‘Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’ Director Naoki Hamaguchi On Examining Life, Death And The End Of The ‘Remake’ Trilogy

‘Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’ Director Naoki Hamaguchi On Examining Life, Death And The End Of The ‘Remake’ Trilogy

[SPOILER ALERT: This interview includes details about Final Fantasy VII Rebirth]

The highly anticipated action-adventure RPG Final Fantasy VII Rebirth has finally been unleashed into the Chocobo wilds.

 Rebirth, the second game in the Final Fantasy VII Remake trilogy that serves as a three-part reimagining of the original 1997 game, follows everyone’s favorite ragtag eco-terrorists Cloud (Cody Christian), Barret (John Eric Bentley), Tifa (Britt Baron), Aerith (Briana White) and Red XIII (Max Mittelman) as they make the perilous journey to The Forgotten Capital in hopes to stop the legendary solider and deranged superhuman Sephiroth from plunging the planet into chaos. 

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Bringing the Final Fantasy VII Remake project to fruition was no easy feat as developers had to tackle maintaining a balance between the beloved story that has permeated video game pop culture for nearly three decades and creating new experiences for a new generation of fans while expanding on the original material for diehards. Much like its predecessor, the scope of Rebirth goes well beyond the heavily pixelated and text-only mechanics from days of yore. There’s a significantly larger world map for players to roam and intricate detailing in the fighting style and fiends. But more importantly, retelling this series has allowed for a better understanding of nuanced themes and emotional depth of the beloved central characters. 

Here, director Naoki Hamaguchi speaks to Deadline about expanding the trilogy, recreating the Loveless scene, and the thematic importance of life and death. 

DEADLINE:  The relationships in this game are incredibly fleshed out this time around. Was there a most challenging character to build upon this time? 

NAOKI HAMAGUCHI: We worked on every character quite evenly for the game. So, there was not really a particular character that was treated special. However, for Red XIII, his other personality, Nanaki, is different, and he also talks in a specific way that’s different from how the group knows him. So, with this in mind, seeing that other players were able to revisit any kind of quest or area that they would wish to explore before or after the Cosmo Canyon portion of the game, we decided to have both Red XIII voice and the Nanaki voice for whatever situation that the player would be revisiting. So, there was more work involved for that specific character in preparing these scenarios. 

DEADLINE:  You also see a lot of these character backgrounds flushed out in the Temple of the Ancients, where they have to confront their fears and traumas individually. Barret has to kind of go through confronting his loss twice. Can you talk more about that? 

HAMAGUCHI: When looking at the original Final Fantasy VII title, we had to derive a lot of the characters or storylines from perhaps sort of the more exaggerated movements of the characters in that way. And that’s how the players have gone about it at that time. But today, when we are looking at and revisiting this, I do believe there’s a need for us to somewhat provide our own answers to the areas that were unable to be depicted in much detail back then. Now, we have the ability to do so and just go deepening into this depiction and expression. 

I am almost 42 years old, and within our development staff, we’re all quite close in age. And many of us were players and fans of the original game, as it impacted our lives quite a bit. So there is certainly this love and respect that we had and fostered within the team, and from there, it was our wish to go deeper into the story while also not straying too much from the essence of the original Final Fantasy VII and what makes that game what it is. 

Regarding Barret’s mine hometown in Rebirth,the setting with Dyne and Marlene hasn’t changed. But this time, we’ve depicted the very fierce battle between Dyne and Baret in an extremely moving way. We’ve also shown the relationship between Dyne, Barret and Scarlet in much more depth to give the situation much more gravity in the fierce battle that unfolds between Barret and Dyne, which results in this extremely emotionally heartfelt scene. And so, by providing the details and for us to fill in the details that were earlier not done, players are now able to properly understand both the world and the storyline of VII. That was an aspect that we were very much careful in approaching and tackling in many regards. 

Barret and Dyne
Square Enix

DEADLINE:  I’m curious to know how you and your co-directors Tetsuya Nomura, Motomu Toriyama and producer Yoshinori Kitase all work together. How have you managed to keep the material and your partnership ideas fresh? Who’s the best at keeping on track or suggesting wild ideas? 

HAMAGUCHI: We’ll start with a scenario written by [Kazushige] Nojima, and from there, Nomura will look at the scenario and view it as a Final Fantasy story and make sure that there are no discrepancies and it’s aligned with the brand, as well as looking at which elements of entertainment or service can be added to maintain its essence as this Final Fantasy VII title. So, he will look at it or provide input from that perspective. Then, once that scenario is solidified, I step in and see how we can translate that into the game’s structure and design. I’ll be considering these various elements of play when we translate this text-based scenario into the actual gameplay and notice areas in which we can add certain expressions that we need to show more in order for the scene to make more sense. Then, that goes back to Toriyama and Nojima. Then, they adjust and make sure we are all aligned. But in terms of overall game [experience], that is under myself. 

Because there is such a clear delegation of responsibilities, I think we were able to work together in a way that built the trust on the people that were quite responsible for their own areas. And because of that, I believe we were able to reach this very high quality of work. 

DEADLINE: The Loveless stage play section of the game is sure to be the highlight with fans. You’ve got Cloud dressed as a Prince and all this incredibly choreographed ballet dancing. How did this come about with Nojima and cutscene directors Hidekazu Miyake and Junichi Hayashi? 

HAMAGUCHI: For Loveless and this overall date event at the Gold Saucer, I think for players, this is something we’re all expecting to be such a highlight for this game. And for players of the original game, what we mostly imagine is the date scene gondola sequence. But for Rebirth, we wanted to depict what goes on until they reached the gondola scene and the events leading up to that date climax of the gondola moment. And we want people to feel what the characters do and experience along the way, which is quite important in that buildup, too. In the original, the way the Loveless theatrical production was depicted was more on almost a school play level of expression. And if we were to replicate this in Rebirth, I think it just wouldn’t be as entertaining. So, we were looking for a way to increase this sense of entertainment and make it into this full-fledged stage event. 

I spoke with Toriyama about this and got his opinions on crafting this solid onstage experience. We had discussed that seeing this scenario as just the players watching this theater event play out wouldn’t be right, so we wanted more involvement there. There were many discussions, and we solidified what we wanted this Loveless experience to look like for engagement with the players participating. So, from there, with Hayashi and Miyake, we worked with them on how to express this, including backup dancers that are also a part of the theater and ballet, and what kind of expression would be most fun to engage the players. 

Another thing is that for that theme song [No Promises to Keep by Loren Allred], we were initially only thinking about using it at the end of the game. But about a year and a half ago, Kitase suddenly mentioned that he wanted to use this theme song and let Aerith sing it for the Loveless scene. And so, we immediately had to align the story structure and then work on the direction to make that happen. And at the time, we were all like, “Oh, are we really going to do this? Is it going to pan out?” But looking now as a result, I think, “Wow. That was a pretty good idea, Kitase-san,” and I think it turned out quite well. [Laughs].

DEADLINE:  Towards the end, Aerith has this incredible speech at the Temple of the Ancients regarding how life and death are two sides of the same coin and how we shouldn’t use our sadness and trauma to keep us from moving forward. How do those themes resonate with the whole of the story that you’re trying to retell for this Remake trilogy?

HAMAGUCHI: It’s not so much that the theme of Final Fantasy VII was explicitly changed for the Remake series, but instead to expand more on the original theme for FFVII. When working on the original VII, [Hironobu] Sakaguchi had lost someone very dear to him at the time. He had pondered–as this was very impactful for him–this concept of life and death and how even when someone passes on, their presence may still live on in a sense in people’s hearts, himself, and of others. It was from there that the idea of the lifestream had come to fruition. And so, in that way, life and death became the primary theme for Final Fantasy VII

When depicting Aerith’s death in the original, the creators were thinking of not something with some dramatic prelude leading up to this grand death but to depict something with much more realism where death suddenly comes upon us without warning. And, of course, there may be some fables where the princess is revived by the kiss of the prince and whatnot. But, of course, that’s something that’s not possible in reality. And so, we really wanted to portray this sense of life and death in a much more realistic manner within Rebirth

 So, having these core components originating from the original title, we didn’t want to straight up change this theme. But I think in the Temple of the Ancients, as the characters and we are all journeying towards the ending of Rebirth, we are revisiting the trauma, the backgrounds, and what each character had to endure leading up to this moment. We see it, we understand it. And of course, there may be those who have left us along the way, but overcoming that and even having people die and return to the lifestream in the sense within the worldview of FFVII, those who live in the world will continue to live on strongly with strength. And that is the message and the core themes from the original that we were trying to portray, so that has remained intact.

Aerith on the Loveless Stage
Square Enix

DEADLINE:  I’m scared to ask, but we have to talk a little bit about the ending. On the final date with Aerith, Cloud looks up and sees the sky split in half. Then, you get to the end of the game when Cloud is with the group and without Aerith; he gives them the same warning she gave him: to not look up at the sky. Cloud can see the rift again, but no one else can. Can you tease what this means for the fans? What does it mean for Cloud in the future? Is he in limbo? 

HAMAGUCHI: [Laughs]. In terms of commenting on what exactly this ending means, I would, of course, like the players to experience this and come up with their own ideas and understanding of how to interpret it. So, while I can’t specifically comment on this, I will say that for Rebirth, I do think that the ending we have positioned it in a way to allow players to have almost precisely that opinion you have. But I’m excited to see the various interpretations according to each individual. And, of course, seeing that in terms of development, it’s not so that we’ll have Rebirth out and then immediately have the next title the following year. So, there’s going to be quite something between the release of Rebirth and the third concluding title. So, I believe it is our wishes to present something that will allow for this type of healthy discussion and conjecture about what this could all mean and its meaning as we are moving towards the end of the trilogy. And so, that was something that we wanted to include for people to have these types of questions.

[This interview, conducted through an interpreter, has been edited for length and clarity]