While I myself have not contracted COVID 19, the pandemic has had consequences for my living situation and my job. For that reason I have been trying to remain optimistic and excited about as many things as I can which is why I am now talking about a video game.
After a long and uncertain development, Final Fantasy VII Remake is hitting the market next month. Ever since the rumors of a remake were validated back in 2014/15, I could see a lot going wrong and a lot going right with this. After the initial confirmation, Square Enix revealed that it worked with some outside developers that had mishandled a lot of material and the project was substantially set back. If it simply remained in development hell forever, I don’t think I would have objected. So much went right with the original and with big budget video games being both collaborative and designed to give investors a return, such a good story is probably a happy accident. I don’t think I would trust a team of corporate writers, however capable or well-intentioned, to understand the finer points of what made the story of the base game so iconic.
Especially considering how certain decisions were made. Test players for the original were shown two versions, one with Barret dying and one with Aerith dying. The responses gave us the result we are all familiar with today. This is further substantiated by data miners who found dialogue for Aerith in the later parts of the game buried in the game’s code. If any mid-nineties gamers stumbled upon this unused data with a Gameshark Pro or anything similar, it no doubt would have lent credence to the contemporary rumors of a secret way to resurrect Aerith.
Which brings us to the edifice that Final Fantasy VII eventually became in the minds of those of us who fell in love with it. The true life of any work of art is what happens to it after it has left the hands of its creator(s) and Final Fantasy VII has had an interesting life. Having discovered FFVII in the year 2000, I remember the GeoCities and Angelfire websites with all the fan theories, lore dumps and fan fiction. The one I remember most fondly was hosted by an individual called Seraphim and had breakdowns of each character’s lore background and some thoughts on what builds were the most advisable for which party member.
As was typical of the fandom at that time, Seraphim included a lengthy explanation of why he believed Aerith could be brought back from the dead and some ways that he suspected it might be done. I don’t remember any mention of the dialogue that data miners would eventually uncover but Seraphim did rely heavily on circumstantial evidence. Much of which was derived from FFVII’s more random and fruitless fetch quests. You know, like finding all the Turtle’s Paradise flyers and buying the house in Costa Del Sol. The house for sale, Seraphim wrote, would be essential for a young couple wanting to make their way together after the threat of Meteor has been dealt with. Like many other gamers of the day, Seraphim also believed that the sick man in Midgar also held a mysterious key to Aerith’s resurrection (“This guy are sick”).
I remember other GeoCities / Angelfire sites from that time. One of them, authored by someone who called themselves Habib, had a far simpler site that existed only to celebrate Sephiroth, his favorite villain. The webpage had a bunch of screenshots of Sephiroth in Nibelheim, looking dramatic with the village burning around him while the song Those Chosen By The Planet played on a loop. For little preteen Ailix, this was fucking epic.
Another late-nineties beauty had a truly ambitious and well-written narrative poem describing the plot of the whole game from Sephiroth’s perspective. This page also contained a small personal bio of the author, stating that Professor Hojo was her soulmate.
As someone who had lived through that era and loved every minute of it, much of my appreciation and understanding of the game was shaped by this early dialogue between fans and the game. One particular fan theory has stayed with me and, in my assessment, was proven to be at least thematically relevant to the later Final Fantasy games.
I first discovered this theory in the writings of our old friend Seraphim, which was that Cloud and Sephiroth were not the real hero and villain of FFVII: this was in fact Aerith and Jenova. This has thematic echoes in Final Fantasy X, XIII and XV. Two of those games have protagonists that don’t survive the main game (I know Tidus is in FFX-2 but I’m sticking to the base games). The other one framed characters as protagonists who neither set the plot in motion nor were able to directly effect it in the end. All three of them wrestled with the angst of pre-determination and the plight of those who witness things happening versus those who make things happen.
In FFXIII, Lightening is propped up as the main character but only Fang and Vanille have the power to effect the mainline story in the end. XV and X examine doomed martyrs and their growing bonds over those they must leave behind. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to trace the emergence of these themes to Aerith.
That Square Enix first hit upon an idea they would explore in later FF titles within FFVII does not necessarily mean that it will (or even should) be treated with reverence in a remake. In general, what works well in one situation might work better in another. If they decide to be too dismissive of the importance of Aerith’s death, though, they will have sacrificed an essential, perhaps even defining aspect of the story of FFVII. This possibility weighs on me because many fans will loudly demand an opportunity to save Aerith’s life and Square Enix has shown an uncritical tendency toward appeasement in the past.
For me, this matters as much as it does because, whether one believes that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters or not, I believe that Aerith and Sephiroth are mirrors of each other. Somehow, after all these years, I had completely failed to gather this on my own. I’m only aware of it now because I played through the game with one of my best friends a few months ago and she pointed it out. So kudos to you, bestie (It would feel inappropriate doing anything remotely close to naming names).
Aerith and Sephiroth mirroring each other does not get in the way of who you choose to believe are the main characters….but it goes a little smoother if Aerith and Jenova are the hero and villain and Cloud a kind of “narrator”. This lends itself to both a psychoanalytical and a religious reading of the story.
Both readings start with the soul. Let us begin with Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Put simply, Freud believed that the soul was initially conceived as a second self to assuage our fear of death. Kinda like a new car for your soul to drive in when the old one breaks down. Later, though, after the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, religion lost much of the credibility it once had in the west. Yet many religious ideas continue to cast long shadows in our minds in spite of us not having any further use for them.
If one continues to believe in a soul after one no longer believes in a supernatural dimension to the world, it is tantamount to a second body killing you and taking your place. Another word for this is a doppelgänger, which according to Freud embodies the essence of the uncanny. Something uncanny looks like it might be alive but probably isn’t: it is a sense of dread over something that’s not alive exhibiting living qualities without a rational explanation.
Cloud wrestles with a doppelgänger. Do I even have to spell this out? In Final Fantasy VII, we see a second version of a familiar flashback with a vague shadow-shape in Cloud’s place. This shadow-shape eventually has a name: Zack Fair. Zack Fair was the last love of Aerith Gainsborough. Cloud’s idealized hero-worship of Sephiroth compelled him to join Shin-Ra, and Zack Fair was the protégée of Sephiroth.
In the game’s beginning, Cloud retells the story of the Nibelheim mission with himself in Zack’s place. Few things can threaten your sense of self like the possibility that you stole the “self” of someone else. The ultimate invalidation is the realization that you are the doppelgänger. When Sephiroth first reveals this to Cloud, he even includes a lie that Cloud is a botched Sephiroth clone. Not only is he a shadow of a real “self”, but he doesn’t even get a number like the other clones.
This visitation from Sephiroth comes after the death of Aerith. Cloud’s love for Aerith enabled him to cling to his identification with Zack. Aerith made Cloud’s fantasy self feel real and Sephiroth brought back the memory of the one who filled the place that Cloud wanted: a memory which made Could feel like his place was taken by a double.
Zack was both a fantasy that Cloud wished to embody and also dead before the mainline story even begins. And both Aerith and Sephiroth choose to die for a mysterious destiny beyond the grave. Aerith made Cloud’s shadow-self a convincing and comforting fantasy and Sephiroth turned the shadow-self into a frightening doppelgänger. Both Aerith and Sephiroth represent appearances of both death and fantasy for Cloud. Each one represents both a fantasy and a threat. Beyond these appearances though (and their importance for Cloud), Aerith and Sephiroth also embrace the reality of death within the world of Final Fantasy VII.
I say reality because both Aerith and Sephiroth go on to effect the plot in a disembodied state. The game treats their existence after death as real and their actions after dying as having consequences. The in-world mystical language offers other interpretations as well: in Cosmo Canyon, Bugenhagen tells the party that all biospheres rely on souls returning to a collective spiritual body (Lifestream) between lives to nurture the whole with their lived experience before moving on to their next earthly form. The holistic cycle of existence hinges on the transience of one’s specific, mortal identity. Death is not personal annihilation so much as a home-coming and a chance to share the growth of your lifetime with all other souls before moving on to the next life. This means that death is the gateway to a greater existence that’s based on interconnectedness.
In contrast, after dropping into the Lifestream \ Mako mixture in the Nibelheim reactor, does Sephiroth let go of his personal identity and move on to another? How many times do you see both Sephiroth clones and psychic representations of Sephiroth after that point? After the planned impact of Meteor, all souls will return to the Lifestream where the Sephiroth\Jenova hybrid will consume them. So far from integrating with the whole, Sephiroth wants to integrate the whole into himself.
During the very end of the game, we learn that there are only seven more days until Meteor strikes Gaia. At this point you can either enjoy the open world or go straight to the final dungeon. During the discussions made after the final raid on Midgar and the descent into the Northern Crater, there is expressed doubt as to whether or not a final confrontation with Sephiroth and Jenova is even really necessary if all rests in the hands of Holy, the force that Aerith summoned during and after her death. This is after Cloud has been forced to confront the lies he told himself, Barret’s admission to taking innocent lives in the bombing of Mako reactors and the proven failure of Shin-Ra’s huge materia bomb. To top it all off, Holy might not even step in. The final step before the ending happens after the loss of moral and psychological direction and the proven failure of a realistic plan. The steps into the final battle are taken after demoralization and in the pursuit of a final desperate hope after literally everything else has proven to be either fake or wrong. Between pushing on after accepting mortality or stalwartly clinging to the importance of your own survival and beliefs, it is clear which side the story sympathizes with.
If we wanted, we could take this into a discussion of different religious traditions that emphasize either the integration of the soul into the greater universal network (Hinduism or Buddhism) or the existence of personal identity after death (Abrahamic religions). On one hand it’s debatable whether the developers of Final Fantasy VII actually wanted to talk about *all that* but on the other…clear parallels are rarely coincidental. During the playthrough with the friend that I mentioned earlier, she even suggested that perhaps the last telepathic conversation that Cloud has with Aerith is meant to resemble the New Testament’s account of Christ’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Before moving too far past all this, I wanted to address the fact that I opened all this by saying that the fan theory that Aerith and Jenova are the real main characters of Final Fantasy VII rather than Cloud and Sephiroth. Especially since I spent so much time talking about what the appearances of death mean to Cloud as expressed by Aerith and Sephiroth. By main characters, I mean the characters who move the plot. Antagonist does something, protagonist responds, etc. One of the more polarizing aspects of the story of Final Fantasy XIII was the revelation that the relationship between Fang and Vanille supports the entire plot and the characters that we initially thought of as protagonists (Lightening & co. ) are mere witnesses.
And clearly the division between the active protagonists and antagonists and those that witness alongside them can dramatically effect what the story is about. If FFXIII’s main character was Fang, it would be a story about interpersonal love triumphing above all. If it were Vanille, it would be about the supreme importance of the greater good. Situating Lightening (and Cloud) as main characters, though, makes FFXIII (and VII) about a clash between free will, determinism and the spectrum of truth claims that our minds use to make sense of the world around us.
Final Fantasy VII is a deeply compelling story about the search for meaning, something most Final Fantasy games touch on at least a little bit. If the function of a character like Aerith or Sephiroth is going to be fundamentally changed because of pressure from fans in the upcoming remake, I hope it is done thoughtfully. Is a lot of what I was just droning about pure fan interpretation and is it bullshit to expect Square Enix to keep up with every little pet conceit of every gamer? Totally. I don’t think Final Fantasy VII Remake will be a complete failure if it doesn’t validate every fan theory and interpretation and I’ve seen a lot that makes me deeply excited to play it. I don’t think anyone who was there for the original wouldn’t be excited to inspect every little inch of every street of Midgar- something that has been teased nonstop.
Speaking of the things that strike me as promising about the remake, I must disagree with a lot of people about the multi-game format. I think this is absolutely the right way to go about remaking such a huge and nuanced game. I would not want to play a remake that is not as meticulous in its recreation as possible so I couldn’t be happier about the current plan with multiple games.
Post script: I didn’t include this earlier when I first brought up Freud because I didn’t think it contributed anything useful to the analysis, but I wanted to make it clear that I was aware of the Oedipal interpretation that is opened up with Zack being an adopted shadow-self of Cloud. In Freud’s understanding of the associative logic of the subconscious, the doppelgänger taps into the Oedipal anxieties compelling the young male to identify with the father and reject the mother. With Cloud’s hero-worship of Sephiroth, it’s clear that Sephiroth is filling the role of a male ideal for an immature and neurotic Cloud to tack his self-image onto. This would make him both a father-figure and a vessel for castration anxiety.
This also has ramifications for Cloud’s relationship with Aerith that I don’t think advance an interpretation of the story in any way that’s interesting. Potentially even misogynist or queer-phobic: you could read the whole Wall Market cross dressing sequence as being sub-textually *about* castration anxiety…which just isn’t any fun, especially since it would associatively pair the whole experience with the flamboyantly gay Wall Market men with a fear of emasculation. Especially for queer Final Fantasy fans like myself who want representation to get better instead of worse.
Dragging all that into an interpretation would be particularly depressing since our last glimpse of the Honey Bee Inn in the new remake just looked so beautiful. It reminded me of the last few dance numbers in the movie Leave It On The Floor (a neat lil movie about gay men and drag queens). Like, I legit expected to hear the Beyoncé song Sweet Dreams playing as Cloud is scooped into that dance ^^