Lockhart

The original Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, and still represents the crowning achievement of epic narrative in videogames. Tolkienesque in its scope and Manichean melodrama, it also shares with The Lord of the Rings a fundamentally conservationist worldview. It differs markedly, though, in tone and setting; swords-and-sorcery medievalism is present, but it is mashed vibrantly into a neon-lit Japanese sci-fi futurism. There is also an often unremarked, startlingly mundane 20th-Centuryism at FFVII‘s heart. It is full of industrial machinery and failed Space Programmes, and one of the necessary preconditions of its premise is the economic devastation of coal-mining communities. This last occurs when a new, murderously filthy but hyper-potent energy source moves in, allowing energy corporation Shinra to become a de facto state government complete with military infrastructure. The new energy is called Mako, but it looks a whole lot like a worst-case imagining of Nuclear energy.

The player is thrust straight into the action in medias res, as a paid recruit on a bombing mission. You control — are ‘playing as’ — Cloud Strife, a new recruit for an ecoterrorist organisation, Avalanche. Avalanche are intent on destroying a Mako reactor in the grimy, industropunk metropolis Midgar, which is run by Shinra from gleaming spire to dingy foundations. For a story from the 1990s, Final Fantasy VII offers startlingly radical climate politics. If it were released today, it would be reviewed and discussed in terms of the influence of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. In its willingness to subordinate human existence to planetary well-being it might even be uncomfortably close to discussions concerning the rise of online ecofascism. While Cloud himself professes cold-hearted ideological apathy, Avalanche are unabashedly direct-action ecoterrorists whose anti-corporate actions cause lethal destruction in service of a conservationist agenda. While there are many twists and turns along both Cloud’s journey and Avalanche’s, the game ultimately endorses the original, radical Avalanche agenda with a misanthropic (but not nihilistic) post-credits ending. This scene triumphantly portrays the survival of nonhuman species at humanity’s expense; a spiritually rich natural world regaining dominion from polluting forces.

*

Like most fantasy protagonists, Cloud gathers a fellowship around him, who may also be controlled by you, the player, in the many big and small battles that comprise the chief strategic challenges of the Final Fantasy games. Cloud’s fellowship consists, in the opening act, of Barrett Wallace, Tifa Lockhart and Aerith Gainsborough.

Barrett is Avalanche’s leader, a charismatic dogmatist prone to furious outbursts against Shinra and their moral cowardice. Tifa is a childhood friend of Cloud’s who made it to Midgar before he did; they both left their small, distant town of Nibelheim some years previously. Cloud served with Shinra’s elite fighting force, SOLDIER, before becoming disillusioned, quitting, and ending up in Midgar in need of work. Tifa, meanwhile, went straight to the city and became proprietor of a bar, Seventh Heaven, which also serves as Avalanche’s headquarters. Midgar itself has a singular architecture; the city consists of a giant horizontal plate held up by a central pillar and auxiliary outer pillars. Shinra’s executives, SOLDIERs and besuited middle managers live topside, above the plate. Everyone else scrapes a living in the slums and seedy market districts of the various sub-plate districts, lit by artificial suns on the plate underside. Tifa’s bar is in the slums of Sector 7.

Midgar

During an Avalanche mission, Cloud becomes separated from Barrett and Tifa and meets a flower seller, Aerith, who employs him as a bodyguard. She needs a bodyguard because Shinra take a strange, controlling interest in her activities. This turns out to be because they know that she is the last surviving member of a precursor race with an empathetic relationship with the Planet’s life-force — which the Shinra extract as Mako energy. Once Cloud reunites with Tifa and Barrett, Aerith is captured by Shinra and the group’s mission to save her leads them into Shinra’s headquarters in the central spire, from which, rescue accomplished, they must finally flee out of Midgar itself.

I said, above, that FFVII would be considered climate-radical if it were released today. In a way, it has been. After years of speculation and half-confirmations, the Final Fantasy developers Square Enix released a remake of the ‘first episode’ of Final Fantasy VII in April this year. The remake’s creative team include original FFVII writer Kazushige Nojima and director Tetsuya Nomura, who worked on the original in a more junior capacity.

The summary I have offered takes us to the end of this first ‘episode’. The remake ends when Cloud and his allies leave Midgar and its steely, sooty colour palette for the blue and green hues of the wider world. Think The Lord of the Rings up to Rivendell, if the Shire was a monster-infested neo-Tokyo patrolled by the private security army of a monopolist corporation.

I haven’t even mentioned the original game’s ultimate antagonist, Cloud’s deranged, messianic former mentor Sephiroth. Or that, over the course of the original three-disc epic, Cloud discovers that his memories have been warped by Shinra’s experimentation using Mako energy. Cloud never made it into SOLDIER at all, but was instead a mere Shinra footsoldier — it was his comrade Zack who was the elite SOLIDER, and who saved the weakened Cloud from Shinra’s mad professor Hojo and his biotechnological experimentation. But let us leave all that by the by for now, as it falls outside the scope of the Remake (although Sephiroth’s liminal presence in the Midgar section of the original game is considerably beefed up).

Let’s call the 1997 original FFVII, and the remake FFVII-R.

*

A distinction: there are essentially two reviews of FFVII-R to be written. This is the narrative one. In the other one, I would assess FFVII-R as a challenge, as an activity. I would contend that although the game’s central battle mechanic gets better as it goes along, it is undermined by its inelegant combination of two different methodologies. One is the original’s turn-based strategic gameplay, which treats up to three allies out of Cloud, Barrett, Tifa, Aerith, etc, as equally weighted combatants, over whom the player has equal control (outside of combat the player’s control reverts to Cloud alone). The other methodology is the system from Square Enix’s faster paced Final-Fantasy-meets-Disney spin-off Kingdom Hearts, in which you control the central protagonist only and your allies chip in with attacks and defensive actions based on their (customisable) AI. FFVII-R, I would argue, fails to create a three-character version of the Kingdom Hearts system because, although you can switch between your three combatants as often as you like (leaving the other two to proceed as AI helpers), the rate at which the two non-controlled characters accumulate turns is too capricious to allow for the construction of a thoughtful strategy. Notably, the game’s handful of truly excellent battles are nearly all set-piece ‘boss’ encounters where a delimiting set of parameters (such as only one or two combatants being available to the player, or only particular attacks being effective at certain moments) works to restrict the inherent chaos of this hybrid battle system.

It was good to get the abstract for the unwritten game-review out of my system just there (and I note that Edwin Evans-Thirlwell at Eurogamer has written a splendid long-view article about this precise issue across the Final Fantasy series). But this is the other review, where I talk about stories.

*

Assessing a remake, or an adaptation — what standards do you judge it by? Hamlet might have a wonderful script but you can call a performance of Hamlet terrible without needing to caveat that yes, the words are very clever. FFVII-R is not remotely terrible, but whether it is one of the best games ever made or something more minor depends on whether you give it credit for its story, setting and world creation, all of which largely spring from the 1997 original. One’s instinct might be that you shouldn’t give the remake such credit, any more than you gave credit for Shakespeare’s wit to that awful Hamlet you saw. The technological gulf between 1990s and 2020s gaming complicates the issue. Instead of thinking of FFVII as one performance of the script and FFVII-R as another, one can plausibly regard FFVII as the script itself. This analogy holds surprisingly well. 1997’s FFVII had rudimentary graphics, spoken dialogue which appeared in speech bubbles from the pixelated characters, and a soundtrack that, while breathtakingly good for being 1997 MIDI music, was still 1997 MIDI music. With its expressive graphics, immersive environments, voice acting and immaculate music production, the 2020 remake is, in some senses, the truer realisation of the initial idea. FFVII can be taken as the script (and maybe the dress rehearsal), FFVII-R as the full première.

Even if you assess FFVII-R only by what it brings to the story and its world which was not there in the original, the Remake makes some impressive strides forwards. There is detail where before there were only broad strokes. Barrett’s Avalanche crew were one-note ensemble characters in FFVII: here in FFVII-R, the bomb squad are more developed, and their interactions with Cloud in the opening missions foreshadow how Cloud will relate to his companions in the greater challenges ahead. Another marked improvement is the deftly-handled reimagining of the ‘Don Corneo’ subplot. Here, Cloud must scour a particularly sketchy district for the means to cross-dress, so that he can confront a lecherous mob boss who admits only women into his quarters. In the original, this was mostly an invitation for a schoolboy chortle at your male protagonist having to wear a dress. In the remake, Nojima and Nomura have found room to condemn the abusers running the show (Don Corneo himself has a blatantly Trumpian blond quiff) and for some gender-dismissing sex-positive dance sequences orchestrated by a new character, the nightclub owner Andrea Rhodea. Rhodea’s underworld is not straightforwardly woke: like a drag show, there’s sleaze and objectivised bodies and some of it is downright uncomfortable to watch — but the chapter unfolds with a wiser, cheekier navigation of power and sexuality than I would have imagined Square Enix capable of.

There are also things in the Remake that don’t work. Yes, the expanded Avalanche and Corneo sections are smoothly integrated into the forward momentum of FFVII-R‘s story. But there are also frequent invitations for the player to simply put the fate of Midgar on ice and bluster around the underplate districts doing odd-jobs for random citizens in exchange for various tokens. The first of these interludes makes expository sense, as Tifa shows Cloud the underclass community of Sector 7 and suggests that he might find a life among it. The others are pure filler, and feel like it.

The Remake’s biggest and best change, however, is Tifa’s expanded role as the emotional keystone of the Midgar episode.

*

I have a theory I consider, or maybe it is a game I play, when I am writing fiction. It is to apply the line ‘but the story is really about X’ to various characters in the developing narrative, and see if it rings true. Does considering the story to be really about X add interesting angles or new depth to the overall project? When I was working on a story where the line held true with lots of characters, I told myself that was a sign of its strength. Now I’m working on a story that can only really be said to be about one or two characters, I have cooled on that theory and decided that a broad cast of really-abouts suits some texts but not others.

It is easy to play this game with antagonists, narrators, and co-leads: Star Wars is really about Darth Vader to the extent that they gave him, not the heroes, a three-movie backstory. The Sherlock Holmes stories are really about Dr Watson: yep, that works. Mad Max: Fury Road is really about Furiosa. But it’s more satisfying when you can find a genuinely second-tier character who sufficiently embodies the text’s aesthetic or ideological centre that the sentence rings true for them too. The vagueness of the phrase really about is part of the theory; it’s a test of resonance and instinct, not of quantifiable specifics. The Lord of the Rings is really about Sauron, but also Gandalf, Bilbo or Sam (but not Legolas, Gimli or Merry). Dune is really about Lady Jessica. Hamlet is really about Horatio (but not Ophelia). The dense visionary consistency of the Gormenghast books renders them really about Dr Prunesquallor, or Barquentine, or Fuchsia, or Keda, or almost anybody apart from Titus himself. If you don’t get carried away — The Big Lebowski is not really about Donny — it’s an interesting exercise. (Of course you can do it with themes or situations too — Sorry to Bother You is really about unionisation of the white-collar precariat — but that’s a different game.)

The most startling way that FFVII:R improves and expands upon the original is that it can meaningfully be said to be really about Tifa.

*

The fictional character Tifa Lockhart’s birthday is the 3rd of May. This is irrelevant, and as such is never mentioned in FFVII or FFVII-R. I refer to it here because it has inadvertently dragged an old description of Tifa’s personality to my attention. Tifa’s non-existent birthday is written in an image which, because it was May 3 a couple of weeks ago, circulated online a couple of weeks ago. The photo is of a character profile from an old game guide or something, and it lists Tifa’s name (here spelled ‘Lockheart’), her age (20 — as with all Final Fantasy characters, you can add half a decade or more to every character’s stated age to make the whole thing more believable), height, birthplace, job, weapon of choice and… blood type. The profile also contains a brief bio, which begins:

Bright and optimistic, Tifa always cheers up the others when they’re down. But don’t let her looks fool you, she can decimate almost any enemy with her fists.

 

Tifa profile

 

The incoherence of this has an echo of the original’s intermittent leeriness, which is discussed at greater length below: where does the second sentence get looks from? Are her looks optimistic? More notably, this character summary does not describe the Tifa of FFVII-R, at all. It might describe the Tifa of FFVII — unlike Barrett and his hair-trigger temper, Tifa’s personality was not so thuddingly caricatured as to be particularly discernible through the dialogue boxes of the original game. But 2020 Tifa has room to speak for herself. She has facial expressions, and a tone of voice, and she isn’t bright or optimistic at all. She’s troubled and pessimistic. She is cautious, practical, fully committed when the fight is on, but prone to introspection outside of it. She gets things done through determination, compromise and relationship-building. This makes her remarkably believable as a young woman from a small town who has wandered into a smog-choked metropolis and made herself into a business-owning pillar of the community in just a few short years. She participates in Barrett’s righteous crusade, including by letting Barrett’s cell of Avalanche meet in her bar, but the bar is more than just a front: it’s the realisation of Tifa’s own version of Barrett’s anti-Shinra politics, which for Tifa has less to do with blowing up Shinra’s reactors and more to do with growing a resilient, neighbourly community in the Sector 7 slums.

She is even doubtful about the bombing missions themselves, about using violence to further Avalanche’s planetary cause. In this way, the new Tifa sits close to the ideological centre of FFVII-R: the remake is considerably more cautious than the original about endorsing Avalanche’s destructive direct action. The Remake takes great pains to highlight a subplot, only fleetingly referenced in the original, where the destruction Avalanche cause has been deliberately magnified by Shinra black ops in order to turn Midgar’s under-plate population against the freedom fighters in their midst.

*

Shifting Cloud’s childhood friend to the story’s emotional heart improves not only her story, but Barrett’s, Aerith’s and, in particular, Cloud’s. He becomes interestingly annoying; no longer the silent protagonist because he is a stand-in for the player’s agency, but a portrayal of a man who is visible through Tifa’s eyes as infuriatingly silent, undeservedly self-possessed, emotionally inarticulate — in writer Nojima’s words, he is ‘mentally still a young boy’. Cloud finds that the language of greed enables him to avoid conversations in any other language, and so he neurotically subordinates ideological or emotional commitment to blunt-force economic acquisition. He will help Avalanche if the purse is right. He will let Tifa help him establish himself in the Sector 7 slums; but only by doing those odd-jobs for ready cash. Because the cash is always ready, and the purse is always right, he can fulfil his emotional and ideological urges without being beholden to them, by claiming he was only ever in it for the paycheque. This is rendered visible by Cloud’s early cutscenes with Tifa, in which she expresses not just warmth towards Cloud but pity; and not just commitment to Avalanche but doubt. Through Tifa’s considered voice, and her capacity for justified doubt, FFVII-R signals that it is not just an inept story about a faultless hero fighting nobly for a faultless cause, but a thoughtful story about an inept hero fighting without conviction for a complex cause.

By offering us a cautious Tifa, with whom we must increasingly sympathise as she tries to help an infuriating old friend who will only let himself be helped if she condescends to his petulant need to frame every gift he receives as a transaction, FFVII:R changes the dynamic between Cloud, Tifa and Aerith, too. Cloud’s guard begins to lift— just gradually, just a little — and Tifa, still cautious, must negotiate her gathering personal feelings towards him. Just as this subplot is beginning to coalesce, Cloud is separated from Tifa and Barrett during an Avalanche mission, and the next time she meets him he is in the company and the orbit of the outwardly flirtatious Aerith. In the original FFVII, there was a ‘date sequence’ in which Cloud would be joined by either Tifa, Aerith or Barrett, depending on which character the player favoured in various conversation choices. Now, Cloud’s level of interest in the two female leads is no longer a slightly leery minigame — which pixelated woman will you choose to end up with? — but a believable subplot concerning the unspoken emergence of a hesitant love triangle. Aerith is openly interested in Cloud, Tifa more reservedly but more meaningfully so. And this makes Tifa and Aerith’s own developing friendship interestingly, subtly fraught. This is a better story than the original script had room for. In the remake, for the first time, FFVII works as a romance.

*

The game has not escaped the male-gaze trappings of which pixelated woman will you choose to end up with completely. The character animators, so impressive with Cloud’s flashing blade and Tifa’s athletic flurries of punches and kicks, seem to have been operating at an entirely lower level when it comes to Tifa and Aerith’s body language. They both make frequent recourse to a particular type of coquettish, lowered-eyes giggle that haunts female characters in Japanese games (and, I suspect, animé, although I’m no aficionado), in a way that suits Aerith to an extent, but is out of character for the watchful Tifa. When neither female lead can end a meaningful moment with Cloud without a tee-hee breaking of eye contact, we revert back to the game mechanics of juvenile male wish fulfilment; you are the hero and the hero is desirable. Why? Because he’s the one you play as.

Tifa’s appearance is also still sexualised beyond that of any other major character, and that old leery note occasionally enters her incidental dialogue too. All the characters bark periodic hoo-rahs and bantered banalities amongst the chaos of battle, but only Tifa’s voice clips repeatedly long for a shower. A more egregious example comes when this low-grade misogyny enters the scripted dialogue. There is a well-timed scene where Tifa and Aerith tentatively strike up a friendship independent of their unspoken competition for Cloud’s trust. It should be, and just about is, the moment when FFVII-R passes the Bechdel test. But Tifa and Aerith’s hesitant bonding comes over a plan to go shopping topside. Of course there’s nothing wrong with making plans to go shopping with a new pal, but it doesn’t feel germane to the characters of either the Avalanche activist or the community-minded flower girl, both so tied into the anti-corporate daily life of their under-plate districts, that their getting-to-know-you gossip would focus on going above the plate to patronise the Shinra workers’ luxury boutiques. Rather, it feels like the first and last idea of a male-flavoured writers’ room who instinctively parsed a ‘bonding’ sequence for two female characters in terms of feminine stereotypes. Women love to shop!

These caveats are necessary ones to observe in an assessment of FFVII-R which argues that a deeply enriched portrayal of Tifa is the key means by which this game has threaded the needle to successfully produce an adaptation both faithful to and progressive from the original. They have now been observed. My contention is that the assessment still holds, although the caveats do restrict it.

*

I have been referring to FFVII-R throughout. But for reasons already described, I should perhaps have been referring to FFVII-R:1. This is only the first episode of the remake, although it carried the £60 release-day price tag of a fully fledged game. Cloud will have plenty of time in the later episodes to become interesting, and grow strong. The best thing about FFVII-R:1 is that he doesn’t have to. There is a mercifully self-contained ending about fighting Destiny itself tacked onto the episode in order to give the gameplay of Episode 1 a rousing denoument, but thankfully Nojima, Nomura and their team saw no reason to give Cloud an equivalent narrative climax. Does he grow as a person over the course of the episode? Yes, but slowly, slowly. He becomes closer to his buddies and a more reliable comrade, but that’s about it. There is no Damascene realisation. He gets closer to the maturity that traditionally marks the end of a bildungsroman hero’s arc, but not much. This is necessary, because if Cloud was fully socialised at the end of Episode 1, the subsequent episodes would have nothing to work with. We will learn in those later instalments about Cloud’s history and how he reacts to it, about his ability or inability to grow. There will be world enough, and time.

This could, however, have rendered R:1 one-note and unsatisfying — but it doesn’t, because the narrative arc of FFVII-R:1 doesn’t need Cloud: it has Tifa. And ignoring the tacked-on ending about Destiny, the real climax of FFVII-R:1 comes at this moment:

Catches Cloud gif

As Cloud falls from the top of Midgar after the final narratively relevant battle (before a flashy car chase which segues into the Destiny sequence), Tifa rushes from offstage and catches him. It is a neat return to the game’s beginning, where Cloud — the playable character, the nominal protagonist and as such the presumptive hero — is undertaking his first post-SOLDIER paid gig, as a mercenary fighter for a fringe ecological cause he protests indifference to. How did Cloud get the gig? He arrived in Midgar a nobody, a failed experiment claiming — unbeknownst to himself, lying — to be a former elite SOLDIER who had thrown away his career working for the hegemonic Shinra. He was down and out. And Tifa, rushing from offstage, caught him. She found a childhood acquaintance from her own small town making a much worse go of living in the urban underbelly than she herself had done. So she picked him up and found him not only a job, but a chance to be heroic. Now, at the climax, as the situation symbolically repeats, she articulates his failure. His failure, that is, not just at this moment of falling, and not just his failure to fulfil his childhood dreams before the game’s narrative began, but his failure to be heroic throughout, from first mission to this climactic moment, where he still needs to be caught. All through FFVII-R:1, Barrett, Tifa and Aerith have alternated as Cloud’s source of direction, decisions, wisdom and leadership. And yet all the while, he has acted as though the story is his alone. This is not heroism; it is solipsism. And it leads him to fall, again.

Gotta be Better gif

“You gotta be better than this…”, Tifa says as she catches Cloud from falling, again, complete with dramatic ellipsis. Then: “If you’re gonna play the hero.”

It is a passing of the torch.

*

In the forthcoming episodes of FFVII-R, if Aerith and Tifa are portrayed with the same depth that Tifa is in Episode 1, then the idea that the whole story is really about either one of them might still work, and FFVII-R will be better for it. There are times when the story will really be about Barrett, but they will be more like guest episodes than a consistent leading role. For those already familiar with the story: yes, Jenova is another name in the mix, if you can call her a character, and so are Zack and Hojo, and in an interesting, offbeat way, the nonhuman Red XIII. But the FFVII-R project overall will, if done well, probably only really be about its stated hero and villain, Cloud and Sephiroth.

FFVII Remake: Episode 1, however, is really about Tifa Lockhart, and this makes it more than just ‘faithful’; more than just a re-read of FFVII‘s script.

 

Hands

 

 

 

 

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