Finally, the nostalgia industry has come for something I love

The ‘Final Fantasy VII’ remake threatens to turn me into one of those awful guys who complains about my childhood being ruined.

Finally, the nostalgia industry has come for something I love

The ‘Final Fantasy VII’ remake threatens to turn me into one of those awful guys who complains about my childhood being ruined.

A while ago, at the low ebb of a depressive slump, I replayed the video game Final Fantasy VII for the first time in 15 years. At the time, I felt like my life was drifting away from me: I was burned out, destroying myself with a job I had spent years striving towards, but which I realized I was fundamentally unsuited to. Every spare moment I had, I wanted to escape, I wanted to find some way of making the world around me stop. And every spare moment, Final Fantasy VII was where I escaped to.

When I was 10, my brothers and I received the PC version of Final Fantasy VII as our “big” Christmas present, and for the next two years we played it religiously — with such intensity that the three of us had to keep remembering to burn new copies of the CDs before the old ones shattered. I beat the final boss, as far as I can remember, only once, but that wasn’t really the point for me: I kept starting new games, because I wanted to make sure I did everything perfectly.

Eventually, we were forced to give up the whole thing when Disc 2 degenerated to the point that you couldn't play a vital cut-scene without it crashing. This was a world I came to know intimately: grinding out every Limit Break; mastering every Summon Materia; where to learn every Enemy Skill. Ingrained in me somewhere was every splash of color from each of its backdrops, every note from every piece of music on the soundtrack.

The travel writer and philosopher of nomadism Bruce Chatwin writes in his novel-manifesto The Songlines that “Proust... reminds us that the 'walks' of childhood form the raw material of our intelligence: 'The flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be the true flowers. The Méséglise Way with its lilacs, its hawthorns, it cornflowers, its poppies, the Guermantes Way with its river full of tadpoles, its waterlilies, and its buttercups have constituted for me for all time the picture of the land in which I would fain pass my life...'.” But when I was a kid I hardly left the house except to go to school — and so I hardly knew the town in which we lived at all. This world, the world of Final Fantasy VII, was the world of my childhood; and along with a few other games (Baldur's Gate, Monkey Island, Planescape: Torment) and the early seasons of The Simpsons, this was how I came to know reality.

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII

So obviously, playing Final Fantasy VII as an adult, every town, every dungeon, every new area on the world map became the trigger for a Proustian rush: the tingly music in the basement of the Shinra mansion; the little patch of flowers in Aeris’s church; the strange, parched, organic shapes of the buildings in the City of the Ancients. But Proust was saddled with the weight of memory, struggling to think through the true significance of what had happened in the past. The world of a video game, as far as I can tell, is unable to conceal trauma in anything like the same way: the parameters of a video game world are closed, set, typically clear — spelled out in literal code.

A game like Final Fantasy VII, which contains few randomly generated elements and has a basically linear plot, can always be played through in pretty much exactly the same way. That, really, is why I found myself retreating into the game as a sort of comfort blanket: here, amid all the uncertainty I was experiencing, was a world I already knew, that I had already made perfect sense of as a child; where the exact ratio of effort to reward was always clear.

This in itself is an argument for video game preservation. Objectively, obviously, old video games are distinctive relics of our cultural history, just as worthy of study as something like Jane Eye or Battleship Potemkin. But more than this, from a subjective perspective, the worlds old video games contain have become a part of the people, like me, who have played them. It's good that we are able to revisit those worlds: if I lost Final Fantasy VII, I would lose a part of myself, just as surely as people would feel like they'd lost a part of themselves if the center of London was destroyed.

Playing Final Fantasy VII as an adult, every town, every dungeon, every new area on the world map became the trigger for a Proustian rush.

I was able to download Final Fantasy VII on Steam and play it through without any problems; the only thing stopping me from revisiting it earlier was that I had not yet thought to do so. But not every video game memory is quite so easy to access. “Capitalism will obliterate everything you know and love,” writes the cultural critic Kate Wagner in “404 Page Not Found,” her essay about the disintegrating heritage of the early internet. This is true for Geocities, Myspace, and for most old video games, too. Video game preservation is difficult: for one thing, most old games are contained on physical media which is often, by now, rapidly disintegrating. The battery on a Game Boy cartridge, for instance, only lasts around 15 years; floppy discs and hard drives will lose their magnetic orientation over time, eventually erasing their contents.

Most old games require specific hardware to run, which may no longer be readily available — computer emulators are a decent substitute, but might not adequately replicate the feel of the original: the original controls; the way the graphics looked coming out of a cathode ray tube TV; the way the music sounded coming out of tinny TV speakers. Many old games are preserved as ROM files, which in practice are often freely (though illegally) available to download.

But big businesses are trying to put a stop to that. Last year, the threat of legal action from Nintendo caused a number of ROM sites to shut down. That said, the legal climate isn’t entirely terrible for video game preservation — a Library of Congress ruling recently made it easier for archivists to save video games, and for museums to share old games with the public.

Plenty of other old games that I played as a child (the first two Monkey Island games, for instance) are also available to buy on Steam — but they come “remastered” as standard with new graphics, audio, and sometimes even controls (the same goes for the first six Final Fantasy games). These changes fundamentally alter the experience of the game. When I played the remastered version of Monkey Island 2, for example, I found my old memories of the Caribbean Tri-Island Area merging with their newer, smoother doubles — such that I no longer had a solid purchase on what the game “really” looked like, how it “really” felt to play.

And perhaps things are about to get a whole lot harder for nostalgic players of Final Fantasy VII too. Final Fantasy VII is not just being remastered but remade, Hollywood-style. A “teaser trailer” was released a couple of weeks ago, with more details apparently to emerge in June.

This is the sort of thing that a lot of people are likely to get very excited about, but for me, it felt... well, at the risk of sound like the sort of “fan” whose overinvestment in the culture they consume leads them to spend all their time complaining to media conglomerates for failing to anticipate and then pander to their every whim, I guess it felt like a sort of direct assault on my memories. Opening with that musical cue and sweeping, top-down shot of Aeris, exactly from the start of the original game... leading us through a bastardized version of the first level — the old, block-y graphics, supremely evocative in their cartoonish separateness from the backdrops, replaced with soulless CGI; the original dialogue, wrenched from pop-up panels and replaced with wooden voice acting, a bad and clichéd barrier to imaginative projection. The whole thing is like that bit in The Simpsons in which Homer speculates about the possibility of Grampa marrying Marge's mother, and pictures the “horrible freaks” their kids would turn into if he and Marge became brother and sister: “with pink skin, no overbites, and five fingers on each hand!”

Formal nostalgia is doing more than just stopping us from producing the new — it is moving through our memories.

There is basically no justification for the existence of such a product, beyond the fact it's going to make a bunch of people money. A few plot holes aside, Final Fantasy VII was basically perfect, an exemplary product of its time. There is no way that a new version could improve upon it — and with the original still readily available, there's no reason that a younger generation could not simply discover that instead. In this sense the Final Fantasy VII remake is just another pointless product of the nostalgia industry: it feels very much of a piece with Disney’s photorealistic CGI re-imagining of The Lion King, which will be released in July.

The British theorist Mark Fisher wrote extensively in his book Ghosts of My Life about how contemporary popular (and political) culture has been seized by a “formal nostalgia,” characterized by “the sheer persistence of recognizable forms.” “While 20th century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion,” he wrote. This is symptomatic of a general condition in which “anachronism,” the blurring of the past into the present, has become rampant. It can feel, at our present moment, as if all possibilities have already been actualized; although we desperately need to imagine a better future, we have become unable to imagine any sort of different future at all.

Fisher’s solution to this is, ironically, to draw upon the past: to explore “hauntologically” those now-lost moments when a better future really could have been possible, even if that possibility never came to pass (in his last work on “Acid Communism,” he invoked the counter-culture of the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s, for example). But now I wonder if the remake mania is working to take even this small power away from us. Once the new version of Final Fantasy VII comes out, what will happen to the old one? Presumably, in the immediate future it will remain available to buy or stream somehow: but over time, how much will it become like all those old ROMs? In the future, when we talk about Final Fantasy VII, what will most readily come to mind, which version will be easiest to play: the original, the remake? Or some other, future remake, the remake of the remake of the remake of the remake of the…? (I could go on).

Seen this way, formal nostalgia is doing more than just stopping us from producing the new — it is moving through our memories, altering them, erasing the ones which no longer conform to the market's demands. Perhaps we will soon even lack the ability to remind ourselves what it was like to experience something genuinely new, to experience a cultural product truly “for the first time.” With the whole culture industry in service to nostalgia, nostalgia is in danger of becoming utterly empty. What will we even have left to be nostalgic for?

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.