Square Enix Season: The Wide Sargasso Sea and the Final Fantasy 7 remake – a videogame tale of prequels and adaptation

By Neil Merrett

Final Fantasy VII Remake, released on PS4, developed by Square Enix

While the 2020 remake of Final Fantasy 7 gives us photo realistic updates of iconic series characters such as Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart – it is arguably much more a story of the industrial city of Midgar. Here Midgar is reimagined as a conflicted character in itself, a city fleshed out as a vibrant mash up of magical fantasy worlds and a dying future dystopia that is seemingly unable to meet the basic needs of its masses whether via magic or technology.  Swords, sorcery, satire and a touch of social commentary with a smidgeon of RPG action.

Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre got a prequel long before Star Wars set out, via a sequel trilogy, to tell the story of how an idealistic little boy could be twisted and mangled into the villainous Darth Vader.

The Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 by Jean Rhys, can be read as a story about how Mr Rochester, the classic Byronic hero and brooding love interest of the original book, ended up with a ‘mad woman’ in his attic. On the surface, the book sets out to tell a story about how he, and the mad woman, both came to be the people they are in the source material.

More than a prequel though, the story was partly a means to revaluate the settings and social norms of the era Jane Eyre was set in a more modern context. In this case, the book was written through the prism of developments – or the lack of – around women’s rights, feminism and racial equality in the more than a century that had passed since Jane Eyre’s publication.

The novel itself, although set in the world of Jane Eyre, is a platform to tell a different type of story and explore the complicated evolution of one of English Literature’s most regarded works more than 100 years after its release.  It sought to invert many of the assumptions that readers would have had about the ‘mad woman’, born as Antoinette Cosway, as she is robbed slowly of her birthplace, identity, and eventually her mind by an ever changing and unjust world.

Multiple narrators are employed in the book to, if not exactly justify the actions of Mr Rochester, then show how he is in some ways also a victim of the conflicting and cruel whims of the society in which he is raised and shaped.

However, by the end, he is set up in a grand old house, ready to become Jane Eyre’s somewhat complex love interest. While Antionette is imprisoned within a beautiful old house to wither away in an attic as ‘Bertha’.  Rhys’ book contends that these apparent side characters, often designed as mere ‘plot devices’ in the source material, have the most interesting stories that we should be listening to and ideally learning from.  It remains a timely concept to this day within modern storytelling.  

Return to Midgar

The Wide Sargasso Sea is a book that comes to mind, of all things, when considering the 2020 remake of Final Fantasy 7. The 1997 original was a critical darling and commercial behemoth that saw Square Enix’s fantasy anthology series explode in popularity to become one of the world’s foremost game series for a time.

Final Fantasy VII as it was officially titled – a useful way for young people to learn Roman numerals – has perhaps some of the most iconic character and design elements for at least one entire generation of gamers.

The remake element of the 2020 title seemed to suggest that audiences would get the exact same game with a graphical overhaul that would bring cinematic visuals to an already dense and often perplexingly complicated plot. This was a narrative that touched on themes of genetic engineering and environmentalism, and how trauma, memory and identity are closely interwoven in making us the people we are or aren’t.

Part of Final Fantasy’s appeal was in mixing Square Enix’s tried and tested structure of Japanese RPGs with an immersive world that evoked cyber-punk aesthetic with swords and sorcery. Developers used the emerging technology of CD-based consoles to create the sense of a living, (barely) breathing world across multiple disks. 

Why was Final Fantasy VII so important?

After 24 years since its original release, it can be hard to find full-length reviews of the original Final Fantasy 7 game that would have adorned print magazines the world over at the time of this release – truly a different era.

However, journalist Greg Kasavin’s review of the game for Gamespot – dated 29 September 1997 – concluded that the title was an unprecedented triumph of graphics and sound design combined with a narrative scope that was unparalleled in the era that it was released.

Mr Kasavin, now himself a creator director at Hades publisher Supergiant Games, found that the gameplay experience, while refined, may not have been anything earth shatteringly different to existing Final Fantasy games or JRPGs as a whole. Particularly with its adherence to turn-based combat and it parties of wizards and warriors.

However, he contended that it was an example of a bold new era for gaming with some of the most ambitious world design, graphics and music that had never before been seen in the medium. This was matched with a more sophisticated plot than many console adventure games of the era that aimed to dig into the idea of reliable or trustworthy narrators.

Mr Kasavin said, “For all its top-notch graphics and sound, truly the best aspect of Final Fantasy VII is the plot that these peerless aesthetics help weave. Join the enigmatic mercenary Cloud Strife in a journey that will take him to the very source of his being in an incredible quest where the fate of the world hangs by a precious thread, threatening at any instant to be torn by the charismatic, tormented villain of the story.” 

“Final Fantasy VII’s moving plot is influenced by some of the greatest works of science fiction film and literature, including Frank Herbert’s Dune, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even Godzilla”

Like any worthwhile piece of art, Final Fantasy 7 was not without shortcomings and issues that would mean it was not every gamer’s cup of tea, according to Mr Kasavin.  This is particularly the case tea when considering the late 90s was era that would equally be defined by games such as Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil that were equally cinematic and immersive in very different ways to FFVII. 

He noted, “The question you must ask yourself is, are you prepared to dedicate a good portion of the next month to take part in a powerful story unlike anything you have ever witnessed before? If your answer is yes, and you can approach Final Fantasy VII content knowing that it bears its genre’s inherently problematic traits, you will find it be among the most incredible games you have ever played – or ever will.”

Time for an (episodic) remake

These sort of critical views were typical of the acclaim that met the game on its release in 1997.  The idea then that the plot and world building of Final Fantasy 7 could be made even more cinematic and immersive using modern hardware made the prospect of a direct remake an exciting prospect for gamers for the best part of a decade.

But this initial excitement was somewhat tempered by news that the planned remake was intended to be released episodically, split up into multiple chapters, as opposed to a whole epic game world to rediscover.

Gaming news outlets, driven by the fervour and monetised outrage of audience social media reaction, often predicted that the remake, split up into chapters, could only be a lesser experience for telling a truncated part of a wider, well known story. How dare fans not get everything they wanted on their own terms?

Yoshinori Kitase, the remake’s producer stated in a 2020 interview with Nerdist that the development team would, from a technical perspective, only be able to streamline and simplify the full original game if they were to make it fit into the revamped graphical and gameplay mechanics it had created.

The alternative was effectively to focus an entire game on the city of Midgar. This is the opening setting of the original FFVII – a highly industrialized world of jutting skyscrapers and steam-punkery with an almost lawless series of shanty towns and Vegas-style vice spots hidden below its metallic structures.  So an episodic approach was deemed the best way forward by the developers.

Mr Kitase said they opted to set the game within the timeframe of the start of the original game right up to a daring escape from the bad guy’s headquarters and Midgar as a whole. Effectively, they were remaking the content contained within the first of the three CDs that Final Fantasy 7 came on in 1997.

He said this would allow the remake 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.”

As an adaptation, it resembles the Herculean task undertaken by film director Peter Jackson at the end of the last century to condense J.R Tolkien’s six Lord of the Rings books into three movies. The movie was filmed in a single go as a trilogy, with some characters and beloved sections of the denser fantasy narrative jettisoned or repurposed to meet the needs of a cinematic trilogy of films. This had to be done to create sufficient cliff-hanger endings and other Oscar winning character development that the series would become known for. 

Jackson’s filmic ‘folly’ was in time regarded as a great triumph of film making – not just a good set of fantasy films. It was ultimately a story of the greatness of ‘small’ people doing incredible, unthinkable things.

FFVII – a case of adaptation or remake

At its best, the Final Fantasy 7 Remake takes a similar approach to adaptation and plot, while also evoking Wide Sargasso Sea in taking some of the more diverting plot devices of its source material and fleshing them out into full blown characters.  In doing so, the game was seen as taking a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to looking at the shifting concepts of gender, sexuality and the role of big business in our lives.

Brittany Vincent writing in Ars Technica said that the now infamous scene of main character Cloud dressing in drag to go undercover – ostensibly as a victim of a sex trafficking ring – was tonally transformed for the better in the Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

She wrote, “In the original 1997 version of FFVII, Cloud’s drag transformation is played for laughs. Undertones of queer panic and derision punctuate nearly every character interaction while he’s dressed in a frilly, lavender frock. The audience is supposed to guffaw at this warrior clad in women’s clothing, tamping down any inherent issues of sexual identity and expression that could be attached to the scene. Final Fantasy VII, while heartfelt, dramatic, and in many ways beautiful, was never what could be interpreted as ‘in tune’ with its sexual side.”

“Nearly 25 years later, Final Fantasy VII Remake flipped the script. A narrative that was once eager to mock Cloud’s dalliances in drag, and which turned a blind eye to the sexual implications of the situation, has morphed. In Remake, this scene blossoms into a brilliant and daring piece of media that encourages the exploration and freedom of one’s sexual identity. It also legitimizes both the cisgender and queer desires that certain character’s harbour.”

By the end of the dance and drag section, the game has touched on how bravery and heroism can come in many different forms not always resolved with a sword – “Don’t ever be afraid Cloud”.

Urban poetry

Character is perhaps the most successful aspect of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

The city of Midgard, with its brutal, media savvy corporate rulers and its layers of different underclasses, is a prime example of this.

It is a city as a character of its very own – a vessel for the hopes, dreams and ambitions not only of Final Fantasy 7’s already established main characters, but the NPCs that they meet along the way. This is seen as much in the hapless commuters drawn into the game’s plot, as it is for the members of freedom fighter/terrorist organisation, Avalanche, that serve as the player’s main allies.

At one point of the game, where the player’s party makes a heroic raid on one of the main enemy’s fortresses/corporate headquarters, part of the quest involves having to make your way through the bad guy’s company tour.

The tour section is at once both an amusing joke about corporate overreach, as well as a terrifying justification of the acceptable levels of control a society must give up as the price for relative freedom and stability.

The escalating mutated monstrosities and death machines the player has faced throughout the game are justified in display cases as part of an exhibit created by one of the game’s chief antagonists – the Shinra Electric Power Company.  The company tour section of the game is not an entirely unsuccessful means of propaganda for highlighting Shinra’s pathological need to maintain control of the population as a means to provide electricity, light, warmth and power to the populace.

This is done to both exploit and ‘protect’ civilians with the promise of a comfortable middleclass life for those that can afford it. That its power comes from essentially sucking the soul of the earth and our deceased ancestors dry is a necessary evil until something better comes along to keep us fed and entertained.

The remake, which is often extremely well voice acted and animated at the level we would now expect from modern cinematic features, is an evocative game in ways that were unthinkable back in 1997.

Many of the original game’s vital plot points are recreated and played out in high definition in the remake; from Final Fantasy 7’s motorbike-based sword duels to long-form boss battles with modular robotic death machines. But 2020’s Final Fantasy 7 is also much more interested in the battle for the soul of Midgar itself.

An immersive, if restricted Final Fantasy world

Current hardware and development limitations mean that the world of Midgar is still a restricted series of locations, rather than a open world the player is free to explore.  These locations are almost always made up of visually arresting mazes and tunnels for the player to fight through and explore. But it is also a game interested in taking detours to a side character’s childhood home. Here, before engaging in a bout of daring corporate sabotage, the player is given an insight into the different lifestyles and classes of people that inhabit the Midgar alongside the sword carrying hero of the original story.

Once you’ve seen the realities of corporate and domestic life in Midgar, once you have understood the power of a simple family pizza night, the game’s communal shanty towns with their resilience and weary resignation become much more fleshed out and understandable to a player. You could be one of these people, you might yet still be one.

The Final Fantasy 7 remake is much less interested or able to create a real-world city that you can explore inside and out, as in the case with the Grand Theft Auto series.  Instead, It wants to tell a story of a heavily industrialised and corporatized fantasy world. It is a story told through the characters that inhabit its literally highest offices to its seemingly lowliest hovels. These come in the form of shanties, seedy clubs and underground battle arenas. As you might expect in an updated JRPG, there are also plenty of the subterranean dungeons/nefarious secret labs to uncover and fight through.

It is a game, that even with its new action orientated battle mechanics that invoke more modern adventure and RPG games such as Kingdom Hearts and Dark Souls, is unmistakably set in the world of Final Fantasy 7.

Yet its bigger innovation is retelling a well-known and iconic videogame story through the scope of more modern concerns about the fears and compromises required when providing for those we love and the need to find home and stability in an increasingly fraught world that seems to be leaving so many behind.

Although there are impressively expansive vistas, the programming and system requirements mean that the new Midgard is more a set of themed areas, rather than an open world approach to game design seen in 2016’s Final Fantasy 15.

Much like Square Enix’s attempt to modernise its other RPG franchises with the 2020 remake of Trials of Mana with more modern gameplay mechanics and graphics, FF7 remake can feel like a modern game disguised to look like the original.

While the game has plenty of secrets to explore and uncover, it is impossible to run off and explore the beautiful horizons all around you. There is a clearly defined in-game map setting out where exactly the player can move and fight in. These areas are enforced either by solid walls or confusingly unscalable piles of junk or debris. Other times, these barriers are policed by robed spectres. At some points of the game, these spectres seem to exist to either block the player’s path or battle them directly. At other points, they might appear to even assist and safeguarding the player’s party.

Fate is what you make of it

One of the central themes of the remake that develops through the game is the concept that these wraith-like robed figures are somehow seeking to ensure the original game’s plot plays out as originally experienced.  It is as if you are battling the physical manifestation of the original game’s plot points

On a meta-level, it turns fan expectation and the idea of canon into a form of antagonist that is seemingly led by the original game’s main villain – a somewhat novel take on the concept of there being no destiny except for that which we make ourselves. There is a certain way that stories should be told in society, and be careful those that look to change this pattern.

By the remake’s ending, as Cloud and the gang make their cinematic escape from Midgar, the player’s expectation of what the next episode in the remake holds may not be quite so obvious or predictable – not a bad hook for a story originally told 24 years ago.

In a way, this makes for a unique gaming experience and a timely warning about holding on too tightly to how things were or should be.

The cruel fate that befalls Antoinette Cosway will always play out as Jean Rhys intended when releasing The Wide Sargasso Sea in the 1960s.  Yet come the next instalment of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake, the player may have a chance to avoid those same old mistakes and tragedies and perhaps tell a different kind of story instead.

What otherwise is the point of a videogame remake, if not to give the player at least an illusion of meaningful choice?

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