Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII and FFVII Remake.
It’s easy to miss the morality system in FFVII Remake, and that’s what makes it so real.
The modern Triple-A take on offering moral choice in games is to pick out several key story beats, let players make choices about them, and then rating those decisions on a scale that runs between angry jerk and beatific saint. Narrative outcomes are usually unaffected by all but the biggest choices. This is communicated to the player in the traditional way with a meter that’s red on one end and blue on the other. The player character’s position on this spectrum often affects how the party members treat them; they recruit along the way and are sometimes tied into the ending of the game.
What’s different about FFVI Remake?
FFVII Remake takes a different tack. There are some dialog choices for the player to make, but they don’t affect the course of the story, and there isn’t any meter filling up based on making the ‘right’ choices. Instead, FFVII Remake cares most about what players ignore. One of the main changes to the game in the remake process was the addition of a discrete side quest system. Essentially the game is broken into dungeons where monsters spawn and residential areas where people go about their lives. Each town has several NPCs that have odd jobs that need to be done. Practically all of these side quests are entirely optional. Completing them will earn some gear and experience for the player but also side story content, called Discoveries by the game. This is how the game reveals what the other characters think of how Cloud is acting as piloted by the player and also its own moral thesis.
In FFVII Remake, what matters is what you do, this is even spoken out loud by the characters at one point, and also what you chose not to do. It doesn’t really matter that Cloud is a sullen jerk most of the time, so long as he takes the time to help out the people around him. Sure, Tifa and Aerith will admonish him to be nicer, but it’s the skipping side quest that makes them write him off and not open up to him.
Heroism in FFVII Remake
Each party member in FFVII Remake exemplifies heroism in a different way. Barret Wallace identifies the biggest root cause of suffering that he can see, in this part of the game that’s the Shinra Corporation, and single-mindedly pursues its destruction by any means necessary. He never really encourages Cloud to engage in side quests and is generally hyper-focused on attacking Shinra. Tifa is mostly concerned with shielding people from the harm caused by Shinra and minimizing casualties caused by the conflicts of the game. Her side quests are mostly about joining the neighborhood defense force and fighting off monsters that would be too dangerous for everyday citizens to take down. Aerith has the broadest view of how best to help people; she has the least antagonistic attitude towards Shinra and its employees. Of all the characters, she is the most forward-looking in her day to day actions before she meets Cloud. Aerith’s side quests run the widest variety between combat and more frivolous events. The game never explicitly enshrines any of these characters as right or wrong, allowing player actions to drift Cloud, as the audience point of view, towards whatever outlook they choose, even if it is a bit of a subconscious choice.
This is something of a departure from what we see in most Triple-A titles whether they have explicit morality systems or not. Most games that have player choices see morality as pretty black and white. The difference between the ‘good guy’ choice and the ‘bad guy’ choice usually boils down to being kind or cruel while you save the day, but the big picture actions are still the same. Triple-A games that omit player choice mechanics tend to be fairly amoral with the main difference between the villain and the player character being that the villain kills named characters and the player kills nameless faceless goons. The idea that different heroic characters at the party member level might have different outlooks and priorities when it comes to helping people is fairly rare. Occasionally we see a quest giving NPC or passing side character with a different point of view but seeing that in characters we spend this much time with is almost unheard of.
Making it feel real
The most interesting aspect of this setup is that it is practically invisible to a casual first playthrough of the game. There’s no neon status bar slowly filling on some menu page; there’s no pop-up notification letting players know ‘Aerith will remember that,’ all there is is a couple of quiet cutscenes where characters reveal a bit of backstory that you don’t get to see if you haven’t helped enough people. This is where the remake understands something that many games miss. The way that people usually judge each other’s characters is often silent. Withdrawing from someone who is acting like a jerk is usually a much more reasonable and safe response than confronting them, especially when you are working, or fighting as in the game, together. The only character that actually confronts players that skip side quests is an NPC that is explicitly not interested in the fight against Shinra or the party’s fate.
The fact that many of the side quests are small potatoes compared to the big fight against Shinra is illustrative of the value of time and small actions. It might not matter much to Cloud and the player that some neighborhood kids miss their lessons, but it does to their teacher and the rest of the community. FFVII Remake makes the player choose between their desire to move the story forward and side quests in the way that real-life often makes people choose between pursuing personal goals and helping others. The fact that the quests are a bit dull and often not directly rewarding mirrors the way that volunteering for a charity or mutual aid group can be a slog sometimes. So basically, Tifa and Aerith want you to get involved in your local community.