I spent most of my summer staring at Joel Miller’s goatee. Naughty Dog, as it often does in the off years between major releases, unveiled its latest back-catalog remaster during 2022’s patchwork E3 facsimile. This time, the team was resurrecting the bleak, apocalypto-Western classic The Last of Us with the processing power now available on the PlayStation 5. It’s called The Last of Us Part One—formalizing its Godfather-like relationship with its 2020 sequel—and the graphics czars over at Digital Foundry posted a side-by-side comparison of Joel’s scruffy visage so the audience could marvel at the new duds. The problem? I could barely identify any tangible difference in fidelity.
Here is the goatee in question. In the remaster, you will notice that Joel’s hair follicles are flecked with a few stray gray hairs, and that the shadows on his face are mildly richer, but that’s about it. The gut punch of a generation leap—the ache of knowing that your tech is officially outmoded—was nowhere to be found. Instead, at first brush, The Last of Us Part One made me wonder if there is only so much juice to be squeezed from a remaster, particularly for a game that was released in 2013 on the PS3, upgraded in 2014 for the PS4, and is now being primed for the PS5.
I am not alone in this. By and large, fan response to The Last of Us Part One has been fairly tepid. Yes, more footage of the remaster has trickled out ahead its September 2 release date, where Naughty Dog’s modernization efforts have been more apparent. (In a deep dive into the changes, the studio outlined its full overhaul of the game’s textures, including bullets that are capable of “ripping apart environmental objects” and cinematics that “transition seamlessly to gameplay.”) But nobody believes that this assemblage of smoother animations, crisper mechanics, and prettier combat arenas will be a revelatory experience for players. Instead, customers will receive an updated version of a canonical PlayStation game that is optimized for the latest suite of consoles. Oh yeah, and it retails for $70.
By and large, the critical response to Part One has been positive. To nobody’s surprise, the remaster is incredibly visually impressive; Naughty Dog are some of the best in the business, specifically when it comes to graphic realism, and their latest model is already being consecrated as the definitive way to experience the opening chapters of the Last of Us saga. And yes, this is a game that still looks pretty solid on the PlayStation 3, to say nothing of the gorgeous version available on PlayStation 4. We are living in an era where the fidelity gaps between hardware iterations are growing increasingly modest.
What do those diminishing returns mean for the video game remastering sector? How much do we have to gain by mining the very recent past? Are we really capable of being blown away by a slightly more polished chin?
“In terms of limitations, the older a game is, the more room you have to iterate,” says Stephen Kick, CEO of Nightdive Studios, a company that upgrades old, semi-forgotten titles from PC gaming yore. “We went from sprites in the original System Shock to 3D models in our remake, which is probably the biggest jump you can take. For Naughty Dog the difference between The Last of Us on PS3 and the remake on PS5 is most likely going to come down to frame rate and lighting. While the models and textures will certainly be of higher fidelity, I don’t think it’s going to be noticeable enough to warrant the effort. You might see pores on someone’s skin during a cinematic close-up, but there won’t be anything you haven’t seen before.”
As Kick mentioned, Nightdive is currently hard at work on a full-fledged remake of the 1994 System Shock game, which was originally released on MS-DOS and required 4 megabytes of RAM. Like all of its compatriots from the ’90s and early 2000s, a System Shock revamp is functionally immune from market oversaturation; all Nightdive needed to do was add in a few basic ingredients of modern design—fully rendered environments, a few particle effects—to totally lap the original. The Last of Us Part One, on the other hand, is incapable of shifting the paradigm. How could it? Video games simply haven’t changed enough in the last nine years. Somewhere along the way, the term remaster stopped referring to the wonder of, say, George Lucas returning to The Empire Strikes Back to add in a more celestial Cloud City, and it started referring to a bump to 4K and some better water physics. The magic is gone, and as someone who buys a lot of rereleases, I have no one to blame but myself.