We’re living in a golden age of games getting “Definitive Edition” or “Remastered” slapped on them. Some of these re-releases, like Mafia: Definitive Edition, have been praised for breathing new life into old favorites. Others, like Warcraft III: Reforged, have all the trademarks of half-assed cash-ins. But then there are games where remakes are impossible due to legal issues or are simply not priorities for their original publishers — and that’s where fans come in.
Fans have long patched nasty bugs out of broken games, but some patches are so exhaustive that they essentially become unofficial definitive editions. These updates—like the long effort to fix bugs and restore content in Knights of the Old Republic 2 — often begin in obscurity, but can grow to be considered essential additions to the point where it’s unclear what more could be done with these games.
Completing the Incomplete
Werner Spahl, also known as Wesp5, has been tinkering with a patch of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines for 15 years. Released unfinished due to time constraints in 2004, VTMB was praised for its incredible scope and ambitious storytelling, but critiqued for countless bug that could render the game a slog, if not break it entirely. A sales flop that killed developer Troika Games, it’s since been regarded as a cult classic with a remarkably detailed narrative awaiting those who can tolerate its eccentricities.
Spahl’s patch fixes a litany of errors that include broken quests and dialogue, graphical glitches and missing audio, and simple typos. It’s considered so essential to the VTMB experience that the GOG release includes it, while Spahl also offers a “plus” patch that fills in missing locations, missions, skills and conversations that were abandoned in the rush to get the game to market. Why put all of this effort in?
“It’s my favorite game of all time!” Spahl tells me. “I came to Bloodlines from FPS games, I basically only played it because it used the Source engine. Then I experienced [a plot twist] which was much deeper than anything I ever played in a shooter before! And in the end I just laughed out loud, because obviously Troika knew right from the start how the game would end and I love good story arcs like that. I’m not a vampire fan and I didn’t even know about [its tabletop origins], but the writing and the whole atmosphere did it!”
Spahl was aided by VTMB composer Rik Schaffer, who sent him unused music tracks, and designer Brian Mitsoda, who answered questions about some intended content. But it was still a long, winding road.
“The most difficult part is editing models. Little can be done, and what can be done was made by other modders who are hard to reach in some cases. Editing maps was quite limited until Russian modders found an early Source SDK and made it work with Bloodlines. After that I and several others learned to actually create maps and restored some missing ones to the game!”
There’s also the question of how to balance additions with the game’s original vision, and fans who thought Spahl went too far created a rival “True Patch.” “That is always a bit of a problem,” he says, “as I don’t really know the original vision. How would restored areas have looked if they would have gotten time to do them themselves? My [design philosophy] is that anything I restore must have a connection to Troika somewhere, like in file internals or older media.”
Reclaiming a Flop
The question of developer intent is one faced by all modders taking on the task of fixing broken games. One such modder is TemplarGFX, who developed a patch for the infamous Alien: Colonial Marines. Widely lambasted for its technical problems and moronic AI, ACM became such a punchline that it’s easy to forget how excited people for it. TemplarGFX admired the game’s core ideas and, while the Overhaul Mod’s homepage warns players that it isn’t “a miracle patch that turns the game into what was promised,” the patch’s improvements to the AI, gunplay, and atmosphere certainly move ACM in the right direction.
“I decided a long time ago that I’m not going to please everyone, and so I just do what personally feels right for me, then see how people react to the changes,” TemplarGFX tells me. “For inspiration and reference I watch the Alien movies a lot (for lighting, tone, weapon functionality, etc.), and another game called Insurgency: Sandstorm helped me balance the weapon ballistics. For example, I played with the M249 in Insurgency to get a feel for firing a heavy weapon, then adjusted the ACM Pulse Rifle to give a similar feeling of recoil and control.”
The Overhaul mod’s attention to detail in improving everything from the player’s flashlight to their gunsights is impressive, but why focus on a game as mocked as Colonial Marines?
“I’m a huge Aliens fan, and despite all the problems I enjoyed the levels and weapon designs,” TemplarGFX explains. “You really get the feeling of being a Colonial Marine exploring Hadley’s Hope or the Derelict Spaceship. I saw unrealised potential. ACM sort of became a meme and was held up as the ‘worst ever,’ and this was a little unfair.”
ACM lacks proper modding tools, and so patching it became a tedious process of trial and error. “The closest we have is an application called UE Explorer, which allows you to view some of the contents of the game’s files,” TemplarGFX notes. “However, making changes is quite time consuming and there’s no logging or bug reporting. You make the change, play the game, and try and determine what that change did.”
TemplarGFX estimates that, over the course of four years, they’ve spent at least 5,000 hours on their overhaul. “I never really intended for the mod to become this big or include this many adjustments, but as I slowly learned how to read the data and modify it more and more potential options opened up and with such a supportive community I just kept going.”
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Touching Up the Classics
Not every fan patch fixes a broken game. Some, like the Moguri Mod for Final Fantasy IX, update a classic for the modern era. Moguri doesn’t touch the beloved RPG’s gameplay, but does recreate all of its fuzzy backgrounds in HD.
“FFIX is a favorite from my childhood, I was completely blown away by the visuals and was immediately sucked into the story,” Snouz, one of the mod’s key contributors, tells me. “Artistically, it hasn’t aged a day, but it came with the limitations of its time and Japanese developers typically didn’t keep their source files, so the best we have are the original low resolution images. I’ve been longing for a remaster, opportunity and time were presented to me, so I dove in.”
Moguri combines hand drawn art with modern deep learning to give FFIX a gorgeous modern look. The use of AI is an elegant solution to dealing with the game’s low-res backgrounds in the absence of the original high-resolution images.
“Machine learning algorithms exist for a lot of different purposes,” Snouz explained. “Some apply an artist’s style to an image, others learn to play Mario or create procedural music. The one we use, called ESRGAN, raises image resolution. If you simply quadruple the size of an image, effectively creating 16 pixels out of one pixel, the program will blur what it doesn’t know. When you use AI, you first train a model. The model is like the AI’s brain. You show that model a ton of images, and it learns the style of what you’re showing it. If you make it stare at 10,000 oil paintings, it will have an idea of what a paint stroke looks like. Then you feed that model with your low-res images, and it applies the context of what it knows to fill in the missing pixels. It’s like creating a virtual artist to recreate your image by repainting your image bigger.”
The resulting backgrounds were then touched up manually in Photoshop, where the Moguri team “tried to strike the perfect balance of faithfulness and detail.” While the gorgeous HD backgrounds and textures are the mod’s main appeal, Moguri also includes options for widescreen support, a reorchestrated soundtrack, and other features. Snouz was especially proud of spotting and squashing obscure bugs, like doors in one location that wouldn’t close properly.
Snouz joined the project in June 2019 and estimates they’ve since put in at least 1,000 hours. Stripped of the need to churn out a commercial product, improving a beloved classic can be soothing. “Make sure it’s a hobby and that you take pleasure doing it, it will burn you out if it doesn’t feel as fun as playing a game or watching Netflix,” Snouz says. “I usually worked on it while listening to podcasts or watching videos, and most of it was pretty relaxing and satisfying.”
Not every game can be saved. Spahl also patched “two overlooked games from Ukrainian studio DeepShadows, called White Gold and The Precursors,” but noted that, while they “deserve more fixing,” they’re so difficult to mod that he “can’t find the nerve to replay them again.” He hopes his most recent version of the Bloodlines patch, released in September 2020, will be the definitive one, but he’s always standing by to address new concerns.
TemplarGFX also thinks they’ve “reaching the limit of what’s possible” with ACM, although they intend to continue tweaking the balance. And while Moguri, aside from a few lingering bugs, is complete, Snouz notes that FFVIII fans have a similar project in the works. FFVIII was recently remastered by SquareEnix, but the reception was so mixed that a fan improvement still has its place. As long as developers are constrained by market demands, fans will continue to fix and update games out of sheer passion.