Sunday, March 8, 2015

Final Fantasy VII: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

There was a time when I thought I'd never play Final Fantasy VII.  The game was released back when I was a broke college student, and the thought of buying a fancy Playstation to play it was less than a dream; it was a laughable impossibility.

Fortunately I was stuck in the Boston area one long and boring summer, and a kind friend (thanks Charlie!) lent me his Playstation and his entire library of games.  Aww yeah!  This is how I felt:

The Opening

Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series for many people, and I'm sure that this opening is as memorable for them as it is for me.

Okay, that statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since I have a pretty good memory.

The opening does have its good points.  I like the way the camera starts out with a close-up on Aerith's face before zooming out to reveal the vastness of Midgard City, only to zoom back in to the train where the action starts.  It's a neat way to identify an important character that you don't meet until later in the game, while simultaneously giving a fine sense scale: things are happening all over the city, and the train ambush is just one small piece.

Other cool things?  The way the opening seamlessly melds the introductory movie into player-controlled action is neat, giving FFVII a propulsive start that immediately invests the player into the world.  Oh, and for some reason the kick the soldier gives at 2:08 in the video always cracks me up.

Interestingly, now that I've listed the positives of the opening, I find myself feeling far more favorable towards it than I did before.  I guess the problem is that the negatives are so overwhelming that they leak into the rest of the game and leave an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.  What are these negatives?  The establishment of Aerith and Cloud as the main protagonists.

The Rest of the Story


If you'd like to know the plot of FFVII, I invite you to read the Wikipedia entry so I don't have to explain it to you.  The story is convoluted and tangled and frankly illogical; trying to make sense of it is like trying to brush my daughter's hair in the morning.  The general gist?  A bad guy - Sephiroth - wants to blow up the world.  The good guys want to stop him.  Hijinks ensue.

This is admittedly a glib explanation - after all, almost every Final Fantasy plot can be summarized in the same way - but I can't find myself caring too much.  Why?  Because, as I said above: I disliked the two main protagonists.

Cloud is a soldier - sorry, SOLDIER - with amnesia.   This gives him license to act like an asshole towards everyone else.  For some unknown reason, everyone else is okay with this.  Meanwhile, Aerith is a magical elf-like girl with magical Powers.  She is nice to everyone she meets.  Cloud likes her.

There's not much more to their characterizations, and as a result they feel less like characters than precisely calibrated gears carefully constructed to Make The Plot Go.  So when this moment - apparently a seminal one for thousands of gamers all over the world - happens halfway through the game...

... I found myself caring... kinda... well, not really.  It didn't feel particularly surprising or emotional.  It just felt like another piece of plot.

I think that issue is the heart of my problem with Final Fantasy VII.  It's a game built around a plot, and not its characters.  As I've learned, when it comes to story, the latter is almost always more important the former.

With all that said, FFVII does make one great choice, but I'll come to that after making one more complaint.

There's another female character, Tifa, present in the game.  Tifa is opinionated and temperamental, and she literally punches bad guys in the face.  She is awesome (although maybe I'm biased because I like opinionated and temperamental women), and sadly she has a crush on Cloud.  And so after Aerith's death, her role is reduced to pining after Cloud and hoping that he'll stop sulking and maybe notice her one day and... AHHHHHHHHH.  Tifa, you're better than he is.

 Okay - thanks for letting me get that out of my system.  Now I'll talk about this guy.

Sephiroth is one of the great villains in video game lore.  His look, his attitude, his actions, his final boss music - everything about him is so ominous and well-designed that it's easy to forget that the real reason he's so memorable is because he's so present in the story.  Unlike Zeromus and Kefka from FFIV and FFVI, Sephiroth is a visible character throughout the game.  Players witness his backstory and turn to evil; they see him actively thwart their plans; they are never allowed to forget that he is the key antagonist that they must defeat.  Sephiroth is like a wave that crests ever higher in a player's mind, and the satisfaction that you feel when you finally get to do this (skip to 1:00)...

... is both earned and very real.

One last note: I'm obviously extremely critical of Final Fantasy VII's story.  But I have to say, the game itself was a hell of a lot of fun to play!

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