Massive spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake Ahead.
This paragraph is just here to give you a chance to click away to avoid spoilers. How about some quick trivia so you don’t feel you’ve wasted a visit? Did you know that the original Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to have voice acting? There is chatter over an intercom as Midgar prepares to fire on the attacking Diamond Weapon.
Okay, let’s ruin some stuff.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is inarguably a genius game. Whether it’s a good game is up to interpretation, but it’s basically the interactive fiction version of Passion of the Christ, a startling meditation on one of the most essential stories in the medium’s orthodoxy. Few games have ever embraced the ethos of “go big or go home” like this has. Consequently, there are things to love and things to hate.
I hate the “death” of Avalanche soooooo much.
The game gave Biggs, Jessie, and Wedge some incredible new characterization, so much so that I would easily have played another ten hours of missions involving the ragtag group. I was reminded of Wonder Woman and how that film perfectly captured a misfit squad that was still full of worthy contributors despite the fact one member clearly outranked all the others combined in sheer fighting prowess. Jessie’s endless thirst for Cloud and the heartbreak of her parents’ abuse by Shinra, Bigg’s Charlie-Sheen-in-Platoon impression and his background as an orphanage patron, and even Wedge with his stupid cats were all things that made Midgar matter so much more than it already did. It was a prestige television approach to world-building, and it worked so well.
Which is why I had this sick feeling in my stomach as Platefall and the destruction of Sector 7 approached. A friend of mine described it as knowing about the Red Wedding ahead of time, and that perfectly captures the gravity (graviga?) of the moment. Not only was my childhood nostalgia running high, now I had these three fleshed out companions who I really, really didn’t want to see crushed to death.
The death of Avalanche is an important beat in the game. It let the player know that the stakes were high and that Shinra was not going to stop at anything. We don’t even see the bodies in the original game. Biggs, Jessie, and Wedge are still fighting on the pillar when Shinra presses the button and Barret, Cloud, and Tifa zip line to safety. Back in the Sector 6 playground, the gate that once led to Sector 7 now opens onto a brutal pile of rubble and twisted steel. Nothing could have survived that, and Barret knows it. He screams his team members’ names as he fires his gun arm ineffectually into the ruins. It’s just pure video game genius. Barret (and by proxy us) never truly get closure on the loss of the three Avalanche members, partially because of the sheer scale of the disaster. It’s an open wound that follows them throughout the rest of the game.
In Remake, we do get to say goodbye, and I really wish we hadn’t. Wedge runs off into Sector 7 to try and save his cats, and, okay yes, I have never felt closer to a video game character. We see his terrified face as the plate falls toward him, cradling his pets protectively. Both Biggs and Jessie get extended scenes where they are wounded in the pillar and spout off very routine monologues about how they were glad to see us one last time. These go on way too long to the point of parody. Especially Jessie, who we have to remember only met Cloud like three days ago no matter how intense those three days were.
Whatever, It could all have been worth it though. Remake makes us stare into the carnage of the destruction. The party re-enters the sector through the sewer, finding wounded survivors and devastation that hits and hits hard. Later as they climb toward Shinra, the backdrops are all of the inconceivable mass of the devastation. You can really tell that Remake was made in a post-9/11 world, and it is not shy about that comparison.
While making your way through the wreckage, you find Wedge still alive (and one of his cats! Oh… only one of his cats). That was a gutsy knuckleball and I can’t pretend I didn’t cheer out loud the same way I did when Kenny showed back up in Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2. That’s the power of hope and beloved characters. You could argue that the entire marketing of the last Star Wars trilogy was based on how much we wanted to see Han, Luke, and Leia alive in some fashion again. Content makers know how much we all wish things to be okay and exploit that cheap pop to great effect.
Maybe it works with Wedge. He was always the member that it made the most sense might have actually made it out (he was on the ground and near the gate at the Battle of the Pillar), and Remake turns him into an evacuation hero so it works. The game isn’t necessarily worse for Wedge surviving, and as he is the only Avalanche member who the game didn’t force a cliched death speech down our throats it doesn’t feel like a betrayal.
But then at the end we see Biggs survived. He apparently made it out of the tower despite being pumped full of bullets, and also somehow limped out of the sector before the crash, and now he’s in a hospital bed but oh, he’s waking up and AREN’T YOU HAPPY THINGS ARE BETTER? ISN’T THIS WHAT YOU WANT?
No, it isn’t. It might be what we said we wanted, but we lied.
My wife and I play a game whenever we watch the movie Carrie. You win by pretending as long as possible that everything is going to be okay. The blood doesn’t fall on her, and she has a nice time, and maybe she comes home and her crazy mother has died of a heart attack. We don’t actually want a happy ending. If we did, we’d watch the Angela Bettis version. What we want is to feel intensely the tragedy of the story. As I mentioned in my piece on how horror movies are helping me cope with coronavirus depression, the catharsis is what makes me feel better.
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Death matters. It’s not fun when beloved characters die. It’s not supposed to fun. It’s supposed to be a tool in the emotional toolbox, though. Once Biggs survived, and in such a ludicrously contrived and thoroughly unbelievable fashion just like Kenny in The Walking Dead, it undid so much work that went into making me feel loss and empathy for the game. It took my emotions, and rather than validating them it snatched them away and covered them with candy coating. If we’re just going to kiss the boo boos away, then what was the point of hurting me in the first place?
Going forward with the series, I have a lot of dread. If two members of Avalanche made it out, what are honestly the odds that they won’t rewrite Jessie’s death as well just for that short, addictive high? Hell, the game’s ending hints very strongly that Aerith herself might not die, which would be the video game version of Jesus breaking free of the cross and powerbombing Pontius Pilate through a table he made. That sounds fun, but it’s a bad story, the narrative equivalent of ice cream for breakfast. Look at Rise of Skywalker. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t thrill to see posthumously inserted Carrie Fisher and the resurrection of Palpatine, but I’m also not going to pretend they didn’t make the movie worse than it could have been.
There is a reason fictional events like the Red Wedding and the Death of Uncle Ben and Platefall are talked about in hushed tones and with reverence. Once experienced, they cannot be unexperienced. You remember how you felt when you saw them. You take the pain this story made you feel and you add it to your genetic makeup. As Lou Reed once said, “there’s a little bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.”
I utterly detest what Remake did to the death of Avalanche. The game could not commit to the loss of its own characters, even after making sure that the circumstances of their loss would be even more impactful than ever before. It put so much effort into successfully making me care about Biggs, Jessie, and Wedge, and then it treated me like I was a child who couldn’t handle adult emotions. It was a cheap cop out, and it makes the game a lot less than it could be.