“The book I’m looking for […] is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.”
I promised as part of With a Terrible Fate‘s one-year anniversary that I would present further analysis on Final Fantasy VII (I’ll be shortening the title to “FFVII” in this paper). With a remake of the game on its way and Cloud newly added to Super Smash Bros. 4, it’s clear that the title is far from outdated, despite being nearly twenty years old. At the time I made this promise, I was hoping to further analyze the content of FFVII‘s story; however, I’ve come to believe that it’s currently more important to discuss Square Enix’s announcement that FFVII‘s remake will be released as “a multi-part series,” as opposed to as a single game.
Just as most people who play video games have an opinion on FFVII, most people who are following news on the remake have an opinion on this choice to develop it episodically. I want to write about this decision because I think I have two unusual perspectives to contribute to the topic. First, I ended up changing my mind on whether this was a prudent development choice. Second, I think this case actually provides crucial insight into the ontology of video game worlds, and how this ontology intersects with the way that video game narratives work. Accordingly, I’m going to first tell the story of the way my view on the issue changed over time, and then I’m going to present my argument for why I now believe the developers are probably making the wrong choice. If all goes well, I’ll say something interesting about the general form of video game stories along the way.
(Please note that, as always, spoilers abound.)
I. Wrestling with Narrative Form
I think it’s fair to say that the first, “pre-theoretic” response that many people have when developers announce substantial changes in remakes of beloved games is that the changes are a terrible mistake. Maybe, on some level, the response is both intuitive and defensible: “After all,” the fan might say, “the reason why the game was so well-received in the first place was because it worked. If the developer changes the game, they’ll ruin what made it special all along.” But of course, this isn’t always the case, for the game almost certainly wasn’t “perfect” (whatever that means) to begin with—and besides, the point of a remake is, in part, to make changes to the original game. So if we find ourselves with this initial intuition, we need to seek out reasons why the particular change in question might be detrimental to the particular game in question. As someone who did feel the initial rage at Square Enix’s announcement that the FFVII remake would be episodic in form, I set about seeking out such reasons.
I’ll confess that I don’t normally endorse episodically structured video games, but my hope was that there was a more principled reason behind my worries concerning FFVII. I decided that this reason was justified doubt in Square Enix: even though the studio is rightly renowned for some exceptional games (including FFVII), their track record in the past few years has been less than stellar. Case-in-point for our present concerns is the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Though a comprehensive critique of the trilogy is well beyond the scope of this paper, one criticism that I have shared with many other gamers is that the three games, taken together, have very little semblance of any compelling, unified narrative. Whatever you may say about each of the three titles taken individually, it seems almost impossible to reconcile their stories, themes, and even characters with one another when you consider the games as a comprehensive trilogy. The saga of Lightning &co challenging the Fal’cie in XIII has little in principle to do with the saga of Noel, Caius, and Yeul, which dominates the narrative of XIII-2; and if anyone can offer me a reasoned argument as to how Lightning Returns has anything to do with XIII and XIII-2 besides reusing character names and some visual assets, I’d love to hear it.
As I said, a more thoroughgoing analysis of the FFXIII trilogy is outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, I initially took the problems of that series as sufficient grounds to worry about Square Enix releasing FFVII’s remake as a trilogy. However, I ended up changing my mind when I reconsidered an obvious fact about FFVII: it was originally released as a set of three disks of game content.
When I had first considered FFVII, I hadn’t thought that its separation into three disks mattered. I assumed that the fact that the original game took place over three disks was nothing more than a technological limitation of its platform, the PlayStation 1: the game simply had more content than could fit on a single disk, but it was still just one game. But then I realized that this wasn’t quite fair to Square: technological limitations aside, they had actually done quite an impressive job of making the separation between the game’s three disks narratively meaningful. Disk #1 concludes with most of the most famously shocking and final deaths in the history of video game stories: the death of Aerith, a romantic interest of Cloud and the last of the magical Cetra race. Disk #2 ends with the player’s party killing Hojo, the creator and father of Sephiroth. Both of these moments pivotally influence the overall trajectory of the game: the death of Aerith hangs over Cloud and his friends for the rest of the game, and largely shapes the events of the game as well as Cloud’s growth; and the death of Hojo paves the way for the final confrontation with Sephiroth on Disk #3.
Perhaps because it was conceived as a single game rather than the three games of the XIII trilogy, FFVII masterfully divided itself into three narratively distinct, potent, interconnected segments on its three disks. Once I contemplated this, I started to think that a three-game remake of FFVII could actually work quite well.(Because this seems like the most plausible defense of how to break the game up in a remake, I’m going to assume for the rest of the article that FFVII will be remade as three games, although Square Enix has only said, to my knowledge, that it will be a “multi-part” remake.) After all, if Square Enix expanded each of the original disks to fill an entire game, perhaps adding more content while keeping the overall narrative arc the same as in the original, then it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that the narrative progression through the three games would be just as cogent and well crafted as the narrative progression through the original FFVII’s three disks.
–well, “it seemed perfectly reasonable” at the time. I no longer believe that the three-disk success of the original FFVII justifies it being remade as a three-game series. Moreover, understanding the reason why FFVII shouldn’t be transposed into a trilogy sheds light on one of the many ways in which the player’s agency in videogame worlds directly influences the way videogame stories work.
II. Player Causality and Narrative Teleology
I’m going to argue that, because of the ways game worlds and game narratives function, it is inappropriate for FFVII to be remade as three standalone games. The argument depends on two more general claims about the dynamics of video game stories. Although I take both claims to be intuitively plausible, I’ll offer some arguments in further support of each of them.
Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).
Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.
(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)
Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. If I’m right, then FFVII falls into that very set, and that, I shall argue, explains why it ought not to be separated into three distinct games.
Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”
But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearing to interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.
Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.
But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.
What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.
So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.
What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games (FFVII is one of these), the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.
Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.
If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.
Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)
More specifically, I think that the consequence we just drew provides the theoretical foundation for a very common narrative structure in role-playing games (especially JRPGs): the game concludes with the entire universe being metaphysically changed forever—essentially, one world ends and another begins. Oftentimes, a RPG narrative will culminate in a confrontation with some god-like figure; upon defeating him or her, the structure of the universe will be irrevocably changed (hopefully, for the better). So in a certain sense, the narratives of these games are intrinsically apocalyptic: they lead to the end of one world, and the start of something else. As Calvino beautifully writes in the quote I’ve taken as an epigraph for this paper, “the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.” This is a natural way to marry the widespread impact of the player’s causal power with the narrative significance of that impact: tell a story in which that causal power actually brings about the end of the game’s universe in one way or another.
We can think of narratives that fit this quasi-apocalyptic structure has having a special kind of narrative teleology: that is, the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. That this is a feature of how the game is designed underscores the fact that this narrative teleology is not something that the player alone has the power to bring about—rather, game stories are made in such a way that the player’s power within the universe is made meaningful through this apocalyptic storytelling. I underscore this to make the point that this narrative teleology is by no means an essential feature of how video game stories work: it’s just one possible design choice that is especially intuitive and appealing as a means of respecting Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent—and I have argued that those three claims are much more generally applicable to video games as a storytelling medium.
Games that espouse this narrative teleology constitute an interesting type of narrative because they are so common in modern gaming and because they all respect Claim 1, Claim 2, and the consequent in (roughly) the same way. And such games are very common. Let me offer a brief selection of examples to give readers a sense of what I mean. (Again, and especially because this narrative teleology largely involves the ends of games, spoilers abound.) In Xenoblade Chronicles, the actions of the player’s party (and Shulk, in particular) culminate in the killing of a god, the destruction of the game’s universe, and the creation of a new universe. Dark Souls culminates in the player’s avatar killing Gwyn, who had used his own soul to perpetuate the world’s Age of Fire; thus, killing him threatens to end the Age of Fire, at which point the player must choose to either sacrifice her avatar to perpetuate the Age of Fire, or else let the fires die out and usher in the Age of Dark. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker leads to a fated battle between Link (the player’s avatar) and Ganondorf, which culminates in the ancient land of Hyrule being buried in the sea by the King of Hyrule—once Ganondorf is defeated and Hyrule lies buried, Link and his companion Tetra set out to find New Hyrule—a “new world,” for all intents and purposes. I could go on, but my hope is that those who play video games recognize the narrative I’m picking out as fairly standard for many modern video games.
What’s important for our current purposes is that FFVII also fits into this category of narrative teleology. On one level, the story of FFVII is a struggle to prevent the antagonist, Sephiroth, from radically reshaping the game’s universe by unleashing Meteor on the planet and subsequently merging with the planet’s energy (which would gather at the point of Meteor’s impact in order to heal the planet) to become a god. Ultimately, the player, controlling Cloud, is able to defeat Sephiroth—both preventing Sephiroth from becoming a god and preventing the full force of Meteor’s impact by releasing Holy—a spell that Aerith had cast, and that Sephiroth had been preventing from taking effect—which combines with
the spiritual force of the plant’s Lifestream to stop Meteor. Meteor still damages the planet—it reduces most of the city of Midgar to rubble—but the game’s final scene, five hundred years after the party’s confrontation with Sephiroth, shows that the planet ultimately healed. Through the party’s actions, the world of the game is replaced with a different world: the world post-Meteorfall. The party’s (and player’s) struggle against Sephiroth permanently changes the structure of the game’s universe, which satisfies the analysis of narrative teleology that I have laid out.
What does this have to do with an argument against a multi-game release of a FFVII remake? Well, if the two claims and the consequent that I initially laid out all hold, and if FFVII really does respect those parameters of storytelling by invoking the conception of narrative teleology with which I have been working, then (I submit) the singular game of FFVII can’t be remade into three separate games while still representing essentially the same story.
My reasoning here is as follows. FFVII makes meaning out of the player’s actions by telling a narrative about a global cataclysm, the defeat of that cataclysm’s instigator, and the new universe that results from these two events. This follows from the consequent of Claims 1 and 2—i.e. the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative—and the game’s narrative teleology—i.e. the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. In order for this structure to work, the causal force of the player’s actions must seamlessly persist over the entirety of the game’s narrative—otherwise, the player’s actions won’t have the sort of universal influence required for the sort of story that the game is telling. This seamlessness can easily be effected by separating a single game into three disks—the switching between disks is little more than the videogame equivalent of turning the page in a book, and, as I’ve already mentioned, these “page turns” are made even more meaningful in FFVII because they happen at pivotal points in the story. However, the seamlessness is lost when the game is divided into multiple games. This is so because of two reasons.
First, it’s implausible to suppose that the causal influence of a player extends across multiple games, such that the very same actions made by a player in one game directly influence the world of another game. In part, this is because the storytelling of any given game seems primarily designed to be limited to that game’s world and no others (something that I address further below); but it’s also because it is oxymoronic to design a game that both stands on its own and is a direct extension of a different game.
The reader might be ready to object, “But what about the Mass Effect trilogy?” However, that trilogy is actually the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Despite its many virtues and the fact that it does try to continue a singular story across three games, no one would argue that the transition between the three games is as seamless as inserting the next disc in a single, multi-disc game. The later games do of course note certain aspects of a player’s playthrough of the earlier games, but this process does not preserve the entire state of the prior game’s universe. For example, much content, rather than being directly preserved between games, is “translated” in some way: if you start Mass Effect 2 using a Mass-Effect-1 character that was between level 1 and 49, then you begin Mass Effect 2 at level 2, with 20,000 credits, and 2,500 of each resource. This is not the sort of literally direct continuation of story that’s required to preserve all the effects of player actions throughout the universe of a narrative. But it’s of course perfectly reasonable that Mass Effect is designed this way: after all, even though the trilogy is meant to convey a single narrative, each game is also a stand-alone title, which is precisely my point: you can’t release a stand-alone game and say that it is literally just an additional part of an existing game. It needs to be playable on its own terms. This is why, for example, Mass Effect 2 (prior to the Mass Effect Trilogy collection) had to include Mass Effect: Genesis: this was an interactive comic allowing the player to make the principal choices that Mass Effect 2 was designed to carry over from Mass Effect 1. In order for Mass Effect 2 to be its own game, it needed to be playable without necessarily presupposing that the player had played the original Mass Effect—and this is what Mass Effect: Genesis accomplished. This is wildly different from a multi-disk game, which of course presupposes on each later disk that the player has played the prior disks. In fact, on multi-disk games like FFVII, there’s no way (without hacking the game or something like that) to play the later disks without playing through the earlier disks sequentially and thereby reaching the later disc. “Skipping” Disk 1 and playing Disk 2 in the way that one could ostensibly “skip” the original Mass Effect and play Mass Effect 2 (though that isn’t recommended) isn’t really possible within the constraints of the narrative.
The second reason why the narrative seamlessness needed for a game like FFVII can’t be achieved through multiple games is that each individual game needs its own narrative responding to the constraints of Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent, which opposes the possibility for multiple games to work together as mere components of a single, larger game narrative. If I am right and the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as the player causally impacts it, is essential to the game’s narrative, then video games will be aimed (at least partly) towards making their own universes meaningful. In order for a game to do this while retaining a sense of cohesion in its narrative, the game’s story must address the totality of its universe on its own terms—that is to say, the game’s narrative must not stretch beyond its own universe. For to do otherwise would be to make a game whose narrative focuses on a universe other than the game itself, and it’s not obvious why or how a narrative could address something other than its own universe.
If we accept this argument, then it looks as if video games really do need to each be concerned with their own particular world. I think that the landscape of modern video games reinforces the truth of this observation: even in series of games, each member of the series is directly concerned with its own world—other members of the series are only relevant insofar as their events relate to the world of the particular game in consideration. While Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time both nominally take place in Hyrule, the narrative of Twilight Princess is not concerned with Hyrule as conceived in Ocarina of Time—and indeed, Ganondorf only becomes relevant once he appears in the world of Twilight Princess, irrespective of his presence in Ocarina of Time. And returning to the example of FFXIII, I actually think the trilogy does quite well with demonstrating the need for each game to be principally concerned with its own world: the worlds of FFXIII, FFXIII-2, and Lightning Returns are very different from one another. In fact, I think this is part of why the trilogy, when taken as a single narrative, fails to be compelling: each entry is so different from one another in virtue of the very different worlds that it feels confusing and disingenuous when the games lead us to believe that these are really the same characters who exist across the three games. The narrative arcs of the three games are so distinct that attempts to tie them together fail, which further demonstrates the tension between developing independent games and trying to make them part of a single narrative.
My hope is that it is now evident why remaking FFVII into three games is not at all similar to the original game being split across three disks. When we stop to consider just what world-building and player agency mean in the context of video game narratives, we realize that it fundamentally doesn’t make sense to separate one game into three. I should note, however, one other possibility raised by previously Featured Author Dan Hughes: Square Enix could conceivably take a broader swath of the FFVII oeuvre—say, Crisis Core, FFVII, and Advent Children—and remake that collection of material as a trilogy. I don’t see any problem in principle with such an approach. And of course, if the remake ends up simply being some sort of reimagining or retelling of the FFVII series, then such a new story could have exciting. However, if the goal, as has been suggested, is to remake just FFVII‘s narrative as a trilogy of games, we have a problem—and I worry for the future of a true classic in the pantheon of gaming, when it seems as if a remake could turn that classic into a lesson in the limits and constraints on game narrative.
 Ludmilla in If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, Chapter Ten.
 I actually do think that XIII-2, in particular, has a lot of redeeming features as a standalone narrative—but that’s a story for another time.
 In fact, further evidence for the fact that FFVII’s three-disk split only worked so well because it was conceived as a single game can be found by considering the FFVII oeuvre collectively. FFVII’s overarching story—spanning other games (Dirge of Cerberus; Crisis Core; Before Crisis), a movie (Advent Children), an OVA (Last Order), and a novella (On the Way to a Smile)—is famously intricate and confounding to try to grasp in its entirety.
 In certain “less clear-cut cases,” I think that you need to stipulate the player as a causal force in the game’s universe in order to make sense of the game’s narrative at all. I won’t belabor the point here, but you can see examples of this in my analyses of Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade, and BioShock Infinite.