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On Old Flames

Article by Kris

We’ve all been there.  Standing in a queue at a shop, maybe, or on a bus, lost in thought, in a bit of a funk.  Your job is going nowhere fast, family and friends are busy with their own lives.  There’s nothing particular coming up to look forward to, and no-one in your life who seems like a great prospect right now.  And that’s the exact moment that it happens.

All the while you’ve been here, the person from your past who you can’t stop thinking about has been unwittingly sharing your space unseen, as if the years between you mean nothing.  You had a thing for a while, but it never became a Thing, as though your orbits never quite aligned.  There was a spark, but only a brief one, and never quite hot enough for it to catch light.

Your eyes meet and there’s that moment of mutual recognition, the surprise, the disbelieving stare.  And then you both flick the hair away from your faces and mutter awkward greetings at one another’s shoes, and then the smile appears that makes you wonder why you ever let them slip away from us, and we begin to think, ‘Maybe, just maybe…’

***

A couple of weeks back, I was excited by the news that Avernum 3: Ruined World was set for release on Steam.  Avernum 3 is (unsurprisingly) the last game in a trilogy, a remake of an old game from an original trilogy called Exile III which was released as a demo with one of my earliest PCs.  So old was this title that downloading the content wasn’t even an option – instead, you installed from a CD and paid for a key that you entered into the game itself to unlock the content.  AAA titles weren’t a thing, and the trashy 2D graphics mattered not one jot, because the writing was skilful, the world felt vibrant and surprises, both humorous and violent, were many and thrilling.

But its spiritual successor made me feel … conflicted.  There was a joyful moment when I emerged into the map of Fort Emergence, one of the game’s early locations, where the map has been faithfully recreated right down to the tiny storeroom where you collect your initial goods (and back in the day, I completely missed it for the first few playthroughs, meaning I was gutted en masse by even the softest enemies).  There were one or two glorious junctures where the flat token graphics from the game have become lovingly reimagined in the brave new world of 3D, and I felt a little stirring in my heart.

The problem was, no matter how much I willed it to, this spark did not catch fire.  Six characters in your starting team had become four.  Not a big thing, but when you need two fighters, a direct damage mage and a priest to heal, your scope for trying one or two experimental roles in addition to these core stereotypes is diminished.  But that wasn’t a problem!  Spellcasting had been streamlined – for this, read simplified in lots of small, disappointing ways – and little things like the use of torches, lockpicks and the need to find food were all taken out. Want to bash down a door in unsubtle fashion?  Tough.  Work on your Tool Lore, which handily combined several other skills from the previous incarnation in one.

Everything I remembered from the original was there, from the glorious large maps to the names of the characters, but some inexplicable thing that made the original game so special was missing.  It had gotten lost somewhere in a minefield of strange design decisions that made Avernum 3 feel like it was somehow less than the original.

Media gets remade.  This is something that happens to games, to films, and to books.  TV shows are rebooted.  For every good remake (Elite Dangerous!) there’s another that sucks horribly, and plenty more that are just moribund. Original stories are reimagined – though thinking about this now, I struggle to think of any instance where I would regard the remake or reimagining as a wonder in its own right.  Instead, all that comes to mind is repetitive, dour examples – the latest Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the film that taught us that Johnny Depp will never be an acting colossus like Gene Wilder, and the new Ghostbusters was strangely insipid.  I would freely accept the point that as an old white guy, I shouldn’t expect all new media to be made with me in mind as the target demographic, but I can’t help thinking that part of the reason for the perceived lack of quality reboots is at least partly due to commercial expectations trumping the willingness of producers to take risks.

Avernum 3 can hardly be the first game to be accused of oversimplifying its mechanics.  When Sims 4 was released, there was a lot of critical commentary about the way that it had once again reverted to the tried and tested ground of the original – coloured wallpaper and furniture, rather than bells and whistles.  The main thing that attracted critics’ ire in the early days was the decision to remove swimming pools – a mainstay of the series that featured in many fan stories, since it’s an easy way to ensure … timely inheritance.  Once again, the criticism here was that the new game does less in some way than the original – and it matters not to fans how many new features have been added, only that something they knew and loved is missing.

***

There comes a moment with that person from the past, perhaps over coffee when you remember that they’ll only drink a Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, Vanilla Latte with Soy Milk when you’re quite happy to drink anything.  Or maybe you’ve been to the cinema and they’ve spent the hour immediately after the film waxing lyrical about the camera angles, analysing the weak dialogue and critiquing the poor characterisation and all you want to say is, ‘I ONLY ASKED IF YOU LIKED IT.  A SIMPLE YES OR NO WOULD HAVE SUFFICED.’  Whatever the issue is, at some point you have to reflect that the new situation was always going to be different from how you remembered the old, and if you’re going to persist with that, you need to adjust accordingly.  And persist I will with Avernum 3, since I know the issue may not be the game, but my expectations thereof.

So is it worth revisiting your old flames – those films, books and computer games that have been remade?  Well, yes … but with due caveats.  It’s no good expecting a modern reimagining to invest you in the soapy nostalgic goo of another time in your life – you need to be honest with yourself and step into that flame with your eyes wide open.

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