Just Like a Film

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[This blog contains spoilers for the video games Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, as well as the television show Newhart.]

As the hype for Final Fantasy VII Remake grew in the years following its 2015 announcement, and especially after I was finally able to play the game last month, I’ve had a very intense internal debate regarding how I should discuss my feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m not the video game aficionado I used to be — I’m deeply unqualified to do anything like a review of the game, especially in terms of comparing it to other recent video games — and being critical about any video game on the Internet can be a recipe for personal hell. At the same time, for all that’s been written and podcasted and YouTube’d about Final Fantasy VII Remake, I’ve yet to hear any voices from my generation, or people with a deep background in books and literature, discuss their experiences with the game to any appreciable degree.

I’ve made the decision that I need to say something about Final Fantasy VII Remake, but in largely broad strokes. This isn’t going to be a full exploration of the game, but rather an essay of how my own experiences with video games leading up to Final Fantasy VII Remake influenced my reception of it. I do want to say at the start here, however, that I enjoyed the game a great deal, and I encourage anyone with any interest in video games (or just good storytelling) to purchase it, but I did not like it as much as the original Final Fantasy VII, and I think anyone who plays Final Fantasy VII Remake should play the original first, so they can appreciate the things that the remake does better, and worse, than the first Final Fantasy VII. I hope that the reasons for this will become obvious through the rest of this blog.

As I’ve written about here before, my experience with console role-playing games was heavily influenced by the fact that I went through my Dungeons and Dragons phase at a very young age, to the point where I’d given up on pen-and-paper games by the time I bought my first Nintendo Entertainment System when I was thirteen years old. A common refrain I hear in YouTube videos about Final Fantasy VII Remake is people talking about how the original Final Fantasy VII was a huge part of their childhood, and frequently the first Final Fantasy game they ever played. I’m one of those people whose first Final Fantasy game was the first Final Fantasy game, which came out in 1990, so I was fourteen when I first played it, and even though the Final Fantasy games (mostly) don’t take place in a continuous universe, there are enough similarities between them that it still feels like a defined video game franchise. That franchise became my favourite of all time when Final Fantasy IV came out on the Super Nintendo a year later, and nothing has changed since then.

In general, video games weren’t an imaginative experience for me when I was younger; when I played Donkey Kong in my earliest years, my brain didn’t conjure up a realistic-looking Italian plumber who was climbing ladders and jumping over flaming barrels to rescue his special someone; I just enjoyed the thrill of playing the game. Role-playing games were different for me, though, probably because of my previous experience playing D&D and other similar games (and also reading a whole lot of the early DragonLance books). Even though the Nintendo Entertainment System was so primitive, I played the original Final Fantasy with a “real-life” version going on in my head, where I could see actual human characters battling monsters and bantering with each other during fights, even though the player characters in the original Final Fantasy never actually say a word during the game. Just like with the pen-and-paper games I’d played before I got my first NES, my imagination was filling in a whole lot of what I wasn’t getting, either from the video game or the “dungeon master” I was playing with; more to the point, all the reading I’d done throughout my life had made me love the very act of imagining a world from only snippets of text, so that was a process I’d gotten used to even before I picked up my first twenty-sided die.

As video game consoles got more powerful, role-playing games were able to provide more and more of those details for the people who were playing them. The player characters in Final Fantasy IV finally had dialogue lines which came up in text on the screen, and the Super Nintendo’s music capabilities were good enough that even though all the sounds were obviously computer-generated, at least the violin sounds were kind of like violins, and brass sounds were kind of like brass, and again, your imagination could fill in the details of what that music would sound like if it were played on real instruments. Graphics got better and better, the text dialogue of earlier games was soon replaced by voice actors speaking lines that the on-screen characters would move their lips to, and music created by manipulating sound samples gave way to recordings of actual instruments playing music. A lot can be gained by these advancements, but they all work to reduce the imaginative effort of the players “filling in the blanks” of what the game isn’t giving them. This isn’t to say that modern games don’t inspire imagination — we still don’t have a video game console that can produce smells, or winds from certain directions, or even tactile feedback beyond the rumble feature of modern controllers — but playing a modern Final Fantasy game is a whole different experience from playing those early games thirty years ago.

When the material that a role-playing game provides you with is top-notch, though, then you don’t miss the work that your imagination could have done in coming up with something good on your own. Final Fantasy VII (the original) and Final Fantasy IV remain my two favourite video games of all time, because despite their flaws (and believe me, I’m not blind to them), both games have well-developed characters who draw me to them emotionally, as well as soundtracks featuring some of the best music I’ve ever heard in my life. When those things are missing — or even worse, when I don’t like them — then playing a role-playing game often feels like a tedious chore of fighting battle after battle for no real reward.

Final Fantasy VIII really didn’t connect with me on any level, and I think the characters and music had a lot to do with that. More than that, though, when I look back at the game itself now, I can see how it started the move away from the conventions of literature to the conventions of film. It’s hard to look at the two most iconic pre-rendered video segments of Final Fantasy VIII, the dance sequence and the “Eyes On Me” sequence, and not see them as an attempt by the game’s creators to take the game fully into the realm of Hollywood. It’s kind of ironic to say this, since the huge marketing campaign around the release of the original Final Fantasy VII was based around the game having the epicness (and budget) of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the game never really crosses over into telling its story more like a film than a novel. Even when the game tries to echo those conventions, such as when Cloud and Tifa and Barret swing on a rope to escape the collapse of the Sector 7 plate, it doesn’t feel like something out of a film, probably because of the early 3-D crudeness of the character models. The pre-rendered videos of the original Final Fantasy VII, as iconic as they are, feel like they’re adding to a story rooted firmly in the traditions of written narrative, as opposed to trying to be like an action film.

I really cut down on the amount of video gaming I did when I went back to college in 2001, around the time that 3-D character models in video games started getting much more realistic and pre-recorded music using actual instruments started becoming the norm. The demands on my time after I graduated and started my teaching career made me cut that time down even further, and my lack of disposable income meant that I often didn’t get a new video game system until it had been out for a few years. After I got my Playstation 4 late last year (in preparation for Final Fantasy VII Remake coming out, of course), I made sure to purchase a Playstation Plus membership so I could get some free games and start “catching up” on some of the evolutionary threads of video games that I missed over the previous two decades. In all honesty, far too many of those modern games I’ve played feel like interactive movies more than anything else, and even though they might have different mechanics, they blur together far too easily in my mind. I just don’t see the same difference in gameplay between God of War 4 and The Last of Us that I see between, for example, The Legend of Zelda and Mega Man 3. With a lot of these modern games, I play them for a couple of hours in the hope that something — the story, the characters, the music — will hook me and make me want to play more, and when they invariably don’t do that, I just give up on them.

From the earliest sneak peeks of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it was clear that the developers were going to diverge from the original a considerable amount. I was kind of worried about this, but even though I was uncomfortable with some of the new things being introduced in the remake, I was willing to go along with them. Even though I didn’t grow up with the original Final Fantasy VII, since I was twenty-one years old when it was first released in America, I’d been dreaming of a photo-realistic version of the game since I first finished it (remaking games for more powerful consoles was already a thing back then, such as Super Mario All-Stars for the Super Nintendo), so by the time that I finally got to play Final Fantasy VII Remake last month, I’d still been waiting over half my life for it.

For the most part, I was able to go along with the remake’s changes without much trouble; there were a number of things that I didn’t like, but they were mostly small issues, and I could ignore them easily because of all the things that the game did right (recreating iconic places like Aerith’s house and Wall Market so brilliantly, fleshing out some smaller characters to have good story arcs, and holy cats, did they nail the soundtrack). The ending really soured me on the game for a long time, though, and while many people have complained about the ending, I think that my issues with it stem from a different place than most of the commentary I’ve read and heard online.

I grew up watching old Looney Toons shorts and Marx Brothers films, and they did a lot more to break the fourth wall (like all the times the characters look at the camera and address the audience directly) than the contemporary entertainment of my early years. By the turn of the millennium, though, breaking the fourth wall was starting to be overdone to an almost ludicrous extreme, and that’s only gotten worse over the last two decades. To turn to television for a moment, the ending to Newhart is so iconic because hardly anyone back then would ever think of the possibility that a whole television series could be revealed as the long dream of a character played by the same actor in another television series from a decade earlier; these days, a reveal like that would be a five-second gag on Family Guy, followed right away by another “joke” that would make everyone forget the reveal they just watched.

Fourth-wall breaks can be very effective, but only when they’re used judiciously and in the right places. When they don’t work, or they’re all over the place, attention is shifted away from the characters themselves, and the fictional universe that’s been created for them, to the writers of the piece of entertainment. The writers themselves become the “stars” of the work, and while I’m all for writers getting credit for what they do (I am a writer myself, after all), when they become the focal point of a work, that rips me out of the story being told.

That isn’t much of an issue when I don’t care for the story, but when that story is immersive, to the point where I’m getting “lost” in it, being yanked out of it is devastating, and that’s what happened to me during the ending of Final Fantasy VII Remake, when the game did everything in its power to remind players that it was a work of art being written, and also being rewritten from the original. The number of problems I had as the game picked up in the final chapters started growing — Aerith’s speechifying, taking apotheosis to exponential levels with the final fight against the whispers, a fight with Sephiroth that seemingly exists just to have a fight with Sephiroth in the game (and ruin the specialness of the fight with him in whatever the last game of the remake winds up being) — but the climax and denouement really shove it in your face that the game is something being written, and the writers can now do whatever they want to this story that so many of us have committed to heart.

I’ve watched Aerith’s death in the original Final Fantasy VII hundreds of times, and it still makes me sob every single time because in spite of the primitive graphics, and in spite of the synthesized sound samples, the game does such an incredible job of making me believe in its world, and feel for Aerith as a person, that watching her die at Sephiroth’s hands makes me hurt on a very visceral level, so much so that my stomach is literally in pain as I type these words right now. Most of Final Fantasy VII Remake did a good-to-amazing job of immersing me in much the same way, but the ending made me feel like the writers wanted to jerk me out of it, and force me to think about the writing they were doing, just as that writing hit its nadir. (Don’t even get me started on my problems with the tease of retconning Zack’s death.)

After the end credits started rolling on Final Fantasy VII Remake, I was fairly disgusted; I put the game disc back in its case, and it hasn’t come back out since then. Those negative feelings have subsided a lot in the last few weeks, but I still have no desire to replay the game right now, and even though I probably will go through it again at some point, I can tell that I’m not going to try to get every single achievement in the game because I just don’t have enough interest in it to make the effort worth it for me. Like I said, I think it’s a very good game on the whole, and that everyone who owns a Playstation 4 should buy a copy, but it still managed to leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. (Also, a pox on whoever decided not to include a reprise of the “Prologue” theme in the end credits. Seriously?)

We’ll probably start getting videos of the next game of the remake sometime soon, and I’m sure that they’ll focus on all the things that come after the Midgar sequence of the original game — travelling to Kalm and the Chocobo Farm, fighting the Midgar Zolom, encountering Yuffie — and those videos will make me want to play that next game, which I’ll probably do when it comes out (if I have the money for it). Unlike the last five years of reveals for the first game of the remake, though, I can no longer trust the writers to produce a game that will stand up well in comparison to the original game. That hurts, but it’s not like we all don’t have much more important things to worry about right now. I may end up playing through the original Final Fantasy VII over the summer here, just to be reminded of what made that such a good game, and what Final Fantasy VII Remake might have been if it had been handled in a more sensible way. At least we’ll always have that game.

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