When Final Fantasy VII arrived in 1997, it was unlike anything I’d ever played before. Late nights, lots of grinding, and hundreds of hours later, I’d reached the end. A few friends were watching as I took down the final boss, and we eagerly waited for the ending to play out. What we saw was...uh, unexpected.

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By unexpected, I mean vague as hell! The conclusion to Final Fantasy VII is hardly a “conclusion.” You’re left with little idea what happened to your favorite characters or if the last-minute plan actually worked. After so much struggle, the game leaves you hanging, asking you to stare at a stream of stars and wonder if they’ll end. (They don’t, and I spent more than an hour waiting.)

Yes, that actually happened.

Warning: If you’re unfamiliar with Final Fantasy VII’s story and want it to stay that way, you shouldn’t read any further.

Final Fantasy VII’s ending was mysterious and genuinely bold for the time, leading to a whole lot of confusion and hand-wringing when it was released.

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If you’re not familiar with Final Fantasy VII, here’s the basic setup. A company named Shinra has transformed the planet’s life energy into a fossil fuel. Like other fossil fuels, it’ll eventually run out, but they’ve used their invention to become a world superpower. It’s becoming increasingly clear using all of the planet’s life stream will have huge consequences, but Shinra gonna Shinra.

There’s a lot going on in Final Fantasy VII, but long story short: Cloud ‘n friends are the good guys and gals trying to save the planet from Sephiroth—the bad guy!—who wants to harness the life energy as a means to take over the world. He hopes to accomplish that by summoning a meteor to wound the planet, prompting a huge amount of life energy to surge right where he’s standing.

Final Fantasy VII was for me—and I suspect many others—a game of firsts. It was the first game where I’d maxed out the in-game clock; the first to emotionally move me, with the death of Aeris; the first to convince me “hey, maybe games can be like movies!” and expanded my respect for the medium.

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I could not have been more invested in the plight of Cloud, Tifa, Barret and everyone else when the final battle with Sephiroth was going down. Even though it took five years for my Knights of the Round Table summon to play out, I didn’t care. Every attack brought me one step closer to saving the world.

With my crew nearly dead, I struck the finishing blow. It was over. Every moment after this is, by 1997 standards, super intense.

Cloud and Tifa barely hanging on.

Realizing the whole crew is still intact.

Barely escaping the raging inferno that is Holy.

Suspecting all the efforts by your party were too little, too late.

Despairing for the millions of people who may soon lose their lives.

Then, in the final seconds, the planet combining with Holy to fight back. YEAH!

And that’s it. The credits begin to roll, and the story of Final Fantasy VII is over.

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Well, sort of. Long before Marvel Studios made the idea of post-credits stingers the new standard, Final Fantasy VII rewarded players who sat through the long list of people who worked on this PlayStation RPG. This was sometimes seen as a “secret” ending to Final Fantasy VII, but you didn’t have to do anything special to unlock it. Players simply had to be patient enough—or hit the bathroom.

Tagged as “500 years later,” we see Red XIII running with, presumably, his children. They roll up to an abandoned Midgar overflowing with greenery.

Only then does Final Fantasy VII actually end. We have no idea what happened to Cloud, Tifa, Cid, Barret, or anyone else. How did their lives play out? Did all of humanity get wiped out, and was Red XIII one of the few survivors? At the end of the stinger, there’s the sound of children laughing, but they’re never shown.

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I remember being stunned at the time, and I wasn’t alone.

Per an RPGamer essay by Mike Lenzo:

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When I first watched the ending to Final Fantasy VII I stood in disbelief. I loved it. I went into the game hearing that the game itself was incredible, the gameplay unbelievable, the story the best ever done in a video game, and yet the ending was horrible. [..] And that’s the way I felt about it, even as all of my friends who had played the game and beat it talked of how they wasted three days of their life for an ending which was nothing but eye candy. “Look closer at it and the themes it presents” I said, but they ignored me. When I arrived at OSU in late September my roommate beat the game after the first week of class. After viewing the ending he took the third disk and broke it into pieces. He then threw away the second disk of the game, even as I stared in horror and disbelief. I asked him why he would do such a thing, and he said, “What they did in the end was an injustice to every Final Fantasy fan around the world and to everyone who played that game.”

Or this one from a group of RPGamer editors:

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Did humanity survive Holy? This question alone could easily fill several more editorials. There is no physical evidence that humanity survived , but the sound of innocent children makes it clear that humanity is not forgotten. Meteor was stopped; Holy thwarted armageddon; the Planet survived. The final image of the former city of Midgar, the last and largest citadel of human corruption, defeated by nature at last, says more than any explanation could.

And what of the individual characters? Frankly, it doesn’t matter; the characters’ futures are inconsequential. It is their development throughout the game which is important. Final Fantasy VII is primarily the story of the Planet’s struggle; focusing on individual characters would have distracted from the most overriding theme: nothing is more important than the Planet. Nothing is more important than life.

The story of Final Fantasy VII is more complicated and mature than the story of any game that has come before. It is only fitting that the ending is equally complicated and mature; a literal ending wouldn’t have done the game justice. Final Fantasy VII’s more symbolic ending perfectly embraces and emphasizes the story’s themes.

Even now, a Google search for Final Fantasy VII’s ending brings up confusion.

Of course, Square themselves managed to completely undercut the divisive but respectable nature of Final Fantasy VII’s ending with stuff like Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus, both of which took place after the events of Final Fantasy VII.

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In the years since, the game’s developers have defended their ending choice, including director Yoshinori Kitase. Here’s a conversation with EGM in 2005:

EGM: What does Final Fantasy VII mean to you?

Yoshinori Kitase: FFVII was the first Final Fantasy for the PS1, and it was also the first 3D game in the series, so it determined the new direction that the franchise would take after the 16-bit Super Nintendo era. It’s by far the most memorable and important title for me, and when I had the chance to expand any of the past games, I immediately chose Final Fantasy VII for the project. The ending of FFVII seemed to me to open up so many possibilities with its characters, more so than other games.

And though Advent Children removes some of the ambiguity, Kitase seems to lend support to the theory humanity doesn’t actually survive:

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EGM: At the very end of FFVII, we see the epilogue to the whole story that takes place 500 years later, so really, you still have another 497 years’ worth of games and movies to fill in....

YK: Ha, maybe I’ll try to do that. In a way, I consider that epilogue to be the true happy ending of FFVII. Well, it’s a happy ending even though all the human beings are destroyed. [Laughs]

It’ll be interesting to see how Square addresses this with the remake. They’re promising to mix things up this time around. Does that mean the ending, too?

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You can reach the author of this post at patrick.klepek@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @patrickklepek.

That Actually Happened is a weekly series at Kotaku in which we highlight interesting moments in gaming history. So far, we’ve revisited when Sonic kissed a human, a live game show on Xbox 360, and Sony throwing a God of War party with a dead goat. If you have any suggestions for future entires, please let us know in the comments below!