Goonhammer Roundtable: 2023 Is the Year of the Horror Game Remake

As Halloween approaches and we looked back on the horror games of 2023 we were struck by how this year in particular produced an unprecedented slate of very successful big-budget remakes for beloved horror franchises. Between Resident Evil’s RE4 remake, Dead Space, System Shock, and Fatal Frame Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, it has been a banner year for horror fans hoping for remakes or remasters of their beloved games. So today we’re sitting down to talk about these games, what their success (or lack thereof) means for the industry, and whether a horror game can still be scary the second time around.

Today’s Roundtable

  • Josh Boyes
  • “Mild” Norman
  • Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones
  • Jonathan Bernhardt

 

Let’s start with the rundown. What did you think of this year’s horror remakes? Which ones did you play, and were they a success or failure for you?

Josh: RE:make 4, babbyyy. It’s an undeniable success, just like all the rest of the RE:makes (even RE:3) and in my opinion surpasses the original but not it’s long lasting legacy in the industry as a whole. RE:Make 4 was a better put-together game with the hindsight over a decade of games since RE:4. RE:4 reshaped how games are made even ‘til today.

Jonathan: Played a little bit of Resident Evil 4 and watched a streamer beat the end of it; watched a streamer play Dead Space all the way through. Also watched that same streamer play The Callisto Protocol all the way through, which is not really a remake but sort of a side-make the same way Bloodstained was the next iteration on Castlevania. In my opinion, Bloodstained was, ah, a lot more successful.

Val: I played and completed Resident Evil 4 remake and part of the Dead Space remake. Resident Evil 4 when it came out in 2005 was one of my favorite games and I feel the same for the remake. It easily could have been a soulless cash grab but RE:Make 4 is transformative enough that it succeeds as a remake as well as a standalone game. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the original on its own merits. I didn’t play much of the Dead Space remake but it really felt like The Definitive Dead Space surpassing the original in all regards. 

Norman: I played RE4 and Dead Space all the way through. I think both were major successes in interestingly different ways.  RE4 is basically a different game from the original. Outside the level changes, the mechanical differences cause you to approach encounters differently and changes the tension of approaching a group of enemies. Dead Space on the other hand is the type of remake that exists to emulate the Dead Space I remember from way back when. It’s smoother and some design edges have been filed down, but it’s very much the Dead Space I remember.

TheChirurgeon: I played RE4 and Dead Space and found both to be far superior to the originals, with the former fixing a lot of the problems I had with the game’s goofy script and structure and the latter just being all around a much more solid, surefooted experience. Both were fantastic new additions and I’m glad they were made, for different reasons. Fatal Frame is on my list, but it’s a franchise I never really played back in the day, so I’m going to give it a shot before year’s end.

Resident Evil 4 Remake

Are horror games better suited to remakes than other genres? Can horror remakes still be scary if you played the original?

Josh: Absolutely. RE:Make 4’s village section gave me the exact same type of thrills as it did all those years ago when I played it for the first time on the GameCube. RE: Engine being gorgeously suited for the aesthetics aside, and mostly irrelevant I think, RE:Make 4’s core gameplay had changed deliberately enough to spark that same level of panic and reenact the experience rather than directly relive it.  RE:Make 4 made a point, much in the way FromSoft does in its games, that you are forced to confront the gameplay changes early  and adapt under pressure, or just struggle to progress.

It’s where horror remakes go right. You can make a game look more scary all you want, and it definitely helps, but the devil is in the detail of the controls and gameplay. You have to deviate and take advantage of the players expectations to re-enact the feelings of the original. You can’t ever truly relive those moments, that just isn’t how horror works, but re-enacting them with a slightly different experience is the way to go. 

RE:Make 4 gave more control to the player, Leon is no longer a static target when he wants to shoot, but the enemies are more rabid, more aggressive, wanting to swarm, flank, and overwhelm you in a way they tended to avoid in the original due to the limitations placed on the player. In both, you’re managing crowds, but it’s two different experiences with two different thrills.

Jonathan: Sure. Mainly because the biggest cheap trick horror games have in their bag — the jump scare — isn’t going away in its effectiveness anytime soon; that’s just how humans are programmed. You have to work in the bigger stuff around that, build that real thematic horror over the course of the journey, but even if you never really get there, the visceral jumpy moments are the bread and butter of the experience. The new first-person Resident Evils are like, comically disinterested in Making You Think or any kind of arthouse horror experience, but they understand the assignment in jump scares, and when they inevitably get remakes it’ll be remixing those scares that brings people back to the table — sort of like how RE4 remixed the village.

Val: Yeah I think there is. Unlike say platformers, Horror games really do benefit quite a bit from increased visual fidelity and the ability to render more enemies on screen at a time really ratchets up the tension. Though you can also say that where there’s more left up to the imagination the scarier it is and of course remakes can still be scary if you’ve played the original even subsequent playthroughs of the original can still be scary. Jump scares might not hit as hard as the first time but the other elements of a horror work like a monsters design will still have that same horror factor the hundredth time as it did the first. Mendez’s weird insect body still scares me the same way it did back in 2005.

Norman: While I don’t think horror lends itself to a better remake, I think the fresh coat of paint does a lot to modernize the scares and themes that are present in horror games. Horror requires, in my opinion obviously, a strength in all its elements to push forward theming. If one thing is lacking, it can take you out of the scene and dilute the scare. Thats not to say high fidelity is necessary to deliver that emotion. I still vividly remember playing Legacy of Khain: Soul Reaver on the PS1 and encountering the first boss. The music, art direction, and voice acting helped sell the scene tremendously despite being able to count the number of polygons and pixels present on one hand. What a remake does though, is let those scenes exist in a way that enhances all those elements to better solidify the artist’s original intent.

TheChirurgeon: This is one I have mixed feelings on. On the one hand, it’s hard to make the same thing scary twice, but on the other hand horror remakes can absolutely take advantage of your expectations in a way that other games can’t, lulling you into some false sense of security with what you expect, and then pulling that rug out from under you with the reveal that no, it’s not all the same things you remember and there are new terrors. That said, great sound design will make anything scary.

System Shock Remake

What makes these horror remakes work? Are there things a horror remake needs to do?

Josh: It’s so dependent on the source material but I think changing up the gameplay is key to maintaining the scares and horror. RE:Make 2 moved the game from fixed-camera, tank-controls (something to purposefully limit the players maneuverability and amp up the tension) to something more fluid and expected of the modern gaming landscape. (Ironically, a landscape RE:4 directly shaped.)  

Gameplay and controls are how we interact at all with the medium. Graphics are great and can enhance an atmosphere but the slew of low-poly horror with interesting design concepts show what’s more important. It has to be switched up to deliver the same type of tension.

Jonathan: I think the focus of a horror remake has to be on expectations — how they can be fulfilled and how they can be subverted. One of the most fascinating horror remakes to me is from awhile back, actually; the Silent Hill: Shattered Memories game from 2009, which is functionally an entire different product from the original barebones game and integrates like, a substantial camera minigame if I recall correctly, which was crazy ahead of its time over a decade ago. It also changed up significant parts of the story, but subverting expectations doesn’t have to be that grandiose; it can just mean moving around different jump scares, too. These are all narrative things that horror games excel at. Meanwhile, you look at the new Call of Duty remakes and everyone checks the box on the campaign — “Yeah that was fine, had Captain Price in it” — and moves on to complaining about the multiplayer.

TheChirurgeon: All true on Shattered Memories, but the tragedy is that despite that it managed to just not be that scary a game – not enough real tension. I think in a lot of ways it tried a little too hard to do something different to the original Silent Hill when that franchise had already moved away quickly from what the original game was doing, trying to reinvent itself in each of the first four games. I’d argue that the remake suffered from not focusing enough on Silent Hill as a location, and got lost in the melodrama around its main characters – characters who were never really all that compelling or interesting in the original game. So it kind of lost the thread by trying to do a new thing, but completely jettisoning what made the original game work so well: The creepy ass town, and being told you have to go explore a place that is absolutely not where you would ever want to go.

I definitely think playing with the expectations of players who played the original is easy, cheap fun, though.

Val: There’s not really a checklist to make a successful horror remake anymore than there is to make an original game. It’s always a challenge to make something compelling that people want to play but in the end the way the game plays is always going to be the thing that will resonate most with people just fundamentally due to the nature of video games as this interactive medium.

Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse Remake

What doesn’t work in these remakes? Are there modern design sensibilities that aren’t well suited to horror?

Josh: If I had to pick a single game design trend that I think could absolutely torpedo a chance any type of remake would have to be enjoyable, it’d be open world, easily. Open World in general is a crutch for lazy gaming making.  

But then there’s stuff like Dead Rising, with 2 phenomenal horror-action games which are openworld. (and 1 that’s okay, and 1 that stinks on ice.) So I don’t know. I just hate open-world now. I want games with tightly crafted playspaces and limited replayability, and I mean it.

Jonathan: Josh took the one I would suggest. Multiplayer also isn’t great for horror, which really grinds the gears of the money people since that’s where the stuff they can charge rent on is. Dead Space 3 played around with co-op, but it didn’t really work out; can’t put that all on co-op because a lot of that game was past its sell-by date conceptually by the time it went to market, but co-op lends a tactical meta-layer to gaming that interferes with immersion and narrative. If you’re on your headset talking to your buddy in Discord, you’re not an isolated human in the dark, weak and afraid, yeah? Most remakes have been good about staying in their lane on this, though.

Val: It’s hard to say because like Jonathan mentioned Remakes don’t tend to stray too far from what they are. Vampire Survivors-like games don’t quite work as horror games. The tension in those kinds of games is similar in practice(potentially being overwhelmed by numerous enemies) but very different in function from that of a horror game. The tension is not from fear but more from challenge. It’s just not the same vibe.

Dead Space Remake

The Dead Space Remake seems geared toward setting up more of a connection to Dead Space 2, potentially setting up a sequel remake. Capcom is already on a tear with a string of successful remakes. Silent Hill 2 has a remake in the works. Are we looking at a larger trend here or a fad, and is it a good thing?

Josh: Absolutely, a trend. Capcom is a trailblazer company, and the RE:Makes show how successful remakes in general can be when they’re handled with more than simple recreation in mind. 

It’s going to move out of the horror genre, I guarantee, and become a larger industry trend. What game execs wouldn’t love to simply recycle old IPs?

Whether that’s a good thing? Right now, yeah, absolutely. Will it be a good thing five years from now? Still probably. I don’t think this is going to be a suffocating trend ala Ubisoft formulae drivel. The stinkers will sink, and the rest will float and be all that anyone cares to remember. 

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s the combination of easily-accessed IP with an existing audience buy-in with companies that are becoming more and more monomaniacal with sinking resources into big-swing projects. The same way that movies turned into $200 million blockbusters that need to hit $700 million plus in box office to be considered successes or $2 million or less indie films, video games have been getting rid of their middle class for a while now. And when you look at the new horror IP we did get this year, you can maybe see why. Put The Callisto Protocol next to the Dead Space remake — the safer IP bet was also the better product.

Val: The Resident Evil remakes have been so successful it’s gotten Konami to actually publish multiple non-pachislot video games again. That really just says it all. It’s a good thing when the remakes are good it’ll be bad when the games are bad or when over half the output from major studios is remakes. I don’t expect that to be the case but it is something I’m a little concerned over.

TheChirurgeon: Oh yeah, of course. System Shock 2 is also in the works, and that’s one I’m looking forward to more than the remake of the original. And while I’m excited for the next-gen treatment of Dead Space 2 (and intrigued at the notion we might see a fixed/improved Dead Space 3 that nixes cooperative play at some point), I agree that it’s not necessarily a trend without its problems. Though I think we’re also likely to see developments in the future where smaller/indie IPs get picked up for big-budget remasters/remakes as well.

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Wish fulfillment time: What horror game do you want to see get the remake treatment that hasn’t?

Josh: I think Condemned was a series that had a lot of genuine potential to it. It’s a shame we’ve never seen Condemned 2 released onto PC, and that 1 is slowly becoming unplayable on modern machines. It was just a sleazy, dirty world on the brink with some (admittedly questionable) sci-horror elements. Its melee combat was a lot of fun. I think a modern facelift could really bring it back and bring it back hard, with modern melee design, a creepier, more rundown atmosphere allowed by graphics, and maybe not too much focus on crazy homeless people being your main enemy as a forensics cop gone rogue.

Jonathan: I’m a sucker for PS2-era horror, especially the dumb secondary games that never really made it big anywhere, Japan or in the US, that were all spinoffs of the “Resident Evil but happening in [a place]” or “Resident Evil but also doing [a certain bespoke mechanic].” It was by no means a great game, but the 2001 PS2 title Extermination is the one that’s stuck with me the most over the years in that sort of genre: Resident Evil but in an Antarctic research base, and instead of picking up new weapons, your spec ops soldier character modifies his AR-15 rails to accept underbarrel shotguns, grenade launchers, bayonets, scopes, aiming modules — really drilling down and focusing on one weapon instead of juggling seven different ones each with a different ammo type. Would love to see a modern, more focused take on that.

Val: Man, I mean I’ve already got what I wanted. I was waiting longingly for the RE4 Remake since RE2 Remake was announced and it was well worth the wait. Though I would not say no to a remake of Clive Barker’s Undying. I really enjoy the paranormal investigator vibe of the game. I loved how you were able to use both conventional guns and magical spells simultaneously and the atmosphere is impeccable in no small part due to the sound design. It would be great to see Undying again.

TheChirurgeon: I really want a remake of the first Silent Hill. Yeah, Silent Hill 2 gets all the acclaim for its twist but I always felt the original game was way scarier and had better atmosphere, with a much more oppressive Lovecraftian feel than two and more gruesome imagery. I’d also love to see a remake of Nightmare Creatures, a game that punched way above its weight then hit development hell immediately after (during?) its release.

That Wraps up our roundtable on horror games. Have a game you want to see remade? Strong opinions about one of the remakes we talked about? Let us know about it in the comments below!