"Final Fantasy VII is a game which, if it just stayed as the original, would just be remembered as something from the past."
Until Final Fantasy VII Remake was officially announced in 2015, the frenzied fans that had been whipped up by a reimagining of the game's opening, shown a decade earlier, had basically lost all hope that it was ever going to get off the ground. But developers at Square Enix had been working on it all along. Key members of the original game's development team, including director/scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase, character designer Tetsuya Nomura, and Kazushige Nojima, also a scenario writer, were trying to get the ball rolling on the project for a long time. But other Final Fantasy projects, as well as the limits of console tech, were always a roadblock in making sure Square Enix had the right team to successfully revive and reinvent one of the most iconic games of all time.
Yoshinori Kitase, now a producer on Final Fantasy VII Remake, told GameSpot that even before the team started production on the original Final Fantasy VII, they strived for the already-popular series to both do more ambitious things and reach a broader audience than before. "When we finished doing Final Fantasy VI and moved to start work on Final Fantasy VII, there was that idea in our heads that we wanted to go outside of Japan for this game," Kitase reminisced, through a translator. "I don't think we had the expectation that it was going to be as big as it was in the end (Final Fantasy VII remains the series' best-performing entry with over 12.3 million units sold) but we did have that passion to make this go out to the world--rather than VI, which was a much more domestic-focused title."
Paramount to making an impact on a broader audience was taking advantage of Sony's PlayStation, and considering what that meant for the series' former, iconic pixel-art look. "There were a lot of debates within the team about the right style to go for when we were making that transition," Kitase said. "We went around to a lot of international CG events, things like SIGGRAPH, looking at what we could do."
"Those debates went right up until the start of production. Lots of different opinions--obviously there were people who were saying, 'Final Fantasy should still evolve as a 2D type of game.' There were still games that were being done in that classic style, maybe enhanced a little bit, so it was an obvious option. There were also people who were saying: 'Maybe we should do a hybrid style. We can have the backgrounds done in 3D, and we'll keep the characters as billboard-style 2D anime characters' (SaGa Frontier and Grandia were a couple of notable titles that used this style around the same time). But in the end, the group that won out were the ones who said: 'No. We should go all-in on the game--the characters, the backgrounds, should all be in full 3D', and that was when the direction was really decided on."
As a result, Final Fantasy VII was on the cutting edge of console gaming's tech arms race. At the time, it was one of the games you had to play, if only to marvel at the remarkable FMV cutscenes--at least, that was the case in my schoolyard. Of course, VII hasn't aged as gracefully as other Final Fantasy titles, and it's perhaps serendipitous that the team had to hold off for so long. The technological leap is now much higher, and the impact of seeing the reimagined game is more astonishing.
"One common theme between the original and what we're doing now is that idea of using new technology to make the characters more expressive--that was one of the main reasons why we wanted to move to polygon characters originally. We thought we could make them much more expressive than 2D sprites could be, and that's pretty much the same now with Final Fantasy VII Remake." Remake runs on Unreal Engine 4, with the team at Square Enix working with Epic on custom modifications and enhancements. "A lot of the new technology is all geared towards making the characters, facial expressions, much more dynamic and believable, just to be able to depict more emotions."
Some of the new tech revolves heavily around the use of AI systems--one that produces bespoke death animations for enemies, depending on the condition of their final blows and their environment, as well as another that customises the mouth movements of each character to sync up exactly with the performance of voice actors whether they're speaking in English, Japanese, or any number of the game's language tracks.
But Final Fantasy VII Remake isn't just a graphical overhaul. If you've been following the project, you know that the team decided to considerably expand upon the source material, to the point where the full adventure will be split between separate games. The release of the first part, which takes place solely in the initial location of Midgar, is imminent. From what I've seen of the first few hours of the game, it greatly meditates on the original beats of the story. Scenes that used to flash by in minutes can take up more than an hour. More time is spent with characters who have become beloved since its release. But as for the other 90% of the saga, that's something Square Enix isn't keen on discussing. At this point, it feels like it could even be another couple of decades.
Is this what long-awaiting fans want? Does that even matter? "The fans may be more familiar with the franchise than we are in some ways. They've played the game and have been returning to it ever since," Kitase said. The team "looked on the internet for people's comments and opinions to find out which particular scenes in the original game were memorable, which ones are the ones that people wanted to see, or which stayed with them."
"But if we were just to make it a 100%, one-for-one remake of the original game, just follow the story exactly as it was, and not change anything... I think people would like it but it would just be 'Oh yeah, I remember this. This was great, how nostalgic,' and that's all you get."
"We have to meet people's expectations, give them what they want to see... But we have to go beyond that and really exceed their expectations and give them new surprises as well. So it was something we had to pay a lot of attention to and we were very careful... it didn't just stop at 'Yeah, that was a great game, I remember this.' We had to go further and provide a new experience."
Part of the new experience, and part of having Final Fantasy VII once again reach for an even broader audience, came in the radical modernisation of its combat system. And as much as RPG fans still love a great turn-based battle system, it was never really on the cards for Remake. Kitase explains that it's to do with "the changing tastes of the fanbase of the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole. We've got lots of younger gamers now and they like that very instinctive action-game style of control." There is a whole new generation who has likely never played Final Fantasy VII, and the focus on refining the heavy action is to cater to that new, younger audience who "are familiar with that and expect that."
But this is all in the service of being able to make sure Final Fantasy VII's memorable characters and powerful themes--environmentalism, terrorism, life and death, among others--can live on. Thinking about VII's themes in the world that Remake is releasing in certainly makes them seem more relevant than ever. Climate change and radicalism might immediately come to mind for some, but Kitase was hesitant to draw any correlations or speak about increased emphases in Remake.
"Obviously, it's still a fantasy world. It's a fantasy game and the concepts of Mako Energy and the Lifestream are very much fantasy concepts. We aren't specifically trying to make it a comment on one specific thing or say anything specific about a real-world issue through that, we're trying to make more timeless and universal themes."
But all of that isn't to say that he doesn't hope audiences don't engage with it intellectually. "I really want to see people look at the way that those issues are tackled in Final Fantasy VII, and maybe see how they resonate with some of the issues that are important to them. But we can only do that by keeping it as a kind of universal presentation rather than specifically pointing out one thing. The realism of what we're showing now is much higher and the way that we're depicting things is very different now. So I really want to see how the messages may be received differently by people these days in this new depiction."
It surely is a long road until we get to see the end of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project, and Kitase told me that he and the team likely won't even take a break once the first part is released--"I think we'll probably get straight into it." But personally, he isn't worried about the possibility of having to work on Remake for the rest of his career: "I think it is a very important thing."
Of all the games Kitase has worked on, Final Fantasy VII still remains his personal favourite, though his very first Squaresoft project, Seiken Densetsu (known as Final Fantasy Adventure in the West), holds a special place too. Despite working on a number of other very highly-regarded titles, like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, he wouldn't give me a hint about what other remakes he'd like to consider ("Even if I made a joke about it, it would still go around the world in seconds--it's too dangerous to say something about that"), and wouldn't even open up about whether people in the Final Fantasy universe eat chocobos or not ("I think that's a secret for now"). FFVII is all he's going to be focused on for the foreseeable future.
"Final Fantasy VII is a game which, if it just stayed as the original, would just be remembered as something from the past and people wouldn't be as engaged with it. I think in order to be something that continues to be loved and followed by future generations we have to keep updating it as we're doing now. And in 10 years time, 20 years time, it may need to be done again! So even if this is the only thing that I do in the rest of my career, I won't be disappointed."
For more Final Fantasy VII Remake coverage, read our preview of the first few hours of the game.