If you’ve been following the Japanese release of Lightening Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, then you’ll have heard of its costume editor. This is the feature that allows you to alter and adjust your character’s in game appearance. What stood out for me, however, was the release of skins for characters from Final Fantasy VII ; that you can simply download the content and strut about as Cloud or Aerith, albeit a newer, glossier version, a shapelier suit, in subtler textures. It reminded me of my greatest, digital fear ; that there would be a remake of FFVII.
Final Fantasy VII remains, in my eyes, one of the greatest achievements in modern console gaming. It is easy to pick up, bright, funny, sincere, and tricky, with a large and intriguing world to explore. Cloud felt real. Aerith felt real. Sephiroth felt dark and sinister (despite the silly hair). The claustrophobic, fantastical steam punk of its world was real and compelling (and endlessly weird). Added to that, the MIDI score was also amazing. It still tinnily echoes in my mind ; I even downloaded Nobuo Uematsu’s music score separately, somehow convincing myself that it was normal to listen to it when not actually playing the game (I honestly don’t do this any more).
Ever since FFVII’s release in 1997 fans have referred back to this title as a sort of benchmark – a marker in the sand. Later titles were celebrated or critiqued not necessarily on their own merits, but on their relationship to this earlier title. The game we all loved and still love. FFVIII was perhaps too “serious” and the protagonist moody; FFIX was too childish and its random encounters frustrating; FFX was okay, but its voice acting grated. And so on (“don’t even mention FFXIII or FXIII-2”). The series has built a solid base of worldwide sales, and thus a community of adoring, if sectarian, fans.
So we – the fans – go back to our PlayStation and load the three, glossy black disks of FFVII and bask in its brilliance. But we’re not satisfied – it’s good, but we’ve grown up. And consoles have grown up, too. And so, the trickle of sentimentality becomes a flood of anger – a revisionist drive to reinvent the past, to bring back the “good old days”, but to bring them back to “now”.
This debate has been swelling and swirling around the internet and gaming circles for a long time. Back in 2001, there were excited rumours that FFVII would indeed be remade, many pointing hopefully to a brief interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi, a producer within the team. Reading the interview now, Sakaguchi does not seem to say that at all. In fact, he says; “I believe I mentioned that [remaking FFVII] in that interview, but as of now there’s no specific movement in that regard”. So the rumour was based on a rebuttal of an earlier suggestion. An auditorium filled to its brim with smoke, and lined endlessly with mirrors. Indeed, it seems that the chiefs at Square Enix have set their own “impossible scenario” for the game’s remake. At a shareholder meeting in 2012, it was reported that CEO Yoichi Wada had said they would not remake FFVII until they had made a new game which “exceeds the quality” of Final Fantasy VII. If Wada wasn’t talking about graphics, then Square’s notion of “quality” is thankfully going to be found somewhere else.
And yet, in idle moments, I sometimes think that it would be nice to play FFVII in HD graphics, with slicker menus and fully realised animations. Imagine, even, the sleeker battle system of FFXII incorporated into the FFVII world? Or not – it’s my dream, after all. There is the possibility to render new backgrounds, update the character models, add texture and depth to special attacks and limit breaks. If you read the forums, these aesthetic, visual concerns crop up endlessly. But they just won’t work.
FFVII’s protagonist, the mercenary Cloud, was blocky and exaggerated – and yet, despite this, you never sensed the world he inhabited was unreal or distant. If he could be brought forward, given the shade and shape and depth and texture of a “modern” console character, what would this add? Would it really be “better”, or are we just flattering ourselves with the need to make everything glossy and new? More worrying, still, is the risk of voice animations – voiceless, the characters of FFVII speak to us however we please. Or would the visual clarity of the battles end up with the dense “stats soup” of the combat in more recent titles? FFVII was, while complex, also charmingly simple, intuitive, accessible. For me, there’s a feeling that the strength of the characterisation relies precisely on the negative story spaces opened up between the rich world as it exists in the dialogue, in names (Gold Saucer, Midgar, Nibelheim!), and in the mix of 3D and rendered backgrounds, and in their acknowledging of their own limitations ; we filled the gap between the rich narrative world and its often rough representation with meanings and attachments. The suite of realistic and subtle graphics of the modern Final Fantasy games can shut down that sense of wonderment, because there are no crevices and roughness. It’s just too perfect to the credible.
When we demand, “remake FFVII”, what do we actually mean? A remake would not adhere to the design constrictions of the late 1990s, the constrictions which gave rise to the objects of our happiness – the turn based battles, the menu system, the sound and music. Designers and developers would peer closer and tweak, and modify, and change. FFVII is undeniably a product of its time. What would result would not be a “remake” at all, but a thoroughly new thing that wears the name of the old in an effort not to discredit it. We like to think that the developers would make a game to suit the dreamy imaginations of us “old-time” gamers who played FFVII when it was still hot property. But now it is not – it is a classic, a shrine, a revered old sage who babbles incoherently, but babbles the truth. Square Enix will sympathise and probably agree – I bet they would actually love to make the remake that we want– but they would have other draws on their attention – a new generation of gamers who want different things, who don’t care a hoot about Cloud, who cut their teeth on FFXIII and its successors – an entirely different path that the series has taken They would not make our game, but a game for the times – a game for the Xbox One or PS4. Our nostalgia would get the better of us.
Like most dreams, the dreaming is preferable to its realisation. If FFVII were remade, its charm would fade. Replay the game now, if you can, and notice how quickly you forget the roughness and constant loading screens and unrealistic animation. Aren’t we actually in awe of the complete package, MIDI music, blocky graphics and all? That clunky, boxy menu was one of my favourite things, and the “ploink” sound the cursor made as you flicked its gloved hand from option to option is music to my ears, even now.
When the menu asks us “New Game” or “continue?”, I know which option to side with.