Final Fantasy 7 was the rare game that exceeded all expectations. Its release coincided with growing awareness of Japan’s pop culture, particularly anime. As a cyberpunk story about personal delusions, mental illness, climate change and class warfare, it was Blade Runner for millennials. It single-handedly put role-playing video games on the global map. Moreover, it helped the Walkman company rebrand into a gaming titan.
But time has passed, and we wanted more. In 23 years, we received eight more Final Fantasy titles, but we can’t let go of the seventh. Of course, the game didn’t look like a movie. Blending gameplay and dynamic cinematic camerawork was mind blowing, and at the time it was the most expensive game ever produced. But by now, the original game’s low-polygon character models can pass as charming puppetry, but little else.
The remake was demanded for years. In 2015, Sony and Square Enix announced they were finally bending the knee. They couldn’t let go of Final Fantasy 7 either.
The Washington Post spoke with three key members of the Remake project, producer Yoshinori Kitase (the director and writer of the original game, as well as of the seminal game Chrono Trigger), and Naoki Hamaguchi, co-director of the Remake, and Shinji Hashimoto, longtime brand manager for the Final Fantasy franchise who promoted the game back in the 90s. We also spoke with the “Father of PlayStation,” former Sony Computer Entertainment Chairman Ken Kutaragi, on the game’s legacy and impact on Sony’s business.
Launcher: What is it about Final Fantasy 7 that makes it so hard to walk away from? Is this remake a response to fans who wanted it, or is this something Square Enix had planned for some time?
Yoshinori Kitase: I believe that while graphics, game design, technological advancements and trends change with time, stories, characters and lore are elements that can speak to everyone regardless of their generation or origin. Particularly with Final Fantasy, we are conscious about delivering games through a “fantasy filter” that allows a game to become beloved and have universal themes that surpass boundaries and time.
The strong desire from the fan base (including many media!) was one reason, but another big reason was that I also wanted to see Final Fantasy 7 come to life once more with the use of the latest cutting-edge technology. To this day, Cloud ranks No. 1 in Final Fantasy character popularity polls, but younger generations interested in the original story only have the option of playing the original game with the original PlayStation graphics. By delivering the latest Final Fantasy 7 experience to the younger generations, we hope the game will be loved for another few decades to come.
Launcher: The original Final Fantasy 7 was a pivotal point in gaming and there were many challenges making it at the time. What were some of the new challenges for modern development?
Naoki Hamaguchi: I feel that game development itself has become more challenging as the overall scale has grown larger with more developers involved, as well as the increased amount of assets required for each project. Because of this, advance preparations, such as game design, determining a development workflow, system design, and all other prep work required before heading into the actual production phase is extremely crucial.
Due to the advance preparations that went into developing the game being so massive, we ended up keeping people waiting for quite some time. But on the other hand, because of the work we put in ahead of time, we were able to maintain a certain development speed during the actual production phase. As a result, I believe we’ve come out on the other side with a very high-quality game.
As an example, you may have noticed in the demo there aren’t any loading screens, as we’ve designed the assets to load in the background during the gameplay. Because we laid down the groundwork for this early in the development cycle, we’re able to avoid disruptions, like loading screens, to allow players to be fully immersed in the game.
Launcher: Remaking Final Fantasy 7 is perhaps the biggest remake effort in gaming. It’s like remaking the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy into six movies. What challenges did you not expect?
Hamaguchi: I feel that a very important aspect to remaking the game was that the breadth of expression — whether it be graphics or game design — has dramatically expanded from over 20 years ago.
Even if a certain expression didn’t feel peculiar in the context of the story back then, we ran into some instances where it felt out of place (disrupting immersion) when the same scene was depicted with modern graphics. In these instances, we needed to supplement the story, or adjust the method of expression so that the content translates better as modern-day entertainment.
I want to bring up one interesting example. In the original game, the events that unfold between Wall Market and the Shinra Building happen overnight. That said, if the sequence was built in the same manner through the remake, it would have been strange to depict everything as happening in one night, as the evening would have felt unrealistically dragged out, disrupting the player immersion.
For this sequence in the remake, we added one night’s worth of story after the Sector 7 plate falls, to create a sense of reality through the gameplay experience. At the same time, we wanted to generate a given atmosphere with the passage of time — from morning to late afternoon — as players go through the story that leads them to the Shinra Building the following day. This is one way we create a better sense of immersion: by incorporating the concept of time into the game design.
How immersive the story feels to the player is extremely important to the Final Fantasy 7 Remake project.
Launcher: Tell me about the decision-making process when it came to splitting the game up into different parts. What considerations did you make? [Editor’s note: The Remake only covers the first segment of the original game’s story]
Kitase: By examining the game through the lens of remaking it with modern technology, we could imagine how expansive the game would be from its plot alone. So, we had two potential options as to how we could approach this huge undertaking. One: pack everything into one game, though we would have to simplify each individual element, remove many parts and create a digest-like experience where players simply follow a story. Or two: tell the story that unfolds up to the escape from Midgar, and create a game that places emphasis on building a sense of reality without omitting any fan-favorite scenes. We determined that our fans would desire the latter.
Ultimately, we decided the best option for the project was to go for the highest technology level possible, with an expanded story. Having more than one game in the project allowed us to focus on keeping everything people loved from the original, but go into greater detail and more story depth than before.
Launcher: Final Fantasy famously made the jump from Nintendo to PlayStation for more hardware freedom. Since then, the game is synonymous with PlayStation’s success. What was it like to market this strange new genre to a new audience?
Shinji Hashimoto: Game industry trends were shifting from 2-D to 3-D back then. At SIGGRAPH 1995, we put out an experimental demo that showcased Final Fantasy VI characters in 3-D to showcase the research done by our company toward utilizing 3-D technology in games for next-gen consoles of the age.
The demo received a lot of attention at the time, but the data volume required to support the 3-D models was massive, so it became clear that this would be impossible to achieve with the memory capacity we had traditionally been working with.
In order to deliver Final Fantasy — a series that had been popular in Japan — to players across the world, making the transition to 3-D was absolutely essential. This is why we needed to select hardware with a larger memory capacity via the CD-ROM, and capability to display larger polygon counts to accomplish this goal.
Launcher: What are some story and character improvements that you are most proud of?
Kitase: The original game did not include any facial expressions or voice-overs, so we had no choice but to use the comic-like approach with exaggerated, full-body expressions. For the remake, detailed facial expressions and the wonderful voice acting contribute toward depicting the nuanced inner thoughts and emotions of the main characters. You may think you know Cloud and the other characters, but there could be revelations about their personalities that you may come to realize for the first time after 23 years.
Launcher: What was it like to revisit Midgar, one of gaming’s most iconic settings? Were there any lingering regrets about the city’s design that could be addressed today?
Kitase: The visuals in the original game weren’t fully realistic and the size balance between characters and background environments were expressed in an exaggerated and stylized manner. There was a gap between what had been envisioned for the upper plate cities and the actual graphics. The fact that the actual CG model of the city was not very expansive and lacked a sense of scale was a point of regret.
In the remake, the structure and scale of Midgar has been reconfigured and designed to be more realistic. That said, simply expanding the city would disrupt the ratio between the Shinra Building in the center and the diameter of the plate. In the end, I feel like we were able to create a good balance, so that there isn’t much of a gap between the silhouette everyone envisions when they hear Midgar, and the bird’s-eye view of Midgar seen in this game.
Final Fantasy’s legacy with Sony
Ken Kutaragi is credited as the architect of the PlayStation and its success. Sony was only dipping its toe into gaming, after a proposed partnership to produce a CD-ROM console fell through. The remnants of that project became the PlayStation, and Sony brought the Final Fantasy franchise with it.
At the time, the Final Fantasy brand was popular, but mostly in Japan. Its Super Nintendo titles (along with Chrono Trigger) were critically acclaimed and still stand among the industry’s finest. But it wasn’t until the seventh game that the series (and the genre it helped create) exploded in the U.S. and Europe.
Launcher: What do you attribute Final Fantasy’s explosive success on the PlayStation hardware?
Kutaragi: I think it’s the fact that the direction in which both teams were headed lined up well — the team working on the original Final Fantasy VII had a renewed vision for the Final Fantasy franchise, and the team at PlayStation was working to develop a whole new computer entertainment platform. Before PlayStation, the majority of game graphics, such as characters, landscape and maps, were two-dimensional, and games were largely considered as children’s toys. Games weren’t a form of entertainment that was widely enjoyed by consumers of all ages and gender. On-screen portrayal of characters and objects within games were oversimplified by grainy 2-D, which made it challenging for people from various cultural and regional backgrounds to consume and enjoy.
For this reason, Japanese RPGs did not perform very well abroad, and western games didn’t do well in Japan either. However, this was all turned around with the introduction of PlayStation’s real-time 3DCG technology, as well as the launch of FFVII. Both of these were a driving force that propelled gaming forward.
I believe the significant leap in how characters were animated and portrayed in the game were what both Japanese and western gamers found most appealing. Even today, Cloud, Aerith and Tifa are the icons that immediately pop up in a fan’s mind when talking about FFVII. Similarly, many people remember movies by the starring actors. Of course, landscapes and game map graphics became richer with FFVII as well, but individual games have their own unique settings and background, so I don’t think that was the biggest contributing factor. As the name “Final Fantasy” implies, I think Final Fantasy does a phenomenal job of weaving together the fantastical backstory of the game and how that is portrayed.
Super Mario and Gran Turismo are examples of games that are intentionally developed so that gamers can enjoy them without sharing the same cultural background. This is the same with Disney movies. On the other hand, Final Fantasy includes an abundance of Japanese elements, in terms of character portrayal and animation, battle sequences, and dialogue. I’m happy to hear that many gaming fans worldwide were introduced to Japanese culture through FFVII and Japanese anime.
Launcher: Back then, the Squaresoft team felt that betting the whole company on the PlayStation brand felt risky. Games were still not yet the cultural force they are today, but Sony helped bring that forward. Can you recall how Sony felt about its move to this new business sector?
Kutaragi: I most definitely don’t think it was an easy decision for them to bring one of their biggest franchises to what used to be a practically unknown platform that had a little-to-none install base with no accreditation. No matter how extraordinary PlayStation was as a platform, I don’t think they would’ve been able to make the leap unless they had strong faith and vision for their franchise. Perhaps when looking ahead, the team at Squaresoft had high confidence that the future of Final Fantasy lay with PlayStation. I don’t think they made the decision as a half-measure solution, like they’ll just do it to see how everything goes.
Sony was a consumer electronics company, so in the beginning our move wasn’t widely accepted within the company. Just a small team of us came together to drive the PlayStation project. Luckily, the film and music divisions eventually joined the Sony Group, and many members that had a thorough understanding of the entertainment business and talent management aspect of things joined us and strongly backed-up our project — including Ohga-san, who was President and CEO of Sony at the time.
Driving a new project based on a completely new vision and having to work against existing values or circumstances will always involve some sort of risk. That being said, if we don’t challenge ourselves, we cannot create a business that evolves to become a key pillar of the company. This was a big decision for the Sony Group, and I think it was the same for Square.