Inspired in no small part by someone else's list of random comments on what could make or break the remake, I suppose I ought to speak broadly about several things instead of narrowing in on one thing in particular like I have previously.
1) 3D vs Pre-Rendered: The Quality Control Problem
God I love Final Fantasy VII. I just... wow.
It goes without saying that every scene is a piece of art, because that is literally true. Every backdrop was poured over pixel-by-pixel. Wherever animation happens, each frame was carefully chosen. Sure, eventually somewhere along the lines time pressure got to them and not every scene is a proverbial Sistine Chapel, but my god, some of the backdrops stick with me utterly and completely. The abandoned church where Aeris gathered flowers, or the sunlight-stewn fields by her home, the abjectly dangerous working conditions in the Mako reaectors... there are so many things, and each one was done with such care.
There are a couple problems transitioning from that 'till now. The first is 3D models, and the second is modern resolutions.
Modern resolutions are big. Really big. I mean you may think that in 1997 a screen had a fair number of pixels to it, but that's just peanuts to modern screens. In 1997 the screen size was the good ol' VGA-standard 640x480. That's a total of around 300,000 pixels--quite a lot when you're pouring over dozens, no, hundreds of backdrops pixel by pixel. The typical screen display today is full-HD, 1920x1080, or about 2,000,000 pixels--around seven times as many. Moreover, it is common practice in 3D rendering to actually create a virtual screen that is, say, twice, four times, or god forbid eight times as large as your actual screen, and shrink the image to the actual display. This is called "Anti-aliasing" and is used to remove some visual artifacts that appear when you don't; draw a straight line on graph paper and fill in the squares it touches if you really want to see the effect. The more "sub-pixels", the more you're able to reduce the artificial appearance of lines. I am sure there are other techniques used to produce the same effect nowadays, but going back to resolution, 2x Anti-aliasing means four times as many pixels--8 Million--and 4x means sixteen times as many pixels, or 32 Million.
Very quickly, it becomes impossible to literally or metaphorically pour over every pixel of the result in order to see if it has the desired visual impact. In that sense, it was possible in 1997 to have visuals that were very much like master-quality paintings, where every stroke was carefully chosen. In modern times, this is not impossible but so impractical that nobody would dare expect it.
The other problem of the modern world is 3D modelling. It seems a weird thing to complain about, but it's not. When "painting", you set a desired perspective and decide exactly what the user sees. This is actually closer to making a stage for a play; the audience looks in on the scene from one direction, and the characters wander about, interacting with the things on stage at their discretion according to their wont. Only in 3D modelling, in order to fill all those millions of pixels, there soon become hundreds of physical models that must be accounted for. This sounds good--it makes it possible, nay desirable, to reuse models and show the same thing from multiple perspectives. But it also introduces something absolutely atrocious: player control over perspective.
In no game that I have played, seen played, or even seen advertised, has the issue of player-controlled cameras ever helped make a scene more poignant. It may be necessary when going through a 3D world--even one like FF7--but it does not actually help you appreciate the world. Let's take another 3D game whose visuals I love: Star Ocean: Till The End of Time. There are absolutely lovely sequences in that game, and the attention to detail is top notch. You can walk along gorgeous paths and turn the camera to see something pretty freaking cool in the distance. However, the fact that I have control over the camera means that I remember almost none of these things. My typical playthrough of such games is concentrating only on getting my player where he needs to be, and while the scene is gorgeous, I am not going to spend the time to find the right orientation of the camera to find the scene I like best. Even if I tried, I would still have to pay attention to the map and my character to make sure I am going where I need to go. Because the camera is being used as a utility, very few of the backdrops--stunning as they can be--really becomes iconic because few of them are ever in focus.
That is something that is absolutely brilliant in FF7, and I liked their efforts in 8 and 9 as well. 10 I didn't love mostly for other reasons, and the only other recent 3D Final Fantasy I've played is XII, which suffers from the same problem as SO:TTEOT. Whenever XII gave me the ability to choose my own perspective, I never saw the backgrounds anymore. But really the point here is that although FF7 did an excellent job of faking 3D on a 2D world, they set each and every scene such that what you were looking at was something iconic. The Chocobo Ranch was not just a ranch--well, it was. It was iconically a ranch. It was a cozy little farmhouse with a barn and a pen. If you said to an artist, "Give me a small, family-owned ranch that looks friendly and inviting," you could imagine them giving you something similar.
And the final point to this section is that when you have something iconic, whether or not it is beloved has a great deal to do with quality. And quality control is a difficult task. If you have a limited screen real estate, you can pour over it and make sure each iconic piece is quality. The further you go in the direction of "More, more, more!" the harder it is to guarantee quality. And unfortunately, I really, really don't think that quantity-over-quality (of the pixels and 3D models) will work with the remake. It is a very dangerous bet to try to make.
2) The Battle System
You know, I don't have a lot to say here. It's funny. I know that I could complain about battle systems. I know I could gush about them. FF7 was not made by its battle system, but unlike many games, it was not broken by its battle system either. I was never upset by FF7. There were times I got in over my head. There were times that I goofed. But in reality, FF7 had challenges, and plenty of opportunity to stay ahead of the curve.
In thinking about battles that were a challenge, mostly I remember two things off the top of my head--but keep in mind the first two discs stick out to me more than the third. One is Barret's battle with Dyne, which can be singularly difficult if Barret is underleveled. The other is, for some strange reason, the battle with the stagnant spirits at the end of Cosmo Canyon's sealed canyon. Something about that battle kicked my ass a few times, and I never forgot it.
There are other battles that were difficult to beat, but for the most part, it was just a matter of realizing that I was a bit behind and catching up. Modern "serious" gamers will talk about powerlevelling or grinding or whatever, but really, it wasn't power-anything and it wasn't a grind. Battles were fun. They were not tense, not scary, and rarely (but not never) annoying. If you were "behind the power curve", it just felt like you were behind, and you caught up by fighting a bit or getting better equipment if you forgot to earlier. If you kept a decent stock of materia, it was rarely the case that you were unprepared for enemies in the area, and things like Summons and the All materia helped you pound through enemies before it got dull.
I really, really worry that there is a strong cynicism about battles nowadays. The random battles in FF7 were the glue that held the game together. Glue is not fun, tasty, glorious, or amazing. But if you didn't do it, why were you able to meet each challenge as they arose? And yet after multiple generations of game designs and game designers, there is a strong sense that these sort of RPGs are a "numbers game" with "strategy elements" and other buzzwords that are basically used to pigeonhole good ideas. Because yes, battles are indeed a numbers game. But you don't have to be so bitter about the mere existence of math attached to your character. In the end, you work hard, you get strong. What the hell is wrong with that?
More than that, while FF7 had the potential for reasonably deep strategy, there was no need for cynicism. The only battle that immediately jumps to mind where you had to be careful of your actions was the Lost Number, an optional boss that was sometimes strong against magic, other times strong against physical attacks. It could punish you if you did it wrong, but in the end, it was a fun puzzle built into the battle engine, and what's wrong with that? And there are other little things here and there with similar stakes and results, especially if you chase after side missions, go completionist on items, et cetra.
I think if the battle system is designed with "pro" douchebags in mind, the sort of people who will only talk of levelling as either a "grind" or they "power-leveled" because they're awesome, well, then I think the battle system will suck. Just do something fun, not too strenuous, of course difficulty levels wouldn't be too bad, but just generally, don't stress out about it. The battle system is the glue that holds together a good game, it isn't the game in and of itself.
3) Voice Acting
I'll admit, I didn't think about this until someone else mentioned it. Please, pretty please, never require voice acting, not in a remake.
I love the Star Ocean series. I owned SO2 for my PS1 and I adore the game to this day. I love the music, the characters, the setting. I love it all. A few years ago there was a remake for the PSP that had mandatory voice acting and it took less than a minute of Rena Lanford's voice actress for me to understand that the uncanny valley definitely exists in audio. In reading the dialog of the PS1 game, I had an internal voice for the characters, and never mind what they sounded like. That inner voice had tone and pacing that was miles ahead of the godawful attempt of a voice actor to sound like a real person. When I was touched by what the character was saying, I had the best possible interpretation of what the character was saying. But the voice actors--and their directors--they did awfully. The voices were completely at odds with the scene as I understood it, and reflecting on it, that happens over and over with voice actors. The emotional tone that I read into a scene--and I don't think I'm wrong--is frequently at odds with poor-to-moderate voice talent's efforts. Granted, I admit, I am a reader and a daydreamer and I have a fair bit of experience with inner monologue and inner dialogue, but what upsets me is not that they fell short, but that everyone just accepted the work and didn't try harder.
And voice acting is hard. Let alone real acting, where you are physically in a situation and reacting to something real, in voice acting you are as isolated from what the characters experience as you could possibly be. Not only do you live in a fictional world, not only are you responding to things that are not real, but the things you are existing on are only on a screen, and do not and cannot exist anywhere else. You have exactly zero share in this character's exploits and see exactly zero of the life that they lead. You have no part in their history and you can't make their character yours. Nobody will think of your face, or your body, when they think of the character. They will not think of you. But your voice will be there. If a note of doubt is in your voice because the producer just said something stupid or you don't understand the script, and it gets by the management, then that's on the record for all time.
Voice acting is somewhat more of an industry in Japan than it is in America, but I kind of imagine that it is also fairly bad there. Voice acting, and voice direction, is an art. Like any art, it takes a lot of practice and a lot of failure before you do it right; it could be argued that a voice actor is not just starting a new work of art when they start work on another character, but must learn their entire craft again from scratch. Although each voice becomes a character, the voice has to represent the entire character's history--what we have seen, what we have not seen, and what is deliberately hidden. Knowing what we know about Cloud, or Barret, it will be a very frequent thing to hear people criticizing any voice that does not sound like Cloud, or does not sound like Barret, and it's hard to say that we're wrong. How much excellent voice talent is there even, in America? What about in other countries around the world? In how many languages does the voice acting have to suck before you decide not to make it mandatory? In how many languages does it have to be excellent before you feel like you can force bad acting on the rest of the world?
Unless the Neo-FF7 crew is prepared to do a whole lot of very strenuous work on making the voice acting right I feel like this will most likely be a bad addition to the game, even though I know it will happen.
4) Story & Characters - The Cloud Strife Effect
I've already touched on this in my previous article so I won't go into it too deeply. I feel like Cloud has become so iconic of a character that his mythos no longer makes sense.
Keep in mind that like every Final Fantasy game, the characters are roughly balanced. They do not start as gods. Cloud Strife, whose backstory involves researchers attempting to godmode, is not actually any stronger than his childhood friend-come-martial-artist-slash-bartender, Tifa Lockhart. The mako that got infused into him and left him powerful enough to swing that massive sword did not make him a superhero. Indeed, arguably, without that he would have been nothing, not even worthy of being a hero. So why is he considered an inveterate badass? I mean okay, he carries a giant sword, has that weird spiked whatsit on his shoulder, and is commendably straightforward when it comes to throwing down with the law. But something that nobody seems to recognize is that those are genre staples. He's a punk, and he dresses and acts like one.
In steampunk, cyberpunk, etc, lawless badasses take on a corrupt world. In order to survive in a world that is actively against them, they have to be badasses. More than that, they dress and act in a way that drives off people who are not also punks. Cops are scared of a man with a giant sword. Civilians imagine themselves getting shoulder-checked by that weird spiked shoulder guard and keep their distance. While at the same time, Cloud doesn't actually dress up. There's no fancy-pants bullshit in a -punk setting, you dress like a punk, you live with punks, and nobody fucking calls you on your ugly way of dressing.
And who does dress up? Really? Tifa is hot pants and an A-shirt. Cid has cargo pants and a cargo jacket. Even Aeris has a fairly plain cotton dress with just a little bit more going on. Barret has a whole metal-punk thing going, but I dunno, maybe some of that is medical. Meanwhile, Red XIII and Cait Sith are basically animals. That leaves Vincent Valentine, a certified emo, and Yuffie, who again is mostly a t-shirt and shorts with some extra armor bits attached. And those little bits of armor? Again, a -punk genre thing. It's a poor world, and there's healing materia and revival items. To the extent that people have armor, it's mostly skill-based; they're things you can block with, not passive protection from being hit. And again, that's scary. Rather, the implication that you got this far by being that tough is pretty scary.
Compare that again to the FF7 tech demo from a few years back and their interpretation of Cloud Strife. That is not a punk trying to scare people away, it is a hero trying to get a rise out of the crowd. I think if Cloud really had his choice, he wouldn't have fought anyone on the way into the reactor, and in fact he says as much when he gets there: "I just want to get out of here before the robo-guards arrive." That's more along the lines of a mako-punk world: do what you gotta do and get outta dodge because the odds are never in your favor.
This touches on a lot of things. It touches on the writing, the voice acting and direction, the 3D modelling, it touches on the roles and relationships of the characters. I complained in a previous article that in the actual FF7 opening, Biggs and Jessie are equally badass as Cloud is, and they are never party members or anything like it. And yet the mythos of FF7 is that Cloud is the central domineering force of the entire game, which is in some ways true. On the other hand, there is a sense to much of RPG gaming that stories have to rely on Fate in the capital-F sense that some people are meant to do great things, and others are meant to die. But embracing that as a storyteller is awful. It means that you as the storyteller created characters so that they would die, and that they never had a chance, and why should anyone ever care about them, they are fated to be nothing. If you looked at FF7 from that "Fate" perspective, the whole opening where you get to know and love Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie, it would all feel like a betrayal, not by Shin-Ra, but by the writers, a nasty trick to get us to hate them.
Except that those three didn't die because Shin-Ra wanted them to. They died trying to stop Shin-Ra. They died doing what they believed in, same as the main characters. Were they fated to? No, but the world was against them. If they had survived, perhaps much would have been different. Maybe they would have been inconsequential support characters, but on the other hand, maybe they would have been player characters, fighting to stop Shin-Ra and Sephiroth all the way to the end. Maybe we would have seen into their pasts and their hearts. Maybe they matter as much to the world as the other random punks we tag along with. Maybe they weren't fated to end, but they just did.
I heard recently that during the creation of FF7, one of the creators had a death in the family, and that affected his writing. I don't think it's a coincidence that this question about fate and the meaning of people's lives comes up. I don't think it's wrong to have people die for what they believe in. But I think that you can't throw a character away, and I don't think that they did. The author found his enemies doing something that the heroes would try to stop, and they tried. Then, finally, they die, and that never can be changed.
Which brings us strangely back to the battle system. This cynicism that I talk about regarding battle systems applies here, because in battle, people can "die" but not really be dead. I talk about the battle game being the glue that holds the game together, and that is meaningful here; the battle is not meant to represent a real narrative about the characters. You don't talk about the characters of a story dying a hundred times, or three times in one battle. You don't even really talk about the characters in a story getting knocked out and getting up again. You talk about whether they win or lose. And so if those cutscene-deaths and other out-of-engine events seem jarring in comparison, you simply have to step back and say that your character would have had a much harder time getting where he is without help.
Keep in mind that every game over is the game giving you another chance when you totally blew it. In life, there is only one game over per person, then everyone grieves as they put you in the ground. The side characters got their game over, even another unmentionable more important character gets theirs. They lost the battle against the world, but the game gives you a chance to win that battle, given time and effort. The battle system is only the glue that ties that story together.
And in that story, Cloud is just another mortal man. He could lose, and he does, whenever the player gets a Game Over. But we, the players, are not content with that being the end of the story, so we try again. Cloud only wins because we don't give up on him. The mythical image of the strongest warrior in the world, carrying that massive hunk of sharp steel, well, that's something, isn't it? But he is surrounded by other equally strong people, without whom he could not have made it.
That is a strong thematic element to stories like FF7 and it needs to not be treated cheaply.
5) Character Backstories and Kalm Town
I admit, the thing I look foward to least in each replay of FF7 is the good ol' story time in Kalm Town. I couldn't say exactly why. It's not that much different, really, is it? You have control over your character... you fight a bit... you walk around a lot... I guess in retrospect there is not a lot of fighting and rather a lot of talking, but I don't feel like it's just the fact that's talking. I feel like the sequence does a poor job of telling the tale, and not just in the sense that it's all a lie.
I mean look, we need to see Sephiroth for what he is, we need to establish Cloud's "history" with Shin-Ra, and Tifa's, and the atrocities that Shin-Ra will both do and cover up. It also sets up the story of Jenova and gives a little more depth to Hojo, who appears as an insensitive scientist in Shinra Tower but doesn't seem like that big of a deal, all things considered. It also sets up many of the hidden clues necessary to find Vincent Valentine, although there is no reason why he had to be there in particular.
But that whole scene... or I guess that set of scenes. It's unnecessary.
Cloud being able to explore his own hometown before we get there is okay, I guess. Being able to tease Tifa and learn about the piano is nice, I guess. And Sephiroth leveling the town has become iconic of his character. But I feel like all the interactive elements of the flashback tend to be either me making sure I didn't miss anything (pointlessly, as nothing from the memory transfers forward) or just trying to remember what I need to trigger in order to move on. It could have been done in some more concise, dramatic cutscenes. You don't need to show Nibelheim, and if you do you don't need to allow the player to explore, and if you do you don't need to make any exploration mandatory, and if you do, a skip button would be nice. Not even necessarily skip out of the backstory, but skip to the next exposition.
That said, honestly that's the only place where I really feel bad about the character backstory crap. I mean, okay, Yuffie's sidequest is annoying, but you really didn't even need to ask about that. It was kind of meant to be annoying, and really, I forgive it. Barret's issues with the past--Dyne as well as Mt. Corel--are not awful to deal with, and Aeris' backstory always warms my heart a little bit. Maybe some part of me wishes I had found a place where I was truly loved, and happy inspite of everything... but well, that's life, isn't it? Even Cloud's later delerium-induced interactive flashback is interesting in a variety of ways. It's just Kalm town that's a bit irritating. Red XIII's is a little long, too, but there are strong feelings behind that for me, so I could never really want it gotten rid of.
But that's all the past. How are they going to do with these things in the future? It's unknown. All sorts of elements to the backstory could have their presentation changed. Good can become bad, and vice versa. Especially if the Cloud Strife effect isn't well handled, and no other character gets a fair shake, that would definitely be a loss. The characters have their own reasons for being punks, for being outsiders in this modern world that they're fighting against. There is so much to see and so many good perspectives and good stories to tell. It could be fun to see it all again, as long as it isn't like, sort of manhandled by people who don't care about it.
I think that much of what I said about voice acting and things being iconic also carries over directly into music. Something about the way the music was directed in FF7 allowed pieces of music to be exceptionally iconic, where that is not always true in other games. I say "something" because I honestly don't know what it is; again, there is a very strong sense of pride, quality control, and attention to detail in the way it was done, but what is it exactly? I don't know enough to really speculate. What I do believe, again, is that the sliding scale of simplicity that applies to graphics also applies to audio. Getting a piece of music just right is an amazing feat for a musician, and the music doesn't have to be complicated to be "just right". An orchestral arrangement can be bland an uninspiring where a cheap electric midi can set the right tone.
And it's important. Music is important, and music is hard. I don't know a lot about orchestration or music creation so I will only make a poor attempt at summary.
Instruments have a voice, by which I both mean that technically and emotionally. In many people's attempts at songwriting, those voices are attempts to mean something, and in other cases, they end up that way whether it's deliberate or not. If you take the time to listen to the FF7 main theme, you will find a number of instruments playing into a number of sub-themes, and each sub-theme sets a different tone and is used, predictably, to set different tones over different scenes. Many feel like people who are oppressed; others feel like people who love and are loved. Parts feel like things will not turn out well, parts feel like the world is fine. Through it all is a trembling sense that even when things are going okay, times are tough. The melody feels strongly to me like the world itself is crying out to say that love itself should not disappear and that people should not succumb to the darkness.
And that is another theme to FF7 and games like it, albeit one you cannot ever actually say without sounding as sappy as a wounded pine tree. It is also a theme that I feel is either missing or manhandled in a lot of other games. I have always been a sensitive person (read: I cried a lot as a kid and was made fun of for it. I didn't appreciate that, either!) I have always had a sense that love is real, that love is different from Hollywood-esque hotness and romance and winning people. I genuinely want to surround myself with works that have that sense. And part of that sense is loving places and people without trying to own or possess them, which as hippy as that seems, is again a theme of the game. The whole point of living off the earth without draining its resources comes back to that same theme: appreciate the world around you and don't just think about yourself. And it does sound tacky when it is just in writing. But it doesn't sound tacky when it's done in music.
The music of FF7 has that feel, like the writer could see in his heart a happy home, loving people, people who didn't see a need to tear the world up for their own ambitions. The music glorifies these people, and then the game shows you a place that is dirty and (largely) full of oppressed people, poor people. The two work together to tell you that the world can be a wonderful place, and you shouldn't let ambition lead you to do evil. Do good, be good, and be part of the world where people still love each other.
And let me remind you what I said earlier: FF7 is a "Punk" genre story. The main characters are rebels against the world order. They end up among the poor and oppressed, and fighting against corruption and industry. They are outsiders, and they still find places full of love where they are not feared. Love, and people who love the world, are something that should be saved in this world, in the same way that hate, and people who hate the world, need to be stopped, and possibly removed from the world.
Final Fantasy VII is a game about the underdogs being written by the establishment. It is about anti-industry, anti-corporate, violent people reducing an industrial world to the basics so that people can live happily. The game challenges people who feel the sting of income disparity, and yet the CEO of Square Enix made $2.7 million USD in salary in 2010, and I don't imagine that includes bonuses or stock. It starkly shows the consequences of industrial waste, and yet they partner closely with game manufacturers who use plenty of toxic and rare-earth materials in consoles and displays.
Final Fantasy VII is written to glorify the people who live in the slums. The people working on the game are mostly middle-income, and the people making the decisions are I imagine mid-high income. They work for a company that makes a lot of money. It is a story about death and sacrifice, and it may be written entirely by people who have little connection to either. It is a story about people brave enough to leave everything behind, stare down authority, and change the world, written by people with a 9-5 job.
In short, it is written by people who live on the top plate of Midgar, the people who have accepted Shinra's bargain, and all the while that bargain continues to erode the world.
God I hope they do alright, but I do worry.