Square With Our Imaginations

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FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE Trailer for E3 2019 (youtube.com)

I can still remember my reaction to the first official announcement that Square Enix was going to do a total remake of my favourite video game of all time, Final Fantasy VII, at E3 four years ago. I don’t watch video game conferences live, so someone who had watched it live directed me to a YouTube clip whose title spoiled exactly what it was of, and I didn’t get the opportunity to be as surprised as everyone who watched the Sony conference live, either in-person or on the Internet. Still, even though I knew what I was watching, I somehow kept having a very strong “no, this can’t be happening” reaction, up until the point where the opening string note of the original game’s first music hit (about the 1:11 mark of the video I linked to at the start of this paragraph), when I swear that my heart literally skipped a beat, and then tears came pouring down my cheeks.

In the days that followed, I not only watched the announcement video over and over again, but I also watched videos of other people reacting to the announcement live, my first real foray into the wide world of YouTube reaction videos. I cried more than a few times while I did that (and those videos let me know that I was far from the only person overwhelmed by my feelings), but as the initial shock of the announcement wore off, and I began to think about it with a more critical mind, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the remake. On the one hand, Final Fantasy VII is probably the one game that simply has to be remade for a modern console, given its unique place in the history of video gaming and the fervency of its fanbase. At the same time, though, given that fanbase, and the expectations that so many of us have had about a possible remake since we first played the game (over two decades ago, for some of us), it also makes Final Fantasy VII, in a strange way, the one game that can’t be remade.

I started my Dungeons and Dragons phase relatively early in my life (Mind Games, you are missed), and I went through it kind of quickly, in large part because the gaming groups I was involved in were more interested in just “winning” — creating characters with godlike attributes, then beating the snot out of all the toughest creatures in the monster manuals — and not the storytelling potential of the games. After I bought my first NES, I got hooked on early Japanese RPGs because even though they didn’t have much in the way of dialogue, the barebones graphics and text allowed me to build my own stories with the characters and monsters in the games, using what those games provided as a barebones framework. I know I’m far from the only person who watched battles in these games and imagined the heroes complaining at each other for missing blows and the like.

As video game consoles got more sophisticated, and RPGs evolved into a much more mature form of game, the stories really started to get good, especially for the Final Fantasy games. Even as that happened, though, there were still enough things that the games didn’t hand to players — how the characters looked beyond low-resolution sprites, what they said to each other during battles with baddies, how their voices sounded — that the games still provided enough space for our minds to run wild, like they’d been doing for years and years, to flesh out the games on our own, and to play a game that was, in however small a way, a story that we were creating not only by the choices we made in the game itself, but that we were also making up in our own minds.

The late nineties, the era of the first Playstation and the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn, may have been the zenith of RPGs allowing players to do that. When Square Enix released Final Fantasy X for the Playstation 2, and all the characters had spoken voices (and much more realistic in-game appearances), that kind of marked the beginning of the end of players being able to do that so easily. Final Fantasy X benefited from being such a great game in so many ways that I really didn’t care about my imagination not having as much room to come up with stuff to complement what happened in the game, but I’ve steadily fallen out of love with subsequent Final Fantasy titles. When I finally decided to try playing Final Fantasy XIII recently, I gave up after less than two hours because it just didn’t appeal to me in any way whatsoever. Playing it was a chore, not an adventure like previous Final Fantasy games were.

There’s a lot to be said about the development of the action RPG genre that modern Final Fantasy titles belong to, and how recent titles lack the quirkiness that made the early Final Fantasy games so unique and iconic, but those discussions are better saved for another blog. The reason I bring this all up right now is that Final Fantasy VII was released in that era where so many of us who fell in love with it not only filled in a lot of the blanks of what the game didn’t give us, but we were well-practiced in that art. As each of us imagined the possibility of Final Fantasy VII being remade on some super-powerful video game console of the future, with photo-realistic graphics and music that sounded like actual instruments, we all had much different Final Fantasy VII games in our heads. I doubt that any two hypothetical remakes we all came up with back then would have been alike.

As the reactions to the new Final Fantasy VII Remake trailers come in, this phenomenon is clear to see. Some people are having issues with what appear to be major deviations from the storyline (like the black mist that appears when Cloud and Aeris first meet, or at least I assume it’s when they first meet since Cloud has a flower in his hand at the start of the clip). Some people have said that the characters’ voices don’t sound like what they imagined them to be. A lot of people have brought up their problems with how the characters look in their new, ultra-realistic graphical avatars. (To those of you still obsessing over Tifa’s bust size after all this time: You’re making the baby Aeris cry.) It’s pretty much impossible for Square Enix to make a Final Fantasy VII Remake game that will be the game most Final Fantasy VII fans, or even a good chunk of fans, have held in their heads for decades now.

These kinds of issues come up when remakes happen in other media, like film, but they’re amplified all the more when it comes to a video game because of the medium’s interactive format. Because video game players influence the story of a game by controlling its ludic narrative, this can result in many gamers feeling a level of involvement with the game that can act, in many ways, like a sense of ownership. This was especially true for early RPGs, the genre of video game back then that emphasized story the most (other genres have since caught up in this regard), and when top-notch RPGs inspire fans to support the titles with all the passion they can muster — there’s a strong argument to be made that Final Fantasy VII was the pinnacle of this phenomenon, and I readily admit that my love of the game knows few bounds — the idea of the game’s remake deviating even slightly from the fantasy game we constructed in our heads long, long ago can feel like a violation of the relationship we’d thought we had with Square Enix.

I’d like to think that the core of Final Fantasy VII is so strong that whatever changes are made between the original game and the remake that I happen to dislike will be more than made up for by whatever is improved in the transition to a modern video game console. I can justify buying the remake for myself just based on the music alone (egads, everything that’s been released on that front so far has been orgasmic), but I can’t deny that I’m approaching the release of the remake with more than a little concern. I’m probably going to play through the original game again this summer, just to relive all those memories of when I first went through it back in 1997, and I strongly advise all of you to do so as well, even if video games aren’t your thing. No matter how wonderful the remake turns out to be, the original game will always remain an experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who loves a top-notch story, or top-notch music, or top-notch anything.

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