Remake Fakeout: The Strange Defiance of Final Fantasy 7 Remake

(PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Final Fantasy 7 Remake.)

Reviews serve a necessary function. They assert that art matters, and that the conversation about art matters. When a new work is released, reviews can enrich or challenge our perspective, giving us new ways to think about our own experiences with it, and giving the larger cultural conversation a place to start. But that’s all reviews should be, a starting point. Once a work is released to the public, the conversation may go in revealing new directions. And as time passes, even those who initially reviewed something may find their perspective on it evolving.

I often think of Bioshock Infinite, a dazzlingly clever game whose unusual world, heady themes and twisty ending understandably left many critics wowed, critics who of course had to write their reviews in a rush to meet embargo, with little time to digest the experience, or to consider that perhaps behind Infinite’s impressive light show was a rotten ideological core.

But then, sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes a game reveals itself to have more substance than the initial, often-rushed experience of reviewing it allows one to realize. I knew when I finished Final Fantasy 7 Remake that there were aspects of it I needed more time to process, time I didn’t have. And still now, it remains one of the most elusive games I’ve ever played. Hard to pin down exactly what I think it’s doing, or how I feel about it. Every time I consider it from one angle, I hear a counterargument in my head, a “Yes, but what about this?” It’s fascinating. A game that does not lend itself to simple evaluations, or rigid conclusions. A strange prism of a game.

To be clear, there are things about it I know I don’t like, and that I’m even more certain I don’t like now than I was when I wrote the review. I still think it’s bloated and poorly paced, that many of its sequences — disabling the plate suns in chapter six, using the giant robot arms in the collapsed expressway, the entire train graveyard — go on for far too long. I still think the side quests are almost entirely awful, filler doled out by NPCs so generic that they sap the world around them of life, and cordoned off from the rest of your experience in a way that makes them feel thoroughly disconnected from everything else.

Everything else, like the collapse of the plate over sector 7. One of the most memorable moments in the original game’s opening hours, in Remake it remains an effective demonstration of the ruthless evil of the Shinra corporation, and its leadership’s callous disregard for human life. As I wrote in a piece for Polygon, I think the depiction of this moment in the original FF7 is a timeless example of brilliant, wordless storytelling.

First we get a POV shot from the slums below, the horrifying spectacle of the plate collapsing, the last thing many see before their lives are snuffed out. A moment later, high above the carnage, we see President Shinra looking down unmoved, enveloped in a bubble of privilege, listening to classical music that drives home his social position and his aloof relationship to the massacre his company caused. The scene ends here, leaving us with that bitter taste in our mouths. It builds up President Shinra in our minds as a figure worthy of our hatred. It wants us to remember.

In Remake, the narrative details are much the same, but the way it’s depicted is somewhat different. We still get a shot from the ground, and a fleeting glimpse of President Shinra up in his tower, though without the diegetic classical music that was so crucial to the power of the original scene. And rather than ending there, leaving us with the strong impression of Shinra’s cold-blooded evil, the scene zips on, cutting next to a shot of Cait Sith, a character we haven’t even met up to this point, reacting to the destruction.

I find this to be such a strange choice, and a bad one. Imagine if, in the special edition of Star Wars (which is already full of terrible choices), Lucas had inserted a shot of Lando, off in Cloud City, watching Alderaan get destroyed on the news. As fans familiar with the character, many of us might have gotten a kick out of seeing him, a little “Hey, that’s Lando!” dopamine hit. But from a narrative perspective, it would make no sense whatsoever because the story hasn’t told us who that character is yet. It would be something inserted purely to make fans happy. That’s how I saw this glimpse of Cait Sith. Yes, we know it’s Cait Sith because we’ve played FF7, but for all we should know up to that point, it’s just some random anthropomorphic cat for whom we have no context whatsoever.

Or at least, that’s what I thought. When I made this argument to a friend, they replied, “Right, that shot wouldn’t make much sense if Remake is the beginning of the story, but what if this is actually less of a remake and more of a sequel?”

It’s that strange tension in how the game treats its own story, and how it wants us to think of it, that makes it so fascinating, and so hard to pin down.

When I was first playing the game, I was concerned about the possibility that some might see it as a replacement for the original, a game I adore and view as irreplaceable. But so much of Remake’s meaning is tied up in the fact that it assumes our familiarity with the original. It doesn’t feel like a game for new players at all.

A remake in the most literal sense wouldn’t require that we already know who these characters are and where their adventure is going. But I felt that FF7R was constantly trying to turn my knowledge of the first game into fondness for this one. I don’t think the aforementioned robot arm sequences work at all, but to whatever extent that they might, it’s because we remember the giant discarded robot arm in the original game. I could practically hear Remake shouting, “Hey! Remember that thing? Well here it is again, only now it’s way more of a thing! You like FF7, don’t you?” For a newcomer, this reference is meaningless. But Remake seems to not only be retelling the story of FF7, but also constantly referencing it, which is something else entirely, something that only works if you know what’s being referenced.

Eventually, it becomes explicit that Remake is essentially a sequel, that the word Remake in the title is a kind of fakeout. For these characters, FF7 has already happened. Not all of them know it, but Sephiroth clearly does. And there are beings whose role is to ensure that fate once again plays out as intended. In the end, you have a climactic battle with those keepers of fate, and their defeat suggests that the future is wide open. I really hope it is.

FF7R’s ending made me remember the graffiti in Wreck-It Ralph: AERITH LIVES. And maybe this time she will. But I don’t want some happy revisionism. I want things to be harder for Cloud and friends this time around, not easier. Sephiroth is like a Skynet who has seen this timeline play out once before. He knows that sending a Terminator after Sarah Connor doesn’t get the job done. He’s got to try something else. I want FF7R’s successors to deliver on the promise of Remake’s ending in a big way, shattering the story we think we know. If it doesn’t end up doing things that risk infuriating players who see FF7 as a sacred text, it will be playing it much too safe.

I still don’t love Remake, not by a longshot. All of its confined corridors frustrate me. My youthful excursions on airships in all those early games have convinced me that earning a sense of liberation, however fleeting or poignant or doomed, is core to Final Fantasy as a franchise. And while I acknowledge it makes sense that Midgar would be cramped and even claustrophobic, 40+ hours is a lot of buildup for a promise of liberation that we still don’t know for sure the creators can deliver on. Still, I’m excited by Remake’s defiance of our expectations of what a remake would be. I hope it really embraces that freedom, that it doesn’t go all Rise of Skywalker on us in the end. For now, it sure is exciting to look beyond Midgar’s broken steel sky, and imagine where things might go from here.

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