One year on, the Final Fantasy VII Remake is still living rent-free in our head. Here’s the most comprehensive plot analysis we could muster.
So, you’ve reached the end of the Final Fantasy VII Remake and you’re probably thinking, “Huh. Well, if nothing else, that sure was a Tetsuya Nomura video game.”
That’s not a criticism of the game itself, which I loved, or even of Nomura-san. It’s brilliant, he’s great, it’s just… it has his fingerprints all over it, his wild flamboyance and overbearing ambition stitched into its fabric.
With the exception of some elongation and padding – so much padding – the Final Fantasy VII Remake largely follows the plot tracks of the 1997 original. There are new characters and areas, things we’ve never seen before, but for the most part, that’s all in service of stretching a seven-hour segment of a larger game into a 30- to 40-hour game in its own right.
But there’s an undercurrent throughout, an underlying theme that doesn’t become obviously apparent until you reach the game’s “ending”. Or at least, where this segment of the original ends. That’s when the Final Fantasy VII Remake goes full Nomura.
In order to understand the Final Fantasy VII Remake’s ending – and it does take some understanding – we need to track this undercurrent back through the game as a whole. It’s a sort of mild “Would you kindly?” moment without the glass-shattering flashback, but when you do follow it, it makes sense. Well, it makes more sense. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s entirely sensical, but again, this is a Tetsuya Nomura joint.
So read on at your own risk. There will be spoilers, but we’re assuming you’re here because you already finished the Final Fantasy VII Remake and are trying to make sense of what just happened.
Spoiler warning: There will be spoilers for the plot of the original Final Fantasy VII, the Final Fantasy VII Remake, and the series’ prequel, Crisis Core.
The easiest thing to do – he says, knowing it’s far from “easy” – is to plot out the Midgar section of the original Final Fantasy VII, then highlight the differences that were introduced in the Remake.
Some of those differences – most of them, in fact – are fairly benign. They add mechanics, fill in gaps, or add padding to the runtime, but they’ll offer no substantive change to the game’s overall course. Which makes the ones that we will mark as significant stand out even more.
Buckle up, folks: there ain’t no gettin’ offa this train we’re on. (Except at the stops designated by Nomura, obviously.)
- Original plot points are in normal type
- Benign changes are in italics, and
- Significant deviations are in bold
Final Fantasy VII vs Final Fantasy VII Remake – plot analysis
Act I: For the planet
- Eco-terrorist group Avalanche, led by Barret Wallace and with the help of ex-Solider and main protagonist, Cloud Strife, blow up Mako Reactor No. 1 in Midgar to prevent the Shinra Corporation from draining Mako energy from the planet
- As they’re setting the bomb, Cloud suffers from debilitating headaches as a result of his exposure to Mako in the Solder programme
- The bomb causes more damage and devastation than expected which upsets Jessie of Avalanche (this is revealed to be part of a Shinra Corporation plot to galvanise public opinion against Avalanche and in support of Shinra, which is only implied in the original)
- Avalanche escape the reactor but are separated from Cloud
- Cloud’s headaches manifest in visions of Sephiroth, his former Soldier mentor, stalking him through Midgar
- Cloud meets a flower seller amid the devastation
- The flower seller is being harassed by massing Whispers, flying spectres that Cloud can’t see until she touches him
- Cloud is reunited with Avalanche on the train back to Sector 7
- Back at Avalanche’s HQ in Sector 7, the Seventh Heaven bar, Cloud meets his childhood friend, Tifa Lockheart, also a member of Avalanche, and Barret’s daughter, Marlene
- Barret pays Cloud his money for the first bombing mission; Avalanche asks Cloud to join their cause
- Cloud declines, saying that he’ll blow up another reactor for more mone
- Barret refuses, planning to take Tifa and Jessie with him on the next bombing mission (in the original, Tifa eventually persuades Barret to agree to Cloud’s terms)
- Cloud, hoping to gain work as a mercenary, performs odd jobs and side quests with Tifa to assist the people of the Sector 7 slum
- Cloud runs into a hooded man with a severe illness, who has a tattoo on his arm (in the original, this occurs later with Aerith)
- Cloud continues to have debilitating headaches and be stalked by visions of Sephiroth
- Cloud assists the other members of Avalanche (Jessie, Biggs and Wedge) with procuring less-powerful explosives for the next mission
- They run into a weirdo on a motorcycle called Roche (he’s a new character, he’s awful, and he has no bearing on events whatsoever; we have no idea why he’s even in the game)
- We learn more of Jessie’s back story, that she dreamed of being an actress but joined Avalanche after her father, a Shinra employee, suffered extreme Mako poisoning in an accident at work
- We learn that Barret’s cell of Avalanche is a splinter group of a wider anti-Shinra terrorist organisation
- On the morning of the Mako Reactor No. 5 mission, the Whispers attack Avalanche’s headquarters in numbers and Jessie is injured
- This means Barret benches her for the reactor bombing mission, and agrees to Cloud’s terms in order for him to take Jessie’s place
- Cloud, Barret and Tifa take the train to Mako Reactor No. 5
- Their fake IDs are spotted and they have to jump from the train
- They walk through the train tunnels to get to Reactor No. 5
- (In the Remake, this section is much longer than the original, including having to traverse the underside of the plate to get from the railway line to the reactor, but the flow of events is broadly the same)
- They meet up with Biggs at Mako Reactor No. 5 and begin the mission proper
- President Shinra and his head of security, Heidegger, are planning a televised execution of Avalanche in response to the reactor bombings, using a giant robot called the Air Buster
- Cloud, Barret and Tifa learn of this plan and take the opportunity to sabotage the Air Buster before the battle
- President Shinra appears to taunt Avalanche (as a hologram in the Remake) before the battle with the Air Buster
- After the Air Buster is defeated, an explosion throws Cloud from the Mako Reactor’s gantry into the slums below, while Barret carries Tifa away to safety
Act II: The fall
- Cloud’s crashes through the roof of a church in the Sector 5 slums
- His fall is broken by the roof and a flower bed, which is being tended by the flower seller he met earlier, Aerith Gainsborough
- Aerith reveals she is being pursued by the Turks, the Shinra Corporation’s secret police, and hires Cloud as a bodyguard to protect her (with the promise of a date as payment)
- Cloud defends Aerith from the Turks and – trapped in the church by Shinra soldiers and the Whispers – helps her escape via the church’s roof
- As Cloud takes Aerith home via the rooftops, he learns that the Turks have been trying to capture her for years (“maybe they think she has what it takes to be a Solider?” she muses) and that she used to date someone who was in Soldier
- Cloud and Aerith perform odd jobs and side quests for the people of the Sector 5 slums
- Cloud defends Aerith from the Turks for a second time
- Cloud takes Aerith home, then plans to set off back to Sector 7 to reunite with Tifa and Avalanche
- Aerith’s mother, Elmyra, asks Cloud to stay overnight so they can travel more safely in the morning
- When Aerith isn’t listening, Elmyra asks Cloud to sneak out in the night (as she doesn’t want her daughter’s heart to be broken by another Soldier)
- Aerith is wise to her mother’s plan and waits for Cloud on the road out of Sector 5
- Aerith and Cloud travel towards Sector 7 via a ruined expressway
- They stop to rest in the Sector 6 playground at a junction between Sector 7 and Wall Market, the notorious “nightlife” district run by crime boss Don Corneo
- (You can ride on the Moogle slide, people. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. YOU CAN RIDE ON THE MOOGLE SLIDE IN THE FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE. I HAVE BEEN WAITING MORE THAN HALF MY LIFE TO RIDE THAT SLIDE)
- As they are preparing to part ways, a Chocobo-drawn carriage appears out of Sector 7, carrying (a very glammed up) Tifa as a passenger towards Wall Market
- Cloud and Aerith learn that Tifa is going undercover, posing as a potential bridal candidate for Don Corneo to uncover a secret plot pertaining to Avalanche
- Aerith volunteers to be a second bridal candidate to get into Don Corneo’s mansion and help Tifa, but Cloud is uncomfortable with putting her in danger
- The only sensible alternative is to have Cloud also go undercover, dressed as a woman, to infiltrate Don Corneo’s mansion
- Cloud and Aerith perform odd jobs and side quests for the people of Wall Market to gain an audience with Don Corneo, including
- Getting the drunken dressmaker to go back to work
- Delivering medicines to sick people
- Competing in a squat competition at the local gym
- Dancing at the Honey Bee Inn, a gentlemen’s club
- Competing in an underground fight club
- And other various things for a raft of fairly uninteresting new characters
- Cloud and Aerith get glammed up in their dresses, enter Don Corneo’s mansion, and are reunited with Tifa
- With all three of them posing as the bridal candidates, they realise that the game is rigged and one of them will get access to Don Corneo, whatever happens
- In the Remake, Don Corneo selects Cloud as his bride (in the original, he would pick differently depending on how thoroughly you completed the Wall Market side quests)
- The two characters who weren’t chosen (always Tifa and Aerith in the Remake) escape from Don Corneo’s basement and, together with Cloud, question the Don
- Corneo reveals that Shinra is planning to drop the plate onto the Sector 7 slums, wiping out Avalanche and blaming them for the destruction in the process
- Corneo activates a trap door and drops Cloud, Tifa and Aerith into the sewers so they can’t interfere with Shinra’s plan for Sector 7
- Cloud, Tifa and Aerith escape the sewer and find themselves in the haunted train graveyard between Sector 6 and Sector 7
- They fight their way through the train graveyard while Avalanche fights to stop Shinra from destroying the plate support pillar
- Aerith – who can communicate with the spirits to some degree – helps the ghost of a lonely child that’s living in the train graveyard
- Cloud, Tifa and Aerith arrive at the base of the Sector 7 pillar as people are panicking and fleeing the Sector 7 slums underneath
- Wedge falls from the pillar but slows his fall with a grappling hook and survives unscathed (in the original he is seriously wounded and unable to move)
- Tifa asks Aerith to go and rescue Marlene, Barret’s daughter, from the Seventh Heaven bar while she and Cloud try to prevent the destruction of the pillar
- Aerith finds Marlene in the bar but is located by the Turks before they can escape Sector 7
- She makes a deal with the Turks to go quietly if Marlene is kept safe (this is all implied in the original, but you actually play this section in the Final Fantasy VII Remake)
- Cloud and Tifa climb the plate support pillar
- On the way up the pillar, they run into Biggs and Jessie, both seriously wounded and beyond help
- Cloud and Tifa leave Biggs and Jessie to go help Barret, who is further up the pillar, trying to defend it from the Turks
- Reunited with Barret at the top of the pillar, the party defeat the Turks, but the Turks are still able to trigger the self-destruct procedure to bring down the pillar and escape
- In the Remake, Cloud, Tifa and Barret could have stopped the Turks at this stage, but Tifa is prevented from stopping the destruction of the pillar by the Whispers, which swarm around the control console
- Barret swings to safety from the pillar, carrying Cloud and Tifa with him
- Cait Sith appears, for some reason? He’s very upset about the pillar coming down and not getting there in time to help, but out of context, he’s just a weird cartoon animal who appears during a devastatingly sad moment
- They land in the park where Cloud and Aerith saw Tifa, while Sector 7’s pillar comes down behind them
- Cloud, Barret and Tifa gain access to Sector 7 via a tunnel and help survivors escape (in the original, Sector 7 is never accessible again and it is implied that everyone that who didn’t get out in time – including Biggs, Jessie and Wedge – was killed)
- Cloud, Barret and Tifa perform odd jobs and side missions to help the survivors of Sector 7
- They find Wedge severely injured but alive in the ruins of Sector 7
- Before they can rescue Wedge they fall through damaged ground into a Shinra research facility filled with failed Jenova research specimens and have to fight their way out
- Barret carries the injured Wedge to Aerith’s house
- Arriving there, they find Marlene safe and well, and learn about Aerith’s origin story – that she is Elmyra’s adopted daughter and the last of the Cetra, and that the Shinra wants to recover her because they believe she can lead them to the “promised land” which is “filled with Mako energy”
- Elmyra requests that they don’t attempt to rescue Aerith, fearing it will put her in more danger
- Cloud, Tifa and Barret perform odd jobs and side quests for the people of the Midgar slums
- When they are finished performing odd jobs and resolving side quests before the point of no return, they resolve to climb up to the plate (as the trains aren’t running) and rescue Aerith
- Elmyra gives them her blessing to go and rescue Aerith, and Barret leaves Marlene in her care (along with Wedge)
- Cloud, Tifa and Barret help one of Don Corneo’s lackeys hunt him down in the sewers so he can get vengeance, in exchange for helping them climb up to the plate
- Don Corneo escapes, but they are given grappling guns to help them climb up to the plate (this replaces batteries as the key item for accessing the plate in the original)
Act III: Shinra Headquarters and beyond
- Cloud, Tifa and Barret climb up to the plate and approach the Shinra building
- They sneak in through the loading bay of the Shinra building and find themselves in reception
- Tifa does a sort of Ninja Warrior obstacle course to obtain a keycard to access the building
- They have to choose to either storm up the building via the elevators or sneak up via the back stairs
- Once on the 59th floor, they then need to work their way up the building
- In the Remake this includes a hilarious Shinra Museum walkthrough, with some extremely entertaining side-eye from our heroes
- The Mayor of Midgar (THE BEST!) is discovered to be helping Avalanche, because he’s sick of Shinra running the city while his role is merely ceremonial
- After snooping on a board meeting (from an air duct above the men’s bathroom) they discover that Aerith is being held in the laboratories, run by Hojo, Shinra’s mad scientist
- Aerith is rescued from Hojo’s laboratory, along with a talking dog warrior known only as Red XIII, from the designation given to him by Hojo
- Cloud has another one of his episodes, including a vision of Sephiroth, and collapses
- He wakes up in Aerith’s old bedroom/cell in Hojo’s laboratory (in the original, they’re caught by Shinra guards and wake up in holding cells)
- Aerith fills the party in on the Cetra, why Shinra is interested in her, and what’s going on generally, including that the Whispers are guardians of destiny and pre-determined fate
- The Mayor (THE BEST!) and a mostly-healed but very much alive Wedge appear on a video link, saying that Avalanche has arranged an extraction from the roof
- The party try to find their way out of Hojo’s laboratory
- At the centre of the lab is the Jenova specimen, the remains of the calamity that fell from the skies
- Sephiroth appears – everyone can see him, this time – and steals the Jenova specimen, claiming that she is his mother and they will reclaim the planet together (Sephiroth stealing Jenova does happen in the original, but we don’t actually see it take place live)
- Cloud attacks Sephiroth and he (and the rest of the gang) are thrown down into the bowels of Hojo’s laboratory
- They then spend several hours trying to find their way out of Hojo’s maze of laboratories (which would actually work as a pretty neat horror section if it weren’t so long)
- The party escape from Hojo’s laboratory and head back into the Shinra building, to make their way to the roof for extraction by helicopter
- They find a trail of purple blood leading up the stairs to President Shinra’s office (this happens after the escape from the holding cells in the original)
- The window in President Shinra’s office is smashed, and he’s hanging from a railing over the side
- Barret pulls him to safety hoping to initiate a dialogue about clearing Avalanche’s name but President Shinra pulls a gun on him
- Sephiroth kills President Shinra, stabbing him through the back (in the original we don’t see this, we only find his body with the sword in it afterwards)
- Sephiroth kills Barret, stabbing him in the heart
- The party fights a Jenova monster while Sephiroth escapes
- While the group mourns Barret, one of the Whispers flies out from his stab wound and, surprising everyone, Barret starts breathing again
- Cloud chases after Sephiroth, who turns out to be a hooded clone with a numbered tattoo on its arm, and escapes with the help of the Whispers
- As the party waits for the helicopter extraction, the helicopter explodes (because of course it does)
- With his father dead, Rufus Shinra becomes the President of the Shinra Corporation
- Cloud stays behind to fight Rufus while the others escape the building
- Cloud defeats Rufus who escapes in a helicopter
- The helicopter knocks Cloud from the rooftop, but Tifa saves him before he falls
- Barret, Aerith and Red XIII head down the Shinra building in the elevators
- They are chased by a giant robot which fires at them from another elevator (in the original, they fight the robot in the elevator itself, in the remake the robot causes their elevator to fall down the shaft)
- Wedge, who is also trying to escape Shinra HQ sees Barret go past in the falling elevator
- Wedge is then swept up by a mob of the Whispers and thrown out of a window on the 64th floor, presumably to his death
- Barret, Aerith and Red XIII defeat the robot and continue downwards
- Our heroes find themselves trapped in the lobby of the Shinra building, but Cloud and Tifa arrive – Cloud on a motorcycle, Tifa in a truck – to make their escape
- Cloud escorts the truck to safety along a section of expressway, attacked by Shinra troops as they go
- They’re then attacked by a giant robot (while still on the move in the Remake)
- Once the robot is defeated, the group stands on the end of the expressway, ready to leave Midgar and head off into the world
- AND YET… [Tetsuya Nomura laughs menacingly in the editing suite]
At this point the game deviates properly from the main storyline, so I’m going to switch from the list format to prose. I’m also going to drop the bold formatting because everything from this point is a massive deviation.
Act IV: The death of Fate
To be fair to Tetsuya Nomura for a moment, the ending of this section of the original Final Fantasy VII is fairly low-key. The events in the Shinra tower were epic, shocking, and set the scene for the wider plot of the rest of the game. Then the getaway was just that: a getaway. Having the cast climb down from the unfinished expressway and walk off into the countryside would be anticlimactic for the ending of a AAA video game in 2020.
It makes sense that he wanted to shoe-horn in one further epic boss battle to bring the game to a close. But exactly how and why he did that – and what we’re ultimately left with – takes some getting your head around.
We pick up with the action with our heroes standing on the edge of the incomplete expressway. In the distance, the Whispers are massing around the Shinra building for some reason, when Sephiroth appears on the road in front of the party. If you thought this was going to be the final boss battle, you were way off the mark. Instead, he opens a small portal – like a glossy-haired Doctor Strange – and steps through.
Aerith, who suddenly seems to be a lot more clued-up on being a Cetra than before, explains that their battle is not just with Sephiroth for the sake of the planet, but also, with destiny itself. That if they want to be free of the pre-determined fate that has been laid out before them, that the Whispers have been trying so hard to maintain – by injuring Jessie to ensure Cloud’s participation, and stopping the prevention of the pillar catastrophe, and undoing Barret’s death, and redoing Wedge’s – they need to step through that portal and literally murder Fate.
Everyone agrees. Even Barret, who was not one hour earlier saved from death by the Whispers, is surprisingly up for killing Fate. They step into the portal and an anime-inspired battle with Fate ensues. The world is torn into pieces, everyone’s flying for some reason, and Fate is an enormous God. This is a Tetsuya Nomura video game, after all.
But because Fate is an enormous God and fighting it would be impractical, there are three regular-sized boss monsters, the Guardians of Fate, who the gang can conveniently beat up at ground level. When those three are defeated, Barret and Red XIII hit Fate with their Limit Breaks, and it dies. Then, Sephiroth appears for another battle. Once defeated, and echoing the ending of the original, Cloud is transported to another plane for a final one-on-one with Sephiroth. Sephiroth invites Cloud to “defy destiny together” before they scrap once more for the road, then Sephiroth disappears.
(Unlike the original Sephiroth is, thankfully, not shirtless this time around. I don’t think the internet could cope with that given the Remake’s level of detail.)
None of that is particularly interesting, to be honest. In a game stocked to the rafters with filler, it’s appropriate – inevitable, even – that the final twist, Nomura’s coup de grâce, feels bloated and overwrought. It’s mostly just an excuse for one of those enormous, multi-phased battles of which he is so fond.
While the battle itself is incessant, there are glimmers of something interesting, flecks of gold, Kintsugi in the cracks of something broken. As Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Barret and Red XIII wear down and defeat the Guardians of Fate, we see glimpses of something, through a lens that looks like Cloud’s Mako headaches. They’re visions of the future.
Or visions of a future, perhaps, one that looks familiar to anyone who has completed the original Final Fantasy VII. We see Red XIII, running through the desert. We see a huge Meteor rushing to meet the planet’s surface. We see Sephiroth, falling from the sky, blade downwards. We see Aerith kneeling in prayer. We see an orb of Materia, Holy, falling into the water. But the question is: which future are these flash-forwards showing us? Is this the original future, pre-ordained by Fate and protected by the Whispers, a future that is no longer written? Or is this the future that can only now take place because Fate is dead? Did Aerith just undo her original preordained destiny, or did she simply cause it to come to pass?
The short answer is, we don’t know. The longer answer is longwinded and confusing, but it’s fun to think about nonetheless.
What follows the battle with Fate is a raft of cinematics, tying up loose ends and setting the stall out for future games in the series. We see Rufus, the new President Shinra, getting his ducks in a row. We see Hojo, pleased that his theories about Sephiroth, his clones, Jenova and Reunion are coming to pass.
Except there’s more. There’s always just one more thing, and Nomura’s Columbo impression is a wild swing for the fences. It also relies on some knowledge of the original plot that the player hasn’t been given. Yet.
(The spoilers are getting hardcore from this point onwards. You have been warned.)
At this point in the Final Fantasy VII Remake, we still haven’t been revealed the truth: that Cloud didn’t complete his training and never became a Solder, First-Class. He was in Shinra and he was subjected to the Mako bombardment at the beginning of Soldier training, but he failed in his ambition.
Instead, most of Cloud’s memories of being a Soldier are those of his friend, Zack Fair, Aerith’s first boyfriend and the original owner of the Buster Sword. That’s not to say Cloud wasn’t there, however. He spent most of Zack’s story watching from the sidelines, a uniformed Shinra grunt hidden behind a mask, before he and Zack were subject to experimentation and torture at the hand of Hojo. When Zack and Cloud escape Hojo’s clutches they vow to desert Shinra and head to Midgar, but sadly, Zack doesn’t make it.
The tip of these events can be gleaned from optional areas in the original Final Fantasy VII, but they are fully expanded upon in the prequel, Crisis Core, released for the PSP in 2007. When Cloud and Zack escape, wounded and with Cloud sick from Mako poisoning, they are tracked down by hordes of Shinra forces on a cliff overlooking Midgar. Zack fights valiantly and saves Cloud’s life, but gives his own in the process. And it is there, on that cliff, that a delirious Cloud takes up Zack’s sword and vows to live on in his friend’s memory. Cloud’s delusions of being a Soldier, First-Class are borne from sickness and confusion and loyalty to his fallen comrade, never from a place of dishonesty.
Back in the Remake, we see a new cinematic, a glimpse of a memory. One that is instantly familiar and painful to anyone who has played Crisis Core: Zack’s final stand, playing out once more, as fate demands.
But as Zack stands wounded in front of the defeated Shinra forces, leaning on his enormous sword, something unexpected happens: he doesn’t collapse. He doesn’t crumple into a heap. Cloud doesn’t rush to take his hand and Zack doesn’t die on that cliff outside Midgar. Just as Barret survived when the Whispers prevented a death that had not been ordained, one that had been written into destiny – Zack’s death – is undone at a stroke by the destruction of the Whispers. Killing Fate is retrospective, it seems.
Back in the Final Fantasy VII Remake’s present, we see more changes. The Whispers explode into glittering particles that rain down on Midgar. The people of Sector 7 are rebuilding, even though nobody ever returns there in the original. Most surprising of all, Biggs – who definitely dies in the original – is shown alive, recuperating from his injuries at the Sector 7 pillar.
And we see present-day Cloud, still carrying Zack’s Buster Sword, walk away from Midgar with Tifa, Aerith, Barret and Red XIII. They cross over that cliff, the place where Zack made his sacrifice. The heavens open as the group resolves to hunt down and stop Sephiroth, then, in the distance, through the clouds, a glimpse of a new memory, a memory that never was: Zack, wearing the Buster Sword on his back, carries a wounded Cloud towards Midgar.
The meta-narrative theory of Final Fantasy VII
We’ve already seen that the game retreads the main story beats of the original. And much of the “changes” in the Remake are little more than fleshing out or filler. That’s all the stuff that was italicised in the plot summary above.
And though we didn’t realise what they were for while we were playing through the Final Fantasy VII Remake, the Whispers acting as guide rails for the narrative makes the most sense. They do seem to be interfering in the flow of events, but only major events, and only in a way that makes them track with the original. They’re like the antibodies of the game’s narrative, fighting against the infection of change.
The key interventions of the Whispers, then, are as follows:
- They harass Aerith after the bombing of Mako Reactor No. 1 – so Cloud, who is distracted by new visions of Sephiroth, comes to her aid and they meet where they were always supposed to
- They attack Avalanche and injure Jessie’s ankle, so Barret has no choice but to meet Cloud’s demands – this puts Cloud back on the field for the Mako Reactor No. 5 mission, which in turn drops him through the roof of the church for his second meeting with Aerith
- They prevent Cloud, Tifa and Barret from stopping the destruction of the Sector 7 pillar, even though the Turks are defeated and Tifa has ample opportunity – the pillar needs to come down to drive Avalanche to a showdown at Shinra HQ
- They prevent the death of Barret at the hand of Sephiroth – this is obvious, really; the fake-out death never happened in the original and Barret needs to be around for everything that comes later
- They throw Wedge from the 64th floor of Shinra HQ – this doesn’t hold any narrative critical path, and feels more like the Whispers cleaning up loose ends; Wedge should never have survived the pillar in the first place
The death of Wedge may seem like the least important in terms of the game’s narrative, but in highlighting the impact of the Whispers, it may be the most crucial. It paints the Whispers not as the arbiters of Fate, but as Fate’s mealy-mouthed civil servants, the bean-counters of destiny. Wedge only has to die because that’s what the balance ledger says, not because his being alive changes the ordained course of events.
Later, using the unexpected survival of Biggs highlights a very specific act of the Whispers – ensuring Wedge, who should have died on the pillar ultimately does, even if it’s not actually crucial to the core storyline – that has been undone by the death of Fate. This is especially important for players new to the game, who don’t know Zack’s story or the significance of his survival. Nomura himself confirmed the importance of Biggs’ survival in both telegraphing this shift to the player, but also the part it played in opening the door for further changes and, ultimately, Zack’s survival.
“We thought to have only a subtle change where in the ending you see Biggs alive, which makes you think, ‘Wait, this is weird…’ and gives a slight sense of unease,” Nomura said, in an interview for the book, Final Fantasy VII Remake Ultimania. “But then the staff thought, well if there’s room for more scenes, then let’s just add it.”
The changes are significant, then, if for no other reason than they highlight the differences to the original. So if we work under the assumption that the plot and events of the original Final Fantasy VII are canon in the universe of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, then a lot of the meta-narrative around Whispers and Fate (potentially) makes (more) sense.
It doesn’t go any distance to explain why we’re experiencing these events again – we’ll get to that in a second – but it at least explains the constraints in which the narrative operates. It also offers a nice meta-narrative outside of the game itself, in which Nomura and the writing team are themselves constrained by the pressure to reproduce the story as authentically as possible, even though a shot-for-shot remake would be practically impossible based on changes in technology and standards of presentation.
The metaphysical theories of Final Fantasy VII
So why are we experiencing the events of Final Fantasy VII all over again? (Setting aside the obvious answers of “the fans really want it” and “it’s a license for Square Enix to print money” for a moment.)
It is within the meta-narrative framework that has been established by the presence of the Whispers that we find the potential metaphysical explanations – and implications – of our retreading of the game’s well-worn narrative path.
Option 1: There is no meta-narrative
This is a pretty boring side to come down on, but fair play to you for reading this far without believing there’s anything wild going on. You have staying power, I’ll give you that. (Keep in mind that it can still be a financially-motivated Remake and also contain a bonkers Tetsuya Nomura meta-narrative, though. These things are not mutually exclusive.)
Option 2: We’re in a time loop
Let’s assume for a moment that the events of Final Fantasy VII already happened. That first storyline, that first playthrough is canon. You can think of it as happening back in 1997, in realtime when the game first released, if it helps. For reasons that we’re unable to explain – though I’ll offer a potential theory later – the characters find themselves in a time loop.
The funny thing about time loops, however, is that they tend to keep going around. That’s the nature of the loop. So while we might view our first experience of Final Fantasy VII’s storyline (back in 1997) as the “first” one, what’s to say that it was? What’s to say you can even count which occurrence it was? If all we know for sure is that time is looping around, potentially infinitely, then there’s no way to say which timeline is the “original” one.
We’re working under the assumption that the one we recognise from 1997 is the “original” because, from our vantage point of precisely two iterations of the loop, it appears the Whispers are trying to make this iteration follow the path carved out by the 1997 iteration.
The fact that the Whispers are trying to maintain a consistent storyline suggests that there is a core timeline, somewhere, but from inside any of the points in the time loop, it’s impossible to tell which one it is.
Which leads us neatly onto the next theory.
Option 3: We’re in a multiverse
Multiverses and time loops are kind of like different axes on the same graph. While they mean entirely different things – one is an infinite number of universes representing the infinite possibilities; the other has you infinitely repeating the same universe over and over – they both lead to the same summary result: that once you’ve figured out how to traverse them, you can have infinite do-overs. That’s either through time, like Groundhog Day, or through realities, like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
One small detail – that seems odd at the time, but rams home the multiverse theory – is the glimpse of a discarded snack packet in the “flashback” to Zack’s surprise survival. The bag blows towards the camera on the breeze and pauses, for a moment, so we can get a look at it. It features Stamp, the canine mascot of the Shinra Corporation who we’ve seen at various points throughout the Remake, but his design is different here. This suggests that this new, altered universe is different from our own in at least subtle ways. It’s a common trope in cinema and television, a way of gently suggesting things are amiss without spelling it out.
What makes the idea of a Final Fantasy VII multiverse seem unlikely, however, is the presence of the Whispers. What’s the point in an infinite number of infinitely differing possibilities if, for some reason, there are unseen spirits who work in the grey areas, in the margins, to ensure every universe goes down in exactly the same way?
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t at least two universes, with two differing realities.
Option 4. It’s an old-fashioned parallel universe
What if it’s not a full-on multiverse, as Marvel Comics often depicts them, but a simple case of parallel universes? Two universes that run along adjacent tracks, often caused by a single event that knocks them onto diverging paths?
Take Sliding Doors, for instance. The 1998 movie by Stanley Kubrick, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah, sees Paltrow rushing to get on a London Underground train. That point of intercision, where the titular doors slide close, creates two parallel universes that differ in tiny ways. As Paltrow’s character progresses, the universes diverge farther and farther apart. They reach a point of being almost unrecognisable as the same person, signified by a drastic haircut so we can tell the alternate Gwyneths apart. Then, at the end of the movie, she finds herself in the same place in both universes, for different reasons, and her parallel universes converge. Who’s to say that fate, or the Whispers, weren’t at work there?
But the question then becomes: what event causes the Sliding Doors effect in the Final Fantasy VII Remake?
It can’t be any of the five events highlighted above – Aerith meeting Cloud, Jessie’s busted ankle, the destruction of the pillar, the saving of Barret, or the death of Wedge – because the Whispers have already started to intervene at these points. There must have been an event, a deviation, a Sliding Doors moment before Cloud meets Aerith to cause the Whispers to commence their meddling.
And there’s only one event in our plot summary, that’s both highlighted in bold – to show it’s not canonical to the original – and, crucially, happens before Cloud meets Aerith:
- Cloud’s headaches manifest in visions of Sephiroth, his former Soldier mentor, stalking him through Midgar
Could the premature arrival of Sephiroth in the Final Fantasy VII Remake be the Sliding Doors moment, the infection in the storyline’s immune system, the trigger for the intervention of the Whispers?
In the original Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth doesn’t appear at all until he steals Jenova from Hojo’s lab and murders President Shinra. Even then, we don’t see the man himself, just the evidence of his handiwork: dozens dead, his massive sword in the President’s back, and a terrified Palmer, left alive as a witness.
We don’t see Sephiroth until after the party has left Midgar and, even then, that’s only in a flashback. Cloud is recounting the tale of what happened at Nibelheim, when Sephiroth learned of his origins – that he is a biological experiment, built from cells of Jenova – and burned the village to the ground, killing both Cloud’s mother and Tifa’s father in the process.
In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Cloud runs into Sephiroth – or a vision of Sephiroth, at least – immediately after the first Mako Reactor bombing. He manifests the burning buildings of Nibelheim among the wreckage of the reactor explosion and taunts Cloud over killing his mother.
This is unusual for a number of reasons. There’s the obvious, of course, that Sephiroth isn’t supposed to show up this early in the game. There’s also a lot of assumed knowledge about who he is, his relationship to Cloud, and what went down at Nibelheim. (Otherwise, to newcomers who haven’t played the original, the beautiful man with the flowing white hair and the very long sword probably doesn’t make a great deal of sense.)
But there’s something else unusual about Sephiroth that isn’t immediately apparent: he’s actually interested in Cloud. In the original Final Fantasy VII, Cloud is so insignificant to Sephiroth that he barely acknowledges his existence. He doesn’t believe Cloud to have any importance in his grand plan. He scarcely considers him sentient, truth be told. It’s a signal of Sephiroth’s superiority and indifference that he can’t even raise an eyebrow at the man who literally killed him at Nibelheim five years earlier.
In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, he taunts Cloud over Nibelheim, over his mother. He actively pursues Cloud around Midgar, working to unsettle and unnerve him at every turn. In the final battle, he actually asks Cloud to work with him, to lend him his strength so they can “defy destiny together”.
The only other time we’ve seen Sephiroth show this degree of interest in Cloud is in another Final Fantasy VII spin-off: the CGI movie sequel, Advent Children. And, interestingly, the aesthetic of Sephiroth in the Final Fantasy VII Remake matches closely with his look in Advent Children, complete with one black wing. (In the original Final Fantasy VII, his wing is lightly-coloured.)
(It’s also been pointed out that the three Arbiters of Fate from the end of the Remake use the same weapons as Kadaj, Yazoo and Loz, the numbered tattoo-bearing mini antagonists of Advent Children who work to support and resurrect Sephiroth. Though we suspect that’s an Easter Egg at most, or more likely, a coincidence.)
It’s no surprise to see the aesthetics of the Final Fantasy VII Remake deviate from the original. The super-deformed homunculi of 1997 have been tweaked and honed and updated iteratively over the years, through spin-offs and sequels and guest appearances, into the character designs we see today. Cloud has switched what looked like a purple jumpsuit for a ribbed grey turtleneck. Tifa’s wearing a sports bra, much to the annoyance of horny nerds everywhere. Barret’s switched some makeshift metal armour for a proper flak jacket. And Aerith… basically looks the same, actually. But the underlying point stands.
What if Sephiroth’s link to Advent Children is more than just aesthetic, however? What if, somehow, this actually is the Sephiroth from Advent Children, a Sephiroth from the future?
So we’ve established that we shouldn’t see Sephiroth this early in the game. Sephiroth also looks more like he does far in the future, possibly as far forward as Advent Children. And he’s certainly taking far more of an interest in Cloud than he ever did in the original Final Fantasy VII.
We’ve also established that Sephiroth’s appearance to Cloud is the earliest divergent point in the plot which could have caused the Sliding Doors moment, triggered the intervention of the Whispers, and ultimately led to at least one parallel universe or alternative timeline.
But it is when Sephiroth asks Cloud to help him defy fate that is most concerning, given that our heroes thought they were killing Fate in order to stop Sephiroth. Perhaps the originally ordained destiny, guarded so keenly by the Whispers, was the timeline in which our heroes are – at great personal cost – victorious and Sephiroth is defeated? Aerith may have unsealed her own fate, potentially averting her own demise and that of Biggs and even Zack, but in tearing down the destiny laid out before them may have also unsealed Sephiroth’s fate, unlocking his hitherto pre-ordained destiny to be defeated by Avalanche.
Is it so much of a stretch, given Nomura’s tendency for the labyrinthine, that the Sephiroth we’re seeing in the Final Fantasy VII Remake actually is Sephiroth from the future, Advent Children or otherwise, armed with the knowledge of how his plan fails? Is the timeline of the Remake, with the death of Fate and the removal of the Whispers, simply enabling Sephiroth’s do-over?
And what, then, if we’re looking at something more complex than a simple Sliding Doors split in destiny? Has Sephiroth-of-the-future been Dennis Quaid-ing his way through the time loop, or through the multiverse, taking multiple, possibly infinite stabs at getting things right? Imagine his luck, then, when he stumbles on an iteration of the Avalanche crew who do the dirty work and murder Fate for him, allowing him to break free from his predestined failure and change the timeline unimpeded.
That actually makes the ending of the Final Fantasy VII Remake a massive bummer, doesn’t it?
Holding on for a hero
If nothing else, the death of Fate and the potential parallel universe or alternate timeline in which Zack Fair survives creates a raft of terrifying and tantalising possibilities.
Imagine a future episode, a sequel to the Final Fantasy VII Remake, that sees Zack return to the fold, even joining Avalanche. Picture him fighting with Barret, Tifa, Aerith and the crew to save the planet from Sephiroth. But what, then, does that mean for Cloud Strife?
The obvious option would be to retain our version of Cloud Strife, the moody protagonist who warms up rapidly over the course of the game, and simply add Zack into the mix. Zack, who is cheerful and dynamic, would certainly make an entertaining foil for the deeply dour Cloud. There’s the opportunity to continue some of the buddy movie dynamics of the pair from Crisis Core. There’s certainly plenty of room for humour in Avalanche finally having a real member of Soldier, First Class on the roster, rather than Cloud the dropout.
But the existence of Zack in the universe or timeline as we know it would create a number of interesting paradoxes. The obvious one is the Buster Sword, of course. Zack effectively bequeathed it to Cloud as he died, but if Zack survives, you have to assume he’d keep his sword. It would be weird otherwise. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of other weapons available for Cloud to use – and the Nail Bat is a fan favourite – but it’s an indicator of the sorts of issues merging Zack’s survival into our existing timeline might cause.
On a more fundamental level, Cloud may not have reconnected with Tifa and joined Avalanche as a hired gun if Zack had survived. The end of Crisis Core sees Cloud heading towards Midgar alone; if Zack’s in the picture, Cloud’s future may have looked very different. (It’s nice to imagine them having a happy, conflict-free existence, like running a little bakery, perhaps. Cloud, serious Cloud, gets up early and bakes all the bread; Zack, meanwhile, charms the customers front-of-house. It’s a nice dream. Just not a very realistic one.)
But if we assume that Cloud and Tifa still reconnect and that gives us our dual-hero scenario, with both Cloud and Zack in Avalanche, that still presents another interesting divergence: Zack will be reunited with Aerith. You have to think that, after hiking into Midgar, Zack would make a beeline for Aerith’s house. He’d be daft not to. But even if he doesn’t, he might run into Aerith after the first Mako Reactor bombing, or later, when Cloud brings her into the Avalanche fold. That’s rough for Cloud. Without a doubt, Aerith would pick chirpy Zack over cheerless Cloud any day of the week.
Another exciting prospect would be for Zack to become the protagonist. And you could argue that, with Zack alive come the end of the game and damn-near identical to Cloud in aesthetics and style – that was sort of the point of the original Zack/Cloud revelation – he absolutely could’ve been a model-swapped playable character. New game plus? How about new timeline plus, with Zack in the hot seat? And with Zack alive, Cloud would no longer be living his delusions of being an ex-Soldier, though he would still be the link to Avalanche via his childhood friend, Tifa. What if Cloud introduced Zack to Barret, then took his place in the supporting cast with Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie? (And would Jessie still have a thing for Cloud, if Zack was on the scene?)
There is a point in the original game, however, where passing the reins to Zack would make sense. In the Remake, we’ve seen numerous points where others – Tifa, Aerith, Barret – were the party leader for a short time, and it’s something that is borrowed from a later stage in the original.
After Cloud falls into the Lifestream – the current of Mako energy that flows through the planet – he falls ill with Mako poisoning and is rendered catatonic. It’s then that both Tifa and yet-to-be-introduced-in-the-Remake Cid each get the chance to play party leader for a while. Imagine Zack stepping in for Cloud, deputising for the man who picked up his sword and took his place in the world for so many years. That would be a pleasing little arc.
Far more likely, however, is that Nomura and the team don’t follow any of the potential options with Zack’s survival, and instead, treat that alternate universe or timeline as a discrete ending of its own.
What’s next for the Final Fantasy VII Remake?
We’re all hypothesising what the changes to the Final Fantasy VII Remake’s ending – including the significance of the death of Fate – might mean for future instalments. We’re assuming that this bizarre revelation, theoretically taking the shackles off the game’s narrative, will lead to future deviations, but… what if it doesn’t? What if everything from this point on stays the same? (Aside from adding truckloads of padding and weird extra characters, obviously.)
In the United Kingdom, we have a strange political practice. The sitting government will leak a potential policy to the press. The press will, like good little soldiers, regurgitate these potential policies, pleased as punch that they’ve broken a story. Then the government will sit back and monitor the public reaction. If the reaction is favourable, they will implement the policy. If the reaction is acrimonious, then they will paint the news stories as inaccurate or incorrect, then never implement the policy. Disaster averted.
What if Square Enix has assessed public reaction to the ending, has seen that the battle with Fate has not been universally popular, and then plans to simply pretend it never happened? The Sliding Doors element of Zack’s survival means that his rebirth could exist in a different timeline or universe parallel to our own, continuing as a branch or offshoot from our own, but never intersecting or interacting with the story we know and love. It would allow the new Zack ending to be canon in its own stream, without disturbing the canon of the original game’s storyline. You could argue that’s a cop-out, or having your cake and eating it somewhat, but it’s a convenient way to deliver both something new and remain true to the original, and certainly fits with the meta-narrative elements woven through the Final Fantasy VII Remake.
In an interview with director Tetsuya Nomura, producer Yoshinori Kitase, and scenario writer Kazushige Nojima, featured in the book Final Fantasy VII Remake Ultimania, Kitase-san spoke about the potential for changes in subsequent games.
“I’ve talked about this extensively with Nomura,” Kitase said, “but I’m sure fans of the original are expecting to revisit familiar locations and scenes, so we have strong feelings to not stray away from that. From here on out, we’re not drastically changing the story and making it into something completely different than the original. Even though it’s a Remake, please assume that FF7 will still be FF7 as usual.”
“For me, I create scenarios that follow the general flow of the original story but with the assumption that the way things are presented or how events occur might be slightly different,” Nojima added.
One thing we think is a safe bet, however, is that the deliberate choice to name the game Final Fantasy VII Remake, not “Remake Part 1” or “Remake Chapter 1”, will have some bearing on where the game travels from here.
“I am the one who decided on the title, Remake,” Nomura recalls. “But there are two meanings to the title. The first being that we wanted to quell the doubt that arose when we first announced that we were doing a remake. When the first trailer was released, there were people who weren’t sure if this instalment of FFVII was merely a remaster or an actual remake, which made them worry. When we revealed the trailer at E3 in 2015, the reactions were as I expected, with some even asking if this was going to be a movie. That’s why I decided to clearly express to those with doubt that this is a complete remake of the original with the title Remake as well.
“In regards to the other meaning to the word Remake,” he continues, “well, I can’t answer that right now. Ask me again in a couple of years.”
So rather than simply being named Final Fantasy VII Remake Part 2, Part 3 – up to how many parts? Who knows! – it’s safe to assume they will be named individually. Given Nomura’s blisteringly confusing history of naming games in the Kingdom Hearts series, all bets are off. But if we were to place a bet on it? The letter ‘R’ (or the letters ‘Re’) might be key, especially given one of the most cataclysmic events from later in the game, the (Jenova) Reunion, starts with an ‘R’ (or ‘Re’).
Final Fantasy VII Remake. Final Fantasy VII Reunion? Final Fantasy VII Rebirth? Resistance? Revolution? Revelation?
We might not know exactly where the story will go, or what they will be called, but we do know that the subsequent games in the Final Fantasy VII Remake saga will at least come around sooner. The Remake was first announced to the public at E3 in 2015, but has been on the drawing board since Crisis Core’s release in 2007. It was when Final Fantasy as a series celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012, however, when the project was given the green light for active development by Square Enix.
“It depends on how many instalments we decide to make,” Nomura said, in relation to telling the remainder of the story. “If we divide the story into large chunks, then it will take a much longer time to develop. However, if we divide the story into smaller parts, then it might be possible to release them in a shorter amount of time.”
“On that note,” Kitase said, “if we are to maintain the same quality and volume as the first instalment, then it is unrealistic to say that we can churn out the next one in just one year.”
“Personally, I would like to release them as soon as possible so we can take a breather,” Nomura added. “I’m sure the fans would also want the next instalment to come quickly too.”
We take some comfort, then, knowing that the next instalment won’t take another eight years to develop, and that the rulebook will not be completely ripped up. The heart and soul of Final Fantasy VII’s story are indelible, even if Tetsuya Nomura’s inky fingers have smudged the margins, and the Whispers of Fate are no longer around to keep it on track.
Though it does leave you wondering what might have been. For Zack, who survives, and for Aerith, who–
We’ll have to wait and see on that one.