Whispers from a Forgotten Past: Final Fantasy VII Remake

There probably isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Final Fantasy VII Remake, but that’s okay. I’m not here to make some grand, unique contribution to the conversation. I have a lot of thoughts, though (and even more screenshots), and I want to start sharing as I often do – with a bit of personal history. This game, more than almost any other, requires it, I think. I should, of course, give a pretty explicit [SPOILER WARNING] for those who haven’t played it yet.

The original Final Fantasy VII came out in January of 1997 to much pre-release marketing and post-release fanfare. I wouldn’t get my PlayStation console until the end of that year, mainly for Resident Evil 2, so I was in a bit of a rough spot. In the year or two prior to FFVII’s release, I had fallen deeply in love with JRPGs. After Chrono Trigger sucked me in, I sought similar games, and Final Fantasy III (VI) had a similar art style (in my young mind, with not much to compare them to, anyway) and was made by the same company, so it was a logical follow-up for me. Like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound before it, it entranced me. I loved the characters, the story, the systems, and, of course, the music. The title sequence and opening scene is still one of my favorites of all time, and its score is a big part of that. I played all of these on the SNES, of course, and like a devoted Nintendo fan I dutifully pre-ordered and picked up an N64 on day one.

So when the hype for FFVII began to spread like wildfire, I was a little sad. A little bitter. A little without the ability to adequately convince my parents that I needed a second video game console (until later that year, as mentioned). I had to suffer through hearing how incredible and amazing and groundbreaking and massive this fantastic JRPG and follow-up to my beloved FFIII was. I wouldn’t play it until the following year, and to this day I have to wonder if playing it at launch would have allowed me to appreciate it more. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It really was massive, the cinematic cutscenes were rad, and the music, again, was top notch. I found such joy in seeing callbacks to previous games, like the moogles and chocobos. But I absolutely hated the character models, especially because the environments were so much more realistic and not bizarrely proportioned. Overall, I didn’t love it like so many others had, and since then it has occupied the middle of my list of favorite Final Fantasy titles.

How could I not be excited for a remake, though? Since playing VII I have played every mainline FF game, plus a few of the spinoffs and one of the MMOs, and I have loved most of them. Some of the elements shared between games – summons and chocobos and moogles and airships and such – have become woven tightly into the fabric of my gaming identity (and, in the case of moogles, inked right into my skin). So any new FF game is cause for celebration in my mind. But people have been asking for a FFVII remake for years, and I was always curious about how Square would pull off such a feat, so I did end up getting more hyped than expected for this game.

I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re thinking something like “uh, okay, can you just get to the point?” or “why do we need all of this context? Just show me the pretty screenshots,” or “oatmeal raisin cookies are better than chocolate chip cookies,” and with that last thought you are absolutely out of line and have ruined any semblance of credibility you might have had so I will be dismissing any further criticism from you.

The reason I wanted to share so much of my backstory is that it mattered more to me and my experience with this game than I would have imagined. I’ve had strong emotional ties to FF games and characters and stories, but I wouldn’t have claimed the same for my time with the original FFVII. But as the game booted up and “The Prelude” played, I felt strange stirrings of nostalgia. With every familiar shot – Aerith on the street, a high view of Midgar, Cloud looking up at a Mako Reactor – I felt my eyes tingle with the threat of tears. The moment it really dawned on me that I was nearly choking on nostalgia was when I heard “Mako Reactor 1” play out as I made my way through the game’s first chapter. The previous cues, visual and audio, had prompted some nostalgic whispers, but this track really made everything swell forth. I remembered the small apartment in Chicago that my family lived in at the time. Just off Belmont and Laramie, right behind Jade Dragon Tattoo, where I told myself I’d get my first tattoo. It was the end of my freshman year at Lane Tech High School. An unusually warm spring. We didn’t have an air conditioner so we had the windows open and box fans puttering along. I played on one of those big, old, floor TVs. My family was falling apart. I was depressed but excited for summer. I thought I might get to go to summer camp and maybe, just maybe, have my first kiss with my first “real” girlfriend. I made nachos with too much cheap cheese and Kool-Aid with way too much sugar. We had an infestation of giant ants with wings near a window in our living room, so occasionally one would smack me in the face when I was playing late into the night. I had dreams of becoming a rock star.

It might seem dramatic, and maybe I’m expanding on what were much briefer flashes of memory and emotion, but all of this sprang from just the opening scenes of the game. These characters, this music, this story that I had once felt was just pretty okay and not nearly my favorite, suddenly they meant everything. They are and were a part of my life. A more important part than I’d realized, I guess. I’m not trying to overstate anything. I understand that this is just one of many, many games I’ve played, and it does mean less to me than, say, Final Fantasy III or VIII. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a strong nostalgic reaction to a game before. It might be because I haven’t played the original in, what, 22 years? Whereas with games like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, I play them every so often so the nostalgia is tempered. One core reason for starting this blog was to chronicle some of my gaming memories, so I wanted to share this as well.

After all of that, you might be sleeping. Or you’re still fuming over my justified criticism of your taste in cookies, you absolute monster. So let’s get to the game itself. In short, nostalgic kick in the feels aside, I loved it. This is not a review so I won’t go through all of the systems and every facet of the story, but the combat was fun and pleasantly reminiscent of FFXV. And like FFXV, I wish there were more summons. The six that I have (and I think there might be one more?) are pretty great, but I miss the days of having a healthy number of dazzling magical beings to call to my side (yes, this is just the first installment, I know). I also wish there was a dedicated photo mode, but I was able to capture some decent shots. Like this little gem:

I mean look…

…at that face.

Speaking of faces: damn. The characters in this version look so good. It seems like they may have cut some corners on some other visual assets, because there were some less-than-crisp textures here and there, but the faces, eyes, hair, clothes, skin textures… all looked stellar. I was also impressed by the work they put into mouth movement, to make them match the English voices. I appreciated that even more after watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (for the first time, despite owning the special edition DVD since the day it was released *nervously sweating emoji*), where a lack of regionalized facial animation meant some truly awkward looking and sounding lines.

One of my absolute favorite things about this version is how much they expand on the characters and really round them out. I haven’t played the original in a very long time, true, but I feel like I know these characters more and have a deeper connection with them after this game, compared with how I felt after the entirety of the original game. The writing, voice acting, and animation brought so much life and energy to the smallest of interactions. FFVIIR’s writer, Kazushige Nojima, recently said that he wanted to make Cloud a more complex character in this version, not so “lame.” I think they pulled that off. In the original, Cloud felt a little like a brat. He comes off as cold in this version, but not exactly bratty. More distant, jaded, hesitant to trust, maybe. I also love how they built out Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and even Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. They are not only cool, full characters on their own, but their interactions with Cloud and the rest of the party are important and help to further develop those characters, too.

I probably won’t write much about this game in my dissertation because it takes place in a fantasy setting (and I’m looking at Japanese depictions of real places), but I did think there was a lot of cultural stuff ripe for analysis. This is already running long so I will just briefly discuss one: the controversial Honeybee Inn scene, where in the original, Cloud is dressed like a woman and some insensitive, homophobic remarks/suggestions are made. Japanese games have a complicated history with queer representation. They have, for a long time, been more willing than big Western developers to include women and queer characters in prominent roles in games, but this increase in inclusion has meant an increase in problematic representation as well. I think it’s important to note that much of the criticism of Japanese games and their portrayals of queer characters comes from a Western perspective, with a Western sense of what is “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.” Having said that, I am not defending every warped depiction of queerness in Japanese games. There are plenty of examples of (usually) gay male characters that are used to create fear in straight characters, or are made to be over-the-top, clownish caricatures that are problematic in any culture, I would argue, because regardless of audience they remove or lessen the humanity of these characters and create an unrealistic trope which real queer people are then unfairly expected to mirror.

That said, I have noticed a trend in Japanese games where queerness and queer characters are treated with increasing respect and realism. From the explicit statement of LGBTQ+ support in AI: The Somnium Files, to Atlus’s inclusion of a new, datable trans character in Catherine: Full Body, their acknowledgment of the issues with queer representation in Persona 5 and their edits in Persona 5 Royal to correct such issues, to overt discussions of gender and identity in Punch Line, to, well, the new Honeybee Inn scene in FFVIIR. In this scene, I was waiting for signs of Cloud’s refusal to participate in the dance or makeover, but he is all in and the entire scene is big, exciting, and fun. Cloud expresses a desire to not talk about it afterward, but given his stoic, guarded nature, they seem to have made it more about his discomfort with being in the spotlight and not his dressing as a woman. Andrea, a queer-appearing character, even makes a comment that “True beauty is an expression of the heart. A thing without shame, to which notions of gender don’t apply.” This echoes some of the remarks made about gender in Punch Line, and seem to align with a Japanese sense that gender is something that is, for lack of a better word at this point in my studies, spiritual, rather than cultural, psychological, or scientific. None of this is to say that any of the examples I’ve given are perfect in their representation of LGBTQ+ characters, and of course this is coming from the perspective of a straight man who is still learning much about queer representation in media, but I was happily surprised by how well they pulled this scene off.

Speaking of true beauty, however, you know I have to comment on the classic debate among old school FFVII fans: Tifa or Aerith? Who is more worthy of Cloud’s romantic attention (or the player’s, for that matter)? I never really had much of a horse in that race. I never really developed a crush on either when I played the original game, in part because their character models looked like plastic dolls that had been mostly melted and then put back together by a near-sighted Popeye fanatic. With the new character models and expanded personalities, though? A much more difficult choice.

I chose Aerith as my date in the Gold Saucer segment of the original game, and I figured I would probably go with her in this one as well, to stick with the choice the narrative seems to want me to make. But in the scene where I could choose to help either of them up after a fall, fully knowing that this choice was significant and would probably affect the story down the line, my gut instinct was to help Tifa. Don’t get me wrong, I love this version of Aerith. She is funny, kind, optimistic, powerful, and quite beautiful. I would 100% offer to be her bodyguard (even when she clearly doesn’t need it).

But Tifa… I don’t know. I guess I really connected with the indecision and sense of powerlessness that she so often seems to struggle with. She is clearly a badass and has some really kickass scenes where she’s, well, kicking ass. But from the beginning she’s dealing with the mixed emotions that come with seeing her childhood best friend (and crush) back from war, but seemingly different and with some pretty clear memory issues. Yet she doesn’t express this to Cloud. She represses it to focus on her role in this revolution against Shinra. Maybe not the healthiest approach, but I can relate. And, like Aerith, she too is gorgeous.

And so it seems in the next installment(s) Cloud will be forced to choose between the safe comfort of his childhood friend or the exuberant warmth of this bright new girl. As for me, I have a new crush: Jessie Rasberry.

I mean, no question. As with the other characters, she is fully developed with an interesting backstory, in which she came to the big city to be an actress but ended up joining a militant group trying to take down Shinra in order to enact justice for her father. So we see that, like Aerith, she has this cheerful, flirty persona that hides a serious side that fights for justice and is willing to sacrifice everything to help others. And, again, like everyone in this damn game, she is breathtakingly beautiful. Not to mention, she throws herself at Cloud! How was he able to resist! I mean, look:

Where is the “yes, absolutely, 100%, what time should I be there, I will do anything, please” option!? Look at how she’s looking at him! Sorry, I’m yelling. I just can’t understand how Cloud could so casually cast her aside. “But she’s so desperate!” I hear you shriek between disgusting mouthfuls of oatmeal raisin cookies. Well so am I! Even if I weren’t, though, come on. She is a catch. She’s cute. She’s tough. She’s talented. She’s dressed like a knight ninja. And:

I will hear no further arguments. Jessie for life. That headband in the ending cinematic better fucking mean she’s coming back in the next game.

Okay, this is approaching the length of a bad fantasy novel, so I need to end this. I have many more thoughts, but I just want to comment on one final thing: the Whispers, of which Barret says:

I took the Whispers to be symbolic of the struggle that must have come with remaking such an iconic game. Video game development is part business, part art, and I’ve heard many creative-minded developers (including some from Square) express no desire to revisit old ideas. They want to create new worlds, characters, and stories. So for them to return to such a venerable game, they must have faced immense pressure from within and without to both stick to the old formula and shake things up. These Whispers seem to represent that struggle. They, and maybe fans, want something new and exciting to happen in this familiar world, but they also kind of want what they know they already love. So, for most of FFVIIR, we get the safe, the recognizable. Prettied up, expanded, bulked out… but mostly the same. But when you defeat the Whispers at the end of the game, that would suggest that these safety nets, these shackles of the past, are no more, right? If so, and we’re looking forward to games that deviate in some ways from the original game (like Aerith surviving? Or Sepheroth joining your team to face a greater foe, à la Magus from Chrono Trigger? Or Cloud ending up with Jessie because she’s clearly the best choice, no more arguments?), I am so excited for what the future of this series might bring. I guess you can call me a FFVII convert.

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