Categorizing Video Game Reboots

by Jorge Albor

12 May 2011

What magic brings us successful reboots and restorations like Batman Begins, and what devilry haunts us with abominations like The Smurfs? Not all franchise facelifts are the same. By taking a look at film and television, we may stumble upon a taxonomy of reboots and help future videogame necromancers invigorate the forgotten.

We live in an age in which franchises long thought dead rise from the grave, their shambling corpses draped with the finery of modern popular culture to create the illusion of vitality. Some artistic sorcerers do manage to breathe life into the sleeping characters of our youth, reminding us of times past and refreshing our longing for their familiar faces. What magic brings us successful reboots and restorations like Batman Begins, and what devilry haunts us with abominations like The Smurfs? (That’s right. I’m calling it.). Not all franchise face lifts are the same. By taking a look at film and television, we may stumble upon a taxonomy of reboots and help future videogame necromancers invigorate the forgotten.

To briefly define my terms, I will liberally use the term “reboot” to encompass resurrecting franchises as well as deviations from the norm, be they forays into different genres or aesthetic re-branding projects. For example, I would include Kirby’s Dream Course in my definition of a “rebooted” or “refreshed” franchise because the creators were trying to maintain certain elements of the puff-ball’s appeal while simultaneously moving the character into a different genre context. The important feature unifying game “reboots” is the attempt by designers to maintain marketable familiarity during a time of significant transition.
Kirby’s Dream Course provides an excellent entry point into discussing aided transitions or what I call “centaur reboots.” The game takes the charm and morphing aspects of Kirby and inserts them into a simple golfing game. The mythical horse-men afford an accurate visualization of games like Dream Course that essentially splice themselves with different genres. While no film comes immediately to mind, the television show Community undergoes this process weekly. A comedy set in a community college, the show fits the same cast of characters and familiar hijinks into a new genre in nearly every episode. From Westerns to Hong Kong Action, the directors of Community manage to maintain their characters’ identities and plot arcs while joyfully playing with genre. The outcome is a show completely unique to television. Like the majestic centaur, never confused as just man or beast, Community maintains a sense of continuity and harmony despite its disparate components. One only need look at the diversity of the Mario franchise to see this approach succeed in videogames.

Similar to the centaur reboots seizure of other genre elements, “fashion reboots” play dress-up with the thematic elements of others. Whereas centaur reboots dramatically alter core content, fashion reboots maintain core elements but don new aesthetic and thematic trappings. Neither is more difficult or successful than the other, but both are unique. Incidentally, Nick Dinicola’s piece on Casino Royale offers keen insight into this transitional process. Unlike previous iterations of James Bond, as Dinicola states, Director Martin Campbell’s hero is “a mercilessly violent, nearly asexual secret agent” (Nick Dinicola, “The Perfect FPS Protagonist”, PopMatters, 6 May 2011). Daniel Craig still drives a fast car, plays a mean game of poker, and has a license to kill, but his entire demeanor has changed into something new. Well, not entirely new. Casino Royale’s James Bond appears startling similar to Jason Bourne. Quite intentionally, Campbell refreshes Bond with the aesthetic and thematic trappings of the modern action film zeitgeist: gritty and grounded violence. If it wasn’t for Paul Greengrass’ Bourne series, Bond would not be the international man of mystery he is today.

What better video game example of the “fashion reboot” than Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum? While superheroes fit comfortably in the action and brawler game genres, seldom has a comic book champion been so dark, menacing, and overwhelmingly brutal. In fact, Arkham’s Batman shares many similarities with Bourne. The game may owe some credit to its up-close and personal, even intimate, type of violence. Its rugged aesthetic and beefy character design seem to borrow liberally from Gears of War’s popular look and feel.While some of the core action conventions remain the same, the latest Batman freshened himself by dirtying up.

Of course, designers may aim to reboot a franchise using both methods. Centaur fashionistas do exist, however rare. Examples are fleeting across all mediums. I would argue Gremlins 2 became a dual reboot when it ventured wholeheartedly into the comedy genre. Far Cry 2 may count as a videogame version, having abandoned so many aspects of its predecessor as to appear as a different game entirely.

Other reboots may employ neither process, scarcely qualifying as reboots at all. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fits this category, despite letting down legions of Indie fans in 2008. Many of the series’ elements remain consistent throughout all four films. Harrison Ford is older, but still captures Indy’s cavalier attitude and smooth wit. Although egregious, Shia LaBeouf’s simian trapeze stunt through the jungle shares its silliness with Indy’s use of an airplane escape-slide as a parachute. Even the ridiculous extraterrestrial plot device has commonalities with the paranormal and religious events in past films. Crystal Skull did not fail as a reboot, it failed as a recreation. The filmmakers failed in their execution. The idea of “rebooting” Indiana Jones may have been a good one—at least in principle.

Armed with cleanly categorized reboot styles, one should still tread cautiously. None of these methods of refreshing a franchise equate instant success. Their intelligent use depends on an accurate assessment of what makes a series appealing in the first place. Additionally, the processes described in this article are often implemented by degrees. Perhaps we can have a one-eighth-centaur fashionista. In fact, I encourage you to explore games further and reboot these concepts according to your findings. The better equipped we are to analyze the art of reboots, the less likely our reincarnated videogame franchises will reek of death.

Author’s note: Significant inspiration for this article comes from a recent IGDA talk by David Gallagher of Crystal Dynamics. I owe Mr. Gallagher great thanks for sharing his thoughts on refreshing IP.

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