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Video Gaming’s Tricky History of Fan Remakes

As Capcom confirms its 'Resident Evil 2' remake, what does that mean for the fans making their own version of the beloved horror game?

by Jake Kivanc
13 August 2015, 8:22am

A screenshot from 'Resident Evil 2 Reborn', via Facebook

It's invariably been the dream of every gamer who's sat up late, frustrated that their favourite game didn't have a feature they had hoped for, to eventually do what developers could not. In our fantasies, we concoct a world where Half-Life 3 is real and where Silent Hills wasn't cancelled. Sometimes developers concede to the constant begging and pleading from fans with surprises like Shenmue 3 or the long, long-awaited Final Fantasy VII HD Remake. In other situations, when the developer simply isn't listening or is taking far too long to respond, the road of the fan taking up the mantle as creator is one that has been walked by few and finished by even fewer.

Take the situation of the on-going Resident Evil 2 remake project from Italian indie developer Invader Games. The project, dubbed Resident Evil 2 Reborn, is essentially a frame-by-frame remake of the original 1998 classic by Capcom, this time being brought to life through the Unreal Engine 4 and given the Resident Evil 4, over-the-shoulder style of camera treatment. While the game has been met with excitement from fans ever since the company uploaded their first test footage back in December 2013, comment sections and news sites everywhere have been rampant with speculation of whether the game will be put six feet under like so many fan-directed remakes and reimaginings that came before.

'Resident Evil 2 Reborn', gameplay trailer reveal part 1 of 2

Although Capcom chose not to comment on the Italian project when VICE emailed their UK office, Invader Games representative Michele Giannone tells me that while the idea of being asked to stop production due to copyright issues has been on the team's mind, they're more focused on making the project live up to people's expectations.

"We know that Capcom could stop us at any moment, but right now we want to do our best to show people what we can do. We not only worked on this game for passion, but also to learn how to use a professional engine and create a real video game."

Giannone says that the team started the game due to being huge fans of the series, but are prepared to take their work and move onto something new if Capcom were to bring the hammer down, a trend that's become common for others in their position. After all, cease and desist orders are nothing new in the entertainment industry, and it's completely understandable why a creator would want to protect themselves from having their property stolen, or for another party to profited from without approval.

'Resident Evil 2 Reborn', gameplay trailer reveal part 2 of 2

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But unlike participants in other fandoms, gamers represent a special breed of consumer – their experience is directly linked to what they're able to create within the confines of a game and its mechanics. Their time with a game can stir up varied emotions, their investment dependent on how much they toy around with what the developer has intentionally (or unintentionally) given them. This kind of interactivity is not present in other forms of media – it's not like an indie filmmaker is going to take a shot at recreating the entirety of Blade Runner, although they sometimes go for smaller ventures. Hence, when official video game properties fail to satiate our unending thirst for content, satisfaction comes instead through the likes of the modding, speedrun and remake communities.

While imitations and knockoffs of films and music have been historically banned, made illegal or swallowed by copyright law, fan remakes of video games have been able to slither by in some cases. Half-Life remake Black Mesa is a good example of a situation in which an unofficial recreation was not only allowed to survive, but was taken under the original developer's wing. After fans declared their support for the game, Valve, the creators of Half-Life, promoted the game through Steam, a move that was met with unsurprising success.

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The question of whether to fight against or simply embrace copycat creations is one that has plagued the gaming industry for a long time. Earlier this year, Nintendo killed the production of a Super Mario 64 HD remake; in 2014, both a redo of the original Metal Gear (one that was originally endorsed by Konami) and cult classic Vampire: The Masquerade were found to be dead in the water. In 2009, a sequel to 1995's Chrono Trigger using original sprites from the SNES classic was shut down by publishers Square Enix. And companies such as Ubisoft and EA have come under fire for their relentless use of DRM systems and proprietary platforms in an effort to curb illegal exploitation of official product, something gamers say often inconveniences buyers more than it does pirates.

In the worst-case scenarios, the ultimate battleground is fought where neither developer nor fan (or, indeed, pirate) wants to go: court. Antonio Turco, a lawyer who specialises in copyright and is all too familiar with corporate battles, says that the it's largely up to the original creator when it comes to choosing to pursue the legal route.

'Super Mario 64' HD fan remake – developer showcase

"Obviously, developers don't have to go after anyone if they don't want to, and they often don't want to, with all the legal costs involved," Turco tells me. "But you have to understand that it's mainly a show of copyright protection. If one person can do it, anybody can do it, and then it's just a downward spiral."

Invader Games' scenario may be a bit of an exception now that news about an official HD remake of Resident Evil 2 has broken from Capcom themselves, which might put the indie developer in the clear (and Resi 2 director Hideki Kamiya seems into the fan remake, too). But for those who are not so lucky, Turco tells me that most cases end before they ever reach a court battle, as the fan side of the equation rarely has the money to fight corporate lawyers and developers, frequently aligned with powerful publishers, who have the financial muscle to make independents stand down.

Capcom confirms production of the official 'Resident Evil 2' remake

"The logistics simply aren't there, so a lot of these cases are just settled outside of court. It's rare for a developer to ignore a cease and desist or try and fight against the terms laid out by the legal copyright holder. It's really just comes down to a matter of mercy on the part of the [creator]."

Whether it's the just the fear or actual result of legal intervention that stops fan developers, the message is clear: most unofficial remakes simply won't survive the cut. It is an unfortunate trend, especially when expensive downloadable content and lengthy waits for new games leaves fans not only thirsty for more content, but actually angry with developers who are seen to be stalling, or maximising their takings from the most meagre of offerings. With the introduction of things like Steam Greenlight, this situation may change, but only time will tell if studios and publishers will lower their guard enough to let fans take the reigns of their artistic creations once they're seemingly no longer official priorities.

@kivancjake

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