With Final Fantasy VII Remake, Video Games Have Their Last Jedi Moment

Photo: Sqaure Enix Games

After 20 years of fervent fandom, Final Fantasy VII Remake carries a lot of the same expectation as a Star Wars sequel. Upon the announcement of Remake, every detail was endlessly scrutinized. Fans voiced concerns that were absurd (when a character’s breast size was reportedly reduced), emotional (reflecting on revisiting story twists again in high-definition), and understandable (the announcement that Remake would only adapt part of the original’s story, expanding its opening hours considerably and adapting the rest in future installments). So would it be like a Star Wars prequel, or a Star Wars sequel? Be perceived as celebrating fans, or spurning them? The Force Awakens, or The Last Jedi?

In the end, it’s bothit’s not a story, but a struggle against fandom. It tells a storyteller’s lie — an artful omission that lures its audience into believing it’s in for one thing, only to upend every expectation. But it stops shy of radical re-imagination.

In 1997, the best way to sell Final Fantasy VII was also with a lie of omission. The game was famously accompanied by a then-unprecedented marketing campaign, with 30-second TV commercials showing off a montage of striking scenes: a motorcycle being revved by a man with a sword, a monster screaming out of the pod that birthed it, a villain ripping a strange, angelic visage from its shrine. All of these scenes were in the game, but none were representative of the 40-plus hours you’d spend with them.

They were taken from cut-scenes: interstitial mini-movies showing pivotal moments in the plot with far more impressive graphics than a PlayStation console could render at the time. Actual gameplay footage was more abstract: the characters, shaped like mini LEGO-people, were not fully proportioned. Backgrounds were painted. The story was depicted through abstraction — the player, who would watch these squat polygonal dolls stiffly gyrate and read their thoughts and dialogue in text boxes, had to stretch to connect with the story.

That’s the context easily missed by outside observers: Video game stories don’t ever really stand up on their own. They require investment, to have players fill in blanks, reflect, and, over many hours, care. This is why one of Final Fantasy VII’s meanest tricks is also one of the primary reasons it’s stuck with fans for so long: the revelation that protagonist Cloud Strife, the character players spent the most time with and identified with, was not who he said he was. His personal history, slowly unspooled over 40 hours of game, was stolen — the biography of a dead friend, Zack Fair. The player is not putting themselves in the shoes of a hero, but a coward. An old literary device reinvented for a new medium.

For video games in 1997 — still an astonishingly young industry, a mere 14 years removed from the Nintendo Entertainment System — that kind of subversion was rare. Moments that elicited an emotional response were rarer still. For an entire generation, the first to grow up with video games, this story may have been the first to tell them that the world was not what it seemed to be, that they could have misunderstood everything, that maybe they could try their best and it wouldn’t be enough.

Final Fantasy VII Remake expands on a lot, giving the original game’s initial premise — eco-terrorists in an ongoing campaign against a planet-killing megacorporation — some much-needed texture, as well as foreshadowing the ways in which the scope of its narrative will expand. But there is one change that is persistent and puzzling, one that does neither of those things. The game waits until its penultimate chapter to identify its most significant shift by name.

They’re called Whispers — hooded ghosts that look kind of like the Dementors from the Harry Potter movies — and you’re told in the game’s final hours that they’re agents of fate, here to ensure that the characters of Final Fantasy 7 Remake follow a certain path. They appear en masse without warning, confining the characters to a certain location, forcing them along a particular route, saving some lives and endangering others. The observant player is meant to have a late-game realization that recontextualizes the entire experience, like a character in a Christopher Nolan film. The Whispers, it turns out, have only appeared at very specific moments — moments where the characters of Final Fantasy VII Remake had the chance to do something differently than they did in Final Fantasy VII. The Whispers make sure everything stays the same.

This is the lie, then: Final Fantasy VII Remake is not a modern production of Final Fantasy VII, but a struggle against Final Fantasy VII, a work that turns the subtext of taking creative liberties with a remake into text. Twenty-plus years of people wanting more of their favorite game, but did they want it like this?

Video games have a uniquely symbiotic nature with their audiences — the requisite interaction makes it easier for fans to feel like their choices, opinions, and feelings matter. This is why Star Wars is a useful comparison — it has been a pop-cultural juggernaut for a generation, and anyone who loved Star Wars as a child has experienced a lifetime of validation. Like Final Fantasy Remake, a movie like The Last Jedi can try to escape the orbit of what’s familiar to fans, to reach beyond into something new and expansive, but its biggest obstacle is never simply the Dark Side of the Force — it’s the fandom.

There’s a commendable level of bravery in lampshading this tension between the fan’s desire for the familiar and the creator’s interest in doing something different. And Final Fantasy VII Remake ultimately severs its connection to the events of the original Final Fantasy VII — it ends with its cast of characters having defeated the Whispers. They gain some level of understanding that these events have happened before, and they are now free to do them differently. But Remake still seems to want to please fans with the familiar, even as it nudges them toward something different. The events of the original game are the blueprint for the entire experience.

The story of 1997’s Final Fantasy VII is known for its tragedy, full of characters who slowly realize they’re almost certainly going to lose but learn it’s worth it to try anyway. In Final Fantasy VII Remake, the same characters have roughly the same goal — saving the planet — but nothing grounds their meta-textual sense of purpose. The first act ends with its entire cast as an audience surrogate, embarking on a journey to see what’s going to be different from the first game — a story to be told in Remake’s (currently unscheduled) follow-up.

In Final Fantasy VII Remake’s cliffhanger ending, its characters know that they are in a sequel of sorts, or a parallel universe. They want to know what’s next, and step forward into the unknown. It ends before we know what that means, but suggesting, much like The Last Jedi did, that the story could go somewhere entirely new. The curtain falls before we see just how far the changes ripple outward. In doing this, Final Fantasy VII Remake renders its own story inert, suspended in limbo. It’s not about saving the world anymore. It’s about saving the fans.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Is a Last Jedi Moment for Gaming