Caution: The following contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII and Remake.
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Nanaki speeds down an arid canyon followed closely by his pups. Ascending its walls, he effortlessly leaps from precipice to precipice as his children vault smaller gaps, perhaps dreaming of the day they could jump just as high. They emerge upon an incredible landscape: the ruins of a towering city, subsumed by nature. Roiling reactors, draining the Planet of the force necessary to sustain life, are now embalmed in roots and leaves. Nanaki reveals his 500 years in the tufts of grey that poke out of his fur. He knows the truth of this place, but only he can teach. All of his comrades have rejoined the ever-coursing Lifestream long ago. A flock bound for the metal peaks beyond cries out. This is our last glimpse at the world of Final Fantasy VII in the original PlayStation title released in 1997.
It’s an incredible scene, one of my favorites in fiction. It provides as many questions as it does answers: did human society survive the after-effects of Meteorfall’s devastation? Was Midgar abandoned for elsewhere, where humanity could thrive without harming the flow of life and death? The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII provides some ideas, yet the ambiguous ending of the original game haunted me. In our current age, I feel haunted by the prospect of a world unsavable from ecological doom, that the meteor slowly descending draws nearer and nearer. There are no definite answers provided to the player on the fate of Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and the rest. Only possibilities, good or grim, remain.
In an earlier scene, Holy’s failed attempt to repel Meteor spells certain doom for the Planet. Then, an explosion of life spreads from across all corners of the Planet. The last gasp. Within its flow, there is no humanity, only life itself. We see the visage of Aerith gazing warmly back at us, having her own life taken with sudden cruelty, here to shepherd all through its most imperiled moment.
I thought about Aerith a lot as I played through Final Fantasy VII Remake. I was thrilled at how the remake’s characterization of the main cast pulled all else in line with a neat click. She has a lot of great moments. She has a hilarious, chaotic energy that doesn’t feel manic. She speaks gravely and knowingly, revealing a deeper understanding of hidden forces that threaten all. Perhaps even the fate that awaits her.
I knew that day would inevitably come.
In the Remake, Avalanche returns to Elmyra’s house after Aerith is recaptured by Shinra to plan out their next steps to rescue her. As these scenes played out, I knew that there would be a time coming — in whatever Remake Part it’s called — where Elmyra would once again get terrible news. In other scenes, this lingering sadness about Aerith’s fate clung to me even in comedic scenes. I felt it reverberate from 1997.
Yet, something is obviously different about Aerith, which ties intimately into what’s new about this Remake. Something very strange is going on.
Throughout the story, beings resembling ghosts assail the party whenever events drive on the shoulder of the original game. We are told these are “Whispers.” They are “arbiters of Fate,” the “Will of the Planet” and they ensure that events happen as they should. They injure Jessie so Cloud is forced to join Avalanche’s second bombing mission, ensure Cloud and Aerith escape to the slum rooftops, and heal Barret when he would otherwise meet an untimely end. There’s more. At first, Cloud seems to glimpse the future. Aerith’s death. Meteorfall. It’s hard for him to parse all of this, naturally, but as the game enters its final chapter, the card is played.
The future the Whispers are to protect, a future that ensures the Planet’s survival and Aerith’s death, is now no longer certain. A future where heroes didn’t fall in their final act. A future where Sephiroth no Jenova’s fates aren’t sealed.
At first, I didn’t really know what to make of this direction. Up until this point, the story had been faithfully preserved and expanded carefully. Hints of the Compilation were dropped sparingly, its presence rightfully kept to the shadows as to not usurp Remake. Why go in such a direction?
I recalled the final moments in Midgar from the original game, the party standing at the unfinished highway leading out of the city, gazing to the horizon where they must venture to stop Sephiroth. A moment later, they emerge onto the vast, decaying plains that surround Midgar. I remember opening the map, wide-eyed, seeing that Midgar was a dot among many dots – one place in an explorable world. Not long before, I was sure all three discs would be inside Midgar’s walls.
We see the effects of how things change when Cloud and company challenge the fate laid before them: Biggs is alive. Zack’s fate is still unclear, but changed. Aerith and Sephiroth seem to have some foreknowledge of events to come, as if they were reliving these moments. Things are definitely changing, proceeding in unpredictable ways. The world we wanted so meticulously and faithfully put together now seems strange and unfamiliar.
I don’t think some fans would be in the wrong to dislike this course. In some sense, I think they wanted something to point to and say “here’s the thing I fell in love with faithfully recreated to a tee.” Remake seems to be a project that will stand alongside the original game, complementing it in a way, but I totally get that angle and the disappointment that comes with. I can’t deny that at some early point I felt the same way.
For me, curious questions arise. Will they allow us to save Aerith? How will Sephiroth be stopped? Can he be stopped without Aerith’s sacrifice? With a future that ensured the survival of the Planet now in question, what outcomes good and grim could transpire? What’s funny is, after spending time with these characters again, brought to life in a masterful new way, I began to direct these questions inward. Given everything I knew of the original, would I embrace a story that gave Aerith a chance to defy her death? For the first time, I thought: “yes.”
Square Enix is careful to re-center Shinra as the final scenes elapse. Rufus ascends to his father’s gilded throne. We know that on the road ahead, as Cloud and friends chase after the black-caped man, the company won’t be far behind – still an ever-present threat to saving the Planet. I feel this was important to ground the ethereal nature of the final scenes.
At a young age, Final Fantasy VII was a video game that greatly expanded my appreciation of fiction and themes and characters. It asked me to consider and cherish the bonds between people and between life and death. To see a world that intimately connected all life and was necessary to preserve it at all costs. I remember asking my parents to wake me up hours before school started so I could spend a few precious hours huddled in our dark, frigid basement in front of a television; this game had such a grip on me. It’s also a game that’s so ingrained in me, it’s image hasn’t dulled or faded in a post-Remake world. I feel like I can hold both of them in my head at the same time, and appreciate their nuances and direction.
In 1997 and in 2020, I stood at Midgar’s edge, in awe of a story that had just expanded with possibility, for good or grim, fascinated by the path forward.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is now available on PlayStation 4. You can read our site review here. You can also check out our ongoing playthrough on our YouTube channel below: