Human beings have long made a habit out of retelling. For centuries, writers have rewritten ancient myths and folktales for new audiences. Studios greenlight boundless numbers of sequels, soft reboots, and remakes of popular franchises. Musicians reinterpret the songs of their predecessors again and again. And even outside of oral and written traditions, much of our visual artistry gains significance through its portrayal of timeworn tales. Storytellers across all mediums are prone to, shall we say, repetition.
For many, our habit of retelling is cause for concern. Throw a stone in the air, and odds are you’ll hit a drive-by thinkpiece bemoaning the creative bankruptcy of our present age, citing the latest iteration of Spider-Man or the new new Jumanji film as evidence. And, to an extent, these pieces have a point; much of our current landscape of sequels, reboots, and remakes are aesthetically bankrupt, with brazenly-capitalistic motivations, existing primarily to fill a studio’s coffers or renew a copyright on the verge of expiration. However, despite these issues, I see humanity’s penchant for retelling stories as one of our greatest traditions, a habit baked into our collective DNA for our mutual good. And over the past month, one of the best examples I’ve seen of this has been in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.Final Fantasy VII Remake does what many retellings fail to do; it reconciles the past with the future.
In 1997, the original Final Fantasy VII released on the original Playstation, and for its time, it was an unequivocal masterpiece. Showcasing the technological capabilities of a new console generation, Final Fantasy VII was Square’s first foray into 3D artwork and graphics, with cinematic set pieces and a sprawling world for audiences to explore. The game also popularized Japanese role-playing games, which until then, had largely been a niche sub-culture on Western shores.
More importantly, though, FFVII boasted an ambitious and nuanced narrative, at a time when video games were still proving their capacity as an artistic medium. The game follows Cloud Strife and a radical environmental group named Avalanche as they battle against Shinra, an oppressive corporation that harvests energy from the planet. Much of the early portion of the game takes place in Midgar, a colossal city constructed by Shinra and stratified by class, with the wealthy elites living luxuriously on a large circular structure in the sky, while the poor make ends meet in squalorous slums beneath. Though the game begins as a power struggle between Avalanche and Shinra, it quickly expands into a larger tale of ancient races, cosmic horrors, and a mysterious figure in black named Sephiroth, whose history intermingles with Cloud’s in unexpected ways.
Despite its wide narrative scope, FFVII is a personal and intimate story about history, identity, and purpose. Though Cloud and his motley crew initially appear to fit common sci-fi tropes, their pasts prove to be more complicated, often subverting the stereotypes they seem to imitate. The story’s power is found in unpacking these characters and watching them make peace with the—sometimes literal—ghosts of their pasts. Though it has its share of clichés and cheesy quips, the original FFVII successfully wove together a complex story at a time when most games were still struggling to cobble together even a simple chain of events.
So why retell this story? Why take years, thousands of man-hours, and millions of dollars to remake a game that was already a cohesive epic in its own right?
One simple impetus is the dated technology. Though the original FFVII was a marvel for its time, the graphics and artwork haven’t aged well. Character models are blocky chunks of polygons, only vaguely resembling people, and many of the game’s settings were hard to render given the limited graphical capabilities of the 90s. Additionally, the English translation of the original FFVII was a notorious mess, with numerous grammatical issues and garbled plot points. Because of these reasons, fans of FFVII spent years clamoring for a remake, meaning Square Enix could also trust there’d be a market for such an endeavor.
But beyond these issues of practicality and profitability, the 2020 Final Fantasy VII Remake also exemplifies a number of deeper reasons why we as humans are compelled to retell. First, by retelling the stories of our past, we participate in cultural transmission, bringing the works of the past with us into the future. In an interview with GameSpot, director Yoshinori Kitase ruminates on this:
Final Fantasy VII is a game which, if it just stayed as the original, would just be remembered as something from the past…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.
On the one hand, this could easily be interpreted with some cynicism. Obviously, Square Enix has much to gain financially from coming back to the same property again and again. At the same time, I’m tempted to take Kitase’s words at face value, and as such, I see both humility and respect in his statement. The original FFVII was a cultural milestone, and by remaking the game in a way that’s accessible to current audiences, Square Enix brings the past to bear upon the present.
In addition, the retelling of stories creates avenues of community. In remaking a 23-year-old game, Square Enix invites new audiences to experience and participate in the narrative right alongside veterans of the series. As an enduring fan of the original Final Fantasy VII, it’s been a life-giving experience to watch others enter into a story I’ve cared for and appreciated for many years, as though it were a fresh creation in our world.
However, what I find most fascinating is how Final Fantasy VII Remake does what many retellings fail to do, which is reconciling the past with the future. Any remake must decide early on how conservative or liberal they wish to be in interpreting the originating work. Conservative remakes seek to retain as many elements of the original work as possible; in doing so, however, one wonders why the work was remade at all. If Square Enix had simply slapped a new coat of paint on the original game, it’d be hard to believe that a remake was anything other than a quick cash grab.
At the same time, a more open-handed retelling of a story often comes at the cost of faithfulness to the original work. When any character or plot point can be reinterpreted or retconned without warning—without showing an understanding or respect for that which came before—a retelling can do more harm than good in the act of transmission, either erasing the significance of the original or acting as though it’s irrelevant to our modern world.
Though there’s already much debate around Square Enix’s decisions in this area, particularly regarding the ending, Final Fantasy VII Remake carves a middle path between these pitfalls in a truly unique way. Broadly, Final Fantasy VII Remake follows the same characters and plot points as its source material; and yet, at countless points throughout the story, Square Enix takes great pains to expand and explore its world. Paper-thin characters in the original are given thoughtful backstories, relationships, and motivations. And when these characters experience tragedy or heartbreak, the emotional significance is truly felt. Additionally, the remake takes considerable time to dwell on the human cost of Avalanche and Shinra’s actions. Where the original occasionally glossed over significant tragedies, Final Fantasy VII Remake takes time to correct the errors of its predecessor by reflecting on the ethicality of Avalanche’s heroics, as well as the socioeconomic effects of Shinra’s class-driven society.
By exploring these areas of the original story in more depth, Kitase and the rest of the development team have found a way to show honor and respect to the source while mining its thematic depths for new significance, drawing from the strengths of both conservative and liberal readings of the original. This middle path sees the story as a source of revelation, where something new is created in the act of interpretation, while recognizing and affirming that which already exists.Square’s remake exemplifies how and why we participate in the habit of rehearsing our greatest legends for those who come after us and beyond.
In playing through Final Fantasy VII Remake, I couldn’t help but reflect on the value my own faith tradition places on the act of retelling. As Christians, our history, our community, and our rituals are founded on the eternal telling of the central story of human history. As James K.A. Smith describes in Desiring the Kingdom, “we humans are liturgical animals . . . our loves and desires are aimed and directed by habits that dispose us to be the kind of people aimed at certain visions of the good life.” Our liturgies are a habituation of the Gospel, and in embodying it through our love for neighbor and our care for the marginalized, we, too, retell our history as a source of revelation.
In much the same way, Square Enix has shown a respect for the past and an eagerness for the future in the way it has faithfully reinterpreted the original FFVII. Square’s act of remaking allows us to experience old stories in new lights, find sources of community and fellowship, and carry a good, true, and beautiful work into an ever-changing world. And in doing so, it offers a blueprint to other artists and creators for how and why we participate in the habit of rehearsing our greatest legends for those who come after us and beyond.