The Final Fantasy VII that came out in 1997 isn’t the Final Fantasy VII that’s remembered as so influential today. Today Final Fantasy VII is known for its brooding, stoic antihero, its dark themes of industrialization and the end of the world, its archetypical characters and its iconic, badass villain. This Final Fantasy VII is cited as helping to codify the “cool” tropes that preoccupy videogame pop culture, and this Final Fantasy VII is recalled constantly in countless Square Enix properties and spin-offs. However, the game referenced so frequently this way is not the videogame that released in 1997.
The genius of Final Fantasy VII is not that it somehow created the clichés that would dominate videogame culture in the years to follow, but that it engaged actively with the storytelling tropes of its time and turned them on their head. Final Fantasy VII is far from the triumph of traditional sci-fi-fantasy its post-release legacy and follow-ups apparently think it is; it is a subversion that deconstructs and comments meaningfully on how we think about heroism, masculinity and identity in videogame storytelling.
Attempts at capturing the critical and commercial success of Final Fantasy VII since the original have failed because they failed to engage with the subversive themes of the original, instead offering only a very surface-level reading of Final Fantasy VII that uncritically plays straight the clichés the original deconstructs. The upcoming remake, and any further attempts to evoke the original’s legacy will only be successful to the extent that they, like the original, move beyond simple genre fiction and into critical examination of what that fiction means.
Final Fantasy VII’s opening act is its most oft- and fondly remembered. This act takes place entirely in Midgar, the famous futuristic cyberpunk city recalling Bladerunner’s New Angeles and Akira’s Neo-Tokyo. It’s when both the iconic assault on the Mako reactor and the equally iconic (for very different reasons) infiltration of Don Corneo’s mansion take place. While establishing its world, the first act is also when Final Fantasy VII plays mostly straight the classic stereotypes it spends the majority of the game deconstructing.
At this point Cloud is presented as the stoic anti-hero, a mercenary “not interested” in the evils he fights against, only in the money he makes doing so. Tifa is Cloud’s classic childhood friend, established early in a pivotal flashback scene where Cloud tells her he is leaving home to become strong for her. Here Aerith is closest to how she has been portrayed post-Final Fantasy VII, as the “pure maiden” who sells flowers for a living and is in need of a bodyguard. The act comes to an end when the characters decide to track down Sephiroth, the main antagonist and Cloud’s former mentor, idol and role model. Cloud’s hatred for Sephiroth is personal in an archetypically familiar way at this point: he feels betrayed by Sephiroth but also wants to prove himself Sephiroth’s equal or superior.
In a lot of ways it’s unfortunate that this part of the game is the best remembered, because it is only superficially representative of the game as a whole. This seems like the part of the game that Final Fantasy VII’s post-release portrayal recalls; games like the Kingdom Hearts series, Final Fantasy Tactics or any of the various fighting games the characters have appeared in more-or-less portray them at this stage of their character development. Cloud is brooding and apathetic, Tifa is chasing after him, Aerith is the pure voice of reason and Sephiroth is an enigmatic force of evil, sometimes with his Freudian complex intact.
Even during the first act, however, these tropes are only inconsistently applied, and the game quickly begins poking holes in them. Cloud is often put into situations where his apathy and stoicism are made to look ridiculous, especially by the apparently saintly Aerith. Tifa, though she might want to be Cloud’s “damsel in distress,” learned Kung Fu, moved to the city and took up bartending when Cloud failed to come and “save her.” The “pure maiden” archetype is quickly established as one of the only characters with a sexual history. When Aerith balks at danger and asks Cloud to be her “bodyguard,” the game makes it clear that it’s more to flirt with him than because she needs his help—she’s been running from the Turks and living in the same place for her whole life, after all.
From the very beginning of Final Fantasy VII, the game consciously subverts the stereotypes its legacy would pretend it plays straight. None of the characters fit comfortably into their established roles. By failing to take into account the way Final Fantasy VII treats the tropes it uses as a starting template, the usual treatment of Final Fantasy VII in media after the original game fails to be true to the story or themes in even the most basic sense. As the plot of Final Fantasy VII develops, its mistreatment after release becomes even more egregious.
When Cloud and the gang finally catch up to Sephiroth, it’s revealed that Cloud’s memories of himself as a successful SOLDIER and successor to Sephiroth are fake. In fact, Cloud is a failed experiment meant to create another Sephiroth; Sephiroth used Cloud’s hatred and need to prove himself against him to get Cloud to deliver the black Materia needed to end the world. In reality, Cloud was never good enough to make SOLDIER. After experimentation fractured his identity, Cloud assumed the identity of a SOLDIER he knew because that’s what he wanted to be.
The “damsel in distress” character Tifa actually comes to Cloud’s rescue; she’s the one who helps restore his memories after he falls comatose. It’s revealed that the real Cloud was an awkward teenager. He left his hometown to impress the girl he had a crush on and was too ashamed to reveal that he wasn’t good enough to be in SOLDIER. When experimentation conducted by the villains traumatized him, Cloud was so ashamed of his own identity that he took someone else’s. Cloud was aware of the stoic badass stock type just like we are, and he chose to become that stoic badass. Tifa saves Cloud by showing him that she doesn’t need a traditionally masculine “badass”; that her hero is the “real” Cloud, not the Cloud he wanted himself to be.
Similarly, when Aerith—the maiden who needs a protector—sees what happens to Cloud, she leaves the party to stop Sephiroth and save the world herself. The most famous twist of the game is when Cloud fails to save her and she is killed by Sephiroth, but the party ends up using Aerith’s plan to stop Sephiroth and save the day. Moreover, when it seems the plan isn’t going to work, Aerith’s spirit mobilizes the earth itself to save them. Both woman characters in Final Fantasy VII are originally portrayed in traditional female roles, and both subvert those roles by metaphorically and literally saving the main character and by having character arcs and agency all their own.
Cloud ultimately defeats Sephiroth when he embraces his true self—the awkward, dorky character who cares about the struggles of his friends and the plight of the planet. The game’s final boss fight is a scripted sequence wherein Cloud duels and defeats the Sephiroth in his mind. Throughout the game Sephiroth is representative of the toxic mentality Cloud chose for himself, taken to 11. Sephiroth was also created in a lab and also wanted to be special. Sephiroth also chose a narrative for himself wherein he became a savior by destroying his enemy. Sephiroth believed he was literally the only person “special” enough to live; as the supposed last of an ancient race, he alone was worthy of ruling the planet. Sephiroth’s objective is to merge with the lifestream and make every living being a part of him—in other words, he wants to erase all identities and narratives but his own. He kills Aerith because Aerith is naturally what he is only artificially—an ancient. He can’t stand the idea that the way he sees reality isn’t the correct or only way. In the end, Sephiroth is portrayed as deluded and almost pathetic—Cloud famously beats the hell out of him with a big sword. Cloud overcoming him is an affirmation that Cloud choosing to be his true self instead of something he wanted to be was the right decision.
Final Fantasy VII is all about the problems inherit in classic fantasy tropes and how coming-of-age means transcending those expectations and learning that who you are is better than anything you could pretend to be; that caring is better than pretending not to. Playing these clichés straight is an insult to the characters and undermines the whole message of the original game, but it’s what post-Final Fantasy VII marketing has done.
The direct sequel to the game’s story, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, plays straight the subverted character types with only the thinnest narrative justification. Cloud is mopey and stoic, Tifa spends her time chasing him, and Aerith has become a literal angel of purity—she cures diseases with her divine presence. When Cloud confronts Sephiroth at the film’s climax, it’s cast as an uncomplicated battle of good vs. evil; Sephiroth is the evil Aerith, an unkillable force in the lifestream. Cloud defeats him by going through the exact same character progression he did in the game, but less convincingly. The prequel game, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core follows Zack, the character whose identity Cloud assumed in Final Fantasy VII. However, where Final Fantasy VII purposefully left Zack undeveloped so he could stand as an archetype, Crisis Core gives him a personality antithetical to the one Cloud developed in Final Fantasy VII when he was apparently “being” Zack, and also portrays Cloud assuming Zack’s identity as somehow tragically heroic, undermining the central theme of the original game.
Final Fantasy VII is the most popular Final Fantasy, and so Square Enix has made it into a poster child for the series as a whole. In doing this, however, Square Enix has portrayed Final Fantasy VII in a way that undermines its message. Final Fantasy VII was and, in a meaningful way, still is enduring because of the way it comments on fantasy and sci-fi tropes and forwards conversation about videogame storytelling. The upcoming remake will only be successful if it can overcome the shallow marketing interpretation that has plagued the brand in recent years and use Final Fantasy VII’s story the way it was always meant to be used: to comment meaningfully on genre fiction, identity and storytelling in videogaming.
Harry Mackin has written for Game Informer, Playboy and other outlets. He’s on Twitter at @Shiitakeharry.