Have you seen Top Gun: Maverick, yet? Of course you have. Everyone has. And if you haven’t, don’t worry: I’ve seen it twice, so if it comes up in conversation and you’re feeling left out, you can just have one of my goes. I bestow upon you the cosmic ticket stub of my experience and accompanying miasma of associated sense-impressions, along with the larval forms of my feelings leaving the cinema (it wasn’t the cash-grab I thought it might be, and yes, on reflection, I would watch it a second time – it is that good).
That being said, Tom Cruise did tell me in advance it was going to be a good film, and the man is nothing if not persuasive. This was not in a personal meeting, but in a DVD extra-style featurette that popped up on YouTube after one of the film’s trailers. There was Cruise, explaining how they stuffed the cockpits with a half-dozen IMAX cameras, all the better to capture the pilots’ faces rippling alarmingly under the G-forces of manned flight. “You can’t act that,” Cruise says, nodding with the confidence of a man 100% sure that no, you can’t, and yes, he’s tried.
This is because you can’t act the effects of gravitational forces so intense that, per Tom's character, a high-G maneuver “will feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest.” Twenty Top Gun graduates nod in sober agreement. For some, it's the hardest; for others, just the weirdest – but no US Navy Top Gun pilot forgets Elephant Day. And obviously, neither do the elephants.
That’s how Top Gun 2 is different to, and better than, the Dead Space remake, which came out earlier this year: I absolutely believe that Tom Cruise has, at some point in his career of making films and doing all his own stunts, had an elephant sit on his chest. Think back. Come on: that’s a thing you half-knew already, wasn’t it? Remember that press junket for Mission: Impossible… Four or maybe Five? Tom, sitting there in his canvas producer’s chair, slapping his knee, borderline hysterical, as he recounted how the elephant wouldn’t sit on him at first, so Tom had to learn to train the elephant to sit with peanuts and the aid of a local hill tribe, then dive into position under its bottom, missing time and time again as the elephant sat down too fast.
I'm sure I remember seeing that interview on YouTube, late one night...
Fetch me an elephant
If Electronic Arts had held a press junket when it announced it was remaking Dead Space, I can just picture a too-honest exec saying "Money," before I even had time to ask the question, “Why?”.
"At first we were going to just do Dead Space 4," the rep could have continued. "That’s what our core fanbase wants – we looked on Reddit and they were very clear. But that sounded risky, so instead, we were going to say we'd found some lost design documents, or had some brave new vision for a reboot that would take players off the Ishimura with a reimagined cast of characters – you know, a bit like Modern Warfare did. But then we looked again at all those people who wanted Dead Space 4, and agreed it would be easier to flog them the first game all over again. The second game, too, if this one does well."
"It's not what the core fanbase wanted," a second source might as well have chimed in but – importantly – didn't, other than in my head. "But, if I might switch shoes with Dead Space fans for a moment: from our perspective, writing and designing new installments in a franchise that please the core fans is really hard. Ten years ago, we proved that we were happy to hold the Dead Space license to ransom if the fans didn't buy five million copies of Dead Space 3. And they didn't, so we did. Now those core fans are so starved of this thing they love and that we own, they don’t even care that when they took off their shoes to swap, I kept mine on and put theirs in my briefcase. They’re my shoes now. Which do you want? Shoes or Dead Space? Exactly. God, I love money.”
Am I being too hard on the developers of Dead Space 2023? No. Because while it will have been the publisher who signed off on both the remake and its subsequent YouTube featurettes, it’s members of the dev team who voiced over those videos, promising at one point Dead Space 2023 would be ‘Dead Space as you’ve never seen it before’. And yet, there is series hero Isaac Clarke, running round a dark spaceship switching on engines and chopping up space zombies – exactly no one watching on their laptop is sitting there, brows furrowed, thinking, “Forza’s gone in a weird direction this year.” It looks so much like Dead Space that the videos even intermittently display a banner that clarifies that what you’re watching is Dead Space remake, not the original. Oof.
The developers continue, showing us (with scary flowcharts) how Isaac's breathing is now controlled by the 'A.L.I.V.E.' system. Basically, if Isaac is grunting from exerting himself, mag-boot first, into the face of a spike monster, that’ll now stop his breathing cycle and maybe leave him a bit out of puff. Apropos of nothing: Dead Space (2008) won the 2009 BAFTA for Best Use of Audio and Best Audio at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). A further video shows ‘improvements’ to the game’s trademark dismemberment system. It’s far more detailed now. Though the game is also still far too dark and the monsters far too fast, speedy and spiky for the effect to register with me, even as I consciously looked for it in the new early gameplay. As anyone who’s played Dead Space will tell you: when a spaceman with his bones inside out jumps out of a vent shaft and lunges at Isaac with his sharpened arm stumps, you really don’t care how realistically those arms come off, just as long as they come off before yours.
“‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – that’s what I say,” says an executive who also doesn’t exist except inside my brain. “The problem with Dead Space was that nothing was broken, but we did still want more money. That was when we got out the toolkit and really started fixing it to pieces.”
This makes me nervous – and not just because of how many executives and publishing cronies I’ve been hallucinating lately. More broadly: I’m nervous that this gold rush to remake games, preying on nostalgia and goodwill rather than stoking them, will become a new normal. Top Gun 2, the Resident Evil Remakes, and a very small number of other examples take something that was truly special and, accepting the technical limitations of the time, produce something that neither panders to fanboys like me, nor uses its name and my nostalgia to squeeze me for cash. Dead Space is far from the only example; but it was, ultimately, a series that had its hamstrings cut by EA's greed. And having seen the runaway success of Capcom and Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3, EA has clearly identified the remake as the next phase in its mission to make money first and invest in the series second.
The Dead Space remake is a good game, of course it is, the original was a classic, and this extravagant redo does little to deviate from the path laid by the 2008 game. But its success is a green light to rapacious publishers everywhere to scour their catalogs of dusty and beloved IPs for a quick buck, like a widow flogging her late husband’s war medals so she can afford a round-the-world cruise. The resulting torrent of games may be creatively bankrupt, but that isn’t the kind of bankruptcy that these companies care about. As for the players, our reward for indulging in the industrial exhuming of treasured classics will be fewer and fewer developers able or willing to throw themselves under the elephant in the unlikely hope that strange ideas and risk-taking spark genius – as happened in 2008 at EA Redwood Shores, when it unleashed its original sci-fi horror spectacular onto a console generation defined by Modern Warfare knock-offs.
The Dead Space remake is not “Dead Space as I’ve never seen it before”. The Dead Space remake is to me, I’m afraid, is the exploitative and cynical future of many big franchises yet to come.