Even before it’s life as a full-fledged game, Final Fantasy VII Remake existed as more of a tech demo. As a result, this remake is one that could easily be called one of the most anticipated video games ever. No matter what they did with the game – whether it would be a shot-for-shot remake of the original game or a version incorporating later released supplemental material – it was almost guaranteed to be controversial. Even so, very few people would have expected Square Enix to do what they ultimately did with Remake – and like it or not, it leaves a lot to consider. Let’s take a look at what happened, what it could mean for the rest of the Remake project, and maybe even the “why” behind it all.
The following contains spoilers for both the original and remake of Final Fantasy VII, along with Kingdom Hearts 3 and its DLC expansion Re:Mind.
Before digging too deep into what the implications and meanings of FFVIIR, it should be made clear what happens (and what doesn’t): Throughout the expanded take on the first section of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud and company are harassed and haunted by mysterious hooded spirits – think the Dementors from Harry Potter – and increase in numbers and frequency the more the game expands and diverges from the original until these ghouls become enemies to fight multiple times. In Remake’s climax – these ghouls, now revealed to be called “Whispers”, flood the city and reveal their purpose: to ensure that the events of the game occur as planned. In other words, the Whispers exist to make sure the Remake of Final Fantasy VII follows the events of the original game. Sephiroth somehow manages to reach beyond the power of these Whispers, prompting Cloud and the others to chase after him. In these efforts, the player must defeat manifestations of the Whispers using swords, guns and their bare hands (more on that later) to bypass their “destiny.”
Once successful, we learn that by defeating the Whispers changes the timeline itself: from little things like the mascot of Shinra’s propaganda cartoon to the fate of Zack Fair. Final Fantasy VII Remake uses its subversion of an expected predetermined storyline to throw it’s cast into uncertain territory once outside Midgar and trying to stop the threat of Sephiroth, and now there’s no telling where the next chapter of Final Fantasy VII Remake will go next.
First off, the immediate implications are clear – Final Fantasy VII Remake is no longer simply a remake of the original. During the battle with the Whispers, Cloud and friends are shown glimpses of events yet to come to pass, from the original game: specifically Aerith’s death, the most iconic scene of the game. While none of the characters address it directly, going forward with this knowledge is almost sure to change things on a radical scale even without the other timeline changes. Those changes aren’t entirely clear either – Zack survives his intended death from the original game now, but that death is extremely critical to both Cloud’s character development and Aerith’s motivations throughout VII’s story. Moving that piece on the board suggests that we may not even see these characters stay the same as they are now, we could see arcs go in all kinds of different directions.
Or maybe not so much. While it’s pretty gutsy for FFVIIR to try to break itself off from its long-held expectations, the subversion only works while there is an expectation to subvert. For all the changes Remake teases, when all is said and done, the party is leaving Midgar all the same. The further off the beaten path the game goes, the less it’ll be able to subvert anything, and the changes may not be able to stand on their own. This could very well keep the future installments more on the rails than is being suggested now, and maybe even bring back the fans expecting a more faithful remake. After all, the other party members recruited after Midgar should still be getting their remake chance, shouldn’t they?
None of that even includes the players of the game who have no stake in the original game. They too came to the party expecting a more up to date version of the original so that they could see what the whole point was to this game, only to be met with this major change, the impact of which probably doesn’t even make sense to those players.
Which brings us to what I believe is more interesting about FFVIIR’s new direction: not what it means for the rest of the project, but what it means for the players and our relationship to the game. To understand the reasons behind this we have to look to the game’s director: Tetsuya Nomura. Nomura has quite a bit of a reputation as a creator that cares way more about the lore of something than whether or not the lore even makes any sense – or as it’s more colloquially known, “Kingdom Hearts Bullshit.” I’ve made my case before that his games do mean things beyond simply being weird, but between FFVIIR and the surprise ending of Kingdom Hearts III last year, it’s irrefutable that he has some themes on his mind – and the next games he leads are now prepped and ready to explore them.
Comparing Kingdom Hearts as a series to the admittedly strange device used to get to FFVIIR’s changes isn’t hard – it almost begs to be – and I do believe the two go hand in hand thematically. For whatever reasons he has, Nomura has been looking back at the projects he’s worked on in the past and possesses a deep desire to not only revisit them but recontextualize them. Kingdom Hearts III and its expansion released earlier this year Re:Mind both directly reference The World Ends With You (by placing protagonist Sora in the game’s version of Shibuya) and the game that eventually became Final Fantasy XV but got there by tossing a lot of what Nomura was planning, when the game was Final Fantasy versus XIII, in the form of mystery character Yozora. There’s a sense of yearning that is hard to ignore in these callbacks, a desire to return to these ideas in a new form. While Nomura has since indicated that he’s not attempting to just port his ideas for versus XIII into the future of Kingdom Hearts, it’s undeniable that the ideas are there. Kingdom Hearts, the project he’s been the head of since the beginning, is itself filled with recontextualization – both with the Square Enix properties included but also with the Disney properties tied in.
Is it any surprise then that the same person who designed the characters of Final Fantasy VII might also be thinking about new places to take them and new themes to explore with them? But even more so than the material he’s remixed already, VII is nearly scripture to a lot of gamers, and having Cloud get messed with by Hades in another game is one thing, throwing out that scripture is another – which is why the first thing that had to be recontextualized is our relationship to Final Fantasy VII. It is undeniable that Nomura’s “Whispers” were our own – our expectations and desires for what a remake of Final Fantasy VII could be, the whispers and rumors that effectively gave the project life in the first place. When facing the Whispers at the end of the game, Cloud and the others face off against what is undeniably the echoes of the characters whose original purpose was to become and the player is forced to help them tear through those echoes to literally “remake” Final Fantasy VII in a new image. It’s a bizarrely meta take – one that suggests the characters were in a cycle of trauma and chaos, with one destined to take a sword through the chest, until now.
In a lot of ways, that’s what all games are – a collection of ideas, characters, themes, story, and interaction. They are fertile ground for creativity, one that grew the original VII, but even that game was built upon the pieces and ideas of the series that came before it, not to mention defining Final Fantasy as a franchise for years after. When dealing with a beloved piece of art like that, is it more honest to stick to the script or to pave a new creative path? Even if it all crashes and burns for Remake, there’s a case to be made for being willing to melt down our sacred cows. The games we love are hard to let go of and let someone do something new with, but it’s often useful for creative growth – and even criticism of those things. Not all of these attempts to evolve or changes land and even the ones that do won’t necessarily go over well. That fear, however, should not prevent us from being open to seeing what new spins can be put on the material we love.
With Final Fantasy VII Remake, we also get the opportunity of hindsight. We can see what might have gestated in the creative team’s minds all this time, in a rare chance for them to safely deviate from their own path. Any creative person will tell you that a project is never truly done, not on the inside. As fans and newcomers alike, we get to see a second attempt with these ideas by those who helped form and create them. That’s something special we don’t get to see all that often if ever, much less while the original is so widely available (looking at you, Star Wars.)
I believe that this too is the heart of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s ending; that in order to move forward, we have to be willing to let go in order to move forward. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but a pretty version of a thing you like is still just that. Diminishing returns are inevitable. That nostalgia can be leveraged into something new, something even challenging.
Again, that doesn’t mean that all of this will necessarily end well for Remake. Nomura may indeed be an auteur, but he’s also often more interested in explaining the “how” behind what happens in his stories than the “why,” leading to truly convoluted storytelling. While I wouldn’t call what has happened so far too much, there’s a decent chance that Remake spends its next part explaining everything that has changed and gone absolutely nowhere with it. What’s more, there’s a chance that not much has changed after all, and instead, the goal is to change or soften some of the existing twists or controversial points. There is a chance Aerith lives or can be saved now, and that definitely does not sound like an improvement over the original.
Even so, just as it may seem almost like a bad idea to give Mickey Mouse a giant key sword, I believe that whatever the plan is for Remake, the team should be allowed both by Square Enix and the fanbase to see it through. In an industry that often wants to cash in on old emotions, there is a lot of value in allowing something creatively risking to breathe, even if it makes us nervous about the outcome – perhaps even because it does.