2020’s Two Biggest Games are Stories with Something to Prove

Spoiler Warning: This piece discusses plot points and ending details to both Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II. If you haven’t finished both games, then I can’t recommend reading this. To the handful of folks who have managed to complete both games: enjoy!

I finished Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II within 24 hours of each other. The two games have almost nothing in common in terms of tone, style, story, or characters. Final Fantasy VII was developed in Japan, building upon the series’ history of anime and sci-fi/fantasy-inspired storytelling. The Last of Us Part II is a product of Hollywood inspiration, developed right in Los Angeles with motion-captured actors and screenwriting talent. They couldn’t be more different, and yet, I found myself unable to avoid comparisons.

Both games build upon their predecessors — The Last of Us and the original Final Fantasy VII — using a series of plot devices to both comment on aspects of those original games and convince the fans to think about them differently. Both games perform narrative backflips, building upon a question over dozens of hours, refusing to let the answers to that question settle until the very final hours of their respective stories. 

Final Fantasy VII Remake largely expands upon the story of the Midgar section of the original game, taking time to develop small side characters but stopping short of rewriting history. In fact, any time a character is about to diverge from the original narrative or spoil a plot detail Cloud shouldn’t know yet, ghostly creatures called Whispers swoop in to prevent it. At first this seems like some odd new addition to the story, but towards the end of the game, Red XIII lays it all out: the Whispers are arbiters of fate, drawn to anyone who attempts to alter their destiny and prevent it.

Eventually, Final Fantasy VII Remake diverges from the plot of the original. As the heroes take the Whispers and Sephiroth head-on, they change their fate, revive Zach in an alternate timeline, and set the stage for an “anything goes” sequel. The question the developers seem to be asking the audience is, “what would it take for you to allow us to change the story of Final Fantasy VII?”

The Last of Us Part II picks up right where the original left off, in the aftermath of Joel’s choice to murder a hospital full of Fireflies to rescue Ellie. The lie that closed out that original game lingers in the air as the years pass. The story is told out of order, and we don’t discover the true nature of Ellie and Joel’s relationship until long after he has been murdered by Abby. As the story progresses, we watch as Ellie pursues unforgivable acts of violence on the group that killed Joel, morally compromising herself to the point that it was uncomfortable to continue playing as her. Then, just as it seems a climax is in sight, we rewind three days and take control of Abby.

The question the developers seem to be asking here is multi-faceted: 

“Can we make you hate a protagonist you loved?” 

“Can we make you love an antagonist you hate?”

“Where will you land when the dust settles?”

In pursuing these questions, both games feel like a narrative exercise, stretching the boundaries of character motivations and player participation. Scenes happen out of order or play out in confusing ways, but in both cases with specific purpose. Both games are methodical in when they choose to show the player something, focusing almost more on how they want the audience to feel than how they want the characters to act or the story to unfold. And both stories nearly buckle beneath the pressure of their larger ambitions.

For myself, I found The Last of Us Part II to be far more effective at achieving its goals. Ellie’s thirst for revenge pushed the boundary of believability, but I considered her truly lost by the last few hours in Santa Barbara. I felt that I was meant to be exhausted by her actions, but that Naughty Dog felt some people may still need some convincing. My opinion may evolve—as I’m still rolling it around in my mind and will probably continue to do so for a while—but I bought into the narrative exercise that The Last of Us Part II pursued.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s convoluted attempt to justify a new storyline for its sequels didn’t work for me. In the last few hours of the game, casual fans of the original are left in the dust, force fed sudden flashes of characters and references they probably don’t know, from spin-off games and movies they’ve never seen. The game becomes the ultimate fan service and a plea, through the story of the Whispers, to accept change as the new normal going forward.

What’s interesting is how both games have divided audiences through this process. The response has been a spectrum, and there are many people who feel great about the direction of Final Fantasy VII Remake but hated The Last of Us Part II.

No matter your take, I think it is safe to say that both games take an ambitious path, and neither wraps up without stumbling a little along the way. However it’s in those narrative risks and ambitions that we find two unforgettable games that make this storytelling medium a little more interesting than it was a few months ago.

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