to say that we won’t have a Last of Us re-remake for the PS8 that brings us even closer to the original vision, unencumbered by the pitiful PS5 and bolstered AI-generated photorealism?
Maybe we need a new lexicon for this phenomenon. ‘Remastermake’ has a bit of a ring to it, and rather than saying it’s being built ‘from the ground up,’ we cam say it’s being built from the fifth or sixth storey of a ten-storey building.
For a good example of a true ‘ground-up’ remake, we need only look back to 2018’s Resident Evil 2. Much like a movie remake, it follows the plot of the original, but redesigned, revoiced, and revamped with the wealth of progress that the gaming medium has made in the 21 years between the two games (which, notably, no one would hesitate to call two separate games). In fact, the elements it holds onto from the original–such as the separate but overlapping campaigns for Leon and Claire–could well have been simpler for the developers to streamline into a single campaign that cuts between the two characters, but keeping them separate retained one of the most beloved and unique aspects of the original game. It’s both tonally and thematically faithful, yet new and reimagined: the quintessential ground-up remake. The same goes for Final Fantasy VII Remake which, love it or hate it, is an audacious reimagining of a beloved game.
The upcoming Resident Evil 4 remake probably won’t be quite as pronounced. Given that the original 2005 game took a huge technical leap from a fixed-angle to over-the-shoulder perspective – which remains a norm to this day – there just isn’t the same need for rebuilding. With that said, we’re still looking at 17 years and four console generations between the two games, warranting a much-needed overhaul in voicework, cinematics, animations, and (most likely) mechanical improvements like being able to move and shoot at the same time.
Of course, there are also successful recent remakes that more closely follow the beats of their respective originals. Shadow of the Colossus and Demon’s Souls both retain much of their source material’s world design, pacing, and even the original code, so why does they somehow feel less egregious than The Last of Us Part 1? I think it’s in the fact that the original game was so far ahead of its time when it came out (then polished up by the remaster) that it just doesn’t feel dated enough to make a remake feel meaningful.
By contrast, Shadow of the Colossus was an incredibly cinematic game that came out before the tech really existed to make the most of its sweeping vistas and unthinkably huge bosses. Demon’s Souls, meanwhile, was FromSoft’s beautifully designed but technically janky first stab at a formula that it would go on to refine immeasurably; the voicework, music and mechanical responsiveness were all lifted in the remake to catch the game the started it all up with the rest of the series. Both games were, in their own ways, actualised through remakes. The Last of Us Remastered is an incredibly polished piece of work that isn’t going to be elevated by denser foliage, reflective puddles and dimplier-looking dimples around characters’ mouths. The game’s potential was already realised the first, and definitely the second, time out.
Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe for some inexplicable reason Naughty Dog has chosen to hold back on showing the new content for now, and down the line we’ll see that ‘new combat AI’ that they mentioned, redesigned areas that allow for more exploration, and scenes with all-new voice acting and set-pieces. But unless that turns out to be the case, then we have to start questioning what things like ‘remake’ and ‘from the ground up’ really mean, and whether they offer as much value for the players as they do for the publishers.