My Final Fantasy wasn’t your Final Fantasy. And your uncle’s Final Fantasy wasn’t your aunt’s Final Fantasy, either.
And your best friend’s Final Fantasy definitely wasn’t your cousin’s Final Fantasy — at least not in the era of Sony’s seminal grey box.
Back then, every Final Fantasy was a collaboration between player and creator to bring the latter’s blocky, text box-driven machinations to life.
Back then, imagination mattered. The rage in Barrett’s voice, the cold and callus indifference of Cloud — these weren’t products of fancy water tech or blinding god rays, but a product of our imaginations. Square provided an expensive canvas on which we could each draw a picture. Our imaginations were an extension of that little grey box, add-ons as powerful as any piece of silicon.
Now, things just aren’t the same.
That fine, granular detail once drawn by our imaginations is now painted by millions of polygons. The pursuit of filmic quality in our beloved medium has empowered developers’ imaginations — and totally slaughtered ours.
The modern marketing motif of immersion driven by life-like worlds and unprecedented processing power is all a bit of a con, really. That multimillion dollar film crew can’t compete with an experience tailored by the imagination. With each character we render, each voice actor we cast, a small part of us becomes the narrative. The line between creator and consumer, blurred.
Horizon’s Aloy or Resident Evil’s Leon feel no more real, no more tangible than Squall did two-decades past. They look more real — perhaps inviting us to focus a little too much on just how-almost real they are. That mental and emotional leap we used to take in bringing those characters to life is now a mere hop. The imagination has been put out to pasture, meaning we’re more dependent on the hardware to craft something believable.
That’s not to say games become lesser as hardware improves, though. It’s to say that processing power isn’t exactly a reliable measure of ‘immersion’.
In the days when the number of discernible digits on a character’s hand was literally zero, those blocky, textured-warped machinations where a template on which to co-craft an experience. That required more effort on our part, perhaps. But it was an experience that managed to yield breathtaking results in spite of incredible limitations.
Final Fantasy VII: an intense, tragic, thrilling, comedic experience. Final Fantasy X: an intense, tragic, thrilling and comedic experience. Both emotional, both engaging — both immersive. Two games technological worlds apart, but equally engrossing. The common denominator: story, character, sound, feeling — not technology.
That’s not to say that better technology hasn’t yielded larger worlds, more dynamic and adaptive than ever. That’s not to say that connectivity or controls haven’t improved — but that games still fundamentally yield those same emotions. Like Tidus after Squall, I’m not necessarily more invested or immersed in these worlds today than ten or twenty years ago.
But perhaps it speaks more to the power of the mind than it does to any failing technology or developers. Perhaps it speaks volumes about the mind’s ability to bridge the gulf between intent and result — one that was limited solely by technological constraints. Those technological standards change, of course, but emotional standards haven’t and likely never will.
Now, our imaginations can chill on their Lazyboys and watch the cinematic whats-its unfold. Instead of us going to them — of us putting in the effort to bridge the gap between intent and reality — the hardware is doing it for us.
And our video-game imaginations wither as a result. It’s a shame, too, as with this latent skill comes something wonderful: the ability to be immersed and engrossed by games regardless of their technical prowess. Perhaps Nintendo recognised this first, noting that hardware wasn’t entirely the end-all — at least not in the way you might expect. That imagination lets us return to games of old without finding them rendered entirely obsolete.
It’s why remakes like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 2 are a perilous task: developers are presenting us with a far more literal vision than we ever could’ve imagined in ’97 and ‘98. Those details — voices, facial expressions, hands — that we used to conjure are now presented in painstaking detail. Developers have to capture those details without straying from our imaginations, each unique to every person in a crowd of millions.
Effectively, then, developers have to find a path through those millions of variations — and it’s impossible to imagine how.
Things might look wrong, things might sound wrong, things might feel wrong. Even developers aren’t sure about to counter this problem, with Cloud having undergone a dramatic makeover in his 4-year absence. Barret’s voice, too, has some concerned about the direction developers are taking. In other words, the more not left to us, the more there is to get wrong.
And yet so much can be said about the benefits offered by better hardware. That gameplay system that seemed basic then can now be brought to the life in the way its developers perhaps intended. Cloud’s voice — as much as some might loathe it — might just be what the original team had in mind from the day their spikey-haired hero was born.
But as that happens, what little space our imaginations occupy in bringing their visions to life will only shrink — and when it inevitably does, it’s not entirely clear how that might affect us. It’s not clear if we’ll look back at games today with quite the same level of fondness or nostalgia as we do at games gone by.
Going forward, my Final Fantasy will be your Final Fantasy, your dog’s Final Fantasy, and your neighbor’s Final Fantasy. It’ll be our Final Fantasy because it’s their Final Fantasy — a very literal vision of what its creators intend.
It’s not the end of the world, of course, but might be the end of many — as your imagination surrenders the telling of its own story to the march of advancing technology. And with that march comes the retreat of our imaginations, and the retreat of what made the games of past generations so special: our willingness to share in the stories they tell, and help build the worlds silicon could only dream of.