Game Media Digital Artefact; Let’s Play FFIV Remakes

I’ve been working on a “Let’s Play” series of Final Fantasy IV (1991). This game has a special place in my heart; it was one of the first games to make me realise while growing up that video games are media texts capable of telling complex, compelling narratives just like film, television, and other forms of digital media. However, I believe that if it weren’t for my encounter with the Nintendo DS remake (2007) of this classic SNES game, I probably would have never played a single Final Fantasy game in all my life. For this reason, I wanted to make a digital artefact that analyses the intertextual value of remaking classic video games on newer platforms with increased software and hardware capabilities. The “Let’s Play” format allows me to share my own meaningful FFIV experience with an online audience that features comment, praise and critique on each of my selected remakes. Hopefully I am creating a valuable media paratext with social utility for fans of the Final Fantasy series, and also for newcomers who wish to learn about the Final Fantasy games and their stories.

Active audience members, fans in particular, challenge media researchers to look not only at their consumption of the primary object of interest but also at how fans interact with other fans, how they make sense of their interests, how their interest is sustained through intertextual means, and how they go beyond mere consumption to active production of media of their own that comment on, praise, and critique the media products that so interest them.

Consalvo, M. (2003). Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans: A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality, and Narrative. Television & New Media, 4(3), 321–334. 

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Research

After settling on my concept, I began to research my topic by gathering any useful sources of information that would help in forming an analytical framework and guide my digital creation process. I started by reading popular news articles from game media websites ([1], [2], [3]) about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ video game remakes. These lists mostly outlined reasons for and against remakes in terms of each game’s formal elements; graphics, sound, gameplay features, controls, characters, narrative etc. Although this structuralist approach is essential to the appraisal of a remake, there is also a post-structuralist layer beneath the surface that is important in understanding why changes to the game’s formal elements are considered either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

I decided to gather some primary data by polling fans of the Final Fantasy series on Reddit (r/finalfantasy), in two threads that can be found here and here. There were many different responses reflecting individual player experiences.

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I also looked at an interview with the original lead designer of Final Fantasy IV, Takashi Tokita, which discusses the PSP remake release. It provided rich insight into the development of this version and how it aimed to capture the integrity of the original while still enhancing the experience, something that I found through my primary research is important to many fans when assessing a remake.

Finally, David Heineman’s (2014) analysis of public memory, retrogaming, and nostalgia was useful in understanding why players enjoy and anticipate remakes. It allows them to revisit an aspect of shared public memory with a fresh coat of paint and quality of life improvements designed to enhance an experience that already is avidly replayed in retrogaming communities. This essay also briefly touches on emulation, a method of replaying old video games on PC that transforms the experience with new features (save states, romhacking, fast-forward). Because of these convenient features and ease of recording footage through console emulation, I chose to use this method when creating my “Let’s Play”.

What is interesting about nostalgia in video gaming is that re-released games do, in a sense, afford players the possibility to return to an exact same “home,” a virtual environment that was present when they originally played a particular game.

Purchasing a used Nintendo Entertainment System and playing the original Final Fantasy game more than twenty years after it was initially released results in a much different kind of nostalgic experience (one that requires one’s physical and mental attention) than can be provided by more passive nostalgic media experiences, such as viewing a film or playing records.

Retrogaming communities facilitate shared reminiscences about those “homes” to which participants continually return.

Heineman, David. (2014). Public Memory and Gamer Identity: Retrogaming as Nostalgia. Journal of Games Criticism, 1(1), 1–24.

 

Analytical Framework

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The design of my analytical framework was guided by Clara Fernández-Vara’s Introduction to Game Analysis and my research.

Firstly, my goal is to unpack the intertextual value of remakes for two different types of players; those who have played the original game, and those who have not. It is clear that my approach to appraising a remake should change under this condition, as it represents a shift in context surrounding the player’s experience. For example, with Final Fantasy IV, a fan will play the remake and assess it in relation to their personal experience with the original game. However, a newcomer will go through the meaning-making process differently. The value of a Final Fantasy IV remake to newcomers could be found in the ease of accessibility when released on newer platforms, or in any other changes and updates that help lower the entry barrier.

After considering the context surrounding player experiences and the socio-cultural environment in which the remake was released, I analyse the player experience itself. This is a post-structuralist look into how the remakes are received by players. My “Let’s Play” will act as a shared and documented player experience that pays careful attention to each remake in relation to each other and the original game. While doing so, I will be mindful of acknowledging player experiences and opinions that are different to my own, based on my primary research from Reddit and other fan forums.

Which brings me to the final point of my triangulation, the changes made in each remake’s formal elements. These will be observed through comparison, and then discussed in relation to the context and player experience. In Final Fantasy IV, the most relevant of these formal elements are the graphics (backgrounds and character sprites/portraits), music, difficulty, battle system, localisation (script), and various smaller gameplay features.

 

Methodology and Progress

I had originally intended to upload this “Let’s Play” series to the Twitch streaming platform, though later changed to YouTube instead. I outlined my reasons for this change in my project beta; the game did not suit the live stream format due to long periods of repeated grinding and dungeon crawling that halted progression through the game’s narrative, and it was also alienating my existing aggregated Twitch audience (I usually live stream competitive digital card games and tournaments). This was apparent through a lack of initial engagement with my digital artefact.

Now, by cutting and editing my “Let’s Play” footage I am able to create an abridged and cinematic experience for my viewers. The first episode of my series, uploaded to YouTube and then shared both on Twitter and Reddit, received significantly more engagement than my live streams. I even got a few subscribers on my brand new channel. The only issue I’ve run into so far is low audience retention, which is likely due to having about 2-3 minutes of just analysis and discussion about the remake at the beginning of the video. I plan to change this in future by moving that content to the video description, and instead jumping straight into gameplay. I’d also like to improve my video thumbnails, using other popular “Let’s Play” channels as a reference point.

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Audience Retention

I am emulating three different versions of FFIV on my PC and recording my footage with Open Broadcaster Software. This footage is then edited in Sony Vegas and uploaded to my YouTube channel. Each episode is about 25 minutes long. Between each episode, I seamlessly switch to a different FFIV remake, picking up from exactly where I left in the previous episode. In order to achieve this, I have to play through each version up to my desired game state and then create a save file at this point. Although it sounds tricky, I have made a written plan of the exact points in the narrative I want to stop and start at so that I can prepare save files ahead of time. This method also benefits greatly from the console emulators’ save-state and fast-forward features.

 

Conclusion and Reflection

After receiving feedback for my beta, I aimed to integrate more course concepts into my media analysis. The Heineman reading about nostalgia and retrogaming was very relevant and useful to my topic. When discussing how some gamers prefer 2D sprites to 3D character models from some remakes, or changes to the game’s musical score due to hardware limitations, I was able to apply concepts relating to shared public memory and the re-visiting of familiar virtual spaces and how they facilitate a nostalgic, retrogaming community. I have also been using passive audience engagement as a feedback loop, with an increase in views, likes and subscribers indicating a successful iteration cycle for my project. Overall, I am very happy with the trajectory of my digital artefact, and I feel like I’ve laid the foundations of a project I’d like to continue outside of this subject. My digital literacy in video-editing has definitely improved, as previously I’ve only ever done live streams with very minimal time spent video-editing my own projects. As for how I’d approach this idea differently next time, I found it difficult to increase the depth of my analysis throughout my “Let’s Play” commentary, as I was focused on gameplay and using a casual tone. I think this project would benefit from a supplementary blog post or video essay that clearly outlined my main arguments about the value of each remake.

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