The following is an entry in The Legacy of Final Fantasy VII Remake, a series that analyzes how and why the remake of Final Fantasy VII is a landmark innovation in both Final Fantasy and video-game storytelling more broadly. Read the series’ mission statement here.
Shoot for the Stars: The Opening Scene
When I was a film student for a single semester at Ithaca College, I remember taking an introductory film class and hearing from my professor that there are only two shots in any film that actually matter: the first shot and the last shot. Almost before he finished that thought, I was thinking of the opening scene in Star Wars, and how there’s likely no better example of what he meant than the visual representation of a story’s core conflict in a single scene.
After the bombast from the opening crawl subsides and the John Williams score slowly fades from the powerful and joyous title theme to a quieter, more wistful song, we are aware that we are about to witness something incredible. The stage is set as we see all the stars in the galaxy twinkling before us, and as we pan down to the desert planet below, we are introduced to the conflict of the story in a single, masterful shot. A stout little spaceship zooms past us, speeding away from something or someone shooting at its aft thrusters, and before we have any time to orient ourselves and try to figure out who we just saw zipping past us, a massive dreadnought nearly one hundred times the first ship overtakes the screen, dominating our visual field with its reach and power.
In one deftly assembled shot, the audience understands that we have just seen a rebel ship fleeing from the terrifying might of an imperial cruiser. That rebel ship, dwarfed by the incredible power of the massive tank trailing behind it, tells us all we need to know about the film we’re about to see: Star Wars is about a small group of rebels fighting back against a mighty empire.
As that professor of mine droned on about the Kuleshov effect or some other thing and the Star Wars opening wrapped up in my imagination, my mind began to drift, as it often does, to the visual language of video games. I asked myself whether that kind of first shot/last shot analysis was applicable to games.
There’s reason to believe that it is: despite their being a unique interactive medium, it’s undeniable that video games take a fair few cues from the myriad art forms that preceded them, including cinema. Video games are inherently an audio-visual medium, and so many games, especially those that are more story-focused, are going to use the visual language of film as much as any movie or TV show might.
As I started going down the laundry list of games that I felt leaned on this connection more than others (the Silent Hill series, the Batman: Arkham games, virtually every Hideo Kojima joint), I kept coming back to a scene that had stuck with me ever since I was a kid, much in the same way that the opening shot of Star Wars had. An opening to a game that gave you all the context not just for the conflict of the game, but also for the overarching themes and purpose that the story had more generally. In one fell swoop, this particular opening told me everything I needed to know about the game by showing it to me with its masterful visual storytelling. This was the opening to Final Fantasy VII.
The opening scene to the original game is roughly two and a half minutes long, and in that short amount of time we are given the entirety of the game in microcosm. After unloading a metric ton of context in our lap, the game hands control over to us so that we can explore the world for which we were just given a visual primer.
This opening is so iconic to me, in fact, that one of the first major concerns I had with Final Fantasy VII Remake was about how they were going to do that masterful opening shot in the new game. Were they going to reimagine it? Was it going to be something completely different? Would they make unnecessary changes that take away from the artistry of that perfect opening from the original?
Well, folks, I’m happy to say that they did a real bang-up job. I mean, just top-notch. I’ll get into it further, but I think it’s worth mentioning that opening of Final Fantasy VII Remake not only pays homage to the incredible opening of the original, but it does for this game and its inevitable sequels what that first opening did for Final Fantasy VII: it effortlessly draws you into a world that you desperately want to be part of.
But before we actually engage in this exercise, let’s go over why it’s worth doing in the first place. After all, why should one spend nearly ten times the length of an opening scene going through it shot by shot, especially when the game itself can take literal days to complete and is full of so much more content than only two and a half minutes can provide? Well, it all goes back to what that professor of mine said back in that Intro to Film class: the opening shot of a film—or, in this case, a video game using visual storytelling—is often the thesis statement of the story.
The opening scene is like a contract that the audience signs with the story, and watching that first scene means you’ve signed on the dotted line and are looking to see where the whole enterprise will take you. That opening scene of Star Wars is as much a roadmap for the themes of the story as it is a provocative eye-catch for the viewer.
In much the same way, the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII is an invitation to the player to explore the themes that the game will be presenting over its many hours of storyline. By taking the time to carefully study the opening scene, you give yourself an analytical foundation for where the rest of the story takes you. As you progress through the story, you pick up on little moments that may have been alluded to or given away in those opening shots, and you develop a greater appreciation for the thematic cohesion of the story you’re experiencing. In short, studying the first scene gives you the tools you need to better engage with the rest of the narrative.
So come along with me, then, as I explore not only what made the original opening scene great, but also how Remake took cues from its predecessor and drew us in all over again.
Final Fantasy VII: Emerging from the Darkness
We open on a twirling shot of the stars, millions of blinking lights out in the inky blackness of space staring back at us like so many eyes of heaven. This shot lingers, almost uncomfortably, for nearly a full minute, forcing us to think about why we’re spending so much time in the stars. Just as it’s about to go on too long, and maybe just as you’re about to question your place in the universe, a woman’s face emerges from the darkness, illuminated by an eerie green glow. Matching this eeriness are the first strains of music we’ve heard after listening to a full minute of the vacuous din of space.
The first human face we see after looking so deeply into the stars is staring directly back at us, and whether you find it unnerving or comforting to see this woman after staring into the abyss for so long, it’s undeniable that we are instantly connected to her.
The shot changes to a side view; we see that this woman has been looking into an exposed pipe, and the green glow looks to be some sort of material bubbling out of a break in the plumbing. She again turns her gaze towards us, and now we can see that she’s carrying a basket of flowers. She moves out of the dark alleyway and into the bustling street. Cars, motorcycles, and many people are moving quickly around her, and as she looks into the distance, the camera flies back, showing us the true majesty of this city she’s been standing in.
We see a sweeping establishing shot of a circular city, with a huge glowing building in the middle of it. The building clearly looms over the rest of the metropolis below it, glowing the same eerie green glow as the effluent in the alleyway from before. With the towering building in the dead center of the frame, the music swells and the title appears, the meteor logo appearing to strike the tower as it eclipses all other imagery in-frame.
This is Final Fantasy VII, and you are about to go for a hell of a ride.
The title fades, and we linger on a shot of this incredible city for just a few seconds before a shot of a speeding train is intercut, as if invading the peaceful establishing shot of the city. The camera moves back in, and, as we get more shots of the train cut in, we get closer and closer to a different part of the city as the music shifts from the swelling grandness of the title shot to the sharp and purposeful chords of the train pulling into a station. The train comes to a halt, and we zoom in as the music tightly shifts into the rest of “Opening Bombing Mission.”
The train stops, and off jump three people who begin kicking and punching what we take to be guards at the station. A fourth character, even burlier than the last three, jumps off the train, and motions for the last stowaway to get off the train. We see our main character, the one over whom we will have control for the majority of the game, leap from the train and land on his feet, looking up, ready for the mission to begin.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open a story, and I’m going to tell you why.
Remember Star Wars: one of the many things you can do with an effective opening, perhaps one of the most interesting is to give away the whole story through a few simple shots. And, okay, Final Fantasy VII fans among you are probably wondering what I’m talking about, because there’s all manner of Hojos and Jenovas that don’t even get so much as a mention in that opening scene. Well, bear with me, Dear Reader, because we’re going to talk about theming.
Final Fantasy VII has many themes, but the most essential is no doubt the theme of overcoming past trauma, and of moving forward with one’s life despite dealing with great hardship. At first blush, this opening doesn’t seem to examine that too closely, but think back to the deliberate visuals we see from the moment we first see the stars to the moment that Cloud jumps off that train, and think about what this opening really evokes in you.
Loneliness is a terrible thing. I think the worst part about it is how frighteningly deceptive it can be, because everyone likes to be alone sometimes, right? Everyone likes to get away from people and unwind for a little while, maybe open an old book they never finished or pick up that game they bought a few weeks ago but never got around to playing. Everyone likes spending some time in solitude—but every now and again, in the quietest moments of that solitude, you start hearing voices. These voices, you can’t really make them out, but you feel you recognize them. They start whispering to you, “I wonder why he hasn’t called?” and “Did I say something wrong?” or many times, “Did I make a mistake?” Soon, those whispers evolve into harsh tones, and sooner still, they turn into a din that you can’t make quiet. You start resenting the solitude, and realizing it for what it is: loneliness. That loneliness starts creeping up around you, blackening your surroundings until you feel like you may never see anyone again, and no one will be able to pull you from that dense lonely fog. Finally, you have one last thought: “Isn’t there anybody out there?”
I have felt that kind of loneliness on many occasions, both in short bursts and for long, painful periods. That loneliness of spirit and feeling as if no one can reach you is a trauma I feel that we all know to some extent, and we’ve all felt at one point or another. It can feel, at times, as if you’re adrift in a black sea of your own thoughts with no meaningful reprieve in sight. But then, luckily, I have had many people in my life who’ve stepped into that cloud and made light of what was once so unbearably dark, and that connection between us has lifted my spirits to a point where I couldn’t even fathom ever having been lonely at all. Those people are there with us no matter what, and while we may lose track of them in the dark, we can always trace that connection to them.
Now, Dear Reader, I must confess that I didn’t just come up with that on the fly. That deep look into loneliness and how we often cope with it came to me after taking a granular look at the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII, and not only grappling with the emotions I felt while doing so, but also analyzing just how and why these images affected me so much.
Let’s take a closer look together, shall we?
We start on a huge scale, looking into the vastness of cold, unfeeling space. Whereas something like Star Wars uses stars as establishing shots to get you oriented in space, Final Fantasy VII swirls the camera around while keeping it focused on the stars. We stay there so long that we start to feel discomfort, and the swirling of the camera does nothing to orient us as we contemplate our place in this unknowably large and lonely universe. We start with something big—maybe even the biggest thing—to show us that the world is so much bigger than ourselves.
But fear not: from the large to the small, we see the face of Aerith looking back at us, letting us know that we’re not alone in that inky blackness. There are kind people in this world with flowers who are there to remind us that even though we feel alone in the universe, there’s always someone else sharing in that vast open space.
The kind quiet of Aerith doesn’t last long, though: she emerges out of the alley into the loud, chaotic Midgar, and we see people hurrying from one place to the next, without so much as one person stopping to smell the literal roses that Aerith has in her basket. The world is fast, and kindness is often overlooked by cruelty.
That “overlooking cruelty”? The Shinra Corporation’s headquarters, looming like some terrible obelisk in the middle of this city full of people. As we zoom out, we see it nearly pulsating with the green glow of Mako energy as it stands defiant against kindness in the metal city that it has erected around it; just as it subsumed Aerith in its gaping maw, so too does it consume the kindness that can be present in the world.
We lose Aerith in the city, and can’t help but wonder where that kind face in the crowd disappeared as we’re taken onto more pressing matters: the bombing mission. We don’t yet know what this ragtag group is after, but we can certainly suss out from the urgent music and the fighting that they’re about to make some kind of a stand. Is it a stand to perpetuate the cruelty of Shinra and its machinations? Or, will it be a stand to cast off that cruelty, look past the unbearable loneliness that it’s inflicted on the world, and bring back some semblance of kindness to it? Will we find that connection we so desperately need in times of great distress?
Well, as someone far more sinister than I once said, “That’s up to you, Cloud.”
Without saying a single word, the opening scene of the original Final Fantasy VII asks so many questions that the game will go on to answer:
- We look into the nature of the universe and our place in it.
- We ask ourselves what kindness means in a world that often feels as cruel and lonely as the cold blackness of space.
- We wonder if, in the face of abject domination and control, we can take hold of our own destiny and make a difference in the world.
In only two and a half minutes, you are completely prepared for the journey on which you are about to embark through the story of Final Fantasy VII.
So, how does the opening of Remake hold up to the original?
Final Fantasy VII Remake: What Lies Beneath
We open this time not on the stars, but rather on the clouds parting in an arid wasteland. A bird with tattered, blackened wings glides lazily on the breeze, flying past the desert wastes beneath it. As it moves past the desert towards the steel girders of a city, we hear the quiet sounds of Latin lyrics playing in the distance, as if gearing up for something. The lyrics, we realize, are from “One-Winged Angel,” the final boss theme that plays when fighting Sephiroth in the original game, but when analyzed on their own in this context gives us a far more chilling insight into what we’re seeing as we glide over Midgar.
Estuans Interius (Ira Vehementi)
Estuans Interius (Ira Vehementi)
Burning Inside (With Violent Anger)
Burning Inside (With Violent Anger)
Something sinister is boiling just below the surface, and may very well be let loose on us soon. We are introduced to Sephiroth as a shadow over and underneath this world far sooner than we were introduced to him in the original game, and we get the impression from this imagery and these lyrics that beyond simple loneliness, this game may be taking things a step further, exploring what that kind of trauma can do if left unchecked.
The bird has now disappeared into the utter magnitude of the city as we see shots of people living and working. A train screeches by and children gather on their bikes through the slums as men in jumpsuits fix cars and load some sort of canisters into their trunks. A mangy dog eats out of a trash can, and we pan away from it to see the march of progress as construction workers load more materials into a truck.
The children from earlier, now greater in number, zoom past the camera on their bikes and take the focus away from the construction workers as we see them go towards a beaten-down playground. We cut from the children and see a decrepit, dying flower barely sticking out of the concrete as it sheds one of many soon-to-be-shed petals. Back to the kids, and their carefree play has been relegated to the bottom third of the screen as the dusty ground and endless labyrinthine machinery behind them take the focus.
One of the kids kicks the ball they’re playing with to a little girl, who looks off into the distance and suddenly has a green glow in her eye—the reflection of one of the gargantuan Mako reactors turning on, penetrating the sky with that same eerie green glow we’ve come to know. Just one example of the burning anger coming to the surface where we hadn’t seen it in the original.
The sky fades into that all-too-familiar blackness of space. Once cold and disconcerting, the darkness seems almost comforting in relation to the metropolitan terror of Midgar—it’s a small reprieve from the endless movement of Midgar and its citizens. After the unsettling, off-putting imagery of the black bird flying over this city with rage broiling just beneath its surface, that loneliness that we were once made to feel in the original’s opening now seems like a haven. That comfort doesn’t last long, though: as the strains of the Latin lyrics fade away, we zoom in on Aerith in that familiar position, awash in that green glow as she looks into the exposed plumbing before her.
This time, instead of her face emerging from the darkness of space, the camera curls around her, as if it were an old friend coming up from behind to surprise her after not seeing her for some time. She is not looking directly at you, but instead opens her eyes as the camera appears in front of her, as if awakening from some deep sleep. Gone is the friendly face that we see emerging from the frightening dark. Now it is us who appear to be startling her, creeping up on her from behind. We go to her side again and hold on her looking into the green glow for a few seconds until those familiar Latin strains come back.
With a jolt, as if reacting to the singing, she looks down the alleyway behind her and sees only darkness. She runs away from it, and we hold on that darkness for just a few seconds too long. But this darkness, as we can tell from Aerith’s reaction, is not the mere physical embodiment of loneliness that it had been in the original’s opening. Now there is something sinister lurking within it, hiding just beneath the surface and ready to strike.
As she exits the alleyway, she bumps into people and loses her footing, dropping her flowers as she does so. That same sense of hustle and bustle is here, but this time, we see that free-floating cruelty affect her in a way that we hadn’t before. She clutches the trampled flower to herself and looks directly upwards into the camera as it soars above the city of Midgar, showing us that same imposing shot of the Shinra building asserting its dominance over the people below. In the last shot of Aerith, we can almost read desperation in her face as if she were asking for the same connection to us as she provided in the original opening. “Isn’t there anybody out there?”
Helicopters zoom by, and we get a full shot of the city before the logo and title appear. The meteor icon literally falls from the side of the screen this time, and then we see:
Then, as if we’re stepping back in time, we have the same shots of the train intercutting the establishing shot of Midgar, and the opening bombing mission continues apace with our old friends.
Well done, boys: you knocked it out of the park again.
The opening scene in the original Final Fantasy VII establishes that you are about to engage with a story of epic proportions and explore the depths of loneliness and the trauma it imparts; the opening of the Remake does all that the original did while also being in conversation with the first game. What’s more, instead of just establishing that loneliness is a huge hurdle with which we all must wrestle, the opening of Remake uses its visuals to effectively communicate that loneliness isn’t just a sad affair, but at times an unknowably terrifying one.
We don’t start on the cold blackness of space, but rather on desert wasteland presided over by a bird with tattered black wings. If you hadn’t cottoned to the imagery yet, the lyrics to Sephiroth’s theme start playing slowly over the footage as the bird flies into Midgar, showing us that while the city looks incredible on the surface, there is a deeply disturbing underbelly to it, the likes of which we cannot yet understand. These people as they work, these children as they play—they are all under the watchful gaze of the Mako reactors and the controlling fist of Shinra. Nothing is as it seems: we may think we understand Midgar and these opening hours of the original game, but we are not prepared for what is about to come.
Perhaps the most defining moment in this entire opening is the difference in how Aerith is introduced to us when compared to the original. Unlike the first opening, in which she is looking unblinkingly at the player dead-on in the center of the shot, the camera creeps up on her in Remake’s opening, as if she weren’t expecting it. What’s more, the way she slowly opens her eyes and becomes startled by the strains of the music that we hear seems to indicate that she’s not nearly as confident as she was in the original game. Instead of looking confidently into the camera, she seems disoriented and confused, not sure at all of what she’s looking at or experiencing. Perhaps she, like we once did in the original’s opening, needs someone’s help in the form of a connection. It’s not until the moment that she grabs the trampled flower and looks into the camera once more that we get the impression that perhaps she’s found that connection with the viewer, and now we’re going to be exploring what it means to be lonely in a terrifying world all over again.
Regardless of your interpretation of the Remake and the changes it’s made to the original game’s story, it’s important to realize the quality visual storytelling we’re seeing in these opening moments. Aerith, who was deliberately positioned as our grounding figure in that original opening, is suddenly caught off-guard and confused, and she takes a moment to figure out what’s happening around her. Like her, the game is showing us that the player is about to stumble through many of the changes that are about to take place, and it’s up to them to find their footing again just as Aerith did.
Without going into too much detail for those of you who haven’t played Remake, the ending is not exactly what you’d expect. Things get thrown into the air pretty intensely, and it takes some time and thought to bring oneself back down to earth after the shocking revelations that take place. What’s more, once you’ve finally reckoned with the end of this game, it leaves you a bit disoriented, confused, and perhaps a little more than scared to see what will possibly come next and the story of Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Final Fantasy VII boasts far more cinematic elements than its predecessors in the series, and its masterful opening scene clearly shows the intent behind the visuals. Remake takes this opening scene, does everything the original did with it, and successfully made it stand out on its own by introducing imagery that is more striking in some cases than the original’s. If the original showcased the theme of the game’s story by pointing out that all we really have in this world is our connections to one another and the kindness we can provide, than Remake’s opening shows us that the future is uncertain and the world is terrifying, so we’d damn well better hold onto that kindness as we go through this thing together—whatever this thing is.
So much can be said in the first few minutes of a movie, TV show, or video game, and hopefully, this deep dive into two masterfully crafted opening scenes has not only inspired you to look at other video game openings, but has also gotten you thinking about some other scenes in the original Final Fantasy VII and Remake alike. It is worth it to take the time to dissect these pivotal moments in the story because it can tell us so much not only about the game to come, but also about how we perceive the story being told to us so beautifully.