Final Fantasy VII

This highly-anticipated Critical Compilation for Square Enix’s 1997 RPG Final Fantasy VII and its 2020 remake comes to us via Drew Byrd. Drew Byrd holds at least two media studies degrees and works primarily in public education. You can follow him on Twitter at @tasogaremurmur.

Final Fantasy VII has enjoyed a commercial and critical legacy like few other games. Between the game’s high sales, its unprecedented penetration of the Western market, and its explosive popularization of the RPG genre, it’s easy to see how it became the developer’s golden goose, but the question of why this was the game that did it all remains elusive. Said question rings as loud as ever in the wake of Square Enix’s first installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake, the mere existence of which recapitulates both itself and the game from whence it sprung to the inquiries of the multifarious Final Fantasy fandom: Why Final Fantasy VII? Why is this the franchise entry that gets the big-budget makeover first? Remake thus became, rather than a mere mechanical and aesthetic reupholstery of familiar narrative beats, a sort of litigation of its predecessor’s hotly debated place in the canon. 

Tetsuya Nomura, Kazushige Nojima, et. al. are not ignorant of the weight of fanbase expectation and took steps to address it metatextually with the controversial addition of the Whispers, ghostly arbiters of fate that push the characters toward fulfilling plot events as scripted in the 1997 original. Heather Alexandra writes for Kotaku that the Whispers represent “the swirling anxieties of players who do not want something different,” and their dispersal at the end of the game “create[s] an altered version of the events fans knew… reject[ing] the cultural memory of Final Fantasy VII.” Although the Whispers proved to be divisive amongst the game’s fanbase, the volume and intensity of opinion on both sides reiterated the fervor that Final Fantasy VII continues to command. “Who owns a story once it is told?” Alexandra wonders; no other game has urged the question, or an in-universe developer response, to the extent that Final Fantasy VII has.

Once Upon a Story

Understanding the zeal that still surrounds Final Fantasy VII requires situating it in a number of cultural, aesthetic, and industrial contexts. Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton’s The Final Fantasy VII Letters offers a comprehensive deconstruction of the game from two viewpoints – Alexander as a seasoned fan and Hamilton as a new player – and suggests that one key component in the enduring love surrounding the game is that it arrived as “young people were flocking to the internet and normalizing interaction online to a wide degree.” Wes Fenlon’s piece on Kotaku about Final Fantasy fansite “Eyes on Final Fantasy” and Leigh Alexander’s “Midgar is Burning” (Wayback Machine, originally The Escapist) illustrate the tremendous online popularity of Final Fantasy, especially VII, with accounts of vibrant online fan and roleplaying communities. Even within the last decade, the game has engendered ambitious displays of devotion. Simon Parkin writes for The New Yorker about one fan’s two-year effort to train Cloud and Barret to level 99 in the very first play area; Ethan Gach writes for Kotaku about streamer Caleb Hart’s 100% completion speedrun of the game; and there are multiple re-evaluations of the game’s notoriously subpar translation, such as Tim Rogers’ video series for Kotaku and an unofficial overhaul patch, five years in the making, which Wesley Yin-Poole writes about for Eurogamer

Hamilton and Alexander theorize that the game’s cryptic, complex storyline created opportunities for online discourse, investigation, and reinterpretation. By far the most hotly-discussed plot point was the untimely death of mystical flower girl Aerith Gainsborough. Brian Taylor’s “Save Aeris – How Can We Be Moved By the Fate of Aeris Gainsborough” (Wayback Machine, originally Kill Screen) details an elaborate internet hoax involving the death of and an alleged method to revive Aerith, spread through a message board before the game had even been released in North America. K.W. Colyard, writing for Tor, positions this and other ‘save Aerith’ hoaxes as a reaction to “a problem that needed solving, based almost exclusively on a set of unwritten rules by which they expected the game’s developers to abide,” serving as a sort of early communal reflection of the expectations accompanying RPG narratives.

Beyond the fate of Aerith, many other writers established frames for interpreting the game via allegory and intertextual reference. Wesley Schantz’s ongoing Myth and Materia column for The Well-Red Mage makes a case for how the game was influenced by – and went on to influence – storytelling tradition by identifying its references to Greek, Norse, and Mesopotamian mythical systems, as well as by likening it to the work of literary figures like Dante Alighieri and John Milton. Ria Teitelbaum situates the game within Kabbalistic tradition, working backwards through the Sephiroth/sefirot connection to posit The Lifestream and Jenova as positive and negative interpretations of the Kabbalah. Orion Mavridou analyzes the game as a continuation of the Japanese cyberpunk trend, especially in the case of one Vincent Valentine, and The Shameful Narcissist locates metaphorical representations of the four Biblical horsemen of the apocalypse in the game’s storyline.

CGI Decoupage

Similar to its narrative, Final Fantasy VII is known for a visual looseness, namely its ungainly switches between simple polygonal renderings and lush, “realistic” full-motion video (FMV) cutscenes. Both Alexander and Hamilton find purpose and resonance in the game’s low-fidelity mashup of graphical assets and styles, claiming that its visual abstractions “encouraged my imagination” (Alexander) and “engages my brain much like a good book” (Hamilton). Grace Benfell, writing for Vice, echoes these sentiments in her assessment of the remake. She finds that the fractured aesthetic of the original “reflects a wild world, both threatened and threatening,” one that is “interconnected but not continuous or uninterrupted… It is a vivid, multi-framed portrait of a dying planet.”

Christian Nutt writes for Gamasutra that “the game’s frequent mixture of in-engine, on-the-fly storytelling with animated backdrops and relatively rare full-video cutscenes results in a livelier pacing that has fuzzy borders between narrative and play,” allowing a “theatrical style and comic spirit” that he claims a more photorealistic approach would have a difficult time duplicating. Cameron Kunzelman identifies a moment of visual crudeness during the party’s climb up to the Shinra Building and posits it as a possible metaphor for the game’s outlook on poverty, “a translation of that real-world issue into the mechanics of the game.” Brendan Keogh writes of Final Fantasy VII and its representational aesthetic as a watershed experience for him as a gamer, claiming that as a result of the game’s nonrealistic graphics, he “became more invested in the world because, in large, that world only existed in my head,” and that the medium’s shift en masse toward a realistic aesthetic has left less room for “imagined interactions” and “personal interpretation.” 

This is all to say that Final Fantasy VII’s chaotic look does not presuppose a lack of visual strategy on Square Enix (then-Squaresoft)’s part. In fact, the game’s extensive use of FMV, and a televised marketing campaign composed entirely of FMV clips, served as a springboard for the studio to present the game as both an analogue and a competitor to the major motion picture. David L. Craddock writes for Paste about Squaresoft and Sony’s innovative approach to marketing the game, describing how Sony Computer Entertainment America’s senior product manager David Bamberger “wrote marketing documents and circulated them within SCEA, describing the game Final Fantasy 7 as a tent-pole release,” a then-novel use of film marketing lingo. Writing for EGM, Patrick Holloway calls the FMV cutscenes “a salesperson” for the game, a way to convey the franchise’s new aesthetic directions in a shorthand recognizable to a mainstream audience less familiar with video games. Stephen Beirne goes into greater depth about the new cinematic influences present in the game on his blog Normally Rascal (parts 1, 2, 3), highlighting examples of cinematic camera angles, visual symmetry, and spatial dynamics between objects in frame that give subtextual weight to many of the game’s themes.

Squaresoft’s approach may not have been a completely reliable gambit; Rich Stanton suggests that the rapturous reception to Final Fantasy VII’s FMV and presentation led the studio down a dead-end design path that prioritized cinematic storytelling to the detriment of all else, resulting in the formation of Square Pictures and the costly production of box-office disaster Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Indeed, in Matt Leone’s oral history of Final Fantasy VII for Polygon, CG supervisor Kazuyuki Hashimoto mentions that producer Hironobu Sakaguchi approached him with the idea to make The Spirits Within because there were “a lot of movie clips in Final Fantasy VII.

Sing in Me, O Muse

Famed composer Nobuo Uematsu also had to tailor his typical approach to Squaresoft’s new cinematic ambitions when developing the soundtrack for Final Fantasy VII. In Leone’s oral history, Uematsu “says he tried to approach the music like a film soundtrack, worrying less about making a single melody to define the game and more about composing songs that wouldn’t overwhelm the game’s 3D visuals” and “tried to make tracks where the melody wouldn’t stick out as much.” Chapter 7 of Patrick Holleman’s book Reverse Design: Final Fantasy VII bears this out by identifying a recurring technique in the game’s soundtrack that Holleman calls the “Uematsu intro,” a set of auditory cues designed to help ease the player through growingly sophisticated transitions from cinematics to gameplay.

Despite the alleged attempt at composing an unobtrusive complement to the visuals, Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack is one of the most beloved and recognizable of all time and carved out a new space for video game music in the mainstream. By 2010, the soundtrack had sold nearly 170,000 copies across all printings, and to this day is respected as a work of art and an object lesson in principles of composition. Tom Bramwell writes for Eurogamer about PR executive Mark Robins and his popular campaign to vote video game themes into the Top 300 of UK classical radio station Classic FM (he succeeded, and Aerith’s Theme placed at #16 in 2012). Dan Hulsman deconstructs seven tenets of musical theory using the game’s main theme, and Doc Nano charts (figuratively and visually) the frequent use of leitmotif that connects many of the game’s tracks.

Role-Playing

Although Final Fantasy VII’s aesthetics and narrative were celebrated immediately by critics and consumers alike, the finer details of its mechanical design took longer to unpack. Perhaps the most exhaustive effort to date is Patrick Holleman’s aforementioned book Reverse Design: Final Fantasy VII. Holleman uses extensive quantitative data to analyze aspects of the game such as its script, difficulty curves, character level-up systems, and map design to establish a clear understanding of how Squaresoft sought to unify its mechanical and narrative systems.

Several other writers have also endeavored to unpack the game’s interplay between form and function on a smaller scale. Patrick Lee highlights several scenes (Wayback Machine only) during which the player’s control over Cloud is restricted – his date at the Gold Saucer, his forfeiting of the Black Materia to Sephiroth, and the scene in the Forgotten Capital where he involuntarily threatens Aerith with his sword – and constellates the mechanical similarities between these scenes to comment on how Sephiroth antagonizes the player through Cloud:

The player’s control, his or her gateway into this world and method of propelling the story and experiencing the plot, is hijacked. It is at this point that the stakes are increased not just for Cloud, but for the player, whose investment has been strictly empathetic up to this point. Once Sephiroth displays his control over Cloud, he is effectively demonstrating that his rival is not only the character, but the player.

Jeremy Parish writes for USGamer about the Materia system as a continuation of the Final Fantasy franchise’s attempts to synthesize gradual skill-building and character modularity, while at the same time “[giving] players a mechanical connection to the story, an essential tradition in Final Fantasy.” Joseph Leray suggests that the interchangeable nature of the Materia system is meant to “compensate, mechanically speaking” for the eventual loss of Aerith, the game’s de facto healer, and that such linkage of content to mechanics helps inoculate RPGs like Final Fantasy VII to the alienating “content degradation” that plagues many other genres within the medium.

Under the Rotting Pizza

Final Fantasy VII’s greatest triumph and self-justification may be that even 23 years after its original release, its themes remain an eerie reflection of major issues facing our world today. Though the Final Fantasy franchise has long kept rampant imperialism in its sights, its seventh installment poured tremendous energy into depicting a world ravaged by corporate greed and tyranny.

Writing for The A.V. Club, Patrick Lee analogizes the game’s marriage of corporatism and politics to America’s own compromised government, claiming that “the polygamist marriage of business, government, and violence represented by Shinra Inc., 20 years ago presented as science fiction, is starting to manifest in real life.” Joseph Parrish expounds on this, writing of Shinra Electric Power Company as a functionalist corporate entity so powerful that it can freely commit human rights violations in the territories it expands into:

Cruel experiments were performed on human subjects. An inability to control the product of these experiments led to the destruction of Nibelheim and most of its inhabitants. When given a chance to eliminate a handful of eco-terrorists, Shinra chose to drop an entire city platform onto every innocent person in the slums below.

Otakuman5000 interprets Shinra as a direct commentary on the pervasive corporate culture of both Japan and the United States, suggesting that its villainous portrayal is related to Japan’s 1990s post-bubble economic anxiety and directly analogizing Shinra to Japanese electric company TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Mark Filipovich analyzes themes of displacement within the game, depicting a world stripped of its autonomy and a populace crushed into disillusionment and apathy by this capitalist superpower and everything it represents:

The people have no homes, no purpose and no sense of selfhood. Every location is pared down and even the most unique locations are marked by the Shinra’s ownership. Even the characters are displaced, their bodies and minds are pulled apart and patched back together unnaturally.

The parallels to our own world, in which over 70 million people are thought to be forcibly displaced, are unmistakable. 

Displacement is one of the many outcomes of our hurtling toward catastrophic climate change, which is also addressed within Final Fantasy VII, albeit allegorically, through its “dying planet.” Cameron Kunzelman writes for Vice about how the game links institutional corruption and urban blight to a greater concern with ecological justice, seeing in Final Fantasy VII a world polluted “to such an extent that humanity has become cloistered in corporate-controlled nightmare cities where they’re bottled up to rot in slums beneath metal plates.” Forrest Brown’s podcast Stories for Earth likens The Lifestream and Mako energy to our world’s fossil fuels, and notes that “Like Shinra, oil and gas companies extract liquid energy from once-living beings—in our case, mostly zooplankton and algae—to produce power for our homes, cars, factories, airplanes, and ships.”

The environmentalist aspects of Final Fantasy VII as enacted by its heroes have been met with some controversy, most of it tied to the guerrilla methods of ecoterrorist group AVALANCHE. Jeremy Parish weighs the collateral damage caused by AVALANCHE against its attempts to disempower the Shinra empire, considering the new cultural connotations that acts of terrorism carry post-9/11 and contemplating whether the remake might be more willing to critically examine AVALANCHE’s explosive tactics. Jon Hochschartner, writing for People’s World, decries the sectarian nature of AVALANCHE’s violence as anti-revolutionary and hopes similarly to Parish that the remake will “inject the game with an even more class-conscious sensibility than the original that truly recognizes how deeply the fights for economic democracy and environmental sustainability are intertwined.” Edwin Evans-Thirwell, writing for The Face, wrestles with the irony of the game and its remake having such a pronounced pro-environment message while further popularizing a medium that has devastating ecological effects:

The creation of a modern games console like a PS4 involves vast quantities of plastic, steel, tin and gold, the extraction and processing of which is rife with environmental risks, from cyanide leaching to nitrogen trifluoride escaping into the atmosphere… One 2019 report found that US emissions from gaming are the equivalent to putting five million more cars on the road. Electricity demand from gaming in California alone is forecast to equal Sri Lanka’s entire consumption in 2021.

Although only one part of Final Fantasy VII Remake has been released so far, all signs point to Square Enix remaining fully committed to, if not doubling down on, their original political vision. Kat Bailey writes for USGamer about the care taken to flesh out the new iterations of Midgar and Shinra as reflections of our late capitalist society: “It’s unsparing in its depiction of a society addicted to the unsustainable luxury of Mako, driven by war and wealth disparity, and presided over by a cold, self-interested mega-corporation.” Austin Jones lauds the remake for Paste as a rebuttal of critics and fans who called the original’s anti-capitalist politics “incidental at best,” claiming that the remake’s explication of Shinra as a false messiah promising a better life to the citizens of Midgar “echoes the sort of thinly veiled colonialism we deal with every day from America’s right and, increasingly, the center as well, from pipelines to predatory Amazon campuses.” Garrett Martin, also writing for Paste, shows a similar appreciation for the remake’s “unapologetic political identity” while at the same time taking umbrage at its use of “dismaying racial and gender portrayals.”

Two writers for Bullet Points offer diverging takes: Jon Bailes claims that the remake’s adherence to its predecessor’s ideology in our current political climate is to its credit, especially because its ending is willing to then “[divert] from the major plot points of old to open up the possibility of things happening differently going forward,” a creative decision that “works allegorically to signify a stronger imagination… It symbolises the point of political possibility when we decide to pursue an alternative with no guarantees.” Amanda Hudgins, meanwhile, writes a negative assessment of the remake’s “aggressively black and white” politics, claiming that the game is beholden to “Saturday morning cartoon era writing; Heidegger and President Shinra are moustachioed villains at the head of an evil empire ready to be brought down by our heroic rebels, who are just out there with the good of the planet in mind.” 

Hey, That’s Not Cool

For all of the adulation Final Fantasy VII has received over the years, it has also been subjected to extensive critique as well.

The game has received some blowback for its treatment of women: LadyAce writes of how it relegates its otherwise compelling female leads to positions of romantic or sexual objectification, as well as its occasional attempts to make comedy out of sexual menace against women. Kathyrn Hemmann expresses similar concerns regarding Aerith and Tifa, but ultimately comes down positively on the game’s depictions of women, positioning it as a turning point for Final Fantasy in which Squaresoft welcomed female gamers to the franchise by giving them “stronger and more developed female characters” to identify with.

Furthermore, there has been some concern regarding the game’s depiction of Barret, its one black lead character. LadyAce finds Barret to be a “very complex character with a lot of agency,” and does not believe the game is intentionally racist, but finds it worrisome how his leadership of AVALANCHE is portrayed as “incompetent and hotheaded” and how he is stereotypically “the ‘big tough black guy’ who’s so badass he’s got a gun on his arm, has shaved the sides of his head, and curses so much that a good portion of his dialogue has to be censored.” Jeremy Parish agrees that the stereotypical elements of Barret’s personality are problematic, contemplating how Squaresoft’s decision to “not to have Americans handle the localization of the game” may have influenced this: “It’s not just language that is poorly translated by those who aren’t indigenous to the market, but also [idioms] and at times, unfortunately, values.”

(Parish’s article here concerns the original Final Fantasy VII‘s localization. Remake has its own Barret problems. -ed)

Paul Haine finds the collective reaction to Aerith’s death to be “overblown… as if there was a competition as to who could be the most traumatised by games-as-art,” and considers said death to be part and parcel with how the game demands investment in pointless grinding. John Teti, writing for The AV Club, opines that Aerith’s death lacks resonance because it happens beyond the player’s control, and that the franchise had already offered a stronger example of character death and player agency with Shadow in Final Fantasy VI. Librascope speaks highly of the game’s narrative and wealth of artistic detail, but finds that despite the Materia mechanic’s potential, the game “doesn’t adequately test the systems at play, and give players meaningful, intrinsic reasons to explore said systems” and that it rarely rewards or necessitates any strategy beyond “mashing attack and using Cure spells when necessary.” Chay Close, in a largely positive retrospective, admits that the story “is a great big, broad whopper of a metaphor, dealing with the evils of Big Oil, corporate statism, and religious zealotry, wrapped up in a Native American-tinged tale of peace and love on earth,” and that “it’s not hard to see how the game’s narrative broad-strokes could be construed as adolescent.”

Whispers of Fate

Close also admits that his assessment of the game is “inherently clouded by nostalgia,” a notion that is frequently brought up in relation to Final Fantasy VII. In their letter series, Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton go in depth regarding the “unique confluence of events,” including the aforementioned development of the internet, that created such a strong sense of community around the game and contribute to this common feeling. Tom Whyman writes of the “Proustian rush” that accompanied his replay of the game as an adult, describing its linearity and predictability “as a sort of comfort blanket,” but also expresses concern that the culture industry’s obsession with nostalgia may lead to those feelings becoming “utterly empty.”

For this reason, many critics approached the remake with a cautious eye cocked toward its intentions, whether it would advance or complicate the game’s mythos or simply be a soulless cash-in on long-gone memories. Chris Casberg, for Kill Screen (originally GameChurch), recounts his experience leaving behind the stultifying allure of childhood rapture he had associated with Final Fantasy VII and, nearly five years before its release, cautions readers not to judge the remake too harshly against a nostalgic standard:

Let the feeling pass. Evaluate the new game on its own merits. Don’t get caught in the trap of fretting how you’re not feeling the way you felt the first time you laid eyes on a spiky-haired mercenary with a huge sword leaping off a train.

K.W. Colyard notes that the remake is likely the harbinger for a slate of similar “classic game remakes,” now that the core audience for the original games has reached a certain degree of social and economic stability:

Not only do we have the money to buy these remakes and relive our childhood experiences, but we’re also compelled to pass them along to the children in our lives. Seen in this light, there’s no better time to remake the games we all grew up enjoying.

Aidan Moher contrasts the original game and the remake as a means of exploring the latter’s “weaponized nostalgia,” identifying specific storytelling examples in the remake that Square Enix deploys to simultaneously set up future plot beats and toy with the foreknowledge of those who have already played the original. Finally, Ian Walker writes for Kotaku on completing the remake without having played the original and feeling like an “interloper on someone else’s nostalgia”:

I’ll be straight up here and say I have no idea what Sephiroth is doing or why I even had to fight him. The name Jenova means nothing to me. I don’t know why fate is trying to keep Cloud and company from doing whatever it is they’re trying to do… The last few hours of Remake were like walking into a church in the middle of prayer. A reverence is attached to this game that I can only comprehend at a basic level, and it felt sacrilegious being in its presence without having already made a spiritual connection with the original.

Accounts like Walker’s elucidate the creative intentions of the remake’s team: the first installment’s primary goal is to tap into, and then subvert, the nostalgic expectations of its built-in fanbase. In an interview with Nomura, Nojima, and producer Yoshinori Kitase (translated by aitaikimochi from Final Fantasy VII Remake: Ultimania), Nomura reveals that the final text seen on screen in the game, “The Unknown Journey Will Continue,” came about because Kitase wanted something “that connects to what lies beyond the ending.” In the same interview, though, Kitase himself says that “From here on out, we’re not drastically changing the story and making it into something completely different than the original. Even though it’s a Remake, please assume that FF7 will still be FF7 as usual.”

The tension is palpable: although what lies beyond the ending remains “unknown,” it must nonetheless remain within the nostalgic contours of the original, at risk of alienating a deeply devoted core of fans that feel the story belongs to them. But without new frontiers to grow into, as so many players did within the original game and the online communities that celebrated it, how can Square Enix once again stoke the joy of discovery? There are many paths forward, many reasons to love Final Fantasy VII that are worth expounding on, but only Square Enix knows which to take. For the rest of us, their journey remains yet unknown.

Know a good article on Final Fantasy VII that belongs in this Compilation? Tell us about it!

Disclosure: Cameron Kunzelman is a former contributor to Critical Distance.

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