Remade, Not Rewritten

We live in a games landscape that doesn’t tend to respect its own past. Large swaths of the game playing audience believe that old games are inherently worse than new ones, and companies like to forget all but the most popular of their back catalog. What’s more interesting – but still discouraging — is what happens when developers take on the task of remaking something from the ground up with modern design principles in mind. The results are often good, and sometimes fantastic, but you can’t help but see these projects as efforts to subsume what came before. If you’re remaking a game today, it’s probably improved to the point where it renders the source material obsolete, right? But as much as game companies want to sand over the rough edges of its past, the old game’s shadow still looms over the remake. Just because a remake exists doesn’t mean the original game ceases to be, after all. This is a dynamic that most games just choose to ignore, with games like Mega Man and Resident Evil 2 falling victim to remakes that attempt to paper over their inspirations, but Final Fantasy VII Remake explicitly integrates it into its very narrative, shining a light on the nature of remakes and what happens when you try to overwrite something that’s still there.

One of the fundamental ways in which remakes attempt to overwrite the originals is to “fix” many of the problems that the designers perceived in the original release. In many cases, this means making sure that any unintended glitches get removed from subsequent attempts at improving the source material. The only problem is that, for many, these “flaws” are part of the DNA of the game itself. The original Mega Man is a prime example of this. While it’s pretty lackluster in many ways, one of its most memorable qualities is the so-called pause trick, an unintended way to use Elec Man’s electricity weapon. The trick works like this: You shoot a bolt at the enemy, then, right as it hits, pause the game. Then you unpause, pause again, and repeat for as long as it takes. What ends up happening is you slow down the animation on the screen to a crawl. The attack itself will linger on the spot you paused at, doing continual damage as long as you keep pausing and unpausing. What was an easily exploitable quality to one of the game’s features became one of the game’s defining features.

Which is a shame, then, that the extensive PSP remake Mega Man Powered Up essentially pretended it never was there in the first place. While the game boasts a revamped graphical style and new bosses, it’s striking that the pause trick no longer works in this particular remake. Unintended or no, it’s as much a part of Mega Man’s identity as its pointless scoring and copy-pasted level design. Most of all, though, it proved that a remake was unable to erase its own history, as the legacy of the pause trick lives on to this day. Wisely, Digital Eclipse, the developer of the Mega Man Legacy Collection, kept the original game more or less as it was on the NES for the collection, pause trick and all.

Sometimes remakes want to evoke what made the original special while smoothing over the idiosyncrasies of the original with modern game design. Resident Evil 2’s recent remake does exactly that, evoking the feelings of exploring the iconic police station and being pursued by a ceaseless assailant in a package that’s as much a nod to how far the series has come as it is looking to hit your nostalgia buttons. By refining Resident Evil 4’s over-the-back camera, Resident Evil 2 transforms the clumsy tank controls of the original into something that easily fit in 2019’s game lineup.

But as much as it feels like the original game, Resident Evil 2’s remake isn’t even close to the original, with expanded level design that respected the general locations from the original, but didn’t feel slavishly shackled to them, creating an entirely new game that hits many of the same beats as the original. And yet it feels like the designers were hedging their bets a little too safely, as the wildly branching campaigns that diverged depending on which character you picked and whether it’s your first or second playthrough was watered down to the point where each of the remake’s playthroughs felt largely the same. And it was neat to see how much the original game’s design reflected the two characters playing off of each other indirectly. Resident Evil 2’s remake is impressive, but it’s easy to feel like something’s been lost in the conversion.

Of course, you can’t really say something’s been lost – after all, the original game will always be there, remake or not. A remake can’t erase history, something that’s illustrated in the Final Fantasy VII Remake. Instead of a simple reskin of the original game, Remake diverges from the original game by completely remaking the battle system. You still have materia and Limit Breaks, but battles play out in real time, creating a more frenetic atmosphere than the original game’s turn-based Active Time Battles. And since the entire game takes place in Midgar, the initial metropolis you first play in before the original opens up to a world map, many story beats were added and characters fleshed out to the point where what was once a section of the game that took a few hours now is stretched into a full 40 hour experience.

But with every change, every story moment that’s changed in the Remake, a consequence occurs: Whispers, ghostly arbiters of fate that ensure destiny unfolds as it should. Any big changes to the story of Final Fantasy VII are greeted with Whispers, who intervene to right the continuity to the state that we know from the original game. One of the biggest changes in the Remake continuity is the survival of Wedge, who was supposed to die when the Shinra Electric Company dropped the upper plate of Midgar’s Sector 7 onto the slums below, killing everyone in the process. But Wedge survived thanks to the intervention of a strangely prescient Aerith, along with a good number of people from the slums who Wedge helped evacuate. People were supposed to die, but didn’t. Because of that, the Whispers worked to correct this breach of destiny by attempting to kill Wedge in his subsequent appearances.

Whispers weren’t in the original Final Fantasy VII, and serve as a not-so-subtle nod to the nature of remakes. No matter how much you want to change and overwrite the past, you can’t. The original Final Fantasy VII is always going to be there complete with its own distinct story arcs and gameplay quirks. The existence of Final Fantasy VII Remake, or indeed, any other video game remake, will change that. And this is as it should be. We shouldn’t let the alure of the new kill what already came before. Final Fantasy VII is by no means the best in the series, with huge flaws like the characters being blank slates for materia to slot into and the muddled localization being prime among them. But it’s still a heck of a thing, and has every right to exist in our hearts and minds as its own work independent from any remakes that come down the line.

And at the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are so stuck in the past that any changes from the original are automatically anathema. By establishing two different timelines of events and casting the arbiters of fate as antagonists to be defeated, Remake also looks to the future and dares to envision an environment where both games are distinct works, both valid interpretations of the world of Final Fantasy VII, that one isn’t a replacement of the other, but another continuity open to new possibility. It’s a sadly exciting and daring prospect given how video game properties are either forgotten or constantly updated with modern sensibilities in mind. Too often, remakes represent a conflict of ideas of how game history should be treated. On one hand, a work should stand alone as a work as it was when it first came out. And on the other, updates to the idea of the work can lead to revelatory new avenues of design. By tackling this conflict so blatantly, Final Fantasy VII Remake proves you can have it both ways.

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