Final Fantasy VII Remake and Hauntology

A few weeks ago, American musician Daniel Lopatin released his latest Oneohtrix Point Never project, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never — an album that is less about expanding towards new territories and more about polishing the artist’s work in the past decade. A particularly interesting moment in 0PN’s new offering is the music video for Lost But Never Alone. In it, we are shown brief glimpses of the artist at work, surrounded by screens that display advertisements, a documentary, a sitcom and a horror film, all exuding the aesthetic qualities and sensibilities of American TV in the 1980s. Although the datedness of the images is further reinforced by the sounds and distortions that Lopatin weaves together in the piece, there is one visible and highly dissonant element that almost monopolises the viewer’s attention once it appears: from the glimpses we get of the sitcom, the plot revolves around a teenager and his iPhone. Although nostalgia is not in any way a stranger to anachronistic elements, the inclusion of the smartphone single-handedly changes the whole texture of the video into an assemblage that is hard to properly categorise.

Matt Colquhoun and Enrico Monacelli frame Lopatin’s work within Mark Fisher’s hauntology: the feeling that, in the past few decades of all-out capitalism, cultural production has stagnated and been stuck in an endless loop that simply reproduces nostalgic artefacts of an ever-expanding present. Colquhoun and Monacelli decry the all-too-common pitfall that only that which is completely new and disconnected from any currently existing cultural product can break the conundrum of our current stagnant situation; instead, they, point out that the present is constantly producing new escape routes from what it has at hand. Lopatin’s work, for them, is not necessarily nostalgic, but the attempts of someone making do with the materials that are available, much as in any previous era: modernism, romanticism and pretty much every other aesthetic movement were all born from new configurations of materials that already existed. Colquhoun specifically points to 0PN’s 1980s iPhone video as being a work of salvage punk that gives us a “a certain anachronism that is neither representative of past or present, but [that] doesn’t collapse into pastiche. It instead exemplifies a twenty-first century détournement, reweirding the past rather than becoming complacent about its ever-presence.” Even if this might be a particularly generous reading of Magic Oneohtrix Point Never— and one which does not make it completely clear what exactly differentiates salvage punk from purely nostalgic works — it is nevertheless interesting in the way it gestures towards a constructive usage of Fisher’s hauntology.

The constant revisiting of the past is of course not restricted to music: cinema, TV series and even literature constantly release works conjured out of simple nostalgia instead of any desire to create meaningful work, of which the just-released prequel to The Great Gatsby and the live-action remake of The Lion King are just two examples that spring immediately to mind. Now that videogames have existed in the mainstream for more than three decades, the same phenomenon takes place, with remasters and remakes becoming increasingly common. While the former are simply higher definition versions of older titles, sometimes with a slew of minor updates such as bug fixes and new difficulties, remakes are essentially new games, built more or less from scratch and which must straddle a line between fidelity to the original version and the possibilities and requirements of new technologies. If the investment needed for remakes is considerable, they are also somewhat safe bets: the game has already proved its success and its appeal to a significant market share, meaning that, as long as the new interpretation does not mangle anything too much, the remake is almost guaranteed to sell well.

As much as they are financially low-risk — or, possibly, precisely because of it — remakes are also easily associated with the eternal re-hash of the present diagnosed by Fisher. Instead of making something new and potentially risky, game developers simply take a tried and true formula, bring its gameplay and visuals up to date with current technology and cash in on super-powered nostalgia. Fidelity is expected and demanded. Some fans post screenshot comparisons of the new Playstation 5 version of FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls, in awe of the similarities; others complain about how an item’s appearance was changed from an obvious joke to something more coherent with the game world (the item in question was a ring whose in-game image was the photo of a regular, real-world, meme-worthy cat); all are excited by how the remake plays exactly like the original. After the particularly uninspired Final Fantasy XV SquareEnix announced that the next instalment of the series wouldn’t be a new game, but a high-definition remake of a game hailing back to the company’s golden age: the generation-defining Final Fantasy VII. Instead of creating another of its hallmark worlds with deep (if confusing and not always coherent) lore and a new roster of heroes, the videogame behemoth would rehash and glitz up its greatest success, a choice that has more than a hint of hauntological ghosts of dead pasts and futures.

To a large extent, Final Fantasy VII Remake is as conservative as its name indicates: the initial cinematic sequence is a faithful frame-by-frame recreation of the original, and so are its first few hours. As the game advances, new sections are added, some with the clear purpose of slowing down progression and preventing the player from finishing the remake too quickly. Whilst other sections do expand on the world and its characters, they are remarkable in how they never change the narrative: the curse and blessing of the remake, after all, is that the story is known and cannot be altered; novelty and surprise are in the past and there is no avoiding retreading the same steps as decades ago.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Final Fantasy VII tells the story of a world in which energy company Shinra harvests the planet’s lifeforce in order to supply electricity to the its clients. This company is headquartered in Midgar, a futuristic city built on top of metal plates hundreds of metres above ground and surrounded by huge reactors; despite the metropolis prosperity, the plains immediately beyond its walls are barren and lifeless deserts. The richer citizens of Midgar lead comfortable lives on the plates, whilst their poorer counterparts must instead adapt to living in slums on the ground level. The story itself is centred on Cloud — a mercenary who was once a member of a Shinra elite military group — as he helps the eco-terrorist organisation Avalanche in their fight to bring the company down and save the planet.

For the majority of the new game, everything is a celebration of the past — a proper, giddy and satisfying nostalgia which constantly gives the player more of what they knew and wanted, extending each moment as much as possible. FFVIIR, in truth, is only the first instalment of the remake and covers what in the original amounted to the first handful of hours. It is close to its end, when the designers of the remake have to bring the narrative of the first episode of the remake to a conclusion, that the game signals it might be something more than a high-definition rehash of the past.

Throughout the whole narrative, several key events teased different outcomes. At a particularly dramatic moment, Cloud and his companions are trying to prevent Shinra’s soldiers from dropping a section of the plate and kill most citizens both above and below. In the original game, the player arrives too late, whereas in the remake a completely different outcome is within reach, with all enemies defeated before the plate-dropping mechanism has been activated. It is then that enigmatic ghostly figures who are later revealed to be called Arbiters of Fate arrive and distract Cloud long enough for a surviving enemy to trigger the disaster. Later on, when a character goes off-script and is unexpectedly killed, the Arbiters immediately jump into action, restoring him to life; “This death was not the one ordained to you by fate,” says one of Cloud’s companions. Though these are particularly dramatic moments, they are only two out of many: time and again, subtle or otherwise, whenever the remake is about to significantly deviate from the boundaries laid down decades ago, personified deus ex machina creatures appear and make sure history repeats itself.

At the end of the remake, when the ghosts’ function of ensuring history follows a certain and very specific path is revealed, Cloud, in a surreal sequence that stops just short from breaking the fourth wall, decides to challenge fate and destroy the shackles that bind him and his companions to their pre-ordained fates. Given the context — a multimillion production of a game that is expected to follow a story written and enacted twenty years ago — it is not that hard to see many of the final battles as a very JRPG-esque illustration of a battle against the shackles of hauntology and nostalgia. Improbably strong men and women cut whole trains with the swing of a sword, navigate a maelström of cosmic destruction and battle the faceless creatures who ensure the maintenance of the status quo, all without ruining their stylish clothes and haircuts. After the final credits roll down, a message appears on the screen: “The unknown journey will continue.” Fate and Destiny might as well have been named “expectations of our audience and shareholders.”

As Colquhoun indicates, Mark Fisher, when speaking of hauntology, was not necessarily concerned with cultural developments that sprouted from some unlikely metaphysical purity, completely unconnected to the rest of the world — indeed, if anything, Fisher seemed interested in the myriad, dirty, haphazard ways in which things grow when given the opportunity. 0PN’s materials are to a certain extent the same as any purely nostalgic enterprise, but the way he combines these materials allows them to sprout something which may point towards exit routes from stagnation. A remake which forces the players to defeat the agents of fate that effectively keep FFVIIR a remake, can be said to create a similar dissonance to Lost But Never Alone’s anachronistic iPhone. How exactly the remake will continue is, of course, up to debate — an independent artist such as Lopatin is likely to have goals fundamentally different from those of a multinational entertainment conglomerate and it’s certainly possible that much of what is implied in the ending of FFVIIR is simply a marketing ploy that attempts to sow doubt before eventually falling back in line — but, in that grandiose, over-the-top ending it creates a space of potential, an uncertain wave towards the fabled way out.