The end of Final Fantasy VII is kind of weird.
Sephiroth’s defeated, and everyone’s escaping on the Highwind (which it turns out can transform into a super awesome highly aerobatic jet plane) and the Northern Crater is kind of imploding and stuff is happening all over the place like mad in full FMV goodness.
It looks pretty quaint by today’s standards, but a ten-plus minute pre-rendered CG video was a really big deal back in 1997. Even though the character models are laughably simple in comparison to the real-time models used just a generation later on the PS2 for Final Fantasy X, they actually still look quite beautiful in a way. Taken as a product of its time, I’m still impressed with the visuals of this game over fifteen years later. Of course visuals aren’t everything, and I’m a little disappointed that Square’s (now Square Enix) legacy since FFVII has been emphasizing flashy visuals to the point of being ridiculous (you can always count on a late generation Final Fantasy to be visually stunning, but the aesthetic sometimes strikes me as just awful). Nonetheless, this is our ending.
With Sephiroth finally dead (I don’t care what the later entries in the canon may say about him coming back, Sephiroth is D-E-D dead now) there’s nothing blocking Holy from attacking Meteor, so it emerges from the planet around Midgar just as Meteor’s about to strike (I thought we had a week to go, but whatever). Unfortunately, it’s too late and Holy doesn’t have enough power to stop Meteor, so the Lifestream lends a hand. Midgar’s utterly demolished in the process, and everyone across the globe watches in terror as these two colossal forces battle it out in the sky (I’m not entirely sure how folks in Cosmo Canyon can see anything since that’s theoretically on the other side of the globe, but maybe that’s why we don’t get to see anyone from that locale during the final cutscene). The final image we see is Aerith, watching from the Lifestream.
Yes, that’s right. The game ends without telling us what happened. Of course, there is a post credits scene set 500 years later where we get to see Red XIII and his cubs surveying the overgrown ruins of Midgar, so we can at least infer that the planet was saved from Meteor. As for humanity, well…
I just have to say, after seeing this ending again, I love it. It feels like a great summation of the game’s central theme dealing with humanity’s need to balance natural resources with technological development. While the majority of the story has revolved around chasing Sephiroth around because he’s trying to destroy the world and become a god, we have as our background a world that’s slowly being ravaged of its natural resources (in this universe, the very lifeblood of the planet) due to simple human greed. It’s important to remember that Shinra is not an intrinsically evil entity; a case can be made that Shinra is actually very beneficial as its the major developer of new technologies that go a long way towards improving the quality of life for most of the inhabitants of the planet. What makes the corporation an antagonist to the party is the fact that it’s run by jerks who are consumed with greed to the point of ignoring basic human decency (Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Aerith, Red XIII, Vincent, and Cid are all direct victims of people at the top of Shinra abusing their power in order to make more money or accomplish some other selfish goal).
What I’m trying to get at is that Shinra’s evil is incidental, which doesn’t necessarily diminish the way they ruin a lot of lives, but does suggest that we take into consideration the good they do as well. They are ultimately just human, even if they are painted in rather broad, unsympathetic strokes because of the personal circumstances of our heroes.
Anyway, it should be noted here that for many years after Final Fantasy VII was released, there was a lot of debate in fan circles about the interpretation of the ending. As a kid, I was really invested in reading the ending as humanity surviving, mostly because I hated the idea of having a save the world story where humanity didn’t survive (there’s an interesting deconstruction of “save the world” going on here where the player’s asked to consider just what they expect from that kind of story); it seemed pointless to me at the time. Now that I’m older and have a slightly better appreciation of existentialism (the belief that it is only our actions that have the potential to create nobility in an otherwise meaningless existence) and Christianity (the belief that it is an essential part of love to oppose evil where it is found regardless of the personal cost in order to redeem the good), I’m actually really cool with this ending. I think it’s pretty bold for a video game to suggest that the state of humanity is such that we’re just not that good for life on our planet, and the best option might be our disappearance.
I’m not suggesting that that’s what anyone who’s reasonable would actually want. The amount of interim suffering while humanity dies out would be incredibly tragic. A better choice would be, and I think this is the one that the game strongly advocates, is for humanity to recognize the effects it has on its home, and move towards a path of development that harmonizes with our environment.
Of course, all the wonderful ambiguity and sombre tone of this ending got ruined by Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which shows us a post-Meteor world where humanity has survived and Cloud is an emotional wreck because of his survivor’s guilt in relation to Zack and Aerith’s deaths (which, keep in mind, he wasn’t even indirectly responsible for). I’ve seen Advent Children only a couple times, and while it’s a visual feast, it just feels like a cash in. The fan community was clamoring for more from this world, and what we got feels disappointing to me. I like Cloud as a protagonist because in Final Fantasy VII we went through the journey of him being forced to deconstruct and rebuild his identity, which betrayed the myriad psychological problems he brought with him getting off that train in the game’s opening scene, and then after he came to grips with his real past, he was able to move on and regain some of that confidence that was part of his facade, except now it was genuine and tempered with humility. Cloud ends Final Fantasy VII as a character who’s gone through a complete developmental arc and emerged emotionally and psychologically healthy. Then Advent Children came along and made him angst over his friends’ deaths when we saw in the game that he came to terms with those events!
To sum it up, I think that Final Fantasy VII is a fantastic standalone game. It’s very much a product of its time, and a lot of the design elements feel a little archaic now, but the core experience and story are still satisfying, even with all of their flaws. I just wish Square Enix would just leave the blasted franchise alone instead of milking it for all the crossovers and such. Sephiroth is dead and Cloud is emotionally whole at the game’s close. I’m happy with that ending. I don’t need anymore.