There are literally hundreds of early films that we’ve lost, probably irrecoverably, a fact that never fails to fill me with awe and dismay in equal measure. Preservation is a complicated and fragile thing in every medium—marble cracks, paint fades, canvas rips and tears and burns and suffers a hundred other material indignities—but film has the additional problem of technical compatibility. Preserving aging cheesewheels of comically flammable celluloid is a significant challenge (to put it more than mildly) but it’s all for naught if you don’t have the equipment to project what you’ve preserved.
You probably see where I’m going with this: The issue of technological obsolescence is compounded when it comes to preserving videogames. Assuming that you can overcome the issues of deteriorating physical media and labyrinthine legal vagaries, there’s still the issue of brining the dragging source code (assuming you’ve got it, and often you haven’t) kicking and screaming into the light where the modern Operating Systems dwell.
So if you believe that videogames are cultural objects worth preserving—and if you’re an even occasional visitor to this site, I’d assume that you’re onboard with that idea—then you’ve got to see DoubleFine’s recent run of adventure game “Remasters” as not just welcome and remarkably well-executed work, but important work.
Grim Fandango Remastered kept the still-unique visual style of the original more or less intact, while deftly sweetening the game’s low-res textures and reorchestrating its soundtrack. Day of the Tentacle does likewise, but has been Remastered with what I would be tempted to call an even lighter touch if not for the almost obscene amount of work that its approach requires: Rather than reimagining the visuals, DoubleFine has painstakingly smoothed out the jaggy pixels of old (which new drawings rather than some glib aliasing filter) in order to make the game look like what it was apparently intend to look like the first time around: an exuberant hand-drawn cartoon.
The game’s Chuck Jones influence has been widely and rightly lauded, but the game draws equally from other aspects of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies aesthetic playbook, from slapstick orchestral swells to the angular surreality of background artist Maurice Noble, and the Remaster highlights it all, while leaving the antique framerate and dodgy lip-synching of the original release intact.
We sad-eyed children of the Star Wars Special Editions are understandably skeptical when we hear about modern tech being used to make a piece of work look the way its creator really wanted the first time around—but here DoubleFine hasn’t added any superfluous Dewback lizards, nor the Maniac Mansion equivalent thereof. They really have just overcome the unavoidable limitations of scanners, screen resolutions, and storage capacities, circa 1993. They’ve taken a game of nigh-mythic status, and made it available and digestible here and now, and that’s worthy of a cheer or three in any and every event.
And Day of the Tentacle is a game imminently worth preserving and passing along. Its puzzle solutions are wild flights of cartoon logic—but pretty internally consistent cartoon logic; that’s key—and its structure jumps around in time (across hundreds of years) and makes it look easy to balance three protagonists/player-characters. Lucio has written about how even good ol’ Telltale struggles with that last bit, and indeed, Day of the Tentacle’s plot construction is ambitious when compared to just about any game, past or present, in any genre. It’s got a confidence and a zany momentum that puts it a cut above fare that aims for “cinematic” polish at the cost of tonal cohesion.
The remake retains the verb-heavy SCUMM interface, but allows you to switch it out for a more minimalist (but still pretty maximalist) verb coin scheme that allows the visuals breathe—and you can freely mix and match new and old, interface and audio and visuals, in whatever combination feels right. (That flexibility is, in my view, absolutely key to the art of preservation. Having your cake and eating it, too. Leaving the rough edges intact for the sake of archivists and purists, but making them optional for everybody else’s sake).
The cutscenes are still lackadaisically paced—there’s an achievement in it for you if you can play the game without skipping any—but the dialogue holds up, and there’s a rare sense of the game’s non-interactive moments being things you earned: the falling of the dominos you’ve set up and pushed over by solving one more packet of weird-ass dream logic puzzles.
This is an easy one to recommend to adventure game enthusiasts who missed the game the first time around, and to longtime fans who aren’t sure if the game is as good as they remember (which it very likely is), and to those with an abiding interest in the goofy and the surreal.
Here’s to preservation, huh?