Sunday, February 6, 2011

Random Thought: Why don't books have remakes?

I have a certain fondness for RPGs, the kind that come on video game consoles with character statistics that usually contain something called HP and MP. At first I liked them because I was terrible at action games and RPGs allowed me to enjoy a game with minimal reflexes.

As time and technology progressed, I started to enjoy RPGs for a different reason. They had good stories.

While video games aren't generally thought of as literature, story-based RPGs (as opposed to the dungeon crawling variety) often strive to accomplish much the same goal as a novel of the same genre; transport the audience to a different time and place as a form of entertainment.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite video games was Lunar: The Silver Star, an RPG for the Sega CD. By today's standards the graphics are crude. The animated sequences which were then so stunning are now laughable. But the story is still good. The story wasn't affected by the technology at the time, only the manner of its delivery.

Last year a remake called Lunar: Silver Star Harmony was released, with the localization company XSEED billed it as the definitive version of the story.

Lunar, you see, is something of the Blade Runner of video games. Silver Star Harmony is the third remake, and thus fourth incarnation, of the same game.

But, I'm admittedly a fan of this story that has held my imagination since I was sixteen. I started playing Lunar: Silver Star Harmony recently and one thing I have liked about all the Lunar remakes is that they don't attempt to tell the story in exactly the same fashion. Though the second and third remakes tend to follow the first remake's general structure more so than the original game, every installment had added something of its own.

Lunar: Silver Star Story introduced new characters and had Luna join Alex on his trip to Meribia. Lunar Legend added to Alex and Luna's backstory and a neat little twist that introduced Nash even earlier in the game as a would-be Dragonmaster. Now Lunar: Silver Star Harmony comes in with more backstory to the Four Heroes, why they were fighting, and why the goddess Althena chose to become human. I daresay Ghaleon comes off better as a villain for the changes.

And this got me thinking... why don't we see this in books?

After all, I'm enjoying traveling with Alex and friends for a fourth time, seeing what's new and different on a journey that I know will end the same way. The voice actors are different, the graphics are better, the gameplay has changed but it's still turn-based.

I know this does happen in books sometimes. I can think of Raymond Feist's Magician novel as an example, where it was expanded for the 10th anniversary, but it's not common.

For one thing, the words on the page don't immediately jump out at a reader as being different from what was read before. There's no graphical upgrade. But then, there is no upgrade between the three Lunar remakes since they are all still very much a product of 2D art and by the Playstation era there was precious little to improve. Silver Star Harmony's anime cut scenes are the same ones from the first remake.

But it's not a port. There is new art. Lots of new art. New character portraits have been added, towns and enemies have been entirely redrawn. It's like rewriting the story from the same basic outline, but using different words and adding or subtracting scenes. Would a writer ever do that?

Probably not. Even though an author could probably tell the same story much better if they rewrote it with another ten years under their belt, I don't think most of them would be inclined to do that. (They'd rather write something new.) Commercially I'm not even sure there would be a market for that. Unlike games, a beloved book from my teenage years can stay on the shelves for years, or if it lapses out of print, it may come back later from another publisher or as an ebook. The book itself doesn't really change.

Games on the other hand have a window, and old product doesn't go back on the shelf unless it's part of a collection, a port to a different system, or a remake. Classic games might become downloadable through Playstation Network or Xbox Live, but the bulk of attention is still on what's newly available on current systems, not what the back catalogue has brought to bear. People don't talk about the back catalogue at work, whereas a remake on a console system might at least get a nod.

When I think about whether I would read a "remake" of a book I enjoyed, I'd say it would have to be of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and would be inclined to read again. It would also have to be a book where the remake can flesh out or make better what had done before.

With the Lunar games, having Luna join Alex on the trip to Meribia was a fantastic decision, since it allowed all the party members except for Kyle to formally meet and get to know her; important since she needs to be rescued in the end and it helps if everyone knows who they are fighting for. But changes were also made in Silver Star Story that made Ghaleon a less sympathetic villain (since corrected in Silver Star Harmony). It's a question of what value is added if a remake is made.