In Bluepoint’s version, the Vanguard looks more generic. Its eyes are smaller, its teeth are more natural-looking. It isn’t dumb or alien so much as it’s just gruesome. Another monster in another video game about monsters. As a substitute for something authentically weird, Bluepoint has created something authentically normal that adheres to the slightly cartoony version of “realism” that video games so often employ. Everything’s a little uglier, a little grimier, a little less visually striking. The Flamelurker, an imposing golem of fire, looks like a Diablo monster. It’s all very familiar.
Shadow of the Colossus had this problem too, in a different way. That game, remade for the PlayStation 4, takes place in a wide expanse of open wilderness. In the original, this wilderness is beautiful but a little barren. The grass is short and flat, the trees are weirdly stiff. This may seem like a technical limitation, but it gives a powerful impression of the place as untouched but, somehow, already dead. The greenest desert you’ve ever seen. Nothing roams through these lands but you and the colossi you’re going to kill. But the Bluepoint version is absolutely lush, an Eden of overgrowth in every direction. It’s a paradise instead of a purgatory.
In both cases, the problem is clear, and it’s one that is at this point endemic to Bluepoint’s work, a major flaw that keeps both games from faithfully preserving what made their predecessors so special. Bluepoint, like a lot of the video game industry, is enamored with realism. Which is to say, the gaming idea of realism, the set of aesthetic and technological choices that are en vogue as realistic and effective technical showcases at any given time.
This pursuit of realism is an oddly modern invention, but one that’s come to dominate the medium. I first remember it around the release of the original Gears of War, on Xbox 360. It was lauded for its “realistic” graphics that were, in their own way, still cartoony and shot through with deliberate improbable aesthetic choices, like the handheld-style camera movements meant to evoke found footage photography or the overwhelming reliance on gray and brown pulled straight from footage of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then realism meant grime, darkness, dirt. In the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era, when Shadow of the Colossus was remade, it often meant lovingly rendered wilderness, technological advances allowing game consoles to produce stunning trees, grass, and leaves.
In the early PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X generation of 2020, it means a lavish focus on lighting and granular detail. Technologies like ray tracing allow games to embrace detailed, subtle lighting effects that are both painterly and fairly legible, a must for clear design. And the expanded processing ability means games can focus on small details in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. To wit, Demon’s Souls is in love with the movement of tiny pieces of fabric or shreds of armor, or the way destructible environments can break. You’ve never seen a more lavish barrel-breaking simulator in your life. You’ve never seen a shirt move in the wind like this, not in a game.
But you have seen these aesthetics before, too often. Everywhere possible, Bluepoint’s adherence to the not-really-realistic realism of video games erases strange imagery and replaces it with a more conventionally video game-y look. The problem, to be clear, is not the graphical update itself. It’s what’s done with it. Imagine a version of the Vanguard, mentioned above, that’s just a little more faithful to the original. Imagine if its three eyes were massive, lovingly rendered orbs of mottled glass. Imagine if its teeth were so long as to be absurd, but rendered with precise detail down to the marrow. Imagine if, when Bluepoint took out a strange detail, they replaced it with an equally imaginative one.