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Remake Counter-Hype (Final Fantasy VII & Commander Keen)

So, I try to avoid hype and gamer culture at large, but it's pretty difficult to keep it up during not just E3, but an E3 where a company decides to show off something I've literally been dreaming about since I was nine years old. And a little bonus on top of it, as well.

If you've been living under a rock, Square-Enix has released an extended trailer and some gameplay footage of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake, which they've given the inspiring title of... Final Fantasy VII Remake. Reactions to the video on screen at E3 were exuberant to say the least, the air was full of hooping and hollering, but reactions from the stay-at-home crowd have been a little less ebullient, a tad more mixed. I don't have a lot of time, but I wanted to get my own thoughts on paper.

Before I get to FF7, though, hoo. Let's address the elephant in the room, and let's talk a little bit about how much of a festering corporate shitpit "mainstream" games media has become.

Bethesda/Zenimax released a trailer for an upcoming Commander Keen game. After literal decades with nothing but fan-games and re-releases of Keen Dreams, finally, something for fans of one of the best and most influential platformers in home PC gaming history.

Except it's on mobile. What? Do you guys not have phones?

This has to be one of the most tone-deaf things Bethesda could've done off the back of Elder Scrolls: Blades and the Fallout 76 embarrassment, and on top of the incredibly ill-considered move of putting the long-awaited return of a PC gaming icon (to those of us who were gaming in the 90s, at least) on mobile phones, they settled on an oh-so-quirky Nicktoons art style and changed the genre as well. Exactly where did they get the idea that they had enough trust, enough good faith capital to get away with this?

Let me explain why this is such an egregious decision. First of all, Commander Keen's original creator has been fighting to claw the IP back from corporate lizard-people for years, intent on making a true-to-form sequel with love and passion for the loyal fans after all this time. To refuse, then release a mobile puzzler, is a firm middle-finger to the CK fandom and Tom Hall. To "update" the graphics for "a new audience" signals that they're planning on using brand recognition to push the IP on a new generation that doesn't recognize the brand -- the sort of confused design-by-committee crap that comes out of idiotic boardroom meetings all the time. Again, they took a PC icon and released it to mobile phones, as if to test the water, that's how confused and paralyzed and out of touch these companies are; of course the water will be too hot, all Commander Keen fans will be disgusted by the trappings of free-to-play mobile gaming culture and the lack of tactile controls. Why use the name if it's not the same character (it stars Billy's children... Billy and Billie), on a vastly different system, and not the same genre, with a completely different tone?! When the fanbase has been vocally demanding a true-to-form successor for decades?! This is not just any old franchise, just because you, the reader, might not know or care about this character, this was definitely a low blow to the many people who do. It's not Keen, it's a cynical attempt to exploit that franchise, its fans, and its history. And that is going to make people justifiably disappointed and angry.

Let's not even get started on the virtual guarantee that it'll be crammed full of exploitative microtransactions and manipulation tactics, as a free-to-play mobile game.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with updating designs and art-style after a decades long hiatus. Originally, Keen looked pretty dang terrible, and obviously a modern game shouldn't look exactly like one from 1991. The thing is, it should've been up to people that gave a shit about the IP to update the designs, and not up to whatever washed up early 2000s TV show animator they got to do this. What should'be been nods to fans were instead seen as irreverent usurpation, and not even the Dopefish got any love. Sitting on IP and refusing to let people do something with it is just sick and shitty. Zenimax did not need to do this. They could've just not done it, and given the IP back to Tom, and made the same game with two new characters.

More interesting than the trailer/footage, however, are the few brave souls trying to defend the announcement on YouTube (check the videos out, by the way; dat dislike ratio). They got me thinking. I think there's something that needs to be talked about when it comes to "games media."

It's a tired routine at this point. Whenever a game disappoints and receives significant backlash, often because its developers or publishers actively snubbed their fan-base, implemented something shady into their games, or were just being dicks, you can expect some dildo from a big name publication with plenty of corporate money to deride "video gamers" as "entitled" and vitriolic.

While the vitriolic point is probably true, the charge of entitlement is beyond absurd. In no other industry would people say customers are being entitled for not liking a product, or frustratedly telling a producer that the thing they're selling isn't what they wanted to buy. Or, for that matter, protesting manipulative tactics to squeeze money out of them even after the customer has already dropped $60 or often far more on their product. But it might be absurd... it's also to be expected.

People have trouble understanding on conceptualizing institutional biases and passive influences. After all, they think they are smart, "rational and logical", skeptical, and only ever make decisions based on data. The problem is, you often don't, and even if you did, that's not the point.

Big name games media publications are often either part of large corporations or have to work with them to play ball in the way that has become accepted after all these years. They need to land interviews and sneak previews and early review copies if they're to be part of the massive corporate hype-machine that churns out these video games, and you don't get a position in games media without a friendly-to-publishers/developers stance and portfolio of work. They wouldn't be there if they didn't think a certain way, and if they want to continue to be there, they have to keep it up.

In a culture of helicopter rides and expenses-paid trips and hotel stays to curry the favour of these reviewers, who are then faced with blacklisting or reprimand or firing if they don't play nice, is it any shock that games media is full of corporate bootlickers? Why would it shock that, if you want to truly take a stance against exploitative tactics, employee abuse, etc, in this industry, you need to go the independent funding route?

Why does this matter? Well. Because you can ask anyone. Gamers are entitled. And: "how do you know the game will be bad? It hasn't come out yet. They're building on the Commander Keen lore*. Didn't you see the picture of Billy Blazkowicz they clearly care about the franchise."
... Don't get it? This constant onslaught of corporate apologism has an effect. It influences fans, it makes people excuse things that companies do that should warrant a rebuke or punishment, to accept it when hard lines that should never be crossed get brazenly crossed, it makes people buy the shitty exploitative annual installment in a microtransaction laden franchise and be grateful for the face-full of dung they're given as a result. That's what those journalists are there for, that's their role. This is why such institutions as game-reviewing magazines and such, the ones with the money and exclusives and exposure, that you see all the time, all seem to push a similar view.

What can be done about it? Well, not much, but we can point out how this shit works, and stop letting ourselves be gas-lighted by these dickheads. There is no excuse for ruining beloved IPs for money, lootboxes, crunch-periods, paring down games to sell back functions or content, CEOs making millions annually but laying staff off after reporting record breaking profits, etc, and you need to stop inventing them in your head. Don't give anyone your money for a shitty product, email them and let them know (politely) you won't be purchasing their game until they stop pretending they need to gouge you. They don't need to, they want to, and because they have a complacent and passive consumer media, they know they can get away with it.

Oh, and never forgive them for what they did to Tom Hall's boy.

Anyway, moving on. Final Fantasy VII. I'll make this part quick.

Yes, I'm hyped. I grew up with this game, I've played it beginning to end about a dozen times and currently have just under 100 hours on the PC version. I won't say I know it inside and out, but I do know it well, and I did literally dream that someday, somehow, they would make a voiced remake of the game. Then Advent Children happened and I lost my shizznit.

I'm a little concerned about the remake, and I apologize in advance: yes, some independent reviewers have said similar things to what I'm about to say. I'm not copying them, it just seems that people with certain types of personalities feel the same way about this game.

The new free-moving battle system is... well, I'm ambivalent on it. Yes, I've seen it in many other games and I know Square can probably pull it off; the thing is, they didn't need to do this, a revamped turn-based system** would've been fantastic. Every time someone says this, however, some smarmy dickbag always sneers about how much they personally don't like turn-based systems; but these systems not only continue to appeal to fans of the JRPG genre, but they were sure as fuck good enough to make millions of Final Fantasy VII fans the first time around. Meanwhile, the battle systems in 12 and 13 didn't appeal to me at all, and I returned FF13 to the store. Square has a tried and true record of making good turn-based systems, and people right now, to this day, love them and wish those smarmy dickbags would shut up.

Again, it's a genre shift, one that's questionable. They're remaking FF7, not making another Kingdom Hearts game. I'm not saying I'll hate it. I'm playing Ni No Kuni 2 for example and that's pretty fun. But it's also true that there are modern games with battle system's like FF7's that people love and play right now, in 2019.

What I'm more worried about is how they're clearly not just remaking Final Fantasy 7, they're changing it. They're adding scenes, changing dialogue, and not in small ways. Again, change is not necessarily negative, but it is a possible failure point -- FF7 was known for its characters and writing. The most memorable points of the game aren't combat related, there might be zero fighting at all, but thematically resonant or strong world and character building segments, such as Wall Market, the eerie Village of the Ancients, Cosmo Canyon. Modern Square-Enix's ability to restrain itself from wrecking this sort of thing is dubious. The game is also very strongly anti-corporate and pro-environment.

Squeenix has slipped all sorts of weird crap into post-FF7 games set in the same world. For example, they dropped the idea of the lifestream being a sort of planetary spiritual essence, and instead starting waffling on about a goddess that was clearly never a part of the original story. Ditching or downplaying the animistic and environmental aspect of the main story. Most of the additions to the "lore" post-FF7 have been, frankly, cringe-inducing and dilute. They might be in fun games, but they've generally been at best incongruous with the main themes of the first game in that world, at worst silly anime-fanboy exaggeration or flanderizations. In short, they're changing things, and I specifically think Square-Enix is liable to fuck it up. All they have to do is bring in the dumb stuff from the later games, jam it somewhere in the remake, and that's it.

On top of that, the game's combat sequences seem excessively gaudy and visually oversaturated. Again, I know I'm not the first to make that comment or even note that Square-Enix does this all the time nowadays, but seriously; steady on, guys. The first boss, a clunky, slow-walking scorpion robot with a laser tail in the original game, is now fucking leaping around the room, clinging to walls, lasering through steel beams and foot-thick walls. You can't keep raising the bar like that; this is the first boss! Where are we going to go from here? How the hell is Guard Scorpion going to be like that, then we're supposed to fight a fat man with a gun later?

Square-Enix of the post-2000s has shown it has almost no god-damn restraint, whether it comes to overriding important themes in a misguided rush to "innovate" and "expand", or putting too much stupid bullshit greeble on their designs. The last FF I bought, I returned to the store. It's a genre-shift from traditional JRPG, to a modern hybrid. That doesn't bode well.

In short, I'm going to get this. As I said above, I'm not put off by different art direction or anything like that. I'm hoping it's good, and I'm hoping to like it a lot. But I'm not going to fall victim to any sort of hype, and I'm scared they're going to screw this up. Not afraid of change, afraid of utter, tone-deaf, did not get the source material/design by committee overruling those that did, screwing up.

* -- which is why they didn't make a sequel featuring Billy's main nemesis or give fans what they wanted despite being the only people who can, right.

** -- quick aside, I'm saying turn-based because it's easier to understand than "active time battle" if you're not a JRPG fan. Final Fantasy VII isn't strictly turn based, but the end result is essentially the same.
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