Necessary Mystery: The FFVII Remake

Like a lot of my nerdy brethren, I am very excited about the announcement that Square Enix is going to remake Final Fantasy VII. The announcement, though, raises a lot of questions about execution for which there are not yet any readily available answers.

In fairness, I should note that I’ve spent more time playing FFVII over the years than I care to admit. But at this point in my life, I have both played the game long enough and experienced enough other art (games or otherwise) to know that my love for FFVII is based firmly in a nostalgic remembrance of my youth. Viewed objectively, the game has not aged well. Its mechanics are clunky, its graphics hopelessly outdated and its translation absurd to the point of occasional incoherence.

Some of these shortcomings are not surprising. FFVII was first released on the original PlayStation in 1997, some 18 years ago. The technological gap between the gaming systems of 1997 and those of today is absolutely massive. Two entire console generations have passed since that original release and, viewed in that light, the idea of remaking FFVII is in some ways akin to attempting to remake a horse into a space shuttle. It’s possible that the technology has developed too far to make adequate use of the subject material.

So how is the remake going to work? The trailer is beautiful and the requisite HD overhaul is sure to be gorgeous. But, obvious graphical upgrades aside, what changes would an FFVII remake have in terms of, you know, actual gameplay? Will the Active Time Battle system – so ingrained in Final Fantasy culture in 1997 – remain, giving us a high-res Cloud bouncing on his heels, waiting for his turn to trade blows with a murderous blade of grass? Will the simple but malleable materia system be replaced with some upgraded leveling apparatus? Or how about the slew of minigames scattered throughout Gaia? How will the Siege of Fort Condor or the submarine battle – both of which wouldn’t even hold up as cellphone-worthy today – be handled? Will there still be a ribbon hidden in a chamber of the ice caves?!

I have a lot of questions. And, at the moment at least, there are few answers.

—–

No matter what you think of how the show concluded, it’s hard to argue that the first season of Lost was anything other than one of the great viewing experiences in television history. It may have lacked the grit of Breaking Bad, the savvy of Mad Men and the sheer titillation of Game of Thrones but Lost delivered pure, riveting entertainment better than nearly any show before or since. For a while.

Lost eventually fell victim to a plague that has sabotaged a number of mystical fictions: it over-explained itself. As the show wore on it stretched itself (and its writers) too thin by attempting to explain away a multitude of mysteries and fantasies with varying degrees of plausibility. I respect that the show made an attempt to provide an overzealous fanbase with the answers that they seemed to demand but the reality is that no explanation for the mysteries of Lost, no matter how well crafted, was going to satisfy the masses. Lost relied upon mystery to create intrigue, allowing room for viewers’ imaginations to fill in the gaps. And providing answers only serves to dispel the magic of that imagination. Too much information ruins the mystery. This is why a generation of nerds has come to hate the idea of midi-chlorians.

This is also why I never played Dirge of Cerberus, one of the first games spun off of the FFVII core. The game centers around Vincent Valentine, arguably the most mysterious of FFVII‘s incredibly mysterious assortment of characters. What little information FFVII offered about Vincent was incredibly hard to find and (I think you know where I’m going with this) incredibly mysterious. That he was a nearly silent character and was entirely optional – it was possible to play the entirety of the game without ever meeting Vincent – only made him cooler. So I understand why Vincent would have been chosen to helm a spin-off game. But the very idea of putting that type of character at the center of a narrative game begins to eat away at his appeal. Vincent is meant to live on the fringes, an unknowable shadow, just as Lost was meant to be a mysterious fantasy, not an historical account.

When done right, entertainment that relies on mystery by limiting its explanatory exposition causes each little morsel of information that is delivered to be that much more precious. Holding back too much will cause viewers to lose interest but giving out too much will reveal the flaws and faults of design. Sometimes it really is best to let our imaginations take over.

So while I am absolutely ecstatic about the FFVII news, I’m well aware that I need to enjoy this period of raw anticipation, this time of imagination. Because sooner rather than later more information will begin to leak out and the mystery of this project – this project that I and others like me have so long desired – will begin to fade. And as we learn more and the flaws and faults of design are exposed, it just might be that the joy of the project fades along with its mystery.

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