Game On: The Past & Present of Final Fantasy VII: Remake
Square Enix has redefined what players should expect from the remakes of the future, Final Fantasy or otherwise.
After being in development for over five years, Final Fantasy VII: Remake finally released on PlayStation 4 a couple of months ago, and it did so to rapturous applause from large sections of the community (including our own review). Fans had been looking forward to this new version of one of the all-time great JRPGs, which first premiered on the original PlayStation all the way back in 1997. Although the original incarnation is well established and celebrated by millions of fans the world over, the production took a lot more time and effort than is usually required for such modernisations, but there was a reason for this extended period of development: the remake of Final Fantasy VII goes way beyond what a "remake" normally looks and plays like, so much so that it's almost as if the project was aiming to redefine the very language we use when talking about remasters.
All this and more were up for discussion when we recently had a chance to put our questions to producer Yoshinori Kitase and game director Naoki Hamaguchi, who told Gamereactor about their initial goal with Final Fantasy VII:
"Our core concept for Remake was to pay homage to the elements that people loved from the original while rebuilding it as a very modern piece of entertainment," Hamaguchi told GR. "We really wanted to create an experience that felt nostalgic, but at the same time is a game that is also new and fresh. We did not just want to take inspiration from the setting of the original game and create something new from it, but to pay homage to that original and to remake all the elements of it in a way that allowed the same core essence to be enjoyed."
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"Our aim in doing so was to deliver a game experience that felt both new and nostalgic at the same time, not jarring with people's fond memories of the original but enhancing them and expressed in the most modern way possible."
A lot of work went into achieving this goal, however, Hamaguchi was actually inspired by another medium in terms of his approach to reimagining a classic. According to the Japanese developer, the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017), which was directed by Bill Condon, had a lot in common with the production of Final Fantasy VII: Remake, which he used as an example when giving his team a better understanding of what he wanted from the final product:
"When I first became properly involved in the development of Final Fantasy VII: Remake, I thought carefully about what we should focus on in recreating the original game. I had recently watched the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast and the time between that version and the original animated one, as well as the rough period in which it came out, was comparatively close to what we had with the Remake and the original Final Fantasy VII. This made it a really useful reference in how to diligently remake a story while still respecting the original work. I think that we will continue to hear calls for more remakes in future, both for games and films, so I would be delighted if people look to Final Fantasy VII: Remake as an influential example of how to do it well."
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Projects of this scale are always influenced by a variety of different factors, thus we wanted to learn more about what other current trends in the video game world had an effect on Remake. When we dropped the words "open world", the game director spoke about his very personal approach to conceptualising game design:
"This is only my personal take on it, but I do not feel that either story-driven or open-world games are superior. I do not think that you should be deciding game design first and then creating the content based on that, but approach it the other way [around] and select an overall design that is most suitable for the content you want to show and the experience you want the player to have."
"In that sense, the part of the original Final Fantasy VII story up to the escape from Midgar is undeniably a narrative that plays out in a linear way and turning that into a more open gameplay experience could easily detract from the feeling of tension and excitement in it. Because of this, I was confident in pursuing a more linear game design to tell that story."
This design approach ultimately doesn't mean much for the games to come, as Hamaguchi teases later in the interview when he told Gamereactor that he has "a feeling that just sticking to the same kind of linear game design we used up until leaving Midgar may not be suitable for the story developments that come after it, and I invite all our players to look forward to seeing what designs and the route we take in the future of the project."
It's an approach that Yoshinori Kitase, the game's producer and the man who directed the original back in 1997, agrees with. In fact, it sounds like, if it was up to him, he would have gone further with the revisions. For example, the producer would have welcomed more major changes that would have helped set the remake apart from the original even more:
"I personally envisioned quite a dramatic change overall, but our director Tetsuya Nomura and co-director Naoki Hamaguchi wanted to keep the beloved aspects in the original as much as possible. Eventually, the development team decided to focus on respecting the original while adding in new elements, ensuring a delicate balance between the two."
In this first part of the remade FVII experience, most of the changes were well received by both fans and press alike. Of course, the game was released against the backdrop of the COVID-19 health crisis and that presented many unique and unforeseen challenges, but the development team at Square Enix was able to draw something akin to motivation from this overwhelming situation:
Kitase told GR how he "sincerely [hopes that] Final Fantasy VII: Remake can provide those who are forced to endure the stress of living under lockdown a moment of relief and enjoyment in these trying times."
In a similar vein, Hamaguchi added: "I strongly feel that the essence of entertainment is to be something that gives people hope and dreams and energises them for the future, so getting Final Fantasy VII: Remake - a game that has been loved by fans for over 20 years - out to the world had a great significance to me as a creator."
Square Enix doesn't know when the upcoming instalments of Final Fantasy VII: Remake will eventually see the light of day. However, the production has already started and the developers assured us that feedback from players (both good and bad) will be reflected in the following chapters (although how many chapters we're getting remains to be seen). Hopefully, we don't have to wait too long for the next entry as fans of the original and its spin-offs are eager and ready for more surprises.
"We have received many comments from fans expressing their approval for this approach and saying that the approach we took to the remake resonated with them, and this has inspired confidence in all the little decisions we made to build up the game," Hamaguchi confirmed. "We are hugely excited about development on the next game and making that something that will meet fans expectations too, but it is important not to forget a sense of humility, and that we can still learn a lot."
If you've played Final Fantasy VII: Remake, what do you hope to see from the next entry in this uniquely grand reimagining of one of gaming's most enduring adventures?