The Archaeology of Remastering

rapture

The City of Rapture, BioShock (image: 2k Games, Blind Squirrel Games)

If an ancient game series is beloved enough, it experiences a renaissance through remastering for modern hardware. We’ve seen this over the past few years with HaloUncharted, and BioShock. I had been waiting for BioShock 1, 2, and Infinite to be released for either Xbox 1 or PlayStation 4, and my patience was rewarded. I started with BioShock Infinite, which I blogged about earlier this year, and followed that up with BioShock 1, which I had beaten on PC in 2008.

I longed to return to the underwater city of Rapture, to play the downloadable content (DLC) for the first time, and to see how the game had been “remastered” for the PS4. It was certainly worth the US$40 (paid for the 3-game bundle in a PS Store flash sale) just to look and listen, exploring the Art Deco world, which seemed even better than I remembered. I think I played the first game too fast, missing a lot of the detail in favor of staying alive. Revisiting the game was like returning to a favorite holiday destination where nothing has really changed, but everything looks brighter and somehow more real, and perhaps more complete.

In playing BioShock 2 for the first time this weekend (I had skipped the 2010 sequel for whatever reason), I was delighted in how the art direction carried the tradition of Rapture forward with both visuals and audio design. I found myself . . . enraptured. But then something happened that I did not expect: a game-ending glitch. To set the scene:

The final part of the “Siren Alley” area places the protagonist (Jack) fighting for his life against “splicer” acolytes of the charismatic Simon Wales. A “splicer” is a human addicted to body modification through the abuse of “plasmids”, tonics that give the users permanent, gene-fused abilities. The fictitious character of Wales co-designed the city of Rapture, and ultimately started a cult of splicers called “The Rapture Family.” Jack must defeat Wales in order to proceed in the game, a little over halfway through.

As soon as I open the door, I’m beset by rabid, bandaged gangsters and flappers armed with crowbars and tommy guns, as well as flying turrets and the mini-boss Wales himself. During the melee Wales exits his underground cathedral and enters the hall where I am promptly killed. When I revive in the Vita Chamber, however, all of the enemies have vanished. I am in the church surrounded by dead worshippers. Wales is nowhere to be seen. All of the doors are locked, and I am trapped inside. Dramatic fight music plays, but the only battle is between me and the Circus of Values vending machine that I am trying to improperly hack so I can die and restart the event.

Except that it doesn’t restart. I re-awaken in a quiet church, trapped in a glitch.

Waleschapel

The Wales Chapel in Siren Alley, BioShock 2. Empty. (image: BioShock wiki)

Like any player, I instantly google the glitch to see if it has been reported by others. And of course it has. In 2010. Yes. A known, game-ending glitch from 2010 survived the mastering process in 2016, and now I can either restart the game, or can reload from a previous save-point some hours prior to now. Neither solution is appetizing, so I am going to take a break in order to work on my PhD thesis or something.

BUT

I started thinking about what “remastering” means in games, and how that could be interpreted archaeologically. Let’s take a game like the original BioShock from 2007. It’s a great game, and transcends the shooter genre like Half-Life did before it. Because it was such a good game, later generations of players should play it on contemporary technology (the game was released for Windows operating systems (XP and Vista) as Xbox 360, later available on iOS and PS3). Nine years later (now 10), the Collection can be played on Xbox One, PS4, and Windows PC. Players still mash the same buttons, so this remastering is different than making old arcade games playable on consoles.

So what did the remastering add? At the bare bones, the remastered collection offered higher display resolution and framerate. The games look like one would expect from a modern developer on a contemporary console hooked up to a giant flat display. It’s not (yet) 4k, but who’s counting? The remastered collection for BioShock 1 specifically includes the Museum of Orphaned Concepts (concept art, some of which would make its way into the design of the sequel), and three mini-levels including puzzles where players can rescue Little Sisters.

The remastering also appears to have preserved some of the warts in the series. Recall the Simon Wales glitch above. It has been preserved in the remastered version of BioShock 2. But why? Surely enough people reported/logged it that 2k Games would have patched it, but that does not appear to be the case. To 2k/Blind Squirrel Games, “remastering” means remastering, improving the original game so that it plays well on current hardware. Throw in all of the DLC. That’s it. In the BioShock Collection you have the games, all with the original DNA, including the mutations (pun intended) being the glitches. I haven’t gone looking for others, but this one was enough to make me play something else for awhile.

So can we draw an analogue to real-world archaeology. Has anything of the ancient world been “remastered”? I’d say yes. I am looking for something beyond, say, pieces of an ancient pot glued back together. This is more conservation than remastering. I am also looking for something beyond a digital interpretation of an ancient building based on archaeological evidence. This is more reconstruction than remastering. So what else is there?

palmyra arch

Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch, New York City (image: Atlas Obscura)

In April 2016 in London (and again in September in New York City), the “Institute of Digital Archaeology” erected a 3D-printed replica of Palmyra’s triumphal arch, the one destroyed by Daesh. In this instance, the arch-as-scanned was printed and rebuilt in two-thirds scale, visually preserving what remained, including cracks, missing blocks, etc., the “glitches” in architecture saved for the present day. But is this really a “remastering”? Probably not. Why?

  1. The new arch is smaller than the old one.
  2. The new arch is made of different materials than the old one.
  3. The new arch contains only the superficial facade, and not the complete stoneworks of the old one.
  4. The new arch reflects the modern appearance of the old arch, and does not recreate what the arch would have looked like when new.

What about other built environments? If we consider more modern places such as Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, the storied location was preserved for modern fans while upgrading the playing surface, video screens, and adding additional seating. The original was preserved, but it was also remastered for enjoyment by a modern audience. If we look at an ancient stadium such as Rome’s Colosseum, that was never so much remastered as it was renovated in its 300+ year history of use.

lambeau

Lambeau Field in 2012 (image: OnMilwaukee.com)

With video games, we might be seeing something new in the idea of “remastering”, in bringing the original DNA of a game forward into modern times, not to preserve it (which would be done on the original masters, and would therefore not be a “remaster”), but to enable it to be used on new technology. We don’t see a “remastering” of ancient sites and cities. These were built over, added on to, and changed. The New York of today looks little like that of 300 years ago, excepting perhaps the general Manhattan coastline. Even the topography has changed thanks to Olmsted and others. But then, think about the World Trade Center. Perhaps Freedom Tower is a remastering of World Trade Center 1 and 2. It’s neither conservation nor a reconstruction, but is instead  a merging of the old with the new, shiny nostalgia mixed with contemporary functionality.

Modern cities did not remaster the old ones. Instead, they are like sequels in a popular series of games. It’s a kind of macroscopic stratigraphy, new worlds built on old ones in the same geographic location. The idea of New York carries forward, just as the idea of BioShock did, old to new.

So I am abandoning the city/game of BioShock 2 for now, moving on to some other alien shore. But it’s good to know that the city of Rapture will be waiting for me always in that half-light of memory made richer through remastering. Remastering indulges nostalgia, but also kills nostalgia. Remember how good BioShock was? Now you can play it again and make new memories.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

4 thoughts on “The Archaeology of Remastering

  1. “The New York of today looks little like that of 300 years ago, excepting perhaps the general Manhattan coastline.” Got me thinking (staying with the DNA analogy) that we might be thinking too much about the variable gene expression and not about the underlying architecture. Consider the pattern of streets in New York as the DNA, or the underground infrastructure services (subways, sewers, gas lines). DNA changes, but slowly, to adapt to new environments – isn’t this what the game remastering is doing? Or maybe not.

  2. I have been pondering the question of what makes something remastered for a few days. As you write ”
    remastering”, [is] bringing the original DNA of a game forward into modern times, not to preserve it (which would be done on the original masters, and would therefore not be a “remaster”), but to enable it to be used on new technology. ”

    What immodestly came to mind for me is a small tool example, while not identical in scope, I think fundamentally the human motivation behind it is the similar. One of my main interests is in fiber craft, including hand spinning, there is a small a niche business in the development of new spinning wheels and in the redevelopment or refinement of old ones. Unlike the pot being pieced back together the motivation in the hand spinning community is one of active participation, where there is joy and pleasure found in the use of an old world tool. Spindles even more so, one of my spindles which I have used to create product to sell on ,is about 3000 y/o in design. The use of the tool is often to create new and modern things, and yet many spinning wheels are developed based on old patterns, and many wheel makers will go back to patterns from 100-200 years ago and from those models develop modern machines using modern metals, wood cutting tools, laminates etc. Likewise with Jacquard looms (the first punch card computers) in that very niche community there are still people who seek out and use the partially digitized versions, not as show pieces, but as modern tools to develop their craft. While this is not entirely analogues to remastering on a digital scale as the digital amount of constructed space is very different, and the appeal is much larger, I do think that the process and human need it is fulfilling may be tangential to what you are defining as the motivations and form of remastering. For myself as a spinner, I use my tools not only to create old-world type things, or preserve the craft, but I also see them as the means to integrate modern technologies and find peace for myself. My currant obsession when I am not otherwise occupied is trying and thinking about ways to integrate circuitry into hand constructed and spun items, all of which I do using old style tools, “remastered” for my modern usage, which I use mostly for the visceral feel, and pleasure they provide me. Not sure if the analogy is useful, I do appreciate the degree to which this post made me consider the way we interact with old(to varying degrees) technologies in a modern context, and what form that interaction takes.

  3. “The final part of the “Siren Alley” area places the protagonist (Jack) fighting for his life against “splicer” acolytes of the charismatic Simon Wales.” – Jack is not the protagonist, Subject Delta is. Just a major complaint.

    But yes, I believe that developers remaster games that do not need remastering. Titles for Amiga or games popular in the early 00s are better candidates for this digital rejuvenation but it’s easier to throw some DLCs, add more resolutions and slightly enchance graphics that to start everything from the scratch. Also, it is quite risky as players might be disappointed with the outcome, as it was with The Bluecoats: North vs South.

  4. Pingback: Remastered Games, Spiele im Geschichtsunterricht & virtuelle Sklaverei | ArchaeoGames

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