Final Fantasy VII

Well, I suppose for my first blog post on my own site, I might as well go for gold, huh?

It's impossible to deny that I'm one of the many people in the world who was and is in love with Final Fantasy VII. To date, I have bought three copies, borrowed one from a friend, illicitly obtained one, and stolen the guide book from a cousin or possibly my uncle, I dunno, it was on the shelf and I felt gypped because I wasn't really welcome there anymore anyway. Not having owned a PlayStation, the first copy I bought was FF7-PC; it will seem odd to most people, but I somehow manage to have fond memories of playing through that entire game using nothing but the keyboard's numpad. The borrowed and illicitly obtained versions were both original PS disks; the illicit copy was many years later and only for emulation. The other purchased copies were from the Playstation store and Steam, and I regret neither.

That said, the Steam remake seemed funny to me. It seems clear to me that the people responsible for the steam port didn't love the game, and I think it's a shame.

For those unfamiliar it only has a couple tweaks or quirks to alter it from the original. The models remain as low-resolution as ever. albeit stretched. Gameplay is not altered, but device drivers are working, which is the significant difference between the 1997 PC version and the Steam version for me. There is native controller support, although I suppose there might have been back then, too; I didn't have a controller, at the time, so whatever.

But they did add achievements, and the achievements are unimaginative and uninspiring. There are achievements, for example, for "Win the first battle" and for using each character's first limit break. Those aren't achievements, they are simple milestones, and they are boring milestones.

There is so much in 7 that is hidden, and there could have been oblique hints hidden in the achievements for people that haven't played the game obsessively. There are no achievements for teasing Tifa about her underwear, for listening to the entertaining tutorial characters, for finding hidden items, for seeing the hidden snippet of Cloud's memories of Zack, for finding the snowy cabin that holds the recordings of Aeris's mother, for getting out of that fight against the Turks by making friends in Wutai... there is one achievement for "master all materias", but you could take a step back and make achievements for getting Master Command, Master Magic, and Master Summon materia. An achievement to master all materia does not even suggest that the Master Materia exist! Only a FAQ would tell you, which makes it a major oversight when it could be hinted at by the achievement.

Who wrote these things?

I seem to remember that someone went on record saying that there would not be a Final Fantasy VII remake until they figured out why they are not doing as well with the modern games. I don't know if it was in as many words, but if it were me, that would be my concern. Why is 7 so beloved, and why have the things afterward not been beloved? It's easy to say things like "They're focusing too much on the visuals", but that's clearly not the issue. They have tried focusing on various parts like open worlds (The MMO variants and XII). They have tried overhauling the way the main game operates; I mean really, the magic system and job system change constantly in the Final Fantasy series, and this has been consistent from the start.

Now I don't know what really happened in the development of 7, or of any other Final Fantasy title, but I'll tell you what it feels like. It feels like 7 was driven by love more than business--love that didn't end up getting crushed by the overwhelming weight of the work it takes to produce a modern AAA title. This is something I have noticed from my work on the Space Station 13 project as well; bear with me and I will get back to that. When you look at the prerendered art assets of the FF7 sets, you see a wealth of detail considering the resolution of the era; every set, like a painting, has beautiful foregrounds and backgrounds, artistic shafts of light, and so on. I can imagine the person responsible for maps sitting down with an artist and describing the church in Sector 5, and then the artist--simply by virtue of loving to draw--creates a beautiful piece of artwork that, after some tweaking, becomes part of the game.

My thoughts on artistry are incomplete and scattered, so bear with me. Revision is a part of the artistic process, and the project as a whole as well as the art assets have this issue. It is not that difficult in something like 7 to discard an image and do it over; the models are simple, and then there are a few man-hours of details to fill in (per model, adding up to a lot, but you know what I mean). When you get to the impeccably textured and skinned models of a modern AAA engine, the man hours necessary are orders of magnitude larger than they were back then; the pressure, I imagine, is to get started on those models early in the dev process, so that the work is not waiting on an overwhelming number of assets on the tail end.

But revision is part of life.

If as part of the game making process you realize that you really do want to redo a scene, you have to make a financial and artistic decision as to whether or not it's appropriate to discard all the existing work. Artistically, the answer is frequently "Yes, discard (most of) it"; however, financially, the answer may be "No, keep the expensive models, change the less costly parts of the project (usually writing or mapping) to fit them". This conflict of interest, when it occurs (as I'm sure it does), creates conflicting pressures for the mappers, storytellers, artists, UI designers, and pretty much every other creative individual on the team. In a conflict between the bottom line and the heart of the project, who sticks to their guns?

I can only imagine that the way to remove these pressures on a AAA title (and some games have done it well, by this method or something else I do not know) is to work with bare-minimum mockups that you are prepared to discard, right up until an entire setpiece is finalized. Or, in the case of setpieces that are tied thematically together, until the entire set of setpieces are finalized; in the case of Final Fantasy VII, this could include for example not only Midgar, but the Mako reactor in Nibelheim, since they are thematically equivalent pieces. If when making the Nibelheim reactor you wanted to change the way reactor buildings look in general, do you go back and wipe out parts of the city? Or make Nibelheim an unaccounted for exception?

The problem gets harder in open worlds. 7, and games of its era, were buoyed by the conceit dating back to earlier RPGs that the "world map" and the "local map" were separate; the process of making the game included making several setpieces, without having to fill in the entire area between them. An open world requires dedication; even if you are only making narrow paths between the setpieces, you have to render the background for each of them up to the draw distance, which is to say, as far as the eye can see. Oh, you can always take conceits to avoid working too hard, like Final Fantasy X's seaworld approach, but that leaves the sets only half as interesting. Compare those oceans to, say, Star Ocean 3's sets; those are absolutely filled with interesting pieces in both the foreground and background. There are stretches of mountain road where you can look over to the other side of a valley and see the terrain on the other side, and it is beautiful and scenic.

Getting back to Space Station 13; if you're not familiar, it's a "2D spaceman" game (in the words of some of its defenders, with a sarcastic, demeaning tone, usually misspelled), pixel-art sprites on a 2D grid. The art is deliberately light; all the assets come from player-contributors, with nobody being paid to work on the game. I have mulled it over in my head more than once, but any attempt to improve the quality of the art assets would put undue strain on player-contributors, more likely driving them away than inspiring them; pixel art quadruples in complexity when you double its dimensions, and there is no avoiding the fact that that means redoing or blatantly stretching every one of the hundreds of icons in the game. Any thought of a remake often jumps on the idea of a visual improvement, but I'm not so sure; if you get too much further up the complexity curve, people stop wanting to contribute, and the game is nothing without contributors. In that way, hoping to improve the art assets is basically a selfish thought; there are tiers of "good enough" in game art, and generally forcing yourself to be a little higher than your tier level is a matter of ego. You do it in order to set yourself apart, rather than to actually add something to the game; and when you are setting the tone for other people, your ego trip is basically forcing other people to either deliberately aim lower than you, or do more work than they really wanted to in order to meet the standard you set. It is a difficult position to put other people in.

I think that it is definitely not endemic to game design, which is to say, complicated worlds can be done well, but you have to be careful where you set your standards. Be prepared for the artistic process to happen, budget for it, make sure you keep your contributors in mind, and make sure your management is cognizant of the difference between finalized and not-yet-finalized work. If they can do that for a remake of 7, I think they can do the original justice. Just... don't let the turkeys who decided on the Steam re-release's achievements near it, please.