There was recently an interesting outrage in gamer culture around the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake (FFVIIR). I have personally seen many people, some I know well and others I know not at all, frustrated that the remake is an “incomplete game” because it does not contain the full story of the original Final Fantasy VII. The argument may go something like this, “I paid $60 for the full story in 1997, why would I pay $60 for part of the story in 2020?” On the surface, this argument makes sense, but I think it reveals something deeply flawed in our modern understanding of stories and their relationship to the medium in which they are contained and the marketplace in which they are sold. A brief journey through the history of story may help us see this contemporary problem more clearly.
Campfires, greek amphitheaters, midwestern saloons, family living rooms. As recently as 1950, these were the primary arenas where story-tellers would weave their tales, and many of them still are. The currency with which bards were rewarded? Children clutching their seats; adults pondering plot; audible and uncontainable cheers, gasps, and laughter.… what matters most (and dare I say, eternally) are the stories that connect us, story-teller to listener, and the respect each owes to the other.
To speak of story is to discuss one of the fundamental building blocks of human life—we are storied creatures, inhabiting a seemingly cold world yet assigning meaning by perceiving patterns of cause and effect.
So in response to this most basic impulse in the human heart, we have spawned fictional tales since the beginning—first, ancient legends like the Epic of Gilgamesh; relatively soon after, the dramas of Greek poets, the parables of Jesus, and the epic fantasies of Tolkien.
For the vast majority of human history, there was rarely, if ever, an opportunity to consume a story alone. Written stories were so rare, only the elite had copies of them. Dramatic portrayals took place in grand theaters seating hundreds, if not thousands. Songs recounting tales of yore were sung at village meetings.
Knowing this, story-tellers from very early on developed such fiction because it defined a community’s values. The shared stories of Norse mythology carved out the beautiful and violent contours of Viking craft and conquest. Before contemporary times, the starving artist was not only a failed, or up-and-coming creator—it was nearly everyone committed to shaping their community with narrative answers to life’s big questions.
This social contract between story-tellers and listeners changed drastically with a single invention: Gutenberg’s printing press, circa 1440. With this innovation, stories became more readily available to individuals, and the course of Western history was forever changed.… the backlash about the nature of FFVIIR seems to occur at the nexus of personal and consumer ownership.
Suddenly, the community-controlled narrative of the West’s dominant religion, Catholicism, gave way to the individual interpretation of a German monk who would say, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” based on his personal interpretation of the Bible. Outside of religious circles, the stories once refined in the fire of communal interpretation now belonged to the individual in her study; legends that once defined communities now defined individual values, and so individuals had greater ownership of the stories.
Seeing the way individuals consumed and claimed stories, it was surely not long before the starving artists of yesteryear saw their opportunity to feast on the profits from their tales, thus introducing, for the first time, a massive industry in which stories were a consumer good. Unlike the paid dramas of history, where attendees knew they were paying actors, actresses, set-builders, and stage crew, people now had the opportunity to buy a story with little awareness of the hours invested in the book by an author, editor, printer, and retailer. So it came to pass that story-listeners became story-consumers, paying to “own” the rich layers of meaning in the storied tapestry of their books. And, as with any consumer product, so came the demands of unhappy consumers.
It is when we recognize this development that we are ready to discuss the issues at hand for Final Fantasy VII Remake. You see, the backlash about the nature of FFVIIR seems to occur at the nexus of personal and consumer ownership.
On the personal level, video games are the most compelling and immersive stories available. While book-readers and movie-watchers consume stories at a safe distance, able to weigh character motives and the narrative answers to life’s big questions, gamers inhabit the characters they play as, making narrative decisions themselves. The relative closeness of video game storytelling to our actual lives, and the way video games often mirror and directly challenge our own motivations, means that—unlike even the most beloved book—our experience with a video game is literally “our story.”
On the consumer level, it is a basic assumption in our market that the more you pay, the more you get. Here, the relative expense of video games to other story mediums causes heightened consumer investment. For example, the $15 Hobbit book being made into 3 movies is not so troubling (until you actually watch them), because it still only costs $30 to consume the story as you know it. However, the $60 price tag on part 1 of an older story means the “full story” could run anywhere from $180-300. Thus, on the level of commercial ownership, there is frustration at the high buy-in to receive what was a complete story at another time.
The question that must be asked is if these two levels of ownership provide fair grounds for the backlash that has occurred, or if this ownership is really contributing to an unmerited entitlement among gamers.
The fact of the matter is this: video game story-telling can only exist within a market economy like the one in which we currently live. The layers of complexity in game development, ranging from story-boarding to production oversight to gameplay coding to scoring and so on, require that such stories be sold on the market. It would never have been possible in past eras for such compelling stories to be told or offered for free, simply because of the technical knowledge necessary to get them up and running.
However, with this understanding comes the recognition that when the consumer pays $60 for a video game, they are not buying the story, but the technical expertise of the team who told the story. Despite the blindness of consumers toward story-tellers’ labors, which dates back to the inception of the modern publishing industry, countless hours of real work was necessary to make this game possible, and the workers have real families for whom they are responsible. The $60 price tag for FFVIIR exists for those workers and pays for their hours of labor the same way the full price tag of the original FFVII paid for the necessary labor that went into its creation.
Of course, we must also have expectations as consumers of what our $60 gets us. As with every other commercial story-teller out there, the development team at Square Enix has a responsibility to provide a coherent and compelling story, replete with incisive plot points and believable characters. Their responsibility is not to give us the story we ask for, nor even a story that we like, but a story that penetrates our hearts and challenges us to examine the story through which we currently view the world. By all accounts, FFVIIR at least does this—yes, the story’s conclusion is controversial, but it remains true to its own internal logic, challenges our expectations and, quite on purpose, our sense of ownership over the original game’s story.
I am thankful FFVIIR has raised this controversy to the surface; out of the ashes of forum battlegrounds, I believe a more nuanced understanding of video game story-telling can arise. What’s at stake here is not simply money in the consumer’s bank account or some mega-corporation’s bottom-line; what matters most (and dare I say, eternally) are the stories that connect us, story-teller to listener, and the respect each owes to the other. When we pause and survey the evolution of story-telling that brings us to our present day, we may be empowered to envision a renaissance of mutual responsibility that is more concerned with life-giving stories than it is with self-seeking value judgments.