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Final Fantasy VII Remake’s main villain isn’t Sephiroth or Shinra, it’s the game’s own legacy

Rose tints

Over the holidays, I decided to treat myself to the gift of funk, and bought myself a neat little acoustic bass. The guitar arrived as promised; I am still waiting on the funk. Any day now. In the meantime, I’ve taught myself the riff for Valley Of The Fallen Star, better known as the Cosmo Canyon theme from Final Fantasy VII. I’m not sure if I can adequately put into words how the original composition of the track makes me feel, but I am certain I’m not the only one.It is sonic nostalgia for a simpler time, where following a talking dog’s weeble uncle to the projection of the cosmos he kept in his loft did nothing to shatter my emotional investment in a story.

The tiny, amateur rendition of this track I’ve been slappa-slapping away at in my room cannot hold a candle to, for example, the orchestral Distant Worlds version, with its playful, reverent luxuriation over every phrase and motif. Or the clean, crisp depth of the Remake’s update. But each is a shared conversation with personal and cultural memory. Each an appeal to history. None are necessarily inauthentic, but none are necessarily more authentic than the others.

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While that original sprung from Nobuo Uematsu trying to evoke the feeling of a scene, the subsequent versions are nostalgic celebrations of a legacy. One was composed in hope for what FF7 would become. The others performed in awe of what it became. Glorious, beautiful callbacks. So let’s talk about Hell House.

Out of all the ways to introduce a fan favorite enemy in a big budget remake of a videogame, I can think of none more knowingly ostentatious than having a literal announcer hype that enemy up like a wrestler over a loudspeaker before having it and the central cast do battle in a literal arena surrounded by a cheering audience. It is stupid and pandering and spectacular, in both the complimentary and traditional sense of the world. It made me grin and groan in such equal measure that I now find myself considerably lamenting the fact that those two words are effectively un-portmanteau-able.

I’d say you might, on average, fight the Hell House four times in your 25-40 hour runthrough of OG Final Fantasy VII. One for each pass over the one map in the slums it appears on. Maybe once more if you end up stuck trying to find a path because those pre-rendered backgrounds play havoc with depth perception. It’s a random encounter, so you might not fight it at all. It has no relevance to the story. It is either an evil robot shaped like a house or a house with the abilities of an evil robot. I neither know or wish to. Let me bathe in your mystique, mechanical murder domicile.

Final Fantasy 7 remake - A closeup of Cloud Strife's face while he holds his sword
Image credit: Square Enix

Allowed to ferment over a couple of decades, that mystique has only grown more potent. The remake capitalises on this fan attachment the only way it knows how: with a big flashing neon sign. It is such an egregious, almost totemic example of pandering, in a game that makes such generally smart choices with its other alterations to iconic moments from the original, that I have to believe it is entirely deliberate; an ironic recognition that the remake cannot possibly outrun its own legacy. So I can’t hate it. Plus, It’s a great fight. Multi-layered and operatic and balls-hard to boot.

Hours later, Red XIII shows up, accompanied by those opening strains of Cosmo Canyon, truncated into ‘Red XIII’s theme’. It’s a much more intense rendition, with rhythmic alterations and note changes. The instruments know what they’re playing, and they know who they’re playing it for. Like Hell House, it’s stirring. Like Hell House, it is jarringly ostentatious.

But really, how else could it go? Introducing a character is one thing, but performing a celebration of the memory of that introduction, swollen and crystallised beyond all reasonable proportions over two decades? Woof! Whatever criticisms I can make, I’d be dishonest not to make it clear that I am in awe of how well the team handle such an impossible task, and I was starry-eyed and smitten the first time I played through Red’s reintroduction.

I can enjoy fan service while also internally recoiling from it, and something about this has sat wrong with me since I played it.

Still, I can enjoy fan service while also internally recoiling from it, and something about this scene has sat wrong with me since I played it. This something, I have realised, is a kind of mourning at the sad inevitability of how we re-experience things we love. We cherish things for their authenticity, so they become famous. And how can something famous ever be authentic again? I’m reminded of that pop neuroscience tidbit about how we don’t actually remember events, we just remember our last memory of them.

I’m not going to discuss the remake’s ending here. The worms, which once dwelt inside the can the ending tore asunder, sprawl too ungainly to quantify. Each is a squirming, soil-encrusted thread leading to infinite other worm cans. It’s still too cold outside, and my nose hurts. But I do want to bring up a totally clutch theory I have about what the remake is planning to do with Aerith’s death. And, if I’m right, it’ll mean that some otherwise baffling choices make total sense.

Because of all the legacy albatrosses (albatri?) the remake has to grapple with, Aerith’s death is surely the beefiest. Some have speculated that the introduction of a possible get out clause through alternative timelines introduced during FF7R’s finale was done so Aerith doesn’t have to die. But I think it’s exactly the opposite. Question: how do you make a moment that everyone knows is coming feel just as impactful as it did in 1997? Answer: you introduce hope that maybe, just maybe, it won’t happen this time. Then, you twist the Masamune in deeper.

Cloud hands Tifa a yellow flower in Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade

Just like Hell House, this would be an example of the team making fan expectations work for them. Just like Hell House, it’d be Nomura and co. accepting the impossible task they’ve set themselves and - instead of using kid gloves to handle a legacy that no doubt hangs over their work like Meteor - embracing it fully, joyfully, and stupidly. Contradictions and all. Katharine called the ending an “audacious rug pull” in her review. At the time, the phrase I used was something closer to “an ending that shits itself with the explosive intensity of a firework display”. With hindsight, I’m inclined much more towards Katharine’s take.

How long does it take for a story beat to become an iconic memory in the collective consciousness of a generation? Does it only happen to certain types of moments, in certain stories? Or can anything beloved, left alone long enough, become totemic? How can Midgar, a fool’s gold city meant to repulse, to show us the destructive folly of progress at any cost, make us gasp with nostalgic wonder at its string-swell announced revitalisation? If we value art on the profundity of the questions it makes us ask about the world around us, then FF7R is a monumental success.

I remember first learning the phrase “double-edged sword” from FF7. It’s what Barret calls Materia in the game’s introduction. When I reviewed FF7R, I called it an entire armory of double-edged blades. This one, I stand by. There is no way to wield something as powerful as FF7’s legacy without also cutting yourself on its edges, however careful you are. So, bless Nomura and co for daring to get their hands bloody. No one said you had to kill your darlings quietly, and without fanfare. For old time’s sake.

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