You can see the banner ad now, a huge photo of Cloud, pale and moody against Midgar’s dingy neon skyline. “Pre-Order for Early Access to the ‘Aeris Lives’ Expansion!” I’m kidding, of course, perhaps because mild amusement is the only appropriate response to the mating dance currently taking place between Japanese publisher Square Enix and a vocal-but-how-many-are-there-are-really section of its devoted fan base.
In June, Square Enix announced a full remake of the beloved game Final Fantasy VII– a game released on the PlayStation in 1997 – and behold, there was a lot of joy. But devoted fans are never happy for long, and the recent forum-shattering news that FFVII Remake will be an “episodic” game that caused such a relapse that Yoshinori Kitase, director of the original and producer of the remake, had to publish a calming blog post.
What Kitase said, and what Square Enix wants people to understand, is that FFVII Remake will look nothing like the original FFVII. In some ways, you can understand the confusion, but those expecting a 20-year-old video game to be even partially translated into modern times are delusional.
This is not to denigrate FFVII, just to say that it is a game to be considered in its time. It is impossible to detach from its context. FFVII was not only a great RPG and a brilliant jump from 2D to 3D by SquareSoft, but one of the first video games with a marketing budget that could reach primetime at the same time as Sony broke into the mainstream. That is a much repeated rumour FFVII was one of the most returned PlayStation titles in stores, mainly thanks to people buying it based on a lavish CG-led advertising campaign and then taking control of stocky polygonal figures. This was a defining title for the PlayStation, Square, and the future of RPGs – and not always in a good way.
A design for the 90s
Every part of FFVIIThe game’s design was a result of the pros and cons of the PlayStation and its CD-ROM storage, and nothing exemplifies this better than the three distinct visual styles it fuses together. The game’s locations were richly rendered backgrounds, with incredible detail and in some cases CG animations, navigated isometrically by 3D models. This drawing style had thematic advantages, not least by harking back to the childish “chibi” style of 16-bit Final fantasy games, and the basic usefulness of different formats on the cards.
The battle character models were different, with more realistic proportions and more detail, but battles did not have the pre-rendered backgrounds. Then there was a massive outburst of FMV sequences, with about 40 minutes in the game, and even in this, the style alternates between the more realistic models and chibi representations of the characters.
SquareSoft’s developers almost managed to get away with the transitions between these three styles, but the result is that FFVIIThe tone fluctuates wildly. One question about the remake is whether a scene involving Cloud cross-dressing to manipulate his way into a gangster mob will make the cut. In the original game, this is a light-hearted and funny scene with simple 3D models, but in a realistic style it would require a more sensitive touch. Or there are entire characters like Cait Sith – a giant stuffed animal controlled by a cat – who act as comic relief, before later driving some of the game’s most poignant scenes. It’s hard to see how such a hugely alien creature could fit into the more realistic visual style without a major overhaul, but would it be Cait Sith?
Much of the world’s tone comes from FFVII‘s roots in 8- and 16-bit RPGs and, more importantly, the proven techniques of the creators. Final fantasy has always told high-stakes stories and fruity dialogue – something that detractors of the series characterize as overly melodramatic, but which I see as a storytelling technique born of limitations unimaginable in the modern video game era.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, series creator and hands-on producer of FFVII, started making RPGs on 8-bit hardware, as did director Yoshinori Kitase and co-writer Kazushige Nojima. They all had to tell stories through the mouths of characters that looked almost abstract, in worlds built around frequent combat, for players to pop in and out of. So the sooner Final fantasy games have grandiose and sometimes heartbreaking stories, but always with characters painted in broad emotional strokes. See how they always have an overt purpose or motivation that is evoked at regular intervals before they are finally fulfilled or lost.
A fork in the road – and no turning back
Final fantasy was not the first Japanese-made RPG, but it is arguably the most groundbreaking series, and as the genre has grown, the earlier designs have become technically obsolete as well. FFVII represented both the pinnacle for storytelling in the series, combined with the latest audio and visual technology, and a split – SquareSoft would pursue a more realistic aesthetic for FFVIIIand trying to build a script around the silent hero’s inner monologue, while Sakaguchi would haunt CG to the bitter end with his movie The ghosts within. FFVII is an embodiment of this transition: a game that is familiar with its internal contradictions and is almost completely defined by them.
This is one of those hard to understand, but absolutely crucial elements Redo has no chance of reconquering, through no fault of his own. Even if it were a fully faithful remake like Gus van Sant’s shot-by-shot recreation of Psycho, that was not possible. What FFVII is inseparable for many people from 1997, or the time and place they first played it, and how unusual and rich the game felt in that time. As well as being fun, it was also sophisticated and fresh, while modern annoyances like random combat were one of those things you gladly tolerated.
Perhaps this is what fans really want back: a time when Japanese-made RPGs ruled, or seemed to rule, Earth. Time and place are the most insurmountable issues facing the remake, and the new aesthetic and inevitable shift in tone are the most visible symptoms. The trailers in front FFVII Redo shows off a beautifully rendered world with a much more realistic style of character design, and so there are issues with the original game’s icons: Cloud’s broadsword looks so big it’s impractical, making his arms look like noodles, while Barratt’s chaingun- arm (which is fine on a cartoon character) looks plain Sheet fan art.
This is an inevitable consequence of the move from low-resolution polygon characters to extremely detailed 3D models. There’s far less imaginative space for the player and nowhere for designers to hide: characters with human-like proportions, detailed facial expressions and spoken dialogue don’t leave much to the imagination. It’s not that both styles are better, which has to do with implementation, just that they’re incompatible.