Last week, I spent a couple hours with BioShock: The Collection, a compilation of the classic BioShock series. The collection includes BioShock, BioShock 2, and BioShock Infinite, all but the last remastered for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. (Infinite’s PC version "already meets current-gen console standards," says publisher 2K.)
A video game remaster isn’t as cut and dry as, say, remastering an album. A game remaster can mean lots of things: updating the visuals; rerecording the score; changing control schemes; adding or removing chunks of content. In the case of BioShock: The Collection, the remaster does add a few extra features, like a series of commentary videos and a walkable museum of concepts that didn’t make it into BioShock. But it’s primarily a matter of upgrading the game’s framerate and graphics, which were showing their age after nine years for BioShock and six years for BioShock 2. Based on my short time with the series, it lives up to its modest ambitions, though it makes me wonder how, exactly, I want to experience older games.
Both BioShock and BioShock 2 are unambiguously upgraded: textures are finer, images higher-resolution, effects like water and fire more convincing. But as someone who played the first game around its release, this remaster doesn’t exactly feel better. Instead, the updated version preserves the rosy mental image of BioShock I have from years ago, while video of the actual game looks blocky and flat by the standards of 2016.
This is what a remaster is supposed to do, in theory, as we’ve seen before with excellent examples like Grim Fandango.
The BioShock remaster is arriving just as we’re seeing an update to its spiritual predecessor, 1994’s System Shock. Formerly known as System Shock Remastered, our first look at the project from Night Dive Studios hewed very closely to the original, down to the placement of weapons and items. But the world had been totally reskinned, with new models, new controls, and new music and voiceovers. It has all the bones of the original, but shows a radically different face.
BioShock is still new enough that changes feel like they’re realizing the game’s potential
I’m deeply ambivalent of how Night Dive has fundamentally changed System Shock, leapfrogging decades of aesthetic conventions for a result that looks almost closer to the original BioShock or a modern first-person shooter. The original was defined by its bright, pixelated colors and bold synth soundtrack, which set it apart from nearly every other survival horror game ever made, making its moments of darkness all the scarier.
That’s why I’m hoping that no matter how good the new System Shock is, it won’t be considered a replacement in the way a Blu-ray copy of my favorite movie is a replacement for a dusty VHS tape. It’s much more remake than remaster, and given the name change, I think the developers see it that way as well.
BioShock, conversely, seems to just squeak into that window in which its upgrades feel like realizing the game’s potential instead of changing its style. There were only a few moments when it felt or looked distinctly different. One of the things I remember most strongly about BioShock is its glossiness — instead of looking simply wet, walls felt like they’d been lacquered, and enemies’ blood seemed almost gelatinous. The remastered version doesn’t entirely do away with this, but the more detailed textures gives it a slightly more realistic cast, bringing the art deco world of Rapture a step closer to our own. It’s enough to make me wonder what a remaster would look like five years from now, when our technical capabilities and expectations are even higher. Would we want a photorealistic update? Or would we consider the limitations of the era a defining feature of the game? At what point do visual improvements of a video game transcend polish into something else entirely?
Revisiting a piece of art in any medium raises questions about the line between restoring something and changing it, but the issue is particularly unavoidable in video games, where updates aren’t a matter of reprocessing existing footage, but outright creating new material. Video games have also been more visibly constrained by the technology they’re played on, and unlike a film or album, you can’t just sit back and let them wash over you. They require close attention for hours on end, and any visual distraction makes that harder to do.
Fortunately, in BioShock’s case, it isn’t a tough call. It was a beautiful and creative game in 2007, and it’s a beautiful and creative game in 2016 — just one that’s a lot less blurry.
BioShock: The Collection will be released on September 13th (September 16th internationally) on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC for $59.99.