[Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII and potential spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake follow]
Up until a week or two ago, I had never played Final Fantasy VII.
I was two when the game came out, and I lived in a Nintendo 64 household, so the cultural phenomenon that was FFVII largely passed me by, even if its specter loomed over my gaming “street cred” for years. The amount of times I’ve been asked how I, a die-hard Kingdom Hearts fan, have never played Final Fantasy VII are too many to count, especially given that I adore the KH universe’s versions of Cloud, Aerith and Yuffie. It’s a sin that I’ve paid for throughout the better part of my life as a person who enjoys video games. And I’ll admit, given that the game’s been readily available on PS4 for eons, I don’t really have much of an excuse at this point for never having played it, but in my defense, there are way too many games and only one of me.
So, naturally, I’ve been pretty excited for FFVII Remake, given that it’ll finally give me a chance to fill this substantial hole in my gaming lexicon – so excited, in fact, that I’ve replayed the demo about ten times at this point, on multiple difficulties. Eventually, that excitement gave way to the decision to play the original game for the first time on the PS4 – I had considered simply waiting for Remake, but I simply couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
Having now played through the entirety of the part of FFVII set in Midgar – the part of the game that FFVII Remake is adapting as part of its first of who knows how many installments – I’m now fascinated with Square Enix’s decision to adapt the very beginning of this 1997 classic into a full game, mainly because it seems like both a huge gamble as well as the most obvious decision in the world.
It’s easy to see how Kitase and Nomura could look at Midgar and see it as worthy of its own title. Within the context of the original game, the Midgar portion of the story (which took me roughly five hours to play to completion) brings to mind the debut seasons of TV shows like Westworld or Preacher – audacious beginnings in their own right, but ultimately prologues designed to introduce characters and conflicts that ultimately escalate until the saga finally begins in earnest with the next chapter.
But let’s start by acknowledging an objective fact: in the grand scheme of the game’s plot, not much actually happens in Midgar.
The basic outline is this: Cloud and AVALANCHE blow up a reactor. We meet Tifa. Cloud and AVALANCHE blow up another reactor. We meet Aerith. Cloud and Aerith save Tifa from Don Corneo. Sector Seven is destroyed and Aerith is kidnapped. Cloud, Barret and Tifa stage a rescue mission and meet Red XIII. They get captured and thrown in prison. Sephiroth (off-screen) kills Shinra’s President and sets them free. Cloud and the gang escape from Midgar.
Now, that might sound like quite a bit on paper, but consider that this is the first five hours of a roughly 40-hour game and virtually none of the major questions introduced in this first chapter, save for some involving Aerith, are answered by the end. The length of the Midgar portion aside, part of the reason fans of the original game might find it hard to imagine how Midgar could easily comprise a whole game on its own is because so many of the elements that make FFVII iconic are kept at arm’s length during that portion of the story.
Cloud himself is an enigma throughout the time the player spends in Midgar – we’re introduced to a taciturn young man running from his past, reluctant to connect with anyone. Over the course of his adventures, he’s prone to visions of his past that make no sense without context and hears voices that no one else can hear. All we learn about him during the Midgar chapter of FFVII is that he’s a twenty-one-year-old ex-SOLDIER operative, Tifa was his childhood best friend, and something dark happened in their shared past involving Tifa’s father, a Shinra research specimen called Jenova, and another SOLDIER known only as Sephiroth. None of this is elaborated upon until you leave Midgar.
Most significantly, Sephiroth doesn’t even exist as a physical presence throughout the entirety of the Midgar portion of the game. He’s only a name – a ghost, haunting Cloud on the periphery of the story until an act of mass violence signals his looming return to the narrative. But even then, we never see him, nor do we gain any context as to why it is that his very name strikes fear into the hearts of Cloud and Tifa.
(The other day, I was talking to a friend who wasn’t familiar with FFVII, and I likened Sephiroth’s presence in the Midgar portion of the story to the first 30 minutes of John Wick. In that movie, you’re given subtle hints that the titular character has a dangerous past and might be a force to be reckoned with. People whisper about him in hushed tones and speak of him as a vengeful force of nature that they had long thought themselves rid of. Then the dam breaks, and he returns to action, and the viewer is left in awe – “dear god, this man actually lives up to the hype.” FFVII achieves a similar effect with Sephiroth, building dread through repeated reference, and then showing the all-too-real consequences of ending up on his bad side via the massacre at the Shinra Building – and all of that is without ever seeing his face.)
If you were a Final Fantasy VII fan, and you were told for the first time that the first entry in the Remake Project will only cover Midgar, I imagine you’d be very confused by virtue nature of Sephiroth’s role in that story. If one were doing a straight-forward adaptation of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth wouldn’t even physically appear in the first part of Remake. The most iconic villain in the history of Final Fantasy would be left in the shadows for the entire duration of a full-length 50-60 hour game – and the story of FFVII would only begin in earnest at the ending of that game.
So, conducting a surface-level analysis of the Midgar portion of the game, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that a remake adapting just that part of the adventure would come up short, even if expanded to 50 or so hours. After all, it’s the beginning of the story! You’d literally finish just as it was getting started.
Yet, following the conclusion of my time in 1997’s Midgar, I was surprised to find that if you really examine the individual character arcs closely, most members of the main cast of FFVII have actually gone on somewhat-complete emotional journeys by the end of their sojourn through Midgar.
Cloud, a cold, aloof enigma at the start of the game, slowly begins to grow warmer in Aerith’s presence. By the time they escape from Midgar, he’s accepted the help of his new allies and is ready to confront the demons of his past. Barret, the leader of AVALANCHE who’s been steadfastly aware of who he is and the cause he’s fighting for, puts aside his grievances with Cloud and accepts him as the party’s rightful leader. Aerith, who has spent the better part of the opening hours of the game running from her true identity, chooses to join Cloud on his adventure out of a desire to understand her origins.
And Tifa… well, she’s ride-or-die for Cloud, which is really no different from her status at the beginning of FFVII, but she does briefly suffer a crisis of faith following the destruction of Sector 7, so that counts… for something? Maybe?
The point here is that these are all essentially complete narrative journeys in their own right; however, within the context of the original game, all of these arcs unfold within the better part of five hours of story told within the narrative constraint of Cloud’s perspective. They’re also all designed with the knowledge that the game continues after the escape from Midgar – Cloud and Tifa’s dark past with Sephiroth is actually explained almost immediately following the escape from Midgar. It’s literally the first thing that happens after hitting the “open world”. The original FFVII isn’t interested in answering all of your questions up front because it has plenty of time to do so. Remake doesn’t have the luxury of hitting all of the same beats – which raises the question as to what extent Remake will deviate from the source material.
Given that Square Enix has been fairly upfront about the fact that they’re planning to change significant facets of the Midgar story in order to make it work as a full game, I can’t help but fantasize about what it is that they might do. In a video released today, the first episode of an ongoing dev diary series about the development of Remake, Nomura mentioned that one of the team’s desires was to show more of life on the upper plate of Midgar, given that it’s an area that we only visit three times at the beginning of the game – and two of those trips are to Mako Reactors. Additions like these could go a long way towards making Midgar feel like a concrete “place” that one could see themselves visiting.
I’m also intrigued by the decisions they’re making in regard to outright revision of the source material. The trailers have shown plenty of iconic moments from the original game recreated as part of Remake, including Cloud’s leap into the train carriage after escaping from Mako Reactor 1, the first meeting with Tifa and Marlene at 7th Heaven, and the first glimpses of the Shinra Building raid. But they’ve also included plot points that simply didn’t occur during Cloud’s original adventures in Midgar; most notably, Sephiroth is a physical presence in Remake, to the extent that it appears as though the party has an outright confrontation with him at some point. If they’re planning to alter the structure of the plot that significantly, it shows that by the end of this multi-part project, the story of Final Fantasy VII will likely unfold in a markedly different fashion in the Remake than in its source material.
When I played the Remake Demo, and then went back and played FFVII, I was struck by some of the differences between the two games’ opening missions, but the one that I keep thinking about is the degree to which I got attached to Biggs, Wedge and Jessie. In the original FFVII, these three characters are essentially window dressing designed to serve a function and get you acquainted with the world – Jessie, for example, is basically built for exposition, her purpose being to explain to you how Midgar’s city layout works.
In the Demo, they’re all still clearly side characters; it’s not like any of them get to be members of your party. But each of them exudes warmth and personality in different ways, their demeanors acting in stark contrast to Barret’s gruff, distrustful persona during his introduction to Cloud. Wedge is clearly intent on appealing to Cloud’s better nature, even if his soft personality does nothing to endear himself to the ex-SOLDIER. Biggs thinks Cloud will be a handy tactical asset, and is markedly impressed with his combat ability. Meanwhile, Jessie appears to be suppressing the world’s worst-kept secret crush on Cloud, prying into his relationship with Tifa during mid-mission downtime and casually flirting with him despite his complete and utter lack of reciprocation.
The Remake Demo gives you a minimal amount of time with these three characters during the bombing mission before they’re sidelined, just as they were in the original game - but I was so much more invested in their Remake personas. You might be able to attribute that to the fact that the characters are voice-acted now, or the ways in which Square Enix’s localization practices have improved over the past 23 years, but I choose to believe that it’s a result of the love and care that Square Enix has clearly put into their re-imagining of Final Fantasy VII. Within the span of a demo and a few hours of classic FFVII, the remake has quickly become my most anticipated game of 2020, and I’m excited to dive into it on April 10th.