This year has not been great for my mental health. But I recently thought I could just push those vibes away, even just briefly, to dunk on Tetsuya Nomura, the creative visionary of Final Fantasy VII and a man who never met a story he couldn’t convolute.
I had plenty of material, because I’ve played all the Final Fantasy VII spin-off games, seen all three (yes, three) FFVII movies and read the FFVII novels. I have given literal decades of my life over to following the extended universe of media surrounding the original 1997 game, and I figured I could share my thoughts for a laugh during a global pandemic.
Weeks later, we are all part of an uprising for the literal life and validity of Black lives. My editor asked if I was up to this, and I said yes, because I didn’t want this moment in my life to be defined just by my sadness and trauma; I wanted to offer the things that make me feel like myself. This one’s all on me, fam.
Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and every single FFVII spinoff to follow. Even the movies and books and anime.
I have spent hundreds of hours over the past 20 years playing games by Nomura. I burned 60 hours alone getting 100% in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, a game that is so miserable to play that it was boiled down to a three-hour collection of cutscenes in all subsequent re-releases (and nothing of value was lost). I am completely susceptible to Nomura’s storytelling style; a mix of earnest emotion, nonsense, dense lore, nonsense, and an instinctual understanding of how to manipulate fanservice. It’s my greatest weakness.
I continue to play his games, even though they always leave me angry. And that was going to be the joke; my incredulous anger at the labyrinthine shared universes he seems to spawn in his wake.
I can’t summon that jokey rage for this. My social feeds are full of too much ridiculous rage already; guys furious that a game publisher acknowledged the humanity of Black people, or made a charitable donation. Our priorities are different.
Back in March, I wasn’t even planning to play the Final Fantasy VII Remake. As much as I was (begrudgingly) into Nomura, I wanted to spare myself the captivated annoyance. My experience playing Kingdom Hearts 3 last summer was still fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t ready to ride the hype train to Confusion and Disappointment City again. Especially not for Final Fantasy VII, a game that I loved so much as a 12-year-old that I printed off the Latin lyrics to “One Winged Angel” and memorized them during recess.
But then people I respect kept saying this Remake was different. “The ending is something else,” I heard critics murmur. By the end of April, I hadn’t left the house in weeks, and I gave in. I wanted to feel something comforting and familiar, and I needed a win. So, truly thinking that this year had shown us the worst it could dredge up, I bought a physical copy of the Remake.
And just like that, Nomura had me. From the opening shot—hell, from the opening musical notes, those same lyrics I had memorized decades before—I knew things were going to be different. Much like the Rebuild of Evangelion series of movies, I suspected this was going to be an all-new story masquerading as a retelling, and I was proven mostly correct.)
What I didn’t expect was to be thrown back into the assumedly-defunct Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project, a mixed-media morass of spinoffs and sequels that launched in the years surrounding the original game’s 10th anniversary. It was like an unexpected visit from an old friend.
The FFVII Remake is tied to more forms of media than any other game in the franchise’s history, including three novels, multiple cell phone games, and what is possibly the first ever example of a feature film getting patched in a later update (you lose again, Cats). And they all matter. Literally every entry in the Compilation ties into some plot point or reference in the Remake. It rewards you (read: me) for having horrible priorities.
So I played the Remake and thought I had my hot take ready to go. I wanted to say the Remake is proof that Square Enix singlehandedly keeps the fan wiki community alive. I wanted to say Tetsuya Nomura uses the game to pay tribute to his favorite Japanese storyteller: Tetsuya Nomura. I wanted validation for reading three separate novels of official Final Fantasy VII fanfiction.
I don’t feel that way anymore. Honestly, now I view the entire enterprise as a gift.
We talk about “escapist fiction” without always acknowledging how hard and rare it is to create a world that people genuinely want to spend hours inside of; to craft settings and characters that become grafted onto our individual mind palaces. It’s why everyone knows which Hogwarts House they would be a part of, but nobody is screaming about what Divergent Faction they represent.
The audacious gift of the Remake is to pull a bait-and-switch with one of the most beloved video game storylines in history, and then give you further reading across more than 11 spin-offs that have been created since Final Fantasy VII’s original release, if you want to stay in the world. Hundreds more hours of escapism are tied to the game if you need them, with more to come. It’s a way out. Right now, that’s a kindness.
The story of the Remake ends with Cloud Strife and his fellow thirst traps defeating the literal personification of fate while trying to kill Sephiroth (see: thirst traps) in an alternate dimension to stop his plans to destroy/save the world by crushing it with a giant meteor. Sephiroth escapes like the beautiful war criminal he is, but the end result is a ripple effect; the heroes have changed the future for everyone, including the inevitable event of Sephiroth losing to them in the end. The future is no longer tied to the events of the original game, and neither is the past. We see a parallel timeline where Zack and Cloud, both alive, enter Midgar together following their final standoff with Shinra; a stark parallel to their fate in the original story, where Zack was left dead, and Cloud assumed his life and identity in a post-traumatic haze.
It’s a bold ending that plays with the idea of a remake, of fanservice, of the artistic merit of telling the same story again with better graphics. It challenges the player to wonder what part of the “real” story, if any, will still happen as it did before. The introduction of at least three distinct timelines (Zelda fans have now entered the chat) also means that every single piece of related media is now as canon and relevant as you want it to be.
And the Remake is all too happy to reward you for your devotion.
Halfway through the Remake, there’s a chapter where Cloud has the opportunity to make Aerith smile by helping out the residents of the Sector 5 Slums. (If you don’t do this, you actually played the game wrong; congratulations.) As you run around, finding children and then committing murders for them, this song plays. The first time I heard it, I stopped playing for a moment and said: “Oh.”
In the next chapter, there’s a sidequest called “The Price of Thievery.” I stopped playing for several moments and said: “Oh shit.”
The Sector 5 song, “Hollow Skies,” has more than a passing similarity to the theme song from Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII, the only PSP game to ever make me cry. That song’s title? “The Price of Freedom.”
Suddenly, it was so clear; this wasn’t a remake. It was a reunion. And I could see the links everywhere. Curious about why seemingly-new characters Kyrie and Mereille have such strangely fleshed-out side quests? They’re from a tie-in detective novel called, and I shit you not: Final Fantasy VII Lateral Biography: Turks The Kids Are Alright.
How about that weird chapter involving a secret Shinra lab and a horde of genetically-engineered monster ninjas? It’s most likely a reference to Dirge of Cerberus Final Fantasy VII, a PS2 game that combined the worst traits of mid-2000s game design and anime to make an RPG-shooter starring a vampire who befriends an adult woman trapped in the body of a child.
Reno’s face tattoos and Rude’s extra sunglasses? The feature-length movie, Advent Children. Cutscenes showcasing different factions of AVALANCHE? Before Crisis, a 2004 mobile phone game that was never released outside Japan. Every thread is yours to pull; at this point, there is not a single character with a prolonged speaking role who doesn’t have their story expanded in some form of spinoff media.
If you’ve ever dabbled in fanfiction, you’ll understand the pull some stories have over people. They end, but you don’t want your time with those characters and ideas to stop, so you make more. Sure, things can get weird, and messy, and unstoppably horny; but isn’t that love?
Are the spin-off games good? That’s a hard question, and kind of beside the point. I’d go to bat for Crisis Core, a game profound enough to make you (read: me) root for a doomed minor character from the original game, yet absurd enough to have antagonists named Angeal and Genesis.
Dirge of Cerberus and Before Crisis are both instructive artifacts of their respective eras and fascinating examples of storyline elements being reused from other titles in the franchise (the warring leadership of X-2 and the doomed squad of characters named after weapons from Type 0, respectively). Both games are best experienced through lovingly-compiled and translated YouTube longplays, leaving your hands free to take a shot every time they try to humanize the Turks, who are basically what happens if Exxon bought the CIA.
There are three books in total, and they cross a spectrum of genres and formats. The aforementioned Lateral Biography is a detective-novel prequel to Advent Children focusing entirely on side characters.
Final Fantasy VII: On the Way to a Smile is a collection of seven short stories that range from surprisingly touching character pieces (how Barret changed his gun-arm for a prosthetic hand) to weirdly bleak scenarios (teen ninja Yuffie returns to her homeland only to be blamed for a plague).
The final book, The Maiden Who Travels the Planet, never even received a non-Japanese translation; it’s a novella that explores the wildest realms of lore-breaking wish fulfillment (Aerith hangs out with every other dead character in the Lifestream, and manipulates it to help her friends throughout the original game’s storyline). All together, the books are literal published fanfiction.
As for the movies, Advent Children is the one worth talking about. (The other two, Last Order and Case of Denzel, are short 2D-animated films retelling chapters from the original game and On The Way to a Smile, respectively.) Upon its release, Advent Children was celebrated for bringing the block-handed characters from the original game into cutting-edge CG animation, fully voice-acted and moving with a weird mix of human photorealism and anime physics. Now, the Remake looks as good as it did. Its plot—an admirable effort to juggle an action-packed story about a trio of rampaging Sephiroth clones alongside emotional resolution to the famously esoteric ending of the original game—may have been retconned out of existence by the Remake, Days of Future Past style.
It also retconned itself three years later with Advent Children Complete, which updated the film’s graphics, added 25 minutes of footage, and modified around 1,000 scenes including a major change to the credits that results in the original version of the film suggesting that Aerith is alive again, and the Complete version removing that idea completely. Like I said; it’s messy.
But it’s all alluded to in the Remake, which means it’s all relevant again.
Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake sent my mind cascading through my time with all these spin-offs that I’d read and watched and played When I finished it, I realized that, for a few dozen hours, I was so focused on these characters, this world, so invested in a struggle that I could fight for and fix, that I forgot to worry about the struggles we have here.
There are moments and events that are too important to look away from. There are experiences too painful to bear. I don’t live in a world that allows me to look away or forget the reality of my situation. That’s why it’s so important for me to be able to define myself beyond that. And when I’m reading esoteric fan translations of Japanese novellas, or comparing continuity differences between versions of the same fictional events, I can remember the multitudes that live within me. I can engage with the parts I cherish most about myself.
If you need more of that feeling right now, it’s there for you. It’s a kindness. I can’t dunk on that.
Mike Sholars is a freelance pop culture writer who believes that the best way to celebrate the things you love is to roast them relentlessly. He is doing the best he can right now. Follow him on Twitter @Sholarsenic.