Everything in Moderation

NVIDIA's new remastering tool highlights both sides of game preservation efforts.

The team at NVIDIA Studio released this video late last month showing off their new and astonishing "RTX Remix" tool for remastering PC games and I haven't stopped thinking about it. Taken at face-value the software allows developers and modders to easily and visually update assets and lighting in older games through some clever tricks and assistance via AI upscalers, sprucing them up enough to be considered truly remastered works. To be transparent: I am not a game developer, but I have been doing some digging into actual developer reactions to this and the term "wizardry" appears frequently. The ability to automate processes that needed to be done by hand, or to visually see changes made to textures and modeling reflected in real-time is a game-changer for the kind of work the modding scene has been painstakingly toiling away on for decades.

And although the focus of the presentation seemed to be aimed squarely at said modding scene — there are multiple times in which the presenter mentions they "can't wait to see what the community will do" — I do find it interesting on a high level that NVIDIA sought to make this tool in the first place, knowing full well that the remake and remaster side of the game development business has ballooned in recent years. The line between those two terms has never been blurrier, but there's no denying that we can't go a week without hearing about some long-dormant game being revitalized for modern consoles. For NVIDIA to not only recognize the business need for a better suite of tools to coincide with what can be considered its own mini-industry, but to provide such a huge collection of innovative concepts into the fold means we'll likely be seeing many projects coming down the pipeline soon. And by "soon" I mean it's likely that NVIDIA has already been helping shuttle multiple game remasters simultaneously through the RTX Remix pipeline behind-the-scenes for months. Not only are there credible rumors of remasters for Bioshock and Mirror's Edge in the works, but NVIDIA themselves unveiled a trailer for an RTX edition of the first Portal:

The realities of the games industry being... well... an industry... means IP-holders and publishers will frequently overlook the benefits of just porting an old game to new hardware, but given a cost-effective tool like this to hypothetically expedite the process I'm hopeful more forgotten classics will return in some playable form. Although remastering a game isn't quite the same as preservation, a desire to revisit and rerelease previously unplayable titles will usually be a net-positive in my book. One concern I keep mulling over though is the tendency to lose nuance in the process of remastering a game. In the past I've been critical of "next-gen ports" just adding ray-traced lighting to higher-res textures and calling it a day. There are times I've found in which relying on technological fixes end up removing the artistic intent of talented world and level-designers using hardware constraints to their advantage.

The PS5 version of Judgement comes to mind here in which, despite higher fidelity textures across the board, scenes previously awash in the vibrant glow of Kamurocho's neon nightlife take on a more realistic contrast at the expense of the original's atmosphere bringing out the best (and worst) in the city streets. Personally I think this is a case of early adoption — even the Portal with RTX trailer linked above seems like it's overdoing its lighting effects at times, sliders pushed all the way to the limit making previously highly-visible scenes take on a new and unintended darkness. While the tendency right now is to show off how powerful and exciting ray-tracing and AI-upscaling can be, developers will slowly start to incorporate them the way they do all other effects: with a light touch. There was a time when particles and destructible environments were all the rage as well, and every single game was littered with exploding bullet-hole-laden walls and floating motes of dust obscuring the player's view.

But I have faith in the future here, everything in moderation.

One last note here is a point in the video in which the following wildly disappointing sentence pops up:

Morrowind RTX is a technical showcase and is not currently under active development.