Embracing The Beautiful Nonsense Of The Final Fantasy VII Spinoffs

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Embracing The Beautiful Nonsense Of The Final Fantasy VII Spinoffs
<strong>If you want to learn more about her, may I interest you in a 220+ page novel?</strong> (Screenshot: <a href="https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Kyrie_Canaan">Square Enix/Final Fantasy Wiki</a>)

This year has not been great for my mental health. But I recently thought I could just push those vibes away, even just briefly, to dunk on Tetsuya Nomura, the creative visionary of Final Fantasy VII and a man who never met a story he couldn’t convolute.

I had plenty of material, because I’ve played all the Final Fantasy VII spin-off games, seen all three (yes, three) FFVII movies and read the FFVII novels. I have given literal decades of my life over to following the extended universe of media surrounding the original 1997 game, and I figured I could share my thoughts for a laugh during a global pandemic.

Weeks later, we are all part of an uprising for the literal life and validity of Black lives. My editor asked if I was up to this, and I said yes, because I didn’t want this moment in my life to be defined just by my sadness and trauma; I wanted to offer the things that make me feel like myself. This one’s all on me, fam.

Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and every single FFVII spinoff to follow. Even the movies and books and anime.

I have spent hundreds of hours over the past 20 years playing games by Nomura. I burned 60 hours alone getting 100% in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, a game that is so miserable to play that it was boiled down to a three-hour collection of cutscenes in all subsequent re-releases (and nothing of value was lost). I am completely susceptible to Nomura’s storytelling style; a mix of earnest emotion, nonsense, dense lore, nonsense, and an instinctual understanding of how to manipulate fanservice. It’s my greatest weakness.

I continue to play his games, even though they always leave me angry. And that was going to be the joke; my incredulous anger at the labyrinthine shared universes he seems to spawn in his wake.

I can’t summon that jokey rage for this. My social feeds are full of too much ridiculous rage already; guys furious that a game publisher acknowledged the humanity of Black people, or made a charitable donation. Our priorities are different.

Future generations will not have to suffer like I suffered. (Illustration: Square Enix)

Back in March, I wasn’t even planning to play the Final Fantasy VII Remake. As much as I was (begrudgingly) into Nomura, I wanted to spare myself the captivated annoyance. My experience playing Kingdom Hearts 3 last summer was still fresh in my mind, and I wasn’t ready to ride the hype train to Confusion and Disappointment City again. Especially not for Final Fantasy VII, a game that I loved so much as a 12-year-old that I printed off the Latin lyrics to “One Winged Angel” and memorized them during recess.

But then people I respect kept saying this Remake was different. “The ending is something else,” I heard critics murmur. By the end of April, I hadn’t left the house in weeks, and I gave in. I wanted to feel something comforting and familiar, and I needed a win. So, truly thinking that this year had shown us the worst it could dredge up, I bought a physical copy of the Remake.

And just like that, Nomura had me. From the opening shot—hell, from the opening musical notes, those same lyrics I had memorized decades before—I knew things were going to be different. Much like the Rebuild of Evangelion series of movies, I suspected this was going to be an all-new story masquerading as a retelling, and I was proven mostly correct.)

Square Enix officially refers to their Compilation of Final Fantasy VII as a “polymorphic metaseries,” because of course they do. (Image: Square Enix)

What I didn’t expect was to be thrown back into the assumedly-defunct Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project, a mixed-media morass of spinoffs and sequels that launched in the years surrounding the original game’s 10th anniversary. It was like an unexpected visit from an old friend.

The FFVII Remake is tied to more forms of media than any other game in the franchise’s history, including three novels, multiple cell phone games, and what is possibly the first ever example of a feature film getting patched in a later update (you lose again, Cats). And they all matter. Literally every entry in the Compilation ties into some plot point or reference in the Remake. It rewards you (read: me) for having horrible priorities.

So I played the Remake and thought I had my hot take ready to go. I wanted to say the Remake is proof that Square Enix singlehandedly keeps the fan wiki community alive. I wanted to say Tetsuya Nomura uses the game to pay tribute to his favourite Japanese storyteller: Tetsuya Nomura. I wanted validation for reading three separate novels of official Final Fantasy VII fanfiction.

I don’t feel that way anymore. Honestly, now I view the entire enterprise as a gift.

Fun Fact: One of these is a detective novel starring Rufus Shinra’s secret bastard brother. (Image: Yen Press)

We talk about “escapist fiction” without always acknowledging how hard and rare it is to create a world that people genuinely want to spend hours inside of; to craft settings and characters that become grafted onto our individual mind palaces. It’s why everyone knows which Hogwarts House they would be a part of, but nobody is screaming about what Divergent Faction they represent.

The audacious gift of the Remake is to pull a bait-and-switch with one of the most beloved video game storylines in history, and then give you further reading across more than 11 spin-offs that have been created since Final Fantasy VII’s original release, if you want to stay in the world. Hundreds more hours of escapism are tied to the game if you need them, with more to come. It’s a way out. Right now, that’s a kindness.

You can’t see it, but he’s staring at a mountain of spoilers. (Screenshot: Square Enix)

Breaking the Junon Canon

The story of the Remake ends with Cloud Strife and his fellow thirst traps defeating the literal personification of fate while trying to kill Sephiroth (see: thirst traps) in an alternate dimension to stop his plans to destroy/save the world by crushing it with a giant meteor. Sephiroth escapes like the beautiful war criminal he is, but the end result is a ripple effect; the heroes have changed the future for everyone, including the inevitable event of Sephiroth losing to them in the end. The future is no longer tied to the events of the original game, and neither is the past. We see a parallel timeline where Zack and Cloud, both alive, enter Midgar together following their final standoff with Shinra; a stark parallel to their fate in the original story, where Zack was left dead, and Cloud assumed his life and identity in a post-traumatic haze.

It’s a bold ending that plays with the idea of a remake, of fanservice, of the artistic merit of telling the same story again with better graphics. It challenges the player to wonder what part of the “real” story, if any, will still happen as it did before. The introduction of at least three distinct timelines (Zelda fans have now entered the chat) also means that every single piece of related media is now as canon and relevant as you want it to be.

And the Remake is all too happy to reward you for your devotion.

Everything is canon. Including this Toonami-looking experiment. (Illustration: Square Enix)

Crisis Core Cerberus Children: Complete

Halfway through the Remake, there’s a chapter where Cloud has the opportunity to make Aerith smile by helping out the residents of the Sector 5 Slums. (If you don’t do this, you actually played the game wrong; congratulations.) As you run around, finding children and then committing murders for them, this song plays. The first time I heard it, I stopped playing for a moment and said: “Oh.”

In the next chapter, there’s a sidequest called “The Price of Thievery.” I stopped playing for several moments and said: “Oh shit.”

The Sector 5 song, “Hollow Skies,” has more than a passing similarity to the theme song from Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII, the only PSP game to ever make me cry. That song’s title? “The Price of Freedom.”

Suddenly, it was so clear; this wasn’t a remake. It was a reunion. And I could see the links everywhere. Curious about why seemingly-new characters Kyrie and Mereille have such strangely fleshed-out side quests? They’re from a tie-in detective novel called, and I shit you not: Final Fantasy VII Lateral Biography: Turks The Kids Are Alright.

How about that weird chapter involving a secret Shinra lab and a horde of genetically-engineered monster ninjas? It’s most likely a reference to Dirge of Cerberus Final Fantasy VII, a PS2 game that combined the worst traits of mid-2000s game design and anime to make an RPG-shooter starring a vampire who befriends an adult woman trapped in the body of a child.

Reno’s face tattoos and Rude’s extra sunglasses? The feature-length movie, Advent Children. Cutscenes showcasing different factions of AVALANCHE? Before Crisis, a 2004 mobile phone game that was never released outside Japan. Every thread is yours to pull; at this point, there is not a single character with a prolonged speaking role who doesn’t have their story expanded in some form of spinoff media.

The Price of Fandom

Fun Fact: This game may never be released again because its main villain uses the likeness of Japanese popstar, Gackt. The same goes for Dirge of Cerberus. (Illustration: Square Enix/Final Fantasy Wiki)

If you’ve ever dabbled in fanfiction, you’ll understand the pull some stories have over people. They end, but you don’t want your time with those characters and ideas to stop, so you make more. Sure, things can get weird, and messy, and unstoppably horny; but isn’t that love?

Are the spin-off games good? That’s a hard question, and kind of beside the point. I’d go to bat for Crisis Core, a game profound enough to make you (read: me) root for a doomed minor character from the original game, yet absurd enough to have antagonists named Angeal and Genesis.

Dirge of Cerberus and Before Crisis are both instructive artifacts of their respective eras and fascinating examples of storyline elements being reused from other titles in the franchise (the warring leadership of X-2 and the doomed squad of characters named after weapons from Type 0, respectively). Both games are best experienced through lovingly-compiled and translated YouTube longplays, leaving your hands free to take a shot every time they try to humanize the Turks, who are basically what happens if Exxon bought the CIA.

There are three books in total, and they cross a spectrum of genres and formats. The aforementioned Lateral Biography is a detective-novel prequel to Advent Children focusing entirely on side characters.

Final Fantasy VII: On the Way to a Smile is a collection of seven short stories that range from surprisingly touching character pieces (how Barret changed his gun-arm for a prosthetic hand) to weirdly bleak scenarios (teen ninja Yuffie returns to her homeland only to be blamed for a plague).

The final book, The Maiden Who Travels the Planet, never even received a non-Japanese translation; it’s a novella that explores the wildest realms of lore-breaking wish fulfillment (Aerith hangs out with every other dead character in the Lifestream, and manipulates it to help her friends throughout the original game’s storyline). All together, the books are literal published fanfiction.

Of course, there’s also this. I have so many questions. (Illustration: Square Enix/Final Fantasy Wiki)

As for the movies, Advent Children is the one worth talking about. (The other two, Last Order and Case of Denzel, are short 2D-animated films retelling chapters from the original game and On The Way to a Smile, respectively.) Upon its release, Advent Children was celebrated for bringing the block-handed characters from the original game into cutting-edge CG animation, fully voice-acted and moving with a weird mix of human photorealism and anime physics. Now, the Remake looks as good as it did. Its plot—an admirable effort to juggle an action-packed story about a trio of rampaging Sephiroth clones alongside emotional resolution to the famously esoteric ending of the original game—may have been retconned out of existence by the Remake, Days of Future Past style.

It also retconned itself three years later with Advent Children Complete, which updated the film’s graphics, added 25 minutes of footage, and modified around 1,000 scenes including a major change to the credits that results in the original version of the film suggesting that Aerith is alive again, and the Complete version removing that idea completely. Like I said; it’s messy.

But it’s all alluded to in the Remake, which means it’s all relevant again.

None of us will ever play this game. Have fun! (Illustration: Square Enix)

Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake sent my mind cascading through my time with all these spin-offs that I’d read and watched and played When I finished it, I realised that, for a few dozen hours, I was so focused on these characters, this world, so invested in a struggle that I could fight for and fix, that I forgot to worry about the struggles we have here.

There are moments and events that are too important to look away from. There are experiences too painful to bear. I don’t live in a world that allows me to look away or forget the reality of my situation. That’s why it’s so important for me to be able to define myself beyond that. And when I’m reading esoteric fan translations of Japanese novellas, or comparing continuity differences between versions of the same fictional events, I can remember the multitudes that live within me. I can engage with the parts I cherish most about myself.

If you need more of that feeling right now, it’s there for you. It’s a kindness. I can’t dunk on that.

@Sholarsenic.

Comments

  • The only reason i consider the Novels to be half fan fiction and half Canon is because of the notion that Cloud and Aerith are Lovers. While i had no problem with it originally, as time went on an i replayed the game again and again, i realized that if they had actually done the deed, then the relationship between them was twisted, immoral and just not in the nature of Aerith’s character, and that the books fail to answers critical questions for their relationship and in some instances, make it worse.

    Such as: “Would Aerith become Clouds Lover while knowing he has Mental Issues?”.
    We all know Aerith is good willed, caring, kind-hearted and selfless character who is always willing to help those in need. She is not the sort the take advantage of someone else’s plight, withhold the means to help them, or cross a line if they’re suffering in any manner.
    The only way to make her and Cloud lovers without contradicting her character is ‘Ignorance’ so that Aerith can’t be blamed for getting in a physical relationship when she has no idea if the other guy has a problem.
    And yet, in the gold Saucer date with her, she says to Cloud that she is aware that he is not himself, even going so far as to say she “Wants to meet the real Cloud someday.”
    This means she knows that Cloud is not his true self and she no longer has ignorance as an excuse.
    If we assume they are lovers despite all this, it would establish that regardless of knowing Clouds condition, Aerith is now the sort of character to indulge herself with someone who is not truly himself, making her less of an honest and good willed character and more of an opportunist and self-indulgent one.
    The books made it worse because they imply that not only did Aerith know about Clouds condition far earlier, but she had the magic and means to cure him.
    This would make their lover relationship twisted and immoral because it means Aerith would rather sleep with Cloud, knowing he is not his true self, instead of pursing the means to cure him and being in a genuine relationship with the real thing.
    For the life of me, i can’t see Aerith doing such a thing or even putting herself in that position, and yet its the only position she has since Cloud won’t become his true self until after her death. The books should of left out her earlier knowledge of Clouds mental state and having the means to cure it.

    the second question: “Shouldn’t Aerith feel some form of shame, awkwardness or regrets about her relationship with Cloud if they where lovers?”
    Considering that Cloud’s mental state was based of his memories of Zack with a mental connection to Sephiroph, and his recovery from both is through the life stream event that focused primarily on his memories and affections for Tifa, you’d suspect that Aerith would feel at least a little awkward about being lovers with a man whose true identity is based on feelings for another woman and that his behavior just happened to be based on the first man Aerith ever loved.
    In the Novel, Aerith is made to have a special role in Tifa’s life-stream experience, casting magic on Tifa to keep her mind sound so that she can save Cloud, meaning Aerith should know everything Tifa sees and goes through in the life-stream that made Cloud the real Cloud that she wanted to meet.
    That Aerith feels no backlash in the novels for her relationship with Cloud during her life contradicts her good-willed nature. It implies that despite all this knowledge, she’s happy she got ‘hers’ and sees no issue with getting it, despite all the pain and trouble Cloud was in during it and what he went through to over come it.
    Regardless if you believe they are lovers or not, there is no denying that if they where, it was a twisted relationship because of what Aerith knew about Cloud, and also because of Clouds mental link to Sephiroph at the time. There is no way to make their relationship a good pure thing, therefore it’s necessary for Aerith and Cloud to feel some form of negativity about it.

    The third question is “How much of Clouds affections where his own, part of his memories of Zack or part of his link with Sephiroph”.
    As we know, Clouds mental condition is that he has taken Zack out of his memories and replaced Zack with Cloud himself, making all he knows about Zack, his words, his preferences and his desires a part of Clouds new persona. It makes sense then that Clouds affections for Aerith are based of his knowledge of Zack, as Zack quickly developed feelings for Aerith when they first met.
    The only problem is that we don’t have any events of Zack telling Cloud about his taste in women, but at the same time it is far too coincidental that the very man Cloud is mimicking just happens to be a man that fell for Aerith.
    In addition we learn in the game that Cloud has a link to Sephiroph who uses that link to manipulate Clouds mind and body. When Cloud learns of this he soon suffers a mental break down as he now longer knows what is real about him anymore.
    Part of Clouds recovery of this is confronting his true memories and true feelings, erasing his false memories of being in Zacks place while also realizing that Sephiroph has no influence on his memories and feelings for Tifa, meaning that they are indeed Clouds own.

    That Clouds relationship with Aerith was never once questioned in the life stream, or even in the novels, tells me that their relationship never crossed the line that it needed to be questioned. It is what it is. But if they where lovers then isn’t that reason to put in Cloud questioning his relationship with Aerith and how real it was? If Clouds feelings for Tifa are what re-constructs him to become the real Cloud again, then doesn’t it stand to reason that Cloud goes through a mini-crisis where he must over write his feelings for Tifa in favor of Aerith?
    More importantly, just how much does Cloud acknowledge his behavior was based off Zack and not himself?
    Unfortunately, the remake seems to address this in the flower scene with Aerith, as Aerith tells Cloud “No matter what happens, you cannot fall in love with me. Even if you think you have… It’s not real”. which seems to build onto the notion that Clouds feelings for Aerith where never genuine and therefore based on what he knows about Zack, or just the very pretending to be Zack.
    And the reason i say unfortunate, is because the novels where written in accordance of Cloud and Aerith being lovers. But if the feelings where never real then what does that make their relationship in the original game and the novels?

    This is why i say i only think of the Novels and half Canon, half Fan-fiction. For the other characters, their roles and what they go through in the story makes sense. For Cloud and Aerith, it fails to resolve the questions of their relationship, ignores the contradictions and plot holes the characters must face, and in trying to strengthen their bond, they leave it as twisted and immoral as they never face the legitimacy of Cloud mind at the time and the contradictions in Aeriths character based on what she knows about it and must ignore to go through with being a lover.

    I cant help but think they’re going to re-con the whole “lover” relationship with Cloud and Aerith in order to save Aeriths character.
    The remake is going to delve into and expand the characters and the story, so unless they cure Cloud before Aeriths probable death, a lot more people are going to realize just how unbecoming it is of Aerith to do such a thing.

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