More Canon, Less Canonical (Part II)

Ethan Hawke in the 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet, Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020)
(Sources: IMDB, Square Enix)

In the first part of this article I suggested thinking of the video game canon in a manner similar to how other live performance art forms approach their past work: as a rich history of work that is ripe for representation and reinterpretation in the context of a new time, new place, and new circumstances surrounding the player’s experience of the game. This re-creation keeps the work alive and lets it continue to grow while providing a full, novel experience for both new and old players alike. This cyclical process of reinterpretation also allows for a fuller understanding of the original, because the choices made in re-presenting it for the here-and-now help us to position ourselves relative to the time and place of the original artwork.

Video games are old enough as an entertainment and artistic medium that we are starting to see old titles being resurrected for new platforms, in part because of the need/desire to save these games from obsolescence as they become unplayable on the original hardware. These new versions or old games have come to us either in the form of a technological remaster (both in terms of porting it to run on current hardware, as well as higher-resolution graphics, stereo sound, etc.) and the newer, but still less common, trend of the “remake”: where the game is reconstructed more heavily, in terms of mechanics, gameplay, and narrative, to enough of a degree that it arguably becomes a whole new game while remaining undeniably the original work. (So, a radical rethinking and restaging of Hamlet or La Bohème; but not to the degree of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or Rent, which are perhaps more like fan fiction in their relationship to the works that inspired them.)

Personally, I would like to see a lot more remakes happen.

Final Fantasy VII Remake: pure theater

Aeris/Aerith and Cloud in the Church, 1997 and 2020
Source: The Punished Backlog

I think that Final Fantasy VII Remake is a brilliantly theatrical approach to revisiting a game that almost everyone agrees1 sits smack in the middle of the video game canon. Instead of settling for just reissuing the original game on modern consoles (which they did as well—I’ll come back to this in a moment, as I think it’s important) they completely remade the game for 2020, in every way. And yet, no one would deny that it is still Final Fantasy VII.

(One blanket caveat I should make at this point: as I write this we only have the first game in the remaking of Final Fantasy VII, covering Midgar only. Therefore I can’t speculate on how the remaining remakes may alter the story of the original.)

So what are these “theatrical” elements to the approach taken in remaking Final Fantasy VII?

Uses the original plot and characters, but with edits and rewrites. FFVIIR hits all of the plot points and story beats of the 1997 original, while fleshing out existing scenes, characters, and relationships. Occasionally it adds in new sections and events entirely, like the scene at Jesse’s parents’ house. (The characters, personalities, and backstories of Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge are generally more fleshed out in the remake than the original.) Thinking of Shakespeare, anyone who has sat through the full length of Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet understands why contemporary productions usually cut that script down, sometimes quite liberally. Changing tastes include acceptable levels of verbosity.

Updated for current technologies on the medium. Just as we have replaced the candles and torches of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre with a computerized console which controls the dimmers which provide electricity to the LED lighting fixtures, we play FFVIIR on our Nintendo Switch instead of the original PlayStation.

Aesthetic elements updated for contemporary tastes. When I look at the side-by-side images above of Cloud and Aerith’s encounter in the church, I think they are both beautiful. But I have a different awareness—a more heightened awareness2—of the 1997 graphics compared to the 2020 ones; my relationship to them is different because they are not of the here-and-now. My brain is translating the older aesthetics to contemporary standards and expectations in a way it doesn’t do with the 2020 version, which closely aligns with current expectations of video game graphics. This is akin to the aesthetics of scenery and costumes in Shakespearean productions. Whether Hamlet’s “nighted color” is a black Elizabethan doublet and hose, or ripped black jeans with a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” tee, I’ll understand that he is a discontented youth full of anger and mourning. But I think about it less actively with the latter than the former.

Themes of the original are maintained, but individual ones may be emphasized or deemphasized to suit the time and place of the reimagined work. New themes are sometimes added in, but often based in elements of the original which weren’t intended to be deeply thematic. Sometimes these things happen accidentally—changing times make certain elements resonate more or less than they did originally. Barret is a loving parent to Marlene in both the original Final Fantasy VII and the remake, but his positive role-model as a Black father is perhaps more noticeable in 2020, when we are so focused on the archetypes, stereotypes, and prejudices about Blackness (and particularly Black men). A similar thing might be said abut the environmentalism of the game (and the morality of AVALANCHE’s environmental terrorism, or the complex moralities of extremist movements generally)—all of those things are consciously present in the original, and resonated with the state of the world in the late 1990s. But they are even more of a clear and present danger in 2020.

Final Fantasy VII Remake benches with the save point symbol of the original game.
Source: Reddit user ShrimpHeavenNow

Makes knowing, sometimes winking, references to well-known parts of the original. Often specifically attempts to subvert expectations in those areas, because they are so well-known. Hamlet is full of these moments, because so many scene and phrases from it are so well known. Polonius’ long-winded speech culminating in “to thine own self be true,” or the image of Hamlet talking to a skull (“Alas, poor Yorick!”) are favorite targets for winking playfulness, in part because both have elements of humor in the original. Final Fantasy VII Remake dispensed with the original game’s save points, but put the symbol for those save points on the benches which restore your health and mana, and function as similar oases of relief—especially in hard mode!

Desires to improve or “fix” aspects of the plot, characters, or worldbuilding of the original that feel underdone or like they don’t make sense. This is often a collaborative impulse to make the original better. In addition to fleshing out the side characters of AVALANCHE, Final Fantasy VII Remake spends more time on developing Aerith’s personality and individuality. Similarly, contemporary productions of Hamlet often spend time and thought giving Ophelia more character and self-determination (within the bounds dictated by the plot), and treat her ultimate fate with more empathy than the original text does.

Related: Care is spent on addressing and reimagining aspects of the original that “haven’t aged well” and are now out of sync with contemporary values and beliefs. A memorable, and oft-referenced, scene from Final Fantasy VII is grumpy old Cloud cross-dressing to gain access to Don Corneo’s mansion and rescue Tifa. While more silly than cringeworthy, in light of the generational shifts in our society’s thinking about sexuality and gender which have taken place in the decades since FFVII was released, this scene was begging to be reconsidered and reimagined. And well they did! Other writers have written eloquently about the changes made, which feel utterly contemporary in tone, style, and humor, while still retaining all the story beats of the original.

There are numerous elements of Shakespeare’s plays and the traditions surrounding their performance which “have not aged well”: white actors donning blackface to play Othello and the elements of antisemitism in The Merchant of Venice are two frequently-cited examples. Both of those are very complex subjects about which a library’s-worth of books and papers have been written, arguing almost every conceivable perspective. Bottom line: The casting of Othello and the characterization of Shylock are decisions which must be made—and made thoughtfully—by anyone producing those plays. This is similar to how the designers and devs of Final Fantasy VII Remake had to make conscious decisions when reimagining the Cloud crossdressing scenes, as a mindless recreation of the 1997 original could be read as homophobic or transphobic in 2020.

A Remake Manifesto

I believe it is impossible to faithfully recreate a previous game, either for the players or the developers. To try is a waste of time and talent, as well as missing a great opportunity. Our collective experience of video games old and new will be richer and more satisfying if we avoid the archival mindset that has traditionally been associated with film, television, and novels. The expectation there is of a single, final version, frozen in celluloid (or 1s and 0s) so that each time we rewatch or reread it, we know that we’re experiencing the same thing.3 We should allow our original experiences of those video games to live on in our rose-tinted memories (the only true archive for any experience of the ephemeral) while being open to having genuinely new experiences that supplement, not supplant, the original.

We should ask our talented game developers to revisit these classic video games in the way similar to how creatives working in theater, dance, or live music approach a new production of an old text: by fully reimagining and reinterpreting it for the here and now. Doing so doesn’t erase the original work but rather builds upon it, deepening our experience of it. Each new vision creates unique experiences for the player (and developers); the more imaginatively it has been remade, the more clearly we can see the original in relation to ourselves.

The simultaneous creation of new games alongside new visions of canonical works allows artists to advance and mature their work while being in constant dialogue with the medium’s past. Creators are forced to ask themselves whether their ideas would be best served by a remake of a classic game, or an entirely new work? (We sometimes see games that clearly want to be a remake, but copyright law and IP ownership forced the creators to make a game world, lore, and characters out of whole cloth4.) Remaking a canonical text—especially in a medium like video games, where, as with film, it is possible to experience a perfect copy of the original—begs the question, “What am I contributing by remaking this work? Why is this remake necessary?” Similarly, an artist who creates something new, but similar, to an existing game is forced to interrogate why they aren’t doing a remake:  What makes their work so different from this well-known classic?

A canon still needs an archive

One thing that video game creators and publishers — the rights holders, generally — need to figure out is the issue of archiving originals to keep them available and playable by scholars, artists, and new generations of players. You can’t reinterpret a canonical work for the present moment if the source text is missing. In the absence of an archived text we will seek to fill in that void with anything we can find, whether game reviews from a quarter century earlier or our own faded memories. In the absence of that archived original the desire to be reminded of that original text will take over, and every experience with a reimagined version of the work with be tinged with disappointment.

Ethan Hawke delivering the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)

Part of the joy of watching something like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) or Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) is knowing how each of those films relates to its source text: what it embraces, what it abandons, how it toys with conventions and thumbs its nose at expectations. If I didn’t have access to the script of the play—not to mention archived copies of past productions and performances of the play—not only would I be missing much of the fun that those directors are having with Shakespeare’s plays, but I might get frustrated by my confusion over what was actually present in the original text compared to an innovation by the directors.

(Another joy of watching those movies, for me as a Gen Xer, is just how perfectly they inhabit their 1990s time periods. Particularly for Almereyda’s “slacker” Hamlet: I never get tired of watching Ethan Hawke deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in the Action aisle of a Blockbuster Video; and I feel the same giddy joy at the wonderful, knowing ridiculousness of it. Every. Single. Time.)

Similarly, I would argue that one reason FFVIIR’s changes to its storyline and gameplay were so well-received5 is that the original game had already been remastered to run on basically every available modern gaming platform. I could play the 1997 original on my PlayStation 4, and then switch over to the 2020 remake. (In point of fact, I have done that exact thing—and it was marvelous!) Had this not been the case, and a large audience of people with fond childhood memories of Final Fantasy VII but no way of revisiting that original game, had been handed Final Fantasy VII Remake in all of its brilliant thoughtfulness, I sincerely doubt it would have had the same reception. (Which would have been deeply unfair to FFVIIR, if also a little bit understandable.)

A comparison of an original SNESE sprite to the 2014 mobile rerelease. Read the linked article if you want a brilliant deep-dive on alternate approaches to updating the old sprites.
Source: Fortress of Doors

The arguments about which version of Final Fantasy VI is the best one to play on modern machines bears uncanny resemblance to scholarly debates over the Bad Quarto, Good Quarto, or First Folio versions of Hamlet. Especially when it reaches the point of fans itemizing lines changes and small bug fixes in every single release! But this underscores the need for a neutral and exhaustive (as much as either is possible) archive of the original version(s) of our video games, and to which the general public has access. Much of the frustration with the current version of Final Fantasy VI that is available on PC, iOS, and Android is that major changes to the graphics and interface were made, in the name of updating it for contemporary expectations. But not everyone likes what they did, or thinks that’s the right way to either remember the original or reimagine it for a new generation. The problem is, most of us are stuck with it because that’s the version we have easiest access to.

One final Shakespeare analogy: to me, the fuzzy-sprite iOS/Android version of Final Fantasy VI is akin to a staid regional theatre production of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or King Lear. The actors are all done up in doublets and hose and the set makes some nods to the Elizabethan period, the production is also trying to please the expectations of a 21st century audience. Scenery is made of real, dimensional objects and surfaces, not trompe l’oeil painted backdrops5; costumes use contemporary fabrics and may be cut differently to accommodate modern bodies and actors’ movements; there is electric lighting, and women are onstage as actors. Some people want their Shakespeare served up to them in precisely this way; they might like the aesthetic, or perhaps they just don’t like any other aesthetics. There are also people who couldn’t care less how it’s designed and presented: they just want to see Hamlet, damnit. Me, I find this pablum of lowest common denominator compromise and trying not to offend anyone to be utterly unpalatable, in both theater and video games. To each their own.

But this is the brilliance of a canon-based art form: it can accommodate all of us. Throw open the doors to creatives making new versions and visions and interpretations of beloved games alongside the generation of completely original games and IPs, the way theater and dance and music have been doing for centuries. There even exist models for licensing said productions, ensuring the original artists and license holders are rightly compensated while not squelching the ability of other artists to use those canonical works to make something new! More voices, new ideas, and a wider range of perspectives in conversation with one another will elevate both the entertainment and artistry of video games, and forge a bright future for the medium.

1 Having a small but very passionate number of voices denouncing your canonical work as being “overhyped” and “not as good as [insert title]” is basically a requirement for entry to any canon.

2 Bertolt Brecht, the German theater director, theorist, and playwright, called this verfremdungseffekt, which has been (unfortunately) translated as the “alienation effect”, or “distancing effect” (somewhat bettter). My personal favorite (if awkwardly-phrased) translation is the “‘making the familiar, strange’ effect”. It’s a state of heightened awareness and attention which can be evoked by forcing (gently or not) your audience to hold in their mind both the truth of the performance and the truth of the thing being performed.

In the 1997 vs 2020 graphics example, I can play the latter without giving any thought to the technology of the graphics (truth of the performance) beyond, “Yep, they are what I expect from the current level of AAA video game technology.” After that, my responses might all be, “Wow, Midgar is so huge and detailed! Cloud’s expression looks so annoyed! Aerith is best girl!” (truth of the thing being performed). When I play the 1997 original in 2020, I’ll spend a lot more time being aware of the state of the technology of this older game: surprised by moments of unexpected sophistication, forgiving some of its limitations, and perhaps being frustrated by others. I’m going to be a lot more aware of how the “truth of the performance” is affecting my experience of the “truth of the thing being performed”.

(FWIW, I think Brecht would point out that just because in the earlier example you are not having your attention drawn to how the technology of presentation is affecting your experience of the thing being presented, doesn’t mean it’s happening any less in the remake than in the original. It just means you are passively consuming the experience instead of actively participating in, and interrogating, that experience.)

3 Or you believe you are experiencing the same creative work each time. Film and television, despite being mediums which are by definition archival, actually change more than we think. Take broadcast television: if you watch it as it airs, it likely has commercials interspersed every 10-12 minutes. Watching it on Netflix, it doesn’t. Watching an hour-long episode straight through is a very different experience from watching it where every 10 minutes you can get up, or talk to your couchmate, or otherwise temporarily shift your attention away from the act of watching. And remember, the episode was written with those commercial breaks in mind and planned for: the four act structure of Ibsen and Chekhov, adapted to sell you things.

The same can be said (again, speaking of Netflix) of the difference between binge watching an entire season of shows over a long weekend versus absorbing one episode each week over the course of 8 or 9 months. In the season model of olde, peaks and valleys of plotting were created by the biannual Sweeps Weeks in the fall and spring. (Once again, the need to sell things interfacing with cultural traditions about narrative structure, pacing, suspense, and catharsis.)

All of which is to say, while the performance that is archived in a film or television episode is unique and replicable, our experience of watching them is still very much a living, changeable thing.

4 This is not to say that copyright limitations cannot be a productive obstruction for creatives; I think of something like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, whose original draft had Quentin and crew actually going to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. The fact that this wouldn’t fly (from Grossman’s publisher’s standpoint, at the very least) made for a much stronger story, and the creation of Fillory in place of Narnia allows Grossman was to make much more nuanced observations about Lewis’s foundational novels. (His thoughts on Lewis’s sloppy worldbuilding, and how this centered his own worldbuilding with Fillory, are wonderful.)

This is also a reason why fanfiction has become such a force in fandom over the past 60 years, and why it is chiefly found in “archival” art forms, not canonical ones. There is little need for fanfiction of Hamlet (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead being the exception that proves the rule) when you can just go do whatever you want with your production of Hamlet.

5 “Well-received” doesn’t have to mean “universally agreed with”; but rather that the developers’ choices and ideas were listened to and considered in their own right.

6 Shakespeare himself wouldn’t even have had painted backdrops: The Globe, for example, was an empty stage with an architectural structure at the rear (the tiring-house) which contained different levels and smaller spaces which could be revealed or obscured by curtains. Elizabethan theater asked its audiences to actively imagine the scenery—sometimes literally asking them, as with the invocation of the muse in the prologue of Henry V:

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings

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