How do you give a voice to characters that became iconic without one? It's a question that many of the actors involved in the Final Fantasy 7 Remake (opens in new tab) were wrestling with back in early 2019, as word came through that they had been cast in what is certainly one of Square Enix's most ambitious and audacious creative endeavors since its formation.
The characters of Final Fantasy 7 are beloved by millions, although few among that base would debate the idea that each has taken on a life of their own since being introduced through scrolling text boxes and blocky renders some 23 years ago. Of all of the components the studio had to get right in this reimagining, it was the way that characters like Tifa Lockhart and Aerith Gainsborough would be reinterpreted that would surely draw the most scrutiny. It's a pressure that was felt keenly by actors Britt Baron and Briana White in the early days of the project.
"I think this was my most intimidating voiceover project," Baron tells me, the English-speaking voice of Tifa Lockhart. "You're walking into a universe that's already been established and there's such a massive fandom behind it. So many people already have so many ideas of who Tifa is – of what this game is. It's scary knowing that there are these really high expectations. But it's also really exciting because, as an actor, what a gift it is to get to be a part of something that's so big. Something that means so much to so many people."
"This is my first big voiceover role," White tells me, the actor tasked with bringing Aerith Gainsborough back to life. "I was beyond excited for the opportunity. I went into this project knowing that this role was bigger than Briana, the actor. I just wanted to do it and do it well... stepping into a role that has this place in so many player's hearts was immediately very intense. I thought to myself, I have to do this right. I have no other choice than to do this right."
Lives lived without Avalanche
Square Enix didn't want to rebuild Final Fantasy 7 frame-by-frame. The studio had instead set out with the intention of building upon the foundation outlined in the original release, taking this as an opportunity to expand elements of the world and story that once sat on the periphery, and to utilise modern technology to bring more subtlety and expression to each of the characters and their entangled relationships.
The results speak for themselves, perhaps reflected most acutely in the performances from Baron and White. Tifa, strong and self-assured; vulnerable when the eyes of the world aren't watching. Aerith, playful and precocious; a considerable force to be reckoned with when the facade finally falls. The characters feel three-dimensional, dynamic, and resonant in ways that they haven't before, and the actors were able to achieve this without compromising what made each member of the party so beloved to begin with.
Perhaps it will come as some surprise, then, that neither Baron nor White had all that much experience with Final Fantasy 7 ahead of taking on these iconic roles – although each of their parents can shoulder much of the blame for missing out on the game the first time around. "I was familiar with Final Fantasy 7's characters, but I had never actually played it. I grew up playing games, but I was more of a Nintendo player because that's what my mom was a fan of," White tells me, laughing. "My mom was the gamer in our household, and she passed that along to me and my brother. My first Final Fantasy was actually Final Fantasy 14. I have a ton of hours in that, and I still play it to this day – I'm obsessed with that game! I also streamed Final Fantasy 15 when that came out. I was familiar with the common themes that connect Final Fantasy games together"
Part two of our interview with Britt Baron and Briana White: Secret scripts, retakes, and battle barks: The voice actors of Tifa and Aerith reflect on recording Final Fantasy 7 Remake (opens in new tab)
"I hadn't played it," Baron tells me, reminiscing on a childhood robbed of interactive entertainment. "I knew of Final Fantasy, but my parents really did not encourage my brother and I to play video games. When we were kids, it was much more of a 'go read a book, go outside and ride your bike' kind of upbringing. In a way I feel like I've lost out on some years – especially now that I'm in this video game world – that I wish I had had growing up. I felt a little like a fish out of water walking into this project, and I think maybe even more intimidated because I didn't grow up playing this game."
Given the pressure inherent to taking on a role of this calibre, I ask Baron at what point the enormity of it all set in. "I was just really excited at first," she laughs. "I didn't fully understand the scope of what had just happened to my life. It wasn't until [the cast] was announced to E3, and everyone on social media started reaching out, that I think I fully understood what I had stepped into... if that makes any sense?"
"In my experience, the fandom has been really, incredibly supportive. But it's also massive; I think it's the biggest fandom of anything I've ever been a part of. That is exciting..." Baron admits, before pausing for a beat, and continuing with a chuckle, "but it's also a little scary too, because the Internet is always a little scary!"
Respecting the past
Final Fantasy 7 Remake is a game brought to life by the strength of its performances as much as it is its stunning rendition of Midgar. Baron and White were brought onto the project by Square Enix, not because either actor held any inherent reverence for the original game, but because the Final Fantasy 7 Remake directors believed that they would be the perfect voices to bring their vision to life in English language territories.
"I had a lot of research to catch up on and I did my best," Baron continues. "There's a plethora of resources out there in terms of the Final Fantasy world, but I think I ultimately relied most on our directors, especially in the beginning. You know, the creative team behind this game knows exactly what they want. I really trusted them, especially at first to get the feel of what Tifa they wanted from me."
That's a sentiment echoed by White, who notes that her performance as Aerith has undergone a "transformation" of sorts from her original audition to what ultimately shipped. The pair did, after all, have a fine line to walk between honouring the actors that have come before them – with Tifa and Aerith voiced in the likes of Advent Children, Kingdom Hearts, and other Final Fantasy spin-offs over the years – while still bringing a piece of themselves to the role, setting these characters up for future adventures.
"I've heard other voice actors say, 'Don't listen to reference'. I know that that's a strategy for a lot of people, but It just wasn't for me," admits White. "I absolutely listened to the other voice actors and thought, okay, where has she come from? Where have other iterations lived? And I tried to honour those voices, while at the same time creating something that was true to me," she says. "I think we have formulated something a little bit different... a performance that does honor the original, but is still very much its own version of Aerith's character."
I took the 'don't listen to reference' advice that White had heard ahead of her first big voice acting role to her co-star for confirmation. You may recognise Baron from other VO performances in games like Dishonored 2 (opens in new tab), Halo 5: Guardians (opens in new tab), and Destiny 2 (opens in new tab), not to mention a whole host of on-screen roles, recently starring as Justine Biagi in Netflix's GLOW. "I mean, I definitely did," laughs Baron. "If I was doing an acting scene in class, I wouldn't go watch the actress in the movie do it. But I think in this case, it was really important that I look and listen to what has been established before me."
"If I came out and was in this really low register, or had done something totally different, I think it wouldn't have served the character. It would be almost a disrespect to the work that's already been done," Baron tells me, explaining that while the directors of Final Fantasy 7 Remake gave her the freedom to establish what this iteration of Tifa would be like, it was important to understand how the character had been represented in the past.
"I at least wanted to know, 'Okay, what universe are we working in? What register am I working in in terms of Tifa?' How does she enunciate things... I did definitely listen to what had been done before. But I didn't study it. I wasn't trying to do an imitation by any means, because I have to trust that I was cast for a certain reason. I was embracing who I am while simultaneously honoring what has been done. I was walking that fine line, which I think is also what made this experience really unique for me."
Bringing new life to old characters
The characters of Final Fantasy 7 are among the most recognisable in the video game industry. Iconic, not only in appearance, but in personality too – such is the pervasive power of a game that shifted how the western market responded to RPGs back in the '90s. Both Baron and White explain that they were eager to figure out what was at the heart of their respective characters as they sought to strengthen their performances and get a handle on the script. What drove these characters, what excited and worried them, and what had been previously left unsaid? Characters are, after all, formed in the detail.
"While Tifa had been established in other iterations, in the original game she didn't have a speaking voice – it really was in everybody's imagination. I think that, in a way, that gave me the confidence to embrace my own choice... it gave me the freedom as an actor to just figure my interpretation out. I think at first I was a little scared, because how are you ever going please everyone? At a certain point, you just have to let that go and do the best that you can," Baron tells me, keenly aware of the expectation. "As an actor you just have to trust that you were cast for a certain reason, embrace who you are, and make the choices that you think are strongest and truest to the character."
As for her version of the character? Baron is quick to praise the writers and directors for working with her to shape this new version of Tifa, and it was the character's strength and vulnerability that really spoke to her. "I've played video game characters before where they're kind of one note. It's either, you're a soldier, you're fighting, you're a crazy assassin, you know, and that's basically it. You're aggressive. You're tough, and that's the character..."
"What I was drawn to about Tifa is that she is this amazing fighter, and she is out for revenge, and she does have fury inside of her – like I think all women do, deep down. It comes out for me when I'm stuck in traffic on the highway at 5pm," Baron continues, laughing. "But what I also loved is that, at the same time, Tifa is still empathetic and leads with her heart. She is kind and clear headed, especially, I think, in the dynamic between Cloud and Barrett; she seems to be the one that reads them most of the time. I enjoy that, because I think that women, especially, are not just one thing. You can be aggressive and strong, and also kind and caring. Those things exist within the same person.
White had her own process to work through with Aerith. Not only is the character often remembered as something of a damsel, her story is famously intertwined with tragedy. White was eager to bring strength to meet the compassion of the character, something that you can hear clearly in the final performance all throughout. "In some iterations of her character, she is very much just a sweet flower girl. While I wanted to make sure that part of Aerith was still intact, I also went with this idea that she's also sassy, can spit fire, and doesn't need to be protected."
"She likes to play with the idea of being a damsel, which is such a so her thing to do. She knows so deeply that she doesn't need protecting that she is sort of toying with Cloud in asking for a bodyguard. That element of it is very modern, in that she is a whole and well-rounded character, and isn't a damsel by any means. I do cherish that part of her."
Something else that White cherishes? One of the most infamous moments in gaming history – if you don't know what we're referring to, I'd recommend skipping this and the next paragraph entirety. While White wasn't able to speak to anything involving Final Fantasy 7 Remake Chapter 2, she is of course aware of what fate had befallen Aerith in the original game. "I mean, it's the first thing you see when you Google her name," White laughs, noting that this was in the back of her mind while recording. "I think it affects me most when I think about how shocking it was for most people when they first experienced it. The element of surprise, combined with how necessary she was for your party... on every level, it was painful for players."
"That's why I knew that I had no other choice than to do this right. I had to honour the fact that she has this place in so many player's hearts. Separate from that, it's almost like this meme to fans now. When I did KupoCon in Vancouver, I had people coming up to me saying... 'hey, you know what happens to her, right?', and I'd go, 'Do you really think I don't?'" White says, erupting into laughter once again. "It's almost like people want to save me from that fate. I have to say, 'I'm okay! I know what happens to her; don't worry, it's not going to hurt me!'"
The perfect game for this time
It's likely that we're going to have a long wait to see the adventures of Tifa and Aerith continue, so for now we'll merely have to take solace in the fact that Final Fantasy 7 Remake: Chapter One has delivered in ways few ever believed it truly could.
White tells me that she has held off playing the game ahead of its release, and is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to play through Final Fantasy 7 Remake with her online community. "I wanted to save the first experience for streaming it," she says, and I'm going to point you in the direction of her channel Strange Rebel Gaming on Twitch (opens in new tab) and YouTube (opens in new tab) if you'd like to watch along (and I'd recommend that you do, because it is delightful (opens in new tab)).
As for Baron, she's also looking forward to the opportunity to play through the game, although she's equally eager to see how its release can help people through this difficult period in all of our lives. "I hope that it is a welcomed escape right now. I think it's an amazing, inspiring, and fun adventure story. This is an adventure with friends, people that you love, and on top of that, it's an escape. I hope that it's maybe a reflection, in a way, of our society – that it inspires people and empowers them."
"You know, I was thinking, a few days ago about how interesting of a time it is for this game to come out while everyone's in quarantine. While the world is kind of falling apart. As it feels like we aren't in control of our own lives. We're relying on all of these people in power, right? I think there's a lot of themes within Final Fantasy 7 Remake that ring true to how I'm feeling now. I hope that people can look at these main characters – Cloud Tifa, Barret, and Aerith – and their will to fight for the greater good as an inspiration for the time we're living in right now. You know, I also hope everyone enjoys it and has fun too, because that's what video games are about."
How has the game changed since 1997? Here are the biggest Final Fantasy 7 Remake differences (opens in new tab). If you're looking for clarity on the game's closing moments, we've also got a spoiler-filled feature on the Final Fantasy 7 Remake ending (opens in new tab).