Month: March 2021

Final Fantasy VII Elongated

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the final essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

Video games — they once resembled dreams stitched together by sorcerers and madmen. This was still the case when Final Fantasy VII became a phenomenon in 1997. That sixth sequel impacted the presentation of turn-based combat forever with a camera seemingly possessed by a restless demon. As players transitioned from screen to screen in Final Fantasy VII, they never knew from what angle they would observe a new segment of an expansive world. The combination of crude polygons and pre-rendered backgrounds further cemented the unorthodox nature of the game’s visual style, as evidenced by the moments when one, in attempting to locate the path forward, would have to stare at the screen for a bit or perhaps fidget about in order to identify a stray piece of debris over which the avatar could traverse. Even at its worst, Final Fantasy VII transfixed me like a beautiful nightmare. If escapism is the only goal of video games, Final Fantasy VII extended a surreal vision that could sweep us away from our cares on Earth.

Final Fantasy VII Remake, on the other hand, has the ever-present stench of reality and conservative logic. The very design of it reminds us that, in this era, big games must fit into big trends in order to make the most profit. The camera, the most revolutionary part about Final Fantasy VII, is the most predictable aspect of Final Fantasy VII Remake, because the game intends to be more like a typical 3D action title. Now we, the players, wield significant control over perspective, as demanded by recent tradition. Gone also are the strange makeshift pathways of the 1997 original — the predictable trails of Final Fantasy VII Remake scream that they were put in place by a game development company, as opposed to sparking our imaginations about the idiosyncratic characteristics of the dystopian setting. And without the dynamic framing of the original, a warehouse looks like just another warehouse, a sewer looks like just another sewer, and so on.

Even though random encounters where two parties stand on opposite sides of the screen were a long-established staple of RPGs by 1997, Final Fantasy VII made every battle appear like a thrilling riff of a larger operatic conflict, with its ever-shifting vantage points and the unmistakable melodramatic flare of Nobuo Uematsu’s theme. But for not insignificant stretches of time, combat in Final Fantasy VII Remake struck me as disposable, familiar, emotionally inert. Before I started Final Fantasy VII Remake, a friend told me the game’s action recalled the work of Platinum Games. I found his comparison fitting but also a bit charitable during the first 10 hours of my time with the remake, as I spammed a rolling attack and triple slash technique with Cloud, obliterating most obstacles without having to think. The traditional turn-based system of Final Fantasy VII was never that mindless or soulless for any extended portion of the experience, but the modern audience has been conditioned by the game industry and the lapdog press to put up with a game that takes 10 hours to have a semblance of strategic depth.

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For decades, the game industry has propagated the notion that more hours equals more epic. As a remake of one of the most epic RPGs of the 1990s, Final Fantasy VII Remake finds comfort in this widely accepted lie, for the lie allows Square Enix to cling to a simple type of PR. That is, the public, in all likelihood, won’t accuse Final Fantasy VII Remake of being less epic than its predecessor. What took five hours in Final Fantasy VII takes, at a minimum, 30 to 40 hours in Final Fantasy VII Remake. Nevermind that Final Fantasy VII Remake holds the dubious distinction of rivaling the pretension of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which transformed a 300-page children’s book into an eight-hour cinematic endurance test. In the 21st century, content is everything, and everything is content.

Let us count some of the ways that Final Fantasy VII Remake is needlessly longer:

The principal characters don’t shut the hell up. Simply put, if you gleaned from Final Fantasy VII that Barrett (who still evokes racial stereotypes) loves his daughter and hates corporate power, you will really glean from Final Fantasy VII Remake that Barrett loves his daughter and hates corporate power. Key to my irritation here is that I don’t know these characters any better than I did before. They’re just more garrulous. Final Fantasy VII’s terse dialogue — epitomized by Cloud’s self-centered, apathetic style of communication (“It’s not my problem”) — carries greater psychological force.

Throwaway characters are treated like figures of intense fascination. Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie have expanded roles, yet they don’t translate into something more than another guy, a joke, and a female horny for Cloud, respectively. In particular, it’s embarrassing how the game struggles to give Wedge purpose. In one preposterous scene, we are to believe that Wedge, a non-threatening individual in every respect, intimidates two soldiers to the point where they open a gate that they’re supposed to guard with their lives.

Numerous segments of the game force the avatar to walk. One of the silliest things about contemporary games is their insistence on taking away the player’s ability to run while certain narration occurs, as if the mechanical restriction somehow deepens one’s sense of immersion or one’s appreciation for the storytelling. Final Fantasy VII Remake employs this constraint so frequently, so gratuitously, that a significant amount of time could have been saved by eliminating or amending every such sequence. (Also note the bizarre scenario in which we can only take slow steps as Aerith when she attempts to save Marlene. Here, the mechanical limitation clashes with the supposed dramatic urgency of the moment, raising the following questions: “Does Aerith actually want to save Marlene in time? Or is she just an imbecile?”)

Cloud’s mental instability is comically, tediously overstated. In its first five hours, the 1997 original contains instances where Cloud appears to experience either flashbacks or hallucinations, but these jarring segments are spaced out so that you can almost forget that they even happened until the next one springs up. This restrained approach builds gradual intrigue. Final Fantasy VII Remake spoils the concept, however, by liberally peppering the proceedings with TV static to depict Cloud’s mental status. This cliched, risible visual technique would only be acceptable during a show-and-tell session for an elective course at an unaccredited institution of higher learning. Furthermore, the incessant Sephiroth references are overkill at worst and fan service at best. None of these scenes have the sobering, mysterious effect of the theatrical angle from which we witness Cloud succumbing to the attack of a ghost version of himself in the &$#% Room of the 1997 original.

Obligatory fetch and extermination quests have been included to check a box. Planescape: Torment and The Witcher III have proven that we can do much better than Final Fantasy VII Remake’s side missions, none of which lingered in my mind after I completed them. More insulting than the banality of these quests is the “mommy says” patronization of Tifa. “It’s all right,” she tells Cloud. “All you have to do is do good work. It’ll all pay off, I promise.” Of course, some desperate fan might defend the inorganic busywork as an illustration of Cloud’s mercenary status, as if any intelligent person would need a plethora of dime-a-dozen sidequests to understand that part of Cloud. The quests’ primary purpose is to reinforce the marketing illusion that Final Fantasy VII Remake is “bigger” and “different” than its predecessor.

Scenarios are stretched out for no good reason. Earlier I implied Final Fantasy VII Remake is cut from the same cloth as The Hobbit film trilogy. Indeed, transforming the cross-dressing episode from the 1997 original into a bloated series of events — which includes a multi-stage arena tournament (reminiscent of an entire chapter in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door), an anti-climactic meeting at Don Corneo’s mansion, and an over-the-top dance number — reeks of Peter Jackson syndrome. Or how about the expanded train graveyard level? There, we are treated to a laughable, unnecessary tale about ghost children that just want to play with someone (a far cry from Final Fantasy VI’s ghost train story, which homed in on the tragic grief of the knight Cyan). We also get to see a tired sexual fantasy in motion: Tifa and Aerith hold onto Cloud’s arms in fear. The fantasy is amplified by the fact that Cloud proclaims his lack of interest in ghosts and doesn’t want to be touched by either woman. The classic chauvinistic tautology says that men shouldn’t care about the lowly concerns of women, who, paradoxically, throw themselves at men that much more when men don’t care. While the 1997 original featured a love triangle of sorts, it wasn’t as regressive as the Tifa-Aerith-Jessie fan club in the 2020 revision, where Cloud is almost like John Holmes in a 1970s porno: a man wanted by all.

Upgrading weapons is presented as an activity of cosmic proportions, rather than as a simple submenu. Do we need a sort of mini-tribute to the sphere grid of Final Fantasy X just to take advantage of skill points? This criticism might seem petty, but I loved the economy of the 1997 original’s menu system, where windows open and close with efficiency, where I don’t have to wait for an extra screen with complex imagery to modify equipment.

Boss battles are overused and overstuffed. A number of bosses are quite inspired in Final Fantasy VII Remake. I’m thinking of adversaries like Eligor, who brings gravity to an otherwise perfunctory level; Arsenal, who, more than any other opponent, requires timely character switches in a memorable duel of attrition; and Tonberry, a classic WTF foe from the 1997 original that becomes a greater annoyance. Other high-profile battles should have been deleted or made more concise. The Hellhouse, for instance, is part of the cross-dressing quest, which worked much better in its shorter, quirkier form in the 1997 original. I found Sephiroth underwhelming — he never defeated me despite his multiple forms, and I merely reused strategies that proved fruitful against previous bosses. The greatest offender, though, is Whisper Harbinger. I don’t see the appeal or accomplishment in beating the same crap over and over again in multiple overblown phases. The battle also involves unskippable cutscenes, which is unforgivable whether one survives or not. Certainly, when one locks horns with a physical manifestation of destiny itself, one should expect a huge conflict, but Whisper Harbinger is a candidate for the most monotonous boss battle in history.

I could go on about more, like the awkward, poorly designed bike-riding mini-games, or the longer distances between locations and how, to avoid the utter boredom of on-foot travel, the player must pay for Chocobo rides. But I now want to conclude by focusing on a provocative thematic thread in Final Fantasy VII Remake, an idea that had incredible moral and political potential.

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As with other elements mentioned above, the introductory Mako Reactor mission is lengthier in Final Fantasy VII Remake. But the extension is warranted, particularly after Cloud is separated from Avalanche. Here, through Cloud’s eyes, we can grasp on a more personal level the human misery caused by Avalanche’s actions as a political group. This is where Final Fantasy VII Remake’s more grounded depiction of Midgar and lack of a dreamlike aesthetic can register as an artistic advantage.

The 1997 original suggests more than once that Avalanche’s violence should raise moral questions. If you speak to a youngster outside the Seventh Heaven bar, the person mentions that innocents were killed due to Avalanche’s mission. Another notable observation occurs before Jessie’s death, when she says, “Because of our actions … many … people died … this probably … is our punishment.” The problem is we don’t see much suffering after the Mako Reactor explodes, so we are allowed to acknowledge the philosophical dilemma without feeling uncomfortable.

This is not the case in Final Fantasy VII Remake, where the increased number of NPCs hammer home the consequences. There is injury, traumatization, confusion, hopelessness, and a general feeling that Hell has come to Midgar. Frankly, I was stunned. At the time, it seemed the “Remake” phrase in the title was partially referring to a more visceral confrontation with the sociological ramifications of a revolutionary’s fantasy. I wondered, “Where will the game go from here?”

The answer is that Final Fantasy VII Remake, unlike Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (forget the movie!), goes on to pay less attention to the lives destroyed by the explosions and such, and Avalanche stumbles upon a rather easy way to brush aside the suggestion that what they’re doing might be immoral. After the plate drops on Sector 7, Tifa begins to suffer from guilt about the lost lives. “It was us,” she says. “We did this.” Later, Barrett puts an end to this kind of self-reflection when he says, “But if we stop now … they’ll never let us live it down.” The heroes’ ultimate justification is that even if they are wrong and need to rethink their strategy, they can’t let the corporate powers that be spin the narrative. Additionally, none of the Shinra villains are people that we can identify with. They’re one-dimensional monsters, and players are supposed to feel righteous as they defeat everything in their path in the closing chapters.

To my even greater disappointment, the game’s main storytelling achievement ended up being more about a promise regarding possible deviations from the established mythology of the 1997 original. Because Cloud and company defeat destiny itself — the very thing that presumably controlled the events of the 1997 original — we learn that characters like Biggs, Wedge, and Zack don’t have to die like they once did. I’m sure this revelation has Aerith fans drooling over the prospect of Aerith avoiding that fatal blow from Sephiroth. My reaction, however, to Final Fantasy VII Remake’s conclusion was “That’s it? A sort of comic-book retconning is supposed to be impressive?”

So now, after the elongated version of Final Fantasy VII’s first five hours, we are all supposed to wait, like good little consumers, on the fulfillment of a promise that things can be different in Final Fantasy VII Remake. But I must ask: Why does anything need to be different? And does “different” even mean “worthwhile”? Any remade art must answer those two questions. Final Fantasy VII Remake, as a whole, could make us wait years for the answers. I find that monumentally ridiculous.

Resident Evil 2: Faking the Remake

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the sixth essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

The more I reflect on my experience with 2019’s Resident Evil 2, the less I consider the game a remake of the 1998 original and the more I think of it as a sequel to Resident Evil 4.

In a years-old tweet that is now unavailable, critic Zolani Stewart said, “Everything is Resident Evil 4.” Those words, perhaps sarcastic, have reverberated in my head since I read them. In cumulative terms, I have spent entire days playing through Resident Evil 4 on a variety of difficulty settings; topping my high scores on all four levels in The Mercenaries, the unlockable Resident Evil 4 mini game; running through the abysmal Resident Evil 5 with a variety of friends; and striving for the biggest combos, again with different friends, in Resident Evil 5’s The Mercenaries mode. Additionally, I have completed Leon’s quest in Resident Evil 6 and dabbled in the campaigns for Chris and Jake. On top of that, I have analyzed and tested countless third-person titles that mimic Resident Evil 4.

We are what we play. I’m now hardwired to be relaxed, confident, and comfortable when I play a game that evokes Resident Evil 4 and its innumerable children. 2019’s Resident Evil 2 was like getting on a bicycle. I shot, outmaneuvered, and outfoxed my various opponents with little trouble or fear. I was predestined to feel good about what I was doing. Resident Evil 2 doesn’t remake so much as reuse, rechew, reheat, reapply, reissue, retread, reemploy, recall, reecho, rebottle, recopy, reload, redeliver, recite, reacquaint, reiterate, recirculate, regurgitate, reduplicate, reexpose, reinsert, remanufacture, repackage, and resell.

Despite Resident Evil 2’s faithful dedication to the basic style of Resident Evil 4, not one moment in the game came close to generating the tension and shock of Resident Evil 4’s introductory village setpiece. Resident Evil 2 borrows from Resident Evil 4 without understanding why the latter was a show-stopper. An over-the-shoulder perspective and pinpoint aiming must come with pressure on the player. When he directed Resident Evil 4, Shinji Mikami grasped this simple concept and, in turn, threw everything and the kitchen sink at us. But when Capcom produced Resident Evil 2, the company lacked Mikami’s principle, and instead oversaw a pandering, slow-paced affair that wouldn’t intimidate a nincompoop.

In her review for Kotaku, Heather Alexandra senses this misstep. “It is easy—too easy—to feel powerful in Resident Evil 2, as both the cameras and controls encourage a confident push forward that the original did not always compel,” she writes. “While the Racoon Police Department is dark and foreboding it never feels as harrowing as it did in the original.” As Alexandra remembers, 1998’s Resident Evil 2 operates like a merciless vice grip, subverting the expectations of anyone who had conquered the first Resident Evil, crowding the screen with zombies. 2019’s Resident Evil is more akin to a middle-aged creep with a thin mustache and deep pockets who sprints over to massage our egos. “You can do this, see?” the smarmy creep reassures us. “You’ve played Resident Evil 4 and a thousand other games like it. Why not one more, for old time’s sake?”

Later in her review, Alexandra loses me. She argues the expanded role of Mr. X in 2019’s Resident Evil 2 propels the remake into “brilliant and horrifying” territory:

Like getting chased by Jack Baker in Resident Evil 7 or enduring the ever-possible ambushes of Resident Evil 3’s titular Nemesis, there’s a great sense of disempowerment that comes from being plagued with an implacable foe. Resident Evil 2 almost uniformly empowers the player elsewhere, but that changes whenever Mr. X is around. Knowing that there is no safe spot, knowing that he will find you and you will need to deal with him is panic-inducing. While he sometimes can feel more like nuisance than menace—especially when you simply want to finish a puzzle—his inclusion and the execution therein helps elevate Resident Evil 2 to a genuinely terrifying experience. When it lands its punches, Resident Evil 2 hits like a champ.

The fact that one knows Mr. X will come ruins what made him notable in 1998. In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X inexplicably appears in a subsequent playthrough after the end credits roll. In 2019’s Resident Evil 2, he pops up in the initial playthrough like a fact of life. A surprise turns into a gimmick. That’s not hitting like a champ. That’s telegraphing like an amateur, especially when we don’t have to contend with awkward 1990s survival horror controls and shifting camera angles.

Mr. X never touched me in the new Resident Evil 2. And that’s because ideas like Mr. X don’t work in a game that strives to be Resident Evil 4 more than it wants to match or surpass 1998’s Resident Evil 2. We shouldn’t allow Capcom, which should face criminal charges for its commitment to unoriginality, to cheapen the meaning of remake.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested Shinji Mikami helped produce 2019’s Resident Evil 2. This error has been fixed.

Remembering The Wretched Firewatch

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.

Dear Chris,

More than a year ago, you responded to my 2016 review of Firewatch with a letter titled “A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch.” Before I respond to your thoughts on my review and Firewatch itself, I must say that nothing between 2016 and today has convinced me to stop hating the term “walking simulator.” I don’t believe it’s an acceptable descriptor, as you suggest. I believe it’s an abomination similar to Metroidvania (which gives too much credit to Castlevania), roguelike (used by, for the most part, people who have never played Rogue and thus don’t know what it’s “like”), shmup (toddler’s gibberish), and Soulsborne (what did Bloodborne even accomplish that warrants this reference?). The only game I’ve played that follows the implications of “walking simulator” is Manuel Samuel, a comedy in which the player controls the individual legs of a contemptible rich snot.

At the same time, I realize you are more interested in the games that get the clumsy label rather than the clumsy label itself. I, too, admire Proteus, which I called the ninth best game of the 2010s. Dear Esther? Not so much. I wasn’t fond of Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and What Remains of Edith Finch for various reasons. But I do try to recognize titles in this genre that don’t receive the attention they deserve. On that note, if you haven’t played Cosmo D’s brilliant games — Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite, and Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 — they come with my highest recommendation. If only those games, along with Proteus, could steal the spotlight from inferior critical darlings.

I appreciate your complimentary tone about the conclusions in my Firewatch review. I appreciate it all the more considering that I don’t think the review is one of my stronger articles. I still feel the review’s proclamations in my bones, though. While I agree with you that Firewatch’s subject matter is less juvenile than that of your average “recycled action movie,” Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman’s handling of the subject matter doesn’t strike me as that mature, especially with the loony Vietnam vet stereotype tying everything together. The game doesn’t really confront anything outside of the lurid elements of its farfetched plot. It makes references to early onset dementia because the creators were too scared to depict it (“It is impossibly hard,” the text-heavy introduction impotently declares). It teases sexual chemistry between two people because the creators lacked the basic inspiration to showcase human interaction. The dialogue demands our attention when we play, but there’s no meaningful takeaway from the words.

Not unlike extravagantly detailed settings in big-budget releases, the “beautiful world” in Firewatch is a distraction from the game’s fundamental lack of humanity. Notice, too, that we can go on about the pretty colors and pretty trees and so forth, but we have trouble answering this question: what does the setting communicate? As we both agree, it’s relentlessly artificial. I would argue it’s far worse than a national park in the United States. If you wander from the prescribed paths in Yellowstone, you might end up on an animal’s dinner menu. In Firewatch, there is no danger, there is no wild, there is pretty imagery that fails to convey why people find the natural world spiritually rejuvenating.

The camera mode in Firewatch is an insult. Do we have nothing better to do than take fake pictures of fake woods with a fake camera and show them off on social media, the fakest of all communities? According to the creators of Firewatch, we should marvel at the fakeness because it is there to be consumed and recorded and gawked at. But again, I ask, what does it mean? What are the artists trying to do?

My best guess is they were setting the table for nihilistic shock value, which is the very card Rodkin and Vanaman played in The Walking Dead. The beautiful world — the one we were encouraged to fetishize with the camera — goes up in flames. Cue our emotional devastation. That is, if we’re not keen about the tricks that Rodkin and Vanaman like to pull. If we have any exposure to the masterpieces of “literature, theatre, or film” (to borrow your examples), we will likely stop caring about the characters and story in Firewatch once it goes off the rails into risible B-movie territory, well before the disastrous finale. So our main attachment to Firewatch ends up being the pretty woods, and boy, do they burn well, says Rodkin and Vanaman.

This is why it would have been a critical failure on my part to overemphasize the beauty of Firewatch’s setting. I would have been selling the crud that Rodkin and Vanaman want everyone to swallow. My issue as a critic in this context has little to do with the possible aesthetic glory of a “walking simulator” and everything to do with my distaste for charlatans who wouldn’t understand Mother Nature if a moose attacked them as they gazed at a mountain in Montana. If you want aesthetics, play Proteus or Off-Peak. If you want to watch trash burn, play Firewatch.

Sincerely,

Jed Pressgrove