When the Promise Was Made: A Look Back at E3 2015
The 2015 teaser-trailer of the Final Fantasy VII remake begins among the clouds, above a city so gray that it saps the color from the sky itself, before abruptly descending underground, where dourly-dressed denizens huddle into a subway car as a deep-voiced narrator cryptically describes a once existential threat over the dull drum of a heartbeat. A shroud of smog wraps around skyscrapers and highways stretching endlessly, and as the sun begins to set, we join a group of children gathered in a playground tucked beneath an overhead railway. A girl dips along a slide as a low rumble takes the place of a heartbeat, but when she regains her footing, a pale green light shines luridly against her eye to the words, "In its wake came an age of silence." Timed with a second, ominous rumble, the producer's name Yoshinori Kitase appears in steely block letters over a plain black background.
Half a minute into the 90-second trailer, we have only been given the faintest of hints that we are looking at the world of Final Fantasy VII. The subway stop South Edge refers to the city introduced in the spin-off film Advent Children, which, despite its cutting-edge computer-animated graphics, had a largely forgettable plot. And the simple, yet suspenseful background music is part of the film score, composed by a team of veterans, but nevertheless obscure given that the film was already a decade old. The biggest cue is Kitase, who had directed not only the original FFVII, but also other critically acclaimed entries in the franchise before serving as producer.
The next third of the trailer reimagines more familiar settings and symbols. Views of a vast factory glowing slightly green as armed men slink through the rain and a helicopter shines a searchlight above; a corridor built between pipes with a bright light at the end; a lily on wet pavement as a feather lands in a puddle; a sea of buildings dwarfed by the colossal structure at their center. We also see the names Kazushige Nojima and Tetsuya Nomura, two more members of the original team. But perhaps more provocative than the long-awaited visual presentation is the increasingly self-aware narrator. "We knew that someday," he says, "we would see them again." And with a lick of sarcasm, he adds, "Perhaps it was no more than wishful thinking."
In the last thirty seconds, we return overhead, albeit beneath a canopy of metal. But after the long calm, there are now beginnings of a stir. Through these words, we hear the last heartbeat fade.
We descend all the way to the floor of an alleyway, through electric lines and wooden roofs. The reunion at hand may bring joy, it may bring fear, but let us embrace whatever it brings. A single sustained pitch gradually increases in volume.
Two figures pass us from behind - a heavyset man with a gun for an arm, and behind him another carrying a sword almost as wide as his back. For they are coming back. We hear three notes, the iconic beginning of the Final Fantasy VII opening theme.
Finally, we see Cloud Strife's iconic spiky blond hair. At last, the promise has been made. A symbol in the shape of a meteor – the game's logo – appears over a black background, followed by the promise itself, REMAKE.
Why the Promise Was Kept: FFVII from 1997 to Now
Few games could have managed such an announcement without being panned or causing mass confusion. While teasers are generally unconcerned with providing context, this one doesn't even share a title, and saves its most recognizable mascot for the last five seconds without even showing his face. Nevertheless, the trailer, as of writing, has over 15,000,000 views, thousands of positive comments, and hundreds of articles written about it, reaching well beyond the eyes and ears of the game's first fans from the late 1990s.
A shorter trailer would have sufficed, and perhaps generated the same amount of buzz and excitement, but the Remake team centered their announcement on the audience through its meta-narration. Their creative choice suggests that they wanted the opportunity to recognize that Final Fantasy VII was more than the seventh entry in the franchise, more than just a game. They go beyond assuming that the audience is familiar with its world and story in asserting that we, too, have been a part of the narrative, having survived "the star that threatened all" long ago, and waited through "the age of silence" since. But how did a game released in 1997 become so prevalent in our lives that such a claim came naturally to its creators?
In 2018, the Museum of Play inducted Final Fantasy VII into its World Video Game Hall of Fame, cementing its status as a classic beside the likes of Tetris, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda. It recognized the game for its technological innovation, famously made possible by Squaresoft's decision to develop for the PlayStation instead of the Nintendo 64. Like the other games in the list, though, Final Fantasy VII has been showered with superlatives ever since its release. But it's hard to say how well these praises hold up more than twenty years later.
Like other classics, the original Final Fantasy VII has been re-released multiple times, and is even available today on iOS and Android. Though lauded for redefining the JRPG genre and popularizing it in the West, it would probably have failed to hold most people's attention even a decade ago, not only because of its blocky 3D sprites, but also because of its poor localization and antiquated random encounter system. Getting through FFVII today is a slog, which is why mobile versions include features like turning off enemy encounters and instantly maxing out your stats, but even then, it's not necessarily an enjoyable experience for first timers. Most user reviews of the PC port, for example, preface having played the game on its first release.
Critical and commercial success do not make for timelessness, and neither do fond memories, especially for a rapidly evolving medium as video games. But we also can't deny Final Fantasy VII's lasting impact on the gaming zeitgeist. Its influence on a generation of gamers-turned-creators, who had played it on release and have since maintained it as a gold standard, has kept it present in our collective memory. The taciturn hero with gravity-defying spiky hair and impossibly big sword is still a prominent trope in games and anime, as is the handsome, yet sinister villain who takes on multiple forms in battle and has his own operatic leitmotif. Whether Cloud and Sephiroth respectively should be considered the progenitors of these archetypes is debatable, but they are certainly two prominent examples, and thus continue to live on through their spiritual successors across the medium.
But they, and other FFVII characters, also live on in their own bodies, so to speak. A steady flow of spin-off content and cameos has kept the world and its characters feeling fresh, to the point that they have long outgrown the game itself. For instance, I first met Cloud before I was even properly aware of the Final Fantasy series, when I (that is, Sora) fought against him in Kingdom Hearts as an eight-year-old. We met again in the sequel Kingdom Hearts II, where, in what I consider one of the game's most memorable scenes, I fought alongside him and Tifa, and other Final Fantasy characters against hordes of enemies. Drawn to Cloud's sharp design and aloof demeanor (as I was fast approaching my angsty preteen years), I yearned for more content about him, leading me to a DVD of Advent Children later that year, which introduced me not only to the world where he lived, but also to the context of his relationships with Aerith, Tifa, and even Sephiroth.
I learned about the characters of Final Fantasy VII before I knew the game itself, and it wasn't until knowing Cloud for a few years that I realized each entry of the Final Fantasy series featured a different world and cast (which had led to a slightly disappointing purchase of Final Fantasy IV for the Game Boy Advance in 2005). While my cluelessness as a child gamer might be an extreme example, it goes to show how prominently Cloud exists beyond Final Fantasy VII, and even the series. The game may have never been remade until now, but Cloud, more than any other character in the franchise, has been revived or reimagined throughout every generation of console since his PSOne debut.
Through these repeated introductions to Cloud, we inadvertently piece together the world from which he came and exploits he led without even playing Final Fantasy VII. Those of us drawn to the details of his journey may have downloaded the re-release on Steam, promising ourselves that we'd get through it, or perhaps read through staggeringly thorough summaries compiled online. Others among us have likely chosen him on instinct when playing Smash Bros. with friends, or shared artwork inspired by one of his many iterations online. In any case, Cloud's story – that is to say, the plot of Final Fantasy VII – has become something of a legend, told through its retelling in other media as often as it's told through the game itself, which in turn generates curiosity and excitement about what it would be like to experience that legend with him through Remake.
How the Promise Will Be Broken: Towards the New Decade
The Remake team decided not to append the new Final Fantasy VII with a different subtitle out of fear that it would be seen as a sequel or another spinoff, but not even "Remake" necessarily captures what their work represents. To start with, the new release takes place entirely in the city Midgar, which amounts to just 10% of the original's story. Whether or not that means we should expect nine more entries, we can be sure that the Remake team have planned for an undertaking larger than anything we have ever seen from Final Fantasy. In doing so, they go beyond promising the return of Final Fantasy VII's heroes and story – they also aim to weave a legend that rivals itself.
Perhaps the "fear" and "joy" that the trailer's narrator prophesied is also an admission on the part of the creators that the herculean task of succeeding a legend could always fail. And while I doubt that anyone involved in the Remake project would let that happen, the entire series may well live in the shadow cast by its zeitgeist-defining predecessor, rather than become a force in itself. In any case, it doesn't seem like the Remake team plan to go down without a fight, having already made a number of changes to the story that directly challenge what many fans have come to expect. At the very least, they have redefined what a remake can be, but at best, they will show us how to tame a legend. Either way, we the audience – longtime fans, curious newcomers, and everybody in between – have plenty to look forward to seeing in this new decade of Final Fantasy.