Five years after it was first announced at E3 and 23 years after the original changed the role-playing game genre forever on the PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII Remake is finally out. The game is an absolute triumph and easily one of my favorite games of the year, but even after the credits rolled, I found myself wondering about the motivations behind rebuilding one of the most celebrated games of all time from the ground up.
To find out, I spoke with Final Fantasy VII Remake producer Yoshinori Kitase and co-director Naoki Hamaguchi via e-mail about why they finally decided to undertake such a monumental challenge, their proudest moments in Remake, what changed from the original, why they decided to go with an episodic release structure, and much more.
This interview contains mild spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Nerdist: Final Fantasy VII is one of the most critically acclaimed and influential games of all time. It’s literally the reason I bought a PlayStation. What motivated the decision to finally remake it?
Yoshinori Kitase (Producer, Final Fantasy VII Remake): One of the reasons was due to many fans (including the media!) who wanted a remake, but largely it was because I, myself, wanted to see the world of Final Fantasy VII re-imagined using the latest cutting-edge technology. The ever-popular Cloud Strife took first place in the Final Fantasy poll [that NHK recently conducted in Japan], but the only way for younger players to find out about his origins, should their interest be piqued, was through the original game with graphics from the classic PlayStation era. By providing young gamers with a new and improved Final Fantasy VII Remake, I am hoping this will become a title that will continue to be beloved in the coming decades.
Nerdist: What was the biggest challenge in remaking a game of Final Fantasy VII’s size and scope, especially given the leaps and bounds in technology since 1997?
Naoki Hamaguchi (Co-director, Final Fantasy VII Remake): With the advancements in technology, the ability to depict a range of character expressions has increased. Narrative that made sense within the limitations of the technology in the original would have seemed awkward (or interfere with immersion) if depicted using modern-day graphics. So, it was a big goal for us to adjust and supplement the story for those areas in the game, while adjusting the visuals to be enjoyable as a form of modern-day entertainment, but I think the results are all extremely worth it.
One interesting concept I wanted to share – in the original, the story from the Wall Market to the Shinra Building all take place over one night, but when we tried to depict that in Remake, we felt that we were spending too much time during the night from a gameplay perspective, so much so, that having all this happen over one night interfered with that sense of immersion.
So, in Remake, we added some narrative elements that prompt the players to stay in the area after the Sector 7 plate falls down, in order to provide a more realistic sense of time; and by having players then progress in the story to head to the Shinra Building the following day, this would allow them to feel the passage of time from morning to evening. The development team considered the concept of “time” to be part of the game design, to give players a sense of immersion.
Immersion into the story is a very important element of the whole Final Fantasy VII Remake project, and we will continue to be meticulous about it.
Nerdist: What motivated the decision to make Final Fantasy VII Remake an episodic release? Is there a sense of how long there will be between episodes?
Kitase: It was easy for us to imagine, even from the story planning stages, that remaking the game to the highest visual levels and going for a more realistic approach to the world, using modern-day technology would result in a huge volume of work and assets. Simply, with the higher visual quality and the size of the world, it was impossible for a single game. As such, we had two options at that point.
One was to fit all the elements into one game by simplifying each of the elements, which basically would have resulted in a very cut-down digest of the original game, where the players would just follow the main storyline, but we would have had to cut a lot of content with that approach, and we didn’t think that fans would have accepted that.
The other was to focus on the portion of the story up to the escape from Midgar, allowing us to avoid omitting any important scenes and to expand on the original, by going deeper into the world and characters than before. Effectively it would be a new game with emphasis on creating a realistic presentation with substance.
We decided that the latter is what the fans are looking for and would enjoy far more. Development is already underway for the next game, and we are striving to make it even better than this one.
Nerdist: I was shocked at how intimidating characters like President Shinra and Heidegger look in their more photorealistic art style. Were there any moments that felt more impactful once they were removed from the super-deformed style of the original?
Kitase: A corporate conglomerate being your enemy was definitely unusual for an RPG at the time of release of the original game.
There’s a scene where the executives of this enemy organization convene for a strategic meeting, but due to how simplistic the character models were in the original, I thought it fell short because there was no way it looked like a serious executive meeting. Now that we are able to make it much more realistic, I believe we are able to portray the evil deeds of Shinra in a more powerful way. Another notable example is the major tragedy that happens mid-way through the game; the devastation and impact is truly emphasized in this iteration.
Nerdist: What went into the decision to transition from a turn-based battle system to the more free-flowing system of Final Fantasy VII Remake?
Hamaguchi: The concept for the battle system in Remake is quite clear – by evolving the ATB battle system to something you would see in modern day, we could provide a gameplay experience that is “new, yet familiar.” On top of that, we figured players would feel a deeper sense of immersion, alongside the visual upgrades, by being able to play with real-time controls. As such, we ultimately decided that the ATB (Active Time Battle) system needed to evolve into something more action-oriented.
Through trial and error, our intention was to allocate certain playstyles to the “ATB battle” portion and the “action battle” portion, instead of simply combining the two, to bring out the best aspects of both. The foundation of Remake‘s battle system utilizes the “ATB battle” portion, a very simple system like that of the original in which players consume an ATB charge to perform a certain ability. And then the “action battle” portion serves the role of highlighting how player technique can leverage the “ATB battle”, such as by allowing players to efficiently charge their ATBs or by posing “chance” opportunities for players to use them. One way of imagining it is that the “action battle” portion assists while the “ATB battle” portion scores a goal.
A great example of this relationship is seen with “Classic Mode.” Having the AI take care of the “action battle” portion automatically to allow players, even those who aren’t comfortable or confident playing action games, to play the game by just focusing on determining when to execute the abilities with the “ATB battle” portion, just like in the original. It’s not too much to say that we were able to bring this system to fruition because we allocated certain roles to the “ATB battle” portion and the “action battle” portion of the system for Remake.
Nerdist: Is there a specific aspect or moment in Final Fantasy VII Remake that you are most proud of?
Hamaguchi: I am proud of being able to expand on the essence of the original and making it work for the game design of Remake. I believe we were able to make this into a title that people can get a sense of “new, yet familiar” through gameplay.
Let me share with you something I haven’t really disclosed anywhere else until now – I’m sure you all are familiar with the scene in Final Fantasy VII where Cloud goes on a “date”… but there is also a certain part in this game where Could would split off with one of the party members to have an intimate conversation. As you can see, the situations and how we depict them may have been remade into something that matches the style of Remake, but there are many elements representing the essence of the original within the realm of this game.
Nerdist: How long do you expect the core experience of Final Fantasy VII Remake to be?
Hamaguchi: There may be people who would prefer not to know how many hours the length of this game is before playing it themselves, so I think it’s best not to disclose a specific number of hours from the development team.
What I will say though is that, as the overall story of the original game is now re-told in more than one game, this first game in the Final Fantasy VII Remake project is designed with the mindset of delivering gameplay content and story that is equivalent to a full mainline Final Fantasy game. So, I can promise you that the amount of gameplay content will be very satisfying.
Nerdist: Obviously, Final Fantasy VII Remake will be a great source of comfort to those who are social distancing to help flatten the curve of COVID-19. How will this pandemic affect the hard-working team at Square Enix and future development in the Remake project?
Hamaguchi: This is not limited to just Final Fantasy VII Remake, but I believe that the role of entertainment is the fact that it is able to provide some comfort during these difficult times. The spread of COVID-19 around the world has still yet to slow down, but if people who play Final Fantasy VII Remake could feel even a little bit of comfort, or be moved and feel encouraged to press forward to tomorrow, then I feel that the efforts we’ve put in as creators is all well worth it.
As for the next installment that follows Final Fantasy VII Remake, Mr. Kitase has already made the comment that development has begun. We are putting the safety of the development staff at the highest priority, and we are working together as one so that any impact to development will be kept at a minimum.
Nerdist: How much do I need to pay you to get a Final Fantasy Tactics sequel?
Kitase: I will let the higher-ups know.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is out now on the PlayStation 4. Read our spoiler-free review.
Images: Square Enix