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.
Cloud Strife probably should have died after the Airbuster fight. It’s a 300-meter fall straight down from the Mako Reactor 5, and there’s a lot of twisted sharp steel to be impaled on or monsters happy to terrorize an unconscious SOLDIER. It’s kind of a miracle he survived at all. And where does he wake up? The most obviously sacred building in Midgar—the Sector 5 Slums Church.
With its crumbling roof and cracked flagstones covered in yellow flowers, the Sector 5 Church is one of the most beloved buildings in the whole world of Final Fantasy VII, appearing in every single piece of media released as part of the Final Fantasy VII franchise. And I do mean ‘every’—even Dirge of Cerberus! As much as Aerith, or Tifa, or Cloud, or Sephiroth, the Church is inextricably part of players’ imagination of what it means to be Final Fantasy VII.
This is totally justified: the Church is really weird within the context of Midgar. Here we are, walking through this industrial dystopia, bombing massive power generators, when we wake up inside this place that feels from another time, lit by candles and sunlight instead of gigantic lamps. It doesn’t fit, and so it sticks in the player’s memory, pinned there to slowly continue its decay. It is so striking that it merits analysis—why does this particular church exist, and what does it reveal about the world and narrative of Final Fantasy VII Remake? As you can see from the length of the article before you, I do have an answer. When I compare the Church to the living, breathing characters of the game, I mean that entirely literally: the Church is itself a character, which acts upon the world and contains its own conflicts that parallel the larger concerns within the game and within the franchise.
Now, readers familiar with this publication may know that my last article here on With A Terrible Fate was a rather bulky piece of work. Drawing on Christian and Buddhist cosmologies and apocalypticism, it tried to fairly exhaustively explain one of the core themes of Final Fantasy VII Remake. But, thinking about it after it was done, I realized it could seem a little esoteric. After all, writing that article essentially involved reading up on four different religious traditions, which, if it weren’t for the help of several other analysts on With a Terrible Fate, would have been an impossible task. So, with this article, I am going to be as transparent as possible with how I got to the above conclusion! I hope to show, through this, that there isn’t some occult ritual that we perform here to bring you our analyses, just a solid foundation and an eye for detail!
I’m going to walk through my process of interpretation for the Church in Final Fantasy VII Remake specifically. I start with a formal analysis of the church building, then dive deep into the building’s history within Midgar. I then interpret it thematically as a physical stand-in for Aerith and her isolation, before reaching beyond a single metaphor to argue that it gains narrative agency as a somewhat uneasy conduit for the Lifestream, defending itself and its allies against the consuming mechanistic impulses of Shinra Corps. I wish I could talk about the Church in every game, but there are two obstacles: this article would lose focus if I talked about multiple games at length, and the Church changes design every game. I still haven’t figured that out, and so the Unified Theory of Church will have to remain an exercise to the reader. Nevertheless, spoilers lie ahead for both Final Fantasy VII Remake and the original Final Fantasy VII.
Methodology isn’t a new concern on With a Terrible Fate—some time ago, Aaron Suduiko presented 3 different “stages” of video-game analysis. Here, I use the Church to describe my own method of performing analysis for this publication. My method can be summed up in 5 stages:
- Notice something that strikes you as weird.
- Observe that weird thing and write down a description of it.
- Construct a history for the weird thing through the evidence in the game.
- Interpret the object with a narrative and thematic context.
- Finally, Explain what makes the thing weird and explore how it alters the story it is part of.
We just did Stage 1: the Sector 5 Church is weird in a way that very few objects within the world of Final Fantasy VII are! So now we can start observing it.
Stage 2: The Church Itself
In order to determine the function and impact of the Church within the narrative, it makes sense that we need to first understand the physical, literal building of the Church—without that, we’ll never be able to adequately explain why it is so striking! When analyzing an object or character, it is almost always worth starting by introducing it, its context in the physical landscape and narrative, and how it looks—in this case, the Church’s location, plot relevance, and architectural structure. This is what is known in art history as a “formal analysis”: in other words, describing the form and impact of what we look at without interpretive judgment or preconceptions. Hamilton College’s guide to a formal analysis states:
The goal of a formal analysis is to explain how the formal elements of a work of art affect the representation of the subject matter and expressive content. The emphasis should be on analyzing the formal elements—not interpreting the artwork. That said, an understanding of the meaning of the work is the final goal of any formal analysis.
We’ll be circling back around to these formal elements throughout the piece to reach that understanding, but to do that, we’ll need to start with a description.
This is deceptively important: it might be easy to say, “well, it’s an old-fashioned church!” and go from there, and it wouldn’t be strictly wrong! But, the devil is in the details, as they say, and in a video game, things are never placed by accident! Every detail, texture, and asset had to be created and implemented by a developer. So, it naturally follows that every detail is a potential clue to the many different ways that we can read the Church! If you don’t know that a detail exists, you can’t analyze it, so start with observation and description.
The Church is located on the lower level of Sector 5, in an otherwise abandoned sector of the slums. The Church has two layers of rounded, stained glass windows, which are mostly intact, and a circular rose window sits above the door. There are two intact towers on the front of the Church, made out of the same light stone and grey shingles as the rest of the building. There are a few holes in the roof, one of which Cloud creates as he falls from Mako Reactor 5.
The interior of the Church consists of two main rooms: a chapel space and a back room. The chapel space is open, with a central space with two colonnades forming pseudo rooms. In the center of the sanctuary, in front of the altar, a patch of yellow flowers grows. Damaged pews line the walls and a few remain in place near the main entrance. Two doors lead into the back room, which has stairs that lead up to an attic, above the chapel’s wooden ceiling. This area is full of clutter, such as overturned bookshelves, cardboard boxes, and spray cans of some sort of chemical. Part of the floor has collapsed, allowing light from the holes in the roof into the central area. The buildings around the church back up against the walls of the church and are made out of rusted scrap metal, which contrasts with both the gray and blue-gray of the church and the sandy stone that faces the deserts at the edge of Midgar.
Architecturally, we can identify this Church, at least in Final Fantasy VII Remake specifically, as in the Romanesque style, a style of architecture known from mostly the late 10th – 12th centuries, and characterized by light stone and rounded arches. Romanesque buildings are very heavy-set and are typically described as “gloomy” compared to the much brighter, taller Gothic style.
Within the narrative, the Church appears twice in Final Fantasy VII Remake. The first time is after the Mako Reactor 1 explosion and the fight with the Airbuster: Cloud falls from the reactor, and after a sequence in empty white space, he wakes up in the central area, and is greeted by Aerith Gainsborough. Shortly after waking up, he meets the Turk Reno and overcomes him, after which Cloud and Aerith flee from the Church, helped by Whispers, which appeared just before Cloud killed Reno. The second time is after Aerith’s capture and the Sector 7 Plate Collapse, as Barret, Tifa, and Cloud seek to help the townsfolk one more time before climbing the remains of the plate to attack Shinra HQ. The Church here is occupied by Kyrie, who gives the player the final quest of the Angel of the Slums questline, and the party can pick up the Chakra Materia.
A formal analysis doesn’t need to be fancy—the only thing here that is non-descriptive is my identification of the Church as Romanesque, which I include here simply to use the shorthand for the rest of the article. Everything else is cataloguing evidence observable within the game itself! But now that that’s done, we can now ask: what does this building do? Why is there a Romanesque church in Midgar specifically?
Stage 3: The Church in the World of Midgar
The best way to answer that final question is to take it as literally as possible! There is a church built in the slums of Sector 5, in an architectural style that does not fit in with the rest of the architecture of Midgar. Within the diegesis of the game—in other words, within the universe of Final Fantasy VII—the Church is a real object, built by real people, for real reasons.
The value of thinking within the diegesis of the game, at least early in an analysis, is that it forces the analyst to accept the game world as it is. Nothing can be written off as a designer mistake, or oversight, or simply unconsidered. Instead, if the world is a living, breathing entity, then every object is given some history. It asks the analyst to imagine what Shinra worker (if any) hid the summoning materia Chocobo and Moogle behind a fan, or why Midgar is so rapidly rusting; it asks the analyst to reach beyond the immediate plot. It’s very similar to the concept of environmental storytelling in game design, but every object has a story to tell. This isn’t the be-all and end-all of the analysis, but it can force us to ask different questions about the object and its purpose than we do when we only think about the plot and current, played narrative. We’re essentially archaeologists when we think about the game in this way, constructing a plausible past for the object we’ve discovered.
Thinking about the Church as an entity that real people interact with does something really interesting! Churches are, after all, the iconic building of religion, and so it’s a reasonable step, in a game steeped with religious iconography, to associate the Church with something religious. Viewing it within the world of the story, instead of some external lens like themes or designer intention, is also asking us to probe what religion that might be, which has important consequences for when we turn to the specific plot of Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Midgar’s age within the universe of Final Fantasy VII is a little ambiguous: according to Crisis Core, the plate is still under construction, which is confirmed by the Sector 6 plate, which in Final Fantasy VII Remake has collapsed and was never rebuilt. Shinra is the dominant force in the construction of the plates; however, from the Mako Reactor 5 approach, it is clear that they do not maintain the plates particularly well, causing it to already fall into disrepair.
However, regardless of the precise age of Midgar’s upper plate, we can infer that the Church is significantly older than the rest of the city, based on our description in the previous stage of analysis! First of all, the tin-roofed slums—which, at this point, have themselves been abandoned—butt right up against the Church, climbing the walls and even entering into a gap in the roof line. These were not cleared away to construct the Church: they were built after, and presumably therefore after the development of Lower Midgar into the slums. When precisely that happened is unclear, but it is within at least living memory of the retirees in the recreation center of Sector 5.
However, we can push a bit farther, if we bring in the information we collected earlier. As we identified in the formal analysis back in Stage 2, the Church is in the Romanesque style, popular in the Middle Ages. Therefore, it makes sense to apply the cultural associations of Romanesque cathedrals to the Sector 5 Church. One of the characteristics of medieval cathedrals broadly is the extravagant use of resources. Romanesque buildings, while not as tall and towering as later Gothic ones, are designed to be weighty—they ought to loom over the surrounding landscape. Expensive decorations—such as multiple layers of windows or stained glass, which the Sector 5 Church has—enhance this effect, as do the wrought-iron chandeliers that light the space. Churches from this period are incredibly expensive and served as a way for those who funded them to prove their piety. While, today, we are familiar with churches sort of lurking amongst 4- or 5-storey buildings (any city center in Europe has at least one church lurking at the end of an alleyway), this would not have been the case in the Middle Ages—the purpose is lost if it is not a dominant part of the cityscape. Of course, the Church still isn’t a small building, even by Midgar’s standards—it’s as large or larger than Don Corneo’s palace—and it is isolated in the slums. However, when surrounded by the support pillars, it shrinks, becoming small and sad, barely even peeking above the stone cliffs that protect Midgar’s slums. Therefore, it is a plausible inference that the Church significantly predates the construction of Midgar’s upper plate.
We can’t really speculate much more about the origins of the Church, sadly. How long did it predate the Plate by? Does it even predate the pre-plate city of Midgar? What religious services were held there? We don’t know, but we do have two more diegetic inferences to make. First is the attic space of the Church: it is filled with accoutrements such as cleaning supplies, a pallet, and cardboard boxes. These are modern things, and even though the region is abandoned and filled with monsters, these haven’t been looted and used somewhere else! So, we can infer that, while the Church has been falling into disrepair for a while, it only stopped being used as a sacral space very recently (if at all)!
The second inference from the diegetic context alone is that whatever religion the Church is in-universe a part of is linked to the Lifestream. The reason for this is Aerith’s skill manuscript, the Telluric Scriptures. Books of scripture are rather indelibly linked to a church context in modern imaginations, and the player can first buy one of those at the Moogle Shop in Sector 5! The only reasonable inference, given that no other churches mentioned in the game space and that scripture has strong religious overtones (like a church does), is that the Telluric Scriptures (or at least the volume in Sector 5) were taken from the Church itself. “Telluric” is an obscure word related to “tellus,” that is the earth, which in geophysics is used to describe low-level electrical currents that run through the soil; so, this word allows us to infer that the Scriptures here are in some way tied to the Scripture of the Ancients, the Planet, and the Lifestream (itself visualized as a series of currents).
This is, to be honest, a fairly odd thing, though; once again, the symbolism of a medieval church matters here. Churches were status symbols, a mark of their patron’s wealth and piety, and as such they were incredibly resource-intensive. These aren’t spaces constructed purely for function: they’re aesthetic spaces, constructed and made meaningful through the exploitation and destruction of the natural world. In the game, the Cetra are held up as this standard of coexistence with the natural world; they’re attuned to the Lifestream and the Planet instead of dominating it. The Church isn’t that. Therefore, if this Church is supposed to reflect some sort of pre-Shinra religious practice, then the Church is still exploitative and exists in some tension with the Lifestream and the Planet.
There is, of course, a meaningful difference between the environmental destruction caused by the Church and the industrializing forces of Shinra! While they in some way reflect the same impulse, a sacral space invites reflection and awe in a fundamentally different way than the Mako reactors, which are barely registered by non-Avalanche Midgar citizens as destructive! While the difference is in many ways more one of degree than of kind at the moment of creation, by time the story starts, the residents of Sector 5 perceive the Church as something fundamentally different. It is a peaceful place, isolated and special, unlike the reactor, which is unobserved until it is destroyed, and is a source of irritation for those who rely on the suddenly dysfunctional trains.
By perceiving the Church as an entity that has existed throughout the existence of Midgar, a deeply important tension is revealed. The Church was plausibly created in service of a religion that damages the Planet in service of worshipping it, in a somewhat similar way to what Shinra continues to do. However, it has become something fundamentally opposed to Shinra Corp. and is instead a secluded spot within the city, sheltered among the rusting slums.
There are narrative implications at this point already: this constructed history suggests that between Jenova’s arrival and Shinra’s discovery of Jenova, there was already a Planetological religion of great importance for the people of Midgar, which then may have had a schism to create Avalanche itself! Shinra caused the religion to cease being practiced, and most citizens no longer believe. Ultimately, however, that new lore, while interesting, fails to explain on its own why the Church is so important in the narrative of Final Fantasy, nor does it explain why it is so beloved. So, we will need to combine our archaeological work with literary analysis, which brings us into the next stage of our project.
Stage 4: The Church and Aerith
At this point, Reader, we have identified the Church as weird, observed it, and constructed a history for the building out of our observations and its material context. Now, let’s return to the narrative context I also described in Stage 2—the Church within the plot of Final Fantasy VII Remake. To recap, the Church appears twice during the plot of the game: the first time is in Chapter 8, after the Mako reactor bombing, while the second is in Chapter 13, before the plate ascent, where it is the hub for the conclusion of the Angel of the Slums quest.
While revealing an “angel” in a church is a brilliant decision, the Church is a very minor part of that entire sidequest chain, so it can be left aside here to instead focus on the far more narratively impactful and thematically resonant appearance of the Church in the main plot.
From the first moments of its appearance, it is apparent that the Church is in some way connected to Aerith. Aerith is literally inside the Church when Cloud lands; the Church contains the first appearance of the yellow flowers since Aerith gave on to Cloud in Chapter 2; Aerith frequents the place enough that the children of the Sector 5 slums sometimes accompany her to it. She tends to the Church, so it makes a lot of sense to interpret the two as related.
Exploring this link, one thematic reason the Church appears in Sector 5 is to help characterize Aerith and foreshadow her position as the final Cetra.
Within this thesis, the Church functions as a manifestation of Aerith’s history. Aerith is one of the Ancients, or Cetra, who originally created Materia. They have become quasi-deific figures by the events of the game—their main prophecy, that of the Promised Land, is explicitly the guiding goal of Shinra Corp. As such, a sacral building, such as a church, is instantly recognizable as a sort of space that resonated with Aerith: she states to Cloud that “this place… it has a sort of power,” which may refer to this resonance. The Church, therefore, is a symbol of a sort of divine status; it is not specifically referring to any particular religion, but is merely a shorthand. Aerith is powerful, old, and sacred, and a church building encapsulates all of that information and communicates it in an instant.
The design of the Church, at this stage of analysis, is not particularly important; it is a much more subdued architectural style than the High Gothic of the 13th or 14th centuries, and it is honestly a very simple cathedral building. While the design is important broadly, as I’ve demonstrated, we don’t learn a lot new by thinking of the Church as specifically Romanesque right now. What is important is that it is out of place, both architecturally and physically. It is in an otherwise abandoned part of the slums, far away from the rest of the sector. Due to this differentiation, it is a reasonable inference that the Church is meant to be distinctive in Midgar. It shines with a weak, decaying majesty, in stark contrast to the grime of Shinra Corp. and Midgar in general.
Notice, I used the word “meant.” Stage 4 of our analysis is the point at which it makes the most sense to speak of any sort of “author intention.” We here at With a Terrible Fate typically take an author-agnostic view; what we bring to a text as players and analysts is important, and if an interpretation is supported by evidence within the game, it doesn’t matter what any imaginary author was “trying” to do. But, it is interesting and useful to look towards the possible goals, themes, and intents of the designers, and this is the stage in which it makes the most sense to do that. Authorial entities are not invalid as interpretive aids, but they can’t always be invoked. Looking forward, for instance, invoking an authorial entity in the final stage of this analysis would make no sense.
In this particular instance, though, it works quite well: due to the incredibly strong link between the Church and Aerith in the Church’s visual framing and narrative context, postulating a deliberate thematic link works well and produces a reasonably compelling interpretation! The Church’s narrative links to Aerith invite considering it in light of the importance of religious imagery overall, the unique role of Aerith, and, indeed, the sort of apocalyptic foreshadowing that I have demonstrated the game is interested in.
In this interpretation, the Church thematically matters because it mirrors Aerith’s out-of-place nature, and it is beloved because Aerith is beloved and it reminds players of her.
However, to me, this isn’t entirely satisfying. After all, this interpretation assumes that, beyond a loose symbolic level, the physical entity of the Church is unimportant! But, that doesn’t quite make sense. Imagine St. Paul’s Cathedral in place of the church:
It just isn’t the same! So, something about this Church and its history is important to the narrative and the impact it has, and it’s worth digging in deeper.
Stage 5: The Church as a Character
Now we can turn to the final stage of my analytical process, which I call the “Explain” stage. In general terms, this is where we revisit the initial premise—we noticed something is weird, but have we explained why? Now that we have a working analysis to situate the weird thing in the game’s narrative, we go back to the evidence and make sure that as much of it as possible is accounted for. If there isn’t anything outstanding, great, the Stage 4 interpretation is really strong and complete and should give us our answer. If there is missing evidence to explain, though, we want to push as far as we can to account for it, and explore the impacts that has. There are two main pieces of evidence left to account for.
- The Church is not directly below Mako Reactor 5.
- The Whispers appear in the Church after the fight with Reno.
Based on these two, I will argue in this section that the Church can be read as having agency in the world and as choosing to fight against Shinra, making it a narratively impactful character in its own right. Let me explain how I got there.
To start off with, it’s worth defining what “agency” even means—after all, the Church is not alive. That, however, is not an issue. Objects also possess agency. At its most basic, “agency” is just the ability to act beyond an intended purpose, and that is what objects can do: an axe cutting wood isn’t exerting agency, but an axe sparking a philosophical thought experiment is. As a building or object is handed from person to person and gets a longer history, it accumulates power to affect people—imagine an old family heirloom, like a piece of jewelry. It is nostalgic, and moving, and you probably feel some kind of connection. This is the object acting on you! As far as this goes, this applies to all objects, in both games and the real world. We can call anything that exerts agency in some way during a game’s narrative a “character”—so, legendary weapons can be characters, enemies, NPCs, the player avatar(s), etc. The Church reaches a much higher bar than this standard, though.
The Church was designed, as part of the history I outlined in Stage 3, as an agent, causing certain emotional responses: it is given decoration and weight, meant to be contemplative, marked with shining light, but also linked back to the Planet with its heavy Romanesque design. Then, hundreds of thousands of humans responded to that construction. The collective memories of many lifetimes are kept in the walls, which grant it the “kind of power” that Aerith can detect. This power is a physical, literal force within the narrative, far beyond the ordinary agency of an object, preserving the yellow flowers even as the natural world is choked out of Midgar. Now, the Planetologists of Final Fantasy VII Remake argue that the Lifestream, the guiding force of the Planet, is in fact the cumulative life force of every living thing on the Planet. These two powers, then, have a lot of similarities. We also know, thanks to the original Final Fantasy VII, that the Lifestream is something that has true narrative agency (namely, the power to act in ways that affect the plot, instead of the power to act in any way at all. It’s something reserved to important characters, so a random shopkeeper doesn’t have that) —it stops Meteorfall! Following those parallels, it seems that the Church itself may have a similar sort of narrative agency; it isn’t a mere setpiece within which the plot can happen but is instead a participant in the plot itself.
Now, let’s look at the two points I just outlined and see how they fit with this explanation. At the Sector 5 train station, we look back towards the Church and can see that the support pillar for the Mako reactor is quite a ways distant from the church itself, and we know that the support pillar is directly below part of the Mako reactor. In addition, when Cloud wakes up, Aerith points out that he crashed through the ceiling “without so much as a ‘look out below.’” The camera pans up, and we see through the hole Cloud created—above it appears to be a random section of the plate. There is no smoke, no flame, nothing to indicate that we are directly below the Mako reactor!
We also know, thanks to the end of the previous chapter, that Cloud falls straight down after the Airbuster fight. Therefore, we’re left with a tiny, miniscule contradiction: how did Cloud end up inside the Church?
There are lots of plausible explanations for this: the explosion could have altered his course, or he could have had enough control to enter skydiving mode and aim for the Church, and the inevitable concussion from the collisions meant that, even though he got lucky and landed on the flowers, he didn’t remember aiming for it.
But, the screen cuts to black the moment Cloud starts falling, so those are just as much of an inference as anything I am proposing, and in a game that is so carefully focused on destiny, precognition, and the inevitability of Plot, I think those are explanations that aren’t satisfactory. Aerith even comments at the beginning of Chapter 8, “Isn’t it crazy, us meeting like this?” It’s a crazy coincidence… As long as it is a coincidence. My rule of thumb is: Don’t assume that any events in a game can only be explained by coincidence—sometimes that is the best answer available, but oftentimes, seeking a less obvious answer yields a far more compelling interpretation.
Under this interpretation, the Church in some way draws Cloud out of his freefall to instead land in the flowers. The game supports this: after the cut to black, Cloud falls straight through inky blackness, while Whispers surround him and guide him towards a bright white (as I will show below, the Whispers are connected to the Church). This interpretation fits what we know of the Church’s abilities; once again, Aerith acknowledges that the Church “has some kind of power” that keeps the yellow flowers alive. So, a protective use of this power isn’t out of character for it! This has the added benefit of enabling Cloud to defend Aerith against Reno and the Shinra forces that come to take her out of the Church and bring her back to Hojo, maintaining the link between the Church and Aerith I described in Stage 4.
This also explains the presence of the Whispers at this point in Final Fantasy VII Remake. As Dan Hughes pointed out with his article on Roche, the Whispers are sometimes a little slow on the uptake: there are no Whispers in Chapter 4 of Final Fantasy VII Remake, despite it deviating from the plot of the original Final Fantasy VII, and it is only once Roche reveals that Cloud can push past the limits they impose on him that they go into their first frenzied response. So, it’s really terribly convenient that they show up right on time to prevent Cloud from killing Reno!
The Whispers literally rise out of the floor of the Church, as if it were giving birth to them or summoning them from the core of the Planet—analyses on this site have clearly demonstrated the link they have to the Planet, and to the Lifestream hastening towards its own demise. The Whispers are said at Destiny’s Crossroads to be the “voices of the Planet. Those born into this world, who lived and who died. Who returned.” In other words, they are past lives and experiences participating in the plot and demanding that those currently alive respond to them. This is an extremely close parallel to object agency as I described it above!
This explanation invites the question: if the Church has agency, as it appears to, what are its goals? Well, here we cycle back to the link I drew between the Church and the pre-Shinra religion of Midgar in Stage 2. The worship in the building, the meaning given to it, is most likely linked to the Ancients, and to the Planet. Combined with the Whispers serving as reinforcements, it very much appears that the Church is aligned with the Lifestream and works towards its goals. These coincide with Aerith’s due to her own alignment with the Lifestream as a Cetra, especially in opposition to Sephiroth.
However, the Church also seems somewhat reluctant in its role preserving fate. As Cloud and Aerith flee through the back room of the Church, pieces of it start crumbling around them, and the Whispers have to ensure that Aerith is not captured. This can be explained by the history of the Church: the exploitation innate to the construction of the Church is paradoxical with the Lifestream. While it is a conduit and agent of the Planet due to the worship inside of it, it cannot truly effectively fill that role because it is built by destroying natural resources, and so pieces begin failing.
The Church’s desire to help clashes with its ability, and the Whispers have to serve as a stopgap! Once Cloud and Aerith finally escape the Church, of course, the Whispers vanish for the rest of the chapter, reinforcing this link. In this case, they exist as a manifestation and bolster to the agency of the Church, pacifistically defending Aerith from Shinra, rejecting their consumption of Mako and Aerith’s role in furthering Shinra’s search for the Promised Land.
I appear to have accounted for all the available evidence: the Church is so weird and memorable because it fundamentally changes the plot of Final Fantasy VII Remake. It brings Aerith and Cloud together, and it attempts to defend them from Shinra’s Turks. It is simultaneously sacred and desolated, uplifting and downtrodden, and it therefore shares many motivations and goals with the Lifestream and the Planet. In so doing, this immobile character captures the players’ memories, and their stories are added to the collective life force animating the cracking stones.
Stage 6: Profit
The Sector 5 Church is one of the most memorable places in the entirety of the Final Fantasy VII franchise. It appears in every single piece of media and is basically a character in and of itself. Final Fantasy VII just isn’t Final Fantasy VII without it—even in the games without Cloud, or Aerith, or most of the familiar faces that define the franchise, the Church is perpetually present! The memory of it is so, so powerful, and yet it is a bizarre place within the context of Midgar.
I hope I’ve shown, though, how that memory of it is actually correct: it is a character, albeit one that cannot move, and one that has its own goals to further the plot and the will of the Planet. It is a symbol for Aerith and her initial conflict, but it is much more than that.
I also hope, Reader, that I’ve shown just how easy it is to get from “The Church looks a lot different than the rest of Midgar” to this analysis. In just 5 easy steps—
- Notice what is weird.
- Observe its features.
- Construct an in-universe history for it.
- Interpret its role in the narrative.
- Explain what makes it so weird.
—you, too, can write fabulous analyses of any game on the planet!
Of course, the question of the Church in Final Fantasy VII Remake doesn’t have to end here. The tensions between exploitation and veneration, majesty and ruin, history and present, object and agent that appear within the Church resonate throughout the entirety of the game and beyond. The force animating the Planet is made up of parts that increasingly do not believe in it or actively reject its guidance (as Aerith, Cloud, and Sephiroth all do at the end of the game). The Church is truly a microcosm of the world as a whole, and perceiving it as an agent within the narrative opens many doors for future analysis. But that is a project for another day, and for one of you, perhaps!
And seriously, if you think you have an explanation for why the Church changes architectural styles in between games, let me know. I’m so curious!
- Environmental storytelling is a concept that has objects within the game’s world imply a sequence of events. A skeleton stuck in a cave with a broken piece of rope above them says “the rope broke while they were climbing, and they fell to their death.” It is essentially a limited version of object agency: a certain set of objects, in a certain context, narrates a story of what happened to the player. ↑
- For a Gothic example of this, recall Notre Dame’s irreplaceable 13th-century oak ceiling that was destroyed in the fires of April 15, 2019. ↑
- And to be clear, this is not the only possible history to construct, though it is the most probable one. History is not a single set narrative of Things that Happened, but is instead a best-guess network of interpretations, and that’s doubly true for a history of a fictional place. ↑
- As a point in favor of this interpretation, we can think of the ways the Church has changed between games of the franchise. It’s not quite the same building, suggesting that, for some possible interpretations of the Church, the architectural style is a secondary concern. ↑
- Really, we could just name the site Whispers of a Terrible Fate—every article about Final Fantasy VII Remake needs to account for them somehow. ↑
- Another blatantly clear example in Final Fantasy VII is the Buster Sword, which is the physical symbol of Cloud taking on Zack’s persona and reinforces Cloud’s psychological delusions. ↑
- Again, this is in-universe. If we also think about the designed space as a deliberately-crafted level in a game, then the many millions of players of any game in the FInal Fantasy VII franchise have also had an emotional response which is imbued back into the Church. Both layers exist simultaneously. ↑
- Killing people inside of a church has been bad form for at least a thousand years, and the Church has already saved Cloud’s life in one way or another; it’s not inconsistent that its protective powers extend to a Shinra operative! ↑
- The Legacy of Final Fantasy VII Remake series navigation: < “The Drawing Board: The Legacy of Final Fantasy VII Remake, Article Postmortem #2″ | “Final Fantasy VII Remake is the Template for ‘Grown-Up’ JRPGs” >
Jamie · February 27, 2021 at 9:33 am
I came upon this article and by extension site completely by accident, you could say I fell through a hole in the Internet, and was so struck by the in-depth, pragmatic and empassioned content that I had to say thank you. It gave voice to a lot of old feelings and has inspired me to go back and play it all again! Please continue to do what you’re doing, I look forward to everything this site has to offer and how I might be able to support what you’re doing!
Aaron Suduiko · February 27, 2021 at 10:30 pm
I’m so delighted you discovered and are enjoying the team’s work, Jamie! Don’t be a stranger—and, if you ever do want to help us do more, you can find us on Patreon as well 🙂
Caymus · February 27, 2021 at 11:40 pm
Very compelling analysis, Adam! I never considered how important the church is to FF7 both symbolically and thematically, but now I realize it is such a key set-piece in the narrative, one that is easily forgotten in the original game since it’s there and gone in a few minutes. Happy to see that the remake amplified its presence and expanded its role in the story!