Final Fantasy VII Remake (hereafter simply Remake) is not my first experience with Final Fantasy VII, but neither am I the sort of hardcore series fan who is going to immediately grok all of the differences between the two games. No, I’m in the presumably sizable demographic of people who played the original back in the late nineties, but then haven’t played it since. Sure, I got excited when I ran into Cloud in Final Fantasy Tactics, and I played Ehrgeiz, and I even saw Advent Children once. (Wasn’t my jam).
But that still makes me a dilettante, relatively-speaking. When I referred to series fans, I didn’t mean the Final Fantasy series. I specifically meant Final Fantasy VII, which has its own jelly-tight pocket dimension of ancillary media, side-stories, backstories, and Talmudic squabbles over canon. For the hardest-core, every deviation in Remake is like to hit like a ton of bricks, and conversely, every faithful gesture will mean their faith has been rewarded.
But for me, the most exciting opportunity in Remake was to see FFVII’s aesthetic—half cold-to-the-touch corporate city-state dystopiascapes, half cybercrustpunk trash heaps of disused futuretech—realized with all the tricks attendant to modern graphical whiz-bang. In places, Remake delivers on this in arresting fashion. In other places, the visuals are jarringly ugly, suggesting selective inattention, or even something unfinished. Like, look at this aluminum siding, and more than that, look at the potato-faced normie Brooklynite in front of it.
(This is not my beautiful Midgar undercity. My God, what have I done?)
It makes a certain sense that Shinra employees look samey and utterly banal, as to become background (and whoo boy, do they). That choice reinforces that Midgar is run by a regular-ass corporation driven by regular-ass greed, myopia, and indifference. But having the citizens of the slums look equally nondescript, and equally out of place in a sci-fantasy setting… yeah, makes less sense. It’s alienating, despite the game clearly wanting you to come to think of Midgar’s underclass as your people, or at least a culture you know and appreciate and want to fight for.
This kind of points to the other alluring aspect of the project, though. The whole enterprise of remaking Final Fantasy VII for modern consoles (an idea that has been kicking around for three console generations now) is premised on the idea that the story of FFVII was simply too big for the tech of the time. And the unconvincing crowds and wanting mise-en-scène of Remake’s Sector 7 suggests that FFVII is still too much, too big, too expansive for today’s tech.
I remember an article in an early 2000s game magazine comparing Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the sense that they were both sprawling projects that sought to depict nothing less than an entire society, and that as such, they were destined to remain unfinished. (Chaucer died before he could finish his Tales, and at time of writing, there are three Shenmues, out of a planned seven, and getting those three out has not exactly been a smooth course to run). And there is something exciting about that, isn’t there? The idea of some point ever aimed at but never arrived at. The idea that FFVII is an elephant that we can only ever touch part of at any given time.
But we should note that this is bullshit in some key ways, first among them that Final Fantasy VII was in fact finished. Whatever its creators intended to include and didn’t, and whatever they did include but would now excise if given another at-bat, the game exists. Likewise, three Shunmue games exist, as do twenty-four Canterbury Tales, and the fact that their creators’ original visions expanded further than that is not necessarily a problem to be solved or a flaw to be fixed. (We’re all on board by now with the idea that the technical limitations in the original Star Wars didn’t need to be rectified with instantly-dated CG, right? Nor are director’s cuts better cuts as a rule. Nor did Frank Zappa need to dub 80s drums over his 60s albums. Limitations can make art better, and in any case they definitely help make it what it is, and therefore what made a given piece of art important to you in the first place).
With that in mind, let’s talk about the biggest diversions, which come at the end of Remake. Heavy SPOILERS will follow, in case that wasn’t already clear.
So in Remake, there are these dementor-looking ghost things, which we eventually learn are called Whispers. They’re arbiters of Destiny, apparently, and if anyone tries to do something that isn’t capital-D Destined, capital-F Fated, then the Whispers contravene the would-be Destiny-defiers, blowing against them like a gale force plot-blocking wind.
This is already pretty dumb. Destiny (or more broadly, predestination) is one of those ideas that feels heady and deep until the exact moment you try to do anything with it, at which point it turns out to have been vacuous all along. When someone exerts their will (i.e., when literally anyone chooses to do literally anything), they’re taking up arms against Fate—but also, simultaneously, whatever they do, they must have been Fated to do.
Sure, both, and therefore neither. The actual events that take place are identical either way, and the role of Fate isn’t verifiable or falsifiable, so… who gives a fuck? Try to touch Destiny, and it falls away like mist, or like a black feather turning to smoke, in Remake’s own imagery.
Fate is a lot more philosophically boring than it first appears to be. But more importantly for our purposes: From a storytelling perspective, there’s no real difference between predestination and straight-up coincidence. When a writer writes an event into a story, they’re predestining it to occur in that story. What the writer has Fated to happen in Chapter 4 is already inevitable while the audience reads or watches or plays Chapter 1. So having the text say this happened because it was Fated is ultimately just an excuse for not thinking up a more interesting reason for that thing to have happened, a Get Out Of Trackable Causality Free Card.
Unsurprisingly, then, the narrative function of the Whispers is all over the place. Whispers might be the will of the planet, we briefly hear? That’s a much meatier idea than mere personified predestination, but I’m not sure it tracks with what we actually see the little fuckers do. At times they aid Sephiroth’s (many, many) escapes, or prevent our heroes from doing something or other. At other times they save our heroes’ bacon. At one point they unkill one of our heroes who was killed moments before, in a Rise of Skywalkeresque commitment to having recent plot points unhappen, because you, audience member, like being shocked by things but are an idiot if you think any of it matters.
And on a more basic storytelling level, having the Whispers help Cloud and company out is a pretty cheap device. Remember: In fiction, predestination is functionally indistinguishable from coincidence, and as as Pixar has wisely counselled: “Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it is cheating.”
The game’s final chapter largely involves fighting the Whispers (or like, King Whisper?) in order to subvert Destiny. Then we fight Sephiroth. Then Sephiroth and Cloud are alone together at “the edge of creation” and Sephiroth asks Cloud to join him to fight Fate together, and Cloud says never and absolutely nothing, about their relationship or Shinra or anything else, gets resolved. Also, Zack Fair shows up, and if you don’t remember who that is (and didn’t note the other oblique reference to him, a good twenty hours prior), then I can only assume that (a) you didn’t play the original FFVII, or (b) you did play the original FFVII but not the aforementioned ancillary arcana, most notably Crisis Core.
OK, so. The only way this makes a lick of sense is if we interpret it entirely as metatext—if the whole of our analysis takes place squarely up the game’s own ass. On this reading, Destiny is nothing more or less than the plot of the original FFVII. That’s what the player is asked to kill, and what Square Enix is declaring freedom from. It’s in this sense—and as far as I can tell, only in this sense—that Cloud and Sepiroth joining forces would be a subversion of Destiny, and them meeting in Midgar and then continuing to fight is also subversion of Destiny.
While our heroes are fighting the Whisper King, after all, they’re accosted by visions of the future that they’re fighting to prevent: Images of a meteor approaching the planet, of cataclysm, but also of the scene from the original FFVII where Sephiroth kills Aerith. Not—and this is important—not images of Sephiroth actually killing Aerith, but recognizable images from the scene where it happens: Cloud standing in the water. Aerith kneeling in prayer. A materia bouncing down stone steps.
If you haven’t played FFVII (or else absorbed this scene via cultural osmosis) then absolutely none of these images are ominous. They can’t possibly mean to the characters what they mean to us. It’s a bit like that scene in Star Trek: Into Darkness where Benedict Cumberbatch says “my name… is Kahn!” and to us, that’s a reveal—Oh, he’s that guy from that other Star Trek movie—but for Kirk and Spock and company, he may was well have said “my name… is Steve!” because Kahn doesn’t mean to them what it means to us, indeed doesn’t mean much of anything diegetically, any more than a materia bouncing down some stairs intrinsically means the death of a loved one.
That’s what’s so fucking odd about this gesture. The in-text meaning seems to be, Untether yourself from the plot of the original game, but these moments only carry meaning, both emotionally and in the literal sense of being interpretable, because they’re tethered to the plot of the original game. If you were just experiencing Remake as a game, and its story just as a story, this would all be actual nonsense. The ending is asking a lot of you: It’s gibberish if you’re not both familiar with and invested in the plot of the original FFVII, but it functions mostly as a troll unless you’re at least a little willing, now, to disinvest.
If Square Enix really wanted to make a game unburdened by expectations about Final Fantasy VII, they could have just, you know, made a new game that had nothing in particular to do with Final Fantasy VII. Hell, Final Fantasy is a series wherein each new entry customarily gets its own new continuity. Adhering to any portion of a preexisting plot is a limitation that Remake places on itself by being a remake (and perhaps also a millstone that’s been hanging heavier and heavier around Square Enix’s neck through these past two decades of ballooning abyssal miscellany, these Crisis Cores and Advent Children and Dirges of Cerberus; maybe that’s the most important metatextual meaning of Zack showing up).
Remake ends up being a game about hanging on and a game about letting go, but never both at once. The two themes refuse to touch, like magnets with the same polarity. Or like the robots in Remake that repulse your semi-automated characters, keeping them at arm’s length and making them waste their Limit Breaks, slashing and striking and blasting at nothing. That’s the main image from the combat that will stick with me, I think: Characters I like a whole lot, suddenly acting stupid as bricks, auto-running toward a point they’ll never reach, unaware of the futility of their motion. (The combat in this game is pretty bad).
But a whole lot of that hallucinatory, self-fellating, self-negating ending will stick with me, for sure. As will the equally hallucinatory immersive VR propaganda piece in Shinra Tower, and the new dance sequence at the Honeybee Inn, and the wealth of beautifully told little moments in the aftermath of the plate falling. Remake is often at pains to justify its own existence, but it can also be so joyful, so inventive, so alive with its myriad contradictory ambitions, that it’s a weirdly complete creation despite its incompleteness.