This is part two, I guess, in a series of thoughts brought on by the ending of Final Fantasy VII Remake. The first part is here, and it contains major SPOILERS for that game’s ending (and for Star Trek: Into Darkness, too). This second piece won’t really spoil Remake, beyond acknowledging that its timeline diverges from that of the original FFVII, and that it gets weird, and meta. I will however need to spoil the original, as well as the last two Avengers movies, the general structure of The Good Place, and the first season of Sailor Moon. You’ll see why.
Oh, and that gif in the header was made by the notable gifsmith behind the I have a bad feeling about this Tumblr, who I believe goes by Mamalaz.
Alright, cool? Cool.
So, continuity resets are necessarily an exercise in a story having its plot-and-character-cake and eating it, too. All of the things that previously happened have still happened, and yet they have also unhappened. Those events, though undone, remain canonical. Meanwhile the new story arc moves forward, inextricably tied to, and yet also unburdened by, now-obsolete details.
More interesting to me, as I pointed out last time, is the highly specific and rather strange attitude that a continuity reset requires from an audience. You’ve got to be game for the change, lest the continuity housekeeping come across as little more than a narrative raspberry—but for a continuity reset to land, you also have to be invested in the previous continuity remaining canon. Otherwise, why even bother with an in-world reason for the old timeline being an old timeline, as opposed to simply a different story with the same characters or setting? You can absolutely just tell a story where Batman is a ninja without having to in any way justify ninja Batman existing in the same universe, or metaverse, or whatever, as non-ninja Batman. But then how do we know that both Batmen are real (even though we all know that, on some obvious semiotic level, all Batmen are equally unreal)?
Another example: I’ve always found it pretty strange when people try to put all the Zelda games on a single continuity. (It’s honestly no less weird when Nintendo themselves try it). Within the text of a single Zelda game, it’s pretty clear that Link and Zelda and Ganon are figures of myth that, as with any myth, take different forms in different times and places. There’s absolutely no reason why those divergent retellings would need to connect, or even why they shouldn’t conflict. Breath of the Wild actually gestures at this, kind of brilliantly: Which branch of the Zelda timeline is the game taking place on? All of them, even and especially when that holistic approach creates irresolvable paradoxes in the flinty minds and exhaustive wiki pages of the continuity-preferrers. Place names and conspicuous ruins from every mutually exclusive Hyrule coexist in this Hyrule, impossibly but undeniably.
It’s such a bold gesture, and yet also such a gentle one. There doesn’t need to be some big cataclysm (or alternately, the cataclysm has already happened). Whatever you thought was a continuity problem simply… isn’t. Don’t worry about it.
This light touch isn’t really the norm in continuity resets. Usually there’s a sense of violence, of torsion, of something being lost (and then of relief, when the damage gets negated or mitigated). A fairly recent example would be Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, where characters die without having to then be dead (despite that typically being a fairly prominent feature of death). Here we have a prime example of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too-ness, and also of the strange demands this approach places on an audience: You’re supposed to feel all the sorrow and loss of watching Spider-Man futilely beg for his life, without feeling like a shmuck when the text asks you to unmourn him (and also while ignoring your extratextual knowledge that there was already another Spider-Man movie in the works when Infinity War came out). Your emotional reaction to events has to be completely divorced from their consequences (since there likely won’t be any). You have to be deeply invested in the idea of seeing the same Spider-Man in multiple movies without being the least bit invested in the idea of seeing his story carry across multiple movies.
These kinds of cataclysmic resets are common in comic books, typically meant to retcon away troublesome tangles of unwieldy lore, or to take a mulligan on unpopular plot developments—but it’s important to note that continuity resets are not an inevitable feature of longform serialized storytelling. Soap operas, for example, rarely retcon away their most ridiculous bullshit, preferring instead to yes-and those plot points with other, equally ridiculous bullshit. It’s not that the guy who died now isn’t dead anymore; it’s that he faked his own death, actually, or that he had an evil twin, or that he was an evil twin, or all of the above, somehow.
Again, I’m less interested in the storytelling tropes themselves and more interested in how audiences relate to them. Soap opera fans are, generally speaking, less tolerant of retconning than comic book fans are. In comics the various Crises (as they’re called) are often seen as lurid spectacles, or even as the tentpole moments in a given creative team’s run. In soap operas, out-and-out retcons are more often seen as failures of imagination, the work of lazy hacks who can’t even be bothered to incorporate the entire unbroken 54-year continuity of As the World Turns into their stories, the no-talent good-for-nothing bums.
When soap opera writers do resort to a full-bore retcon, it’s almost always in order to undo a plot point considered too heavy, and/or too politically loaded, for the current tone of the show—as in the case of Erica Kane on All My Children, who infamously had both a sexual assault and an abortion expunged from her canonical history. (I’ve been joking about over-the-top hostility to retcons on soaps, but honestly the abortion example was act of purest cowardice. Plus, it retroactively made the show less culturally and historically relevant, so great job, everyone).
Another thing we should note is that soft, constant continuity resets are the norm in some genres of television, most prominently sitcoms. This has never ben strictly or absolutely the case; as far back as I Love Lucy, big events stick: The gang moves out to California, then back to New York, then out of the city and into an exurb; Lucy gets pregnant with Little Ricky (a big, transgressive deal on the TV of time, by the way, depicting pregnancy), and then there’s a kid in the picture, and we’re dealing with parenthood as well as married life and show-biz and whatnot. But excepting these big developments (and barring the occasional two-or-even-three-parter), what happens in one episode of a sitcom is usually more or less forgotten by the next.
It’s generally accepted that this technique lowers the stakes of the show, and indeed that’s sort of the point. The hijinks are the focus, and they’re more fun without serious or lasting consequences. We’re here to hang out with the characters, and we like them the way they are. We’re here for the status quo, not to see it disrupted, even though seeing it disrupted would be the beating heart of most storytelling. (The Simpsons parodies this convention extensively, while also being the most culturally recognizable example of it. This is true of a lot of sitcom tropes, since The Simpsons has outlasted so many of the things it started out satirizing).
If you want to tell a weighty story, you do generally want to maintain some kind of indelible through-line. This is why newer sitcoms like The Good Place—and a good many police procedurals since The Wire, for that matter—now tend to favor hard serialization. It opens up all sorts of possibilities that don’t exist in stories that last no more than an episode or two. The Good Place does of course have a plot-crucial in-world notion of resetting. But critically, these resets take place within an overarching continuity that does not itself ever reset. Everything that has happened has always still happened, and the new timelines are more a matter of which characters remember what. Old developments aren’t scrubbed, just sidelined. We’re never asked to proceed as though we don’t remember them happening. Indeed, the show’s middle seasons derive much of their pathos precisely from us knowing things about the characters that they no longer know about themselves.
On that note, I do want to make it clear that continuity resets are not inherently cowardly, and that the specific trope of the cataclysmic timeline scrub can work. This is where Sailor Moon comes in, because its first season ends with our heroes facing down the big bad, Queen Beryl, and each and every one of them dying in the attempt. One by one, they fall heroically: Sailors Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter, and Tuxedo Mask, and ultimately Sailor Moon herself. Everyone dies, but their sacrifice does manage to defeat Queen Beryl.
And then, of course, they’re all miracled back to life for the second season, Sailor Moon S. But the catch is, they’ve all lost their memories. They don’t remember their previous adventures, nor do they even remember each other.
On the one hand, there’s a real cost here. On this show about these characters becoming friends and growing together, their arcs and their friendships now start over from zero. But on the other hand, we get to watch them become friends again, and grow up again. We get to see the group reform. Usagi and Mamoru (Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask, or Queen Serenity and Prince Endymion, if you prefer) get a new meet-cute. It all manages to feel pretty earned, holding onto the idea that the big fight cost the group something while also indulging our desire to see a disaster reversed and undone.
All of which brings us back to Final Fantasy VII Remake, with its positively exultant continuity cataclysm. Here is a game that’s telling a familiar story—deeply familiar to its presumed audience, at least—but telling it differently, and reveling in the opportunity to change its key events. Especially during its ending, Remake is keenly aware that one of the most emotionally fraught (and clickbait-controversial) changes it could make would be to untwist the original FFVII’s most famous twist, and have Sephiroth not kill Aerith. The game knows that on some level we want that change (we like Aerith!) but that on another level that would mean defanging a plot point that we remember specifically for its bite.
We don’t know how different this version of the tale will end up being, but we do know that our heroes are (metatextually, which is the only sensical way to read it) fighting the canon, taking up arms against the bad things that happens in FFVII with a verve that JRPG protagonists usually reserve for killing God. It’s some Six Characters in Search of an Author shit, in a way. They, the characters in the game, share our desire to see the game’s disasters undone, even though those disasters haven’t happened yet, for them.
Remake’s goofy-ass Kingdom Hearts ending plunks the notion of unkilling Aerith onto the table, then neither picks it up nor puts it away. It knows this decision is important to you—it’s counting on that—but like every other thread, it’s left hanging and therefore leaves you hanging.
Speaking only for myself, this is what bothers me about what Remake is up to. It’s not that the events of the original FFVII are sacrosanct—to me, I mean; to some people they super are—but that the formulation at the heart of Remake’s ending is breathtakingly smarmy: How do you turn a single, bounded story into a franchise? By keeping the vivid setting and the much-staned characters, but making the plot infinitely revisable. Not by offering a fresh revision to the plot, mind you, but simply by patting yourself on the back as loudly as possible for the bravery, the nerve, the verve, the sheer audacity, of revising it at all. That’s how you turn a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end into a AAA macroserial of indefinite length.
The only way the plot of this I-guess-it’s-a-series-now could possibly avoid dissolving into utter incoherence would be if it closes the book on any further multiverse motherfuckery, and if from here on out, whatever happens continues to have happened. (And this does not seem likely, given how the first game’s ending plays out). If the plot remains infinitely revisable, if there’s no discernible chain of consequence, then there’s no story. There’s just an infinity of tiny little isolated what-ifs, with varying degrees of aesthetic and thematic adjacency to Final Fantasy VII.
Which would still have an enthusiastic audience, no doubt. But there’s a real sense in which that audience would be doing most of the heavy lifting themselves: Imagine your own coherent story in this space, which was intentionally left blank. Or else keep the faith, and trust that the nonsense will all make sense later, some untold number of hours, and twists, and fresh purchases from now.
Look: A continuity reset can be a tremendously effective sleight of hand, a way to preserve the past in amber while also moving forward, unencumbered, toward a buck-wild future. But it can just as easily become a sort of shell game, a narrative Ponzi scheme. It can stymie the story, rendering it incapable of saying anything about anything other than itself.
If a storyteller is looking for absolute freedom, then they can always find it on a blank piece of paper. And if they want to tell a new story with familiar elements, then they can just go ahead and do that, as people have been doing for as long as there have been stories. But if the plan is to continue a story, then some event or other does have to stick, eventually.