Final Fantasy: Remade

The recent remake of FF7, one of the most iconic video games of all time, has something to say about storytelling in the age of reboots and remakes.

Note: This essay was originally published in May 2020 on another platform — from which it was mysteriously deleted.

It’s not even a little hyperbolic to call Final Fantasy VII Remake the most highly anticipated video game of all time. The original, released in 1997, became an instant classic. You can read many other articles to understand why. Suffice it to say it cemented Final Fantasy as a cultural phenomenon that has spawned not just a dozen more games but films, cafes, an orchestral concert series… I could go on.

The calls for a remake that would do the game justice, replacing its now laughably polygonal graphics with modern visuals to match its magnificent characters, setting, and story, began almost as soon as the technology allowed it. For a decade and a half, Square Enix, the game’s studio, demurred. Finally, in 2015, they announced the project; the game came out nearly five years later. To say it was a long-time coming would be a profound understatement. And because this initial installment of the remake only covers a fraction of the original game, with additional entries planned to tell the rest of the story, in many ways the wait is not yet over.

With great expectations comes the risk of crushing disappointment. Sure, the remake would satisfy young gamers with nothing to compare it to, or more casual fans who just wanted a hit of nostalgia. But whether it would justify the decade-plus of pleading from enthusiasts and live up to FF7’s iconic status was a real question. And there were reasons to think it might not: Square Enix’s recent track record with Final Fantasy games is mixed, at best — for my money, there hadn’t been a truly great entry since Final Fantasy X, which (depending on how you count the various FF installments since) was 10 games and 19 years ago. Eagle-eyed readers will have noted the verb tense in the past sentence and deduced that I consider that streak broken. Final Fantasy VII Remake is exceptional. But, more than that, it’s deeply interesting in ways that say something about video games, about art, and about storytelling in the age of remakes and reboots.

Note: From here on out, it will be impossible to avoid spoilers for both the remake and the original Final Fantasy 7 games. Proceed at your own risk.

It would be impossible to summarize the complex — and, to be fair, sometimes convoluted — plot of Final Fantasy VII (remake and/or original, a distinction that will soon be of some interest to us) in a few sentences or even a few paragraphs. But here’s the thing to know if you’ve never played them, or if you have but haven’t thought much of it: Final Fantasy games are obsessed with the concept of fate. In nearly every FF game, characters are set on a path by circumstances, or certain machinations, or their very identities. And they spend a good chunk of their time figuring out if they can break the chains of their destinies and fighting like hell to do so. They wax philosophical about it over and over again. And sure, sometimes it’s overplayed (FF13, especially, really drove the point into the ground) or it’s a too-transparent thematic device to imbue some gravitas into fighting the next set of villains or monsters. But… it’s an effective device! It is, in no small part, what has given the Final Fantasy series a well-deserved reputation for emotional resonance and deep storytelling that is at least trying to do what every other art form does: explore some of the deepest questions that interest humanity.

In the original Final Fantasy VII, this idea plays out more subtly. The remake puts it front and center. One of the most prominent additions to the new game is the Whispers: mysterious spectral entities who, we’re eventually told, are instruments of fate that intervene so that events play out exactly as they should. It does not take long for the player to get the feeling that this “should” corresponds not just to whatever in-game story is supposedly written in stone, but to the story as it occurred in the original FF7. (For example, in the remake, Cloud is not set to accompany Barret and Tifa to Mako Reactor 5. But then Jessie is injured in battle with the Whispers and Cloud is forced to take her place, embarking on the mission as he did in the original game.) The Whispers, it seems, embody the question that FF7R’s developers must have grappled with for years: how much should they be bound to the story of the original — especially when the remake owes its very existence to the fact that that story is the stuff of video game legend?

It’s an especially timely question. Little needs to be said about the prevalence of remakes in films and TV. The trend seems to have finally made its way to video games, which until recent years had largely produced mere “remasters” that offered little more than visual enhancements. FF7R joins the highly lauded remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 — an RE4 remake has already been announced. More are surely on the way; nostalgia is too powerful and profitable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. People have been retelling stories since stories started to be told, and the cry of “Everything’s a remake/sequel these days!” can be lazy criticism. Besides, God knows it’s satisfying to see so many old moments, burned into our memory, shine bright in all their 3D, HD glory. But it’s worth asking what it means for so much of our cultural diet to be comprised of things that, in some form or another, we’ve consumed before. It’s worth considering what it means if we’re asking artists — for all the impressive skill it takes to remake anything effectively — not to create, but to merely recreate.

OK, for real now. Late-game spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

The best moment in Final Fantasy VII Remake (not the coolest or the most satisfying, but the most meaningful) comes near the end. In a departure from the original, when you reach the top of the Shinra building and encounter Sephiroth, he not only stabs President Shinra with the Masamune — he also stabs Barret, who falls to the floor lifeless. A long battle with Jenova immediately ensues. And as you hack and slash to the tune of that classic theme, all the while you’re thinking: Did that just happen? Did they just do that? One the one hand… there’s no way they did. While the remake as a standalone game was obviously nearing its end, the full FF7 story, in which Barret plays a huge role, was just getting started. It would be an unthinkable departure from the original. On the other hand… the original was defined precisely by the shocking mid-game death of another major character — maybe the most famous death in video game history. Perhaps this was the remake’s way of honoring and building on that legacy.

But, when the battle concludes, Barret is alive. He awakens with a start, and we see a Whisper fly from his body. It had kept him alive — another instance of these forces of destiny keeping everything going according to plan. And I was torn. Barret’s a fantastic character, wonderfully portrayed in the remake, and I look forward to playing through the rest of the game with him. On the other hand, his death would have completely reset my expectations for future entries in the remake, and opened up a whole new world of narrative and gameplay possibilities. It would’ve put us in uncharted territory, and that’s always an exciting place to be.

The rest of FF7R leans into that tension with gusto. The game ends with a completely new section in which you fight an enormous “Harbinger” made up of Whispers — basically, you’re doing battle against fate itself. You defeat it by fighting three smaller Harbingers who, if you read their Enemy Intel descriptions, are each said to fight with a sword, a gun, and its fists. They are, it seems, manifestations of a future Cloud, Barret, and Tifa — the party isn’t just fighting against some overarching fate, they’re battling their own personal fates, as well. As they do, they have visions of the future; and it’s unclear whether it’s the one their actions may destroy or create.

If Final Fantasy VII Remake were a standalone game, telling this story for the first time, this would all just be some run-of-the-mill defying destiny stuff of the kind FF fans should be used to by now. But, because it is what it is, that future the characters see glimpses of is also their past. Those of us who played the original have already seen it and experienced it. In a bit of brilliant meta storytelling, as Cloud and company fight to create a sort of alternate timeline, the game’s creators do exactly the same to us players — and they enlist our help to do it! They made up a creature to personify their inability to change or transcend the original’s story, they made it the remake’s final boss, and they said: “Here, kill it for us. Kill the past that lives in your mind and was destined to be these characters’ futures, and give us a chance to surprise and delight you with what comes next.” One of the very last scenes in the game shows Zack and Cloud walking arm in arm in a way that suggests we may be in uncharted territory after all.

A good video game remake updates the most fun and meaningful parts of the original while adding enough new bits to give it a veneer of novelty. A great video game remake expands on the original, allowing the player to explore its story and world in ways that the technology or conventions of video game generations past made impossible. A sublime video game remake (and FF7R may be the very first one) takes what should be its biggest weakness — being tied to an old, beloved storyline — and turns it into its biggest strength. It plays on our expectations, our nostalgia, and our reverence for the original, and weaves them into a brand new tapestry that combines the familiar and the unexpected. It allows the developers to create as they recreate, and it allows the player to experience something unique.

I thought it would be impossible to look forward to a game more than I did to this first installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Now, I‘m even more excited for part two.

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