Games can feel like they exist outside of time. They take so long to make that they're usually reacting to cultural moments years after they happen, and they take so long to play that many of us don't finish them until years after they've come out. A lot of us play them alone in our home, with maybe just a relative or a partner half-paying attention to what's happening on the screen. We might share major video game moments, but usually after-the-fact, as we talk to each other about what happened, and how it made us felt.
I wondered if it was similar for Yoshinori Kitase, who directed the original Final Fantasy VII and produced the new remake. Where did Final Fantasy VII fit into his life back then, and what was that life like? Is it a 90s game, or is it just a game that happened to come out in the 90s?
I also wanted to get Kitase out of his comfort zone a bit. What else is there to know about Final Fantasy VII, one of the most iconic video games of all-time? What more can we learn about a game that's been endlessly analyzed? Turns out, there's plenty to learn about the people responsible for making it, and in the case of Kitase, he's in the very unique position of having been part of the original and remake.
Truly, though, it was just a selfish opportunity to ask someone about Destiny's Child. And Titanic. And Princess Diana. I promise it will all make sense when you start reading.
VICE Games: When you think about the year 1997, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It doesn't have to be about Final Fantasy VII. Just picture the year "1997."
Kitase: This is a very personal answer, but 1997 was the year that my eldest son was born—so he is the same age as Final Fantasy VII!
He was of course just an infant when Final Fantasy VII was released, so he actually has not played the game. I have made it one of my goals to bring Final Fantasy VII to people his age.
VICE: What’s unique about this remake is how many people working on it were around for the original game. So because of that, I wanted to ask: How would you describe the 1997 version of yourselves, and what kind of person were you back then?
Kitase: I am a former animator turned game designer who loves Western games.
I used to play many Western games using an IBM PC that my mentor, Mr. Akitoshi Kawazu (creator of the SaGa series) handed down to me. When we made the leap from Final Fantasy VI to Final Fantasy V__II, I remember drawing inspiration from many of the Western games I played at the time.
VICE: A person changes a lot over time, and 1997 to 2020 is more than 20 years. You have children, people pass away. Time passes. How have you personally changed?
Kitase: People often tell me that I haven’t changed at all.
It is true that times have changed, to the point where my favorite series, Star Wars, reached its conclusion. However, I still feel the same excitement when I play these movies at home on my projection screen and see a star destroyer fill the screen—perhaps my inner child is still there, unchanged.
VICE: Given all this, I want to run a 1997 quiz. It’s OK if you don’t remember, but I feel like it might help people understand your personalities at the time the original came out. Answer to the best of your ability, and explain why that piece of media was important.
What was your favorite band at the time? Your favorite album? Why?
Kitase: I wasn’t really interested in any particular bands then.
In terms of music, I was more into movie scores—my favorites are John Williams (Star Wars, JAWS, etc.) and Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek, The Omen, etc.).
VICE: Did you have a favorite TV show? What made it so interesting?
Kitase: This might be a bit old even for the time, having come out in 1990, but Twin Peaks was my favorite. I was captivated by David Lynch’s peculiar world filled with mystery.
VICE: What movie meant the most to you, and why did it speak to you?
Kitase: If we were referring to the entire span of my lifetime, then Star Wars would be hands down the movie that spoke to me the most.
If I were to choose just from the 90s, then it would be Saving Private Ryan. I was shocked at the level of realism in their depiction of the story, and realized video games had a long way to go to catch up to film in terms of the way we express ideas and present them visually.
VICE: What was your favorite book?
Kitase: If we’re talking non-Japanese authors, I like Stephen King. My favorite is a short story called The Raft.
VICE: What was your favorite video game that wasn’t made by Squaresoft?
Kitase: I like real-time strategy and simulation games, so my favorites would be A-Train (on the PlayStation) and Age of Empires. I still play Age of Empires even now!
VICE: I also scrolled through a list of major cultural moments that happened in 1997, and wanted to ask what your experiences were with each them at the time. Here we go:
The movie Titanic debuted from director James Cameron.
Kitase: I went to the theater twice to watch this.
It was truly impressive how he merged history and fiction, and brought it all together in a grand visual spectacle. There is a scene in F_inal Fantasy VIII_ where the Garden transforms into flight mode and takes to the skies; we took inspiration from the image of the Titanic taking to the seas.
VICE: The first Harry Potter book was published by J.K. Rowling.
Kitase: Unfortunately, I did not read the book, but I enjoyed the movie that came afterward.
VICE: The musical group Destiny’s Child released their first single, “No, no, no.”
Kitase: Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
VICE: Diana, Princess of Wales, passed away in a car crash.
Kitase: It was a very shocking incident – so much so that it was covered by Japanese media day after day. There were fake images of the alleged scene of the accident circulating online, which made me feel we had entered an era in which the morals of people who disseminate information on the internet, and the mindset of those digesting the information, may need to be questioned.
When I see the two princes [William and Harry], who were still very young at the time, now making news that sets the world abuzz, I feel the passage of time.
VICE: A month after Final Fantasy VII’s release in Japan, it was announced that a team of scientists had successfully cloned a sheep named Dolly. Did you find that news striking, given how much of Final Fantasy VII’s story has to do with ideas of cloning?
Kitase: I truly felt that the future and ‘fantasy’ we depicted through our work was not really that far off from our reality.
At the same time, I realized that whenever we create, we need to push ourselves with the foresight and sensibility so that reality won’t surpass us.
VICE: I imagine there were long hours while developing Final Fantasy VII, both then and now. In 1997, what did you do to relax after work? In 2020, how has that changed?
Kitase: 23 years ago, I would refresh myself by watching a Star Destroyer do its work, with the sound at max volume. I do the same thing now actually to get refreshed.
The only thing that really changed was the resolution of the Star Destroyer, which went from 0.3K to 4K.
VICE: When people ask you about Final Fantasy VII, I expect it’s focused on a lot of the big moments and characters. But when you think back to the original, what’s a tiny detail that stands out, one that people don’t necessarily talk about but you’re proud of?
Kitase: I am very proud of how the overall visual presentation for Sephiroth as a character turned out. Sephiroth is the player’s most powerful enemy, but he did not make a true appearance at all during the first half of the original game. Instead, we used indirect references such as rumors passed on from people, or showing the trail he left behind, to emphasize that he is a terrifying being whose true nature we do not know. We drew inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s JAWS for this.
The remains of Midgar Zolom was an element we were especially particular about. Midgar Zolom, which players encountered rather suddenly, is a very powerful monster that could easily defeat most players. Seeing such a ferocious monster not only defeated, but skewered on a tree, was an effective way to show just how fearsome Sephiroth is.
VICE: Comparatively, what’s a tiny detail that you’re proud of in the remake? Not something that would appear in a press release or a trailer. Something people might not notice.
Kitase: The design concept of the overarching world setting generally stays true to the original, but I did have a strong desire to update the interface so that it is modernized for this generation.
There is a scene in which Heidegger is projected on to a large screen and delivers a speech; at the time he was shown on a flat screen, but I had that replaced with a 3D holographic screen instead. Our programmers and designers really pushed the envelope when creating this scene, and I believe it turned out to be quite wonderful.
VICE: Final question. You encounter a time machine, but it’s a very specific time machine with very specific requirements about what you can do. It turns out you can only go back in time and give your 1997 self a single piece of advice. What do you tell them?
Kitase: “You’re going to be making a remake 23 years from now, so be mindful of the gameplay volume!”