Final Fantasy VII
Based on: An entire world's malaise beneath the sprawl of unbridled enterprise
To say Final Fantasy VII has its share of baggage would be an understatement. In a time when 3D graphics represented the future of the medium and gamers were looking for a watershed that would obsolete the semi-abstract geometry in games like Jumping Flash!?, Square screened full CG commercials with detailed human characters and Hollywood explosions, narrated by a voice that sounded like he might go into convulsions from the sheer grandeur of what he was shilling. Appealing both to the eyes and the emerging idea of gaming's "maturing," these spots played in movie theaters as well as on television. Combined with print ads making declarations as haughty as a single FMV shot spread pornographically across two pages, Square spared no expense -- or pomp -- in fabricating hype to inspire hype. And the gaming press, which had yet to separate itself from its own background of official propaganda and fanatic exuberance, was generally happy to stay on message; after all, what attracted me to the game in the first place were the unbelievable "100+" scores awarded to it by GameFan.
There were skeptics, of course -- RPG veterans who were inherently suspicious of the industry's glitzy extension to mainstream audiences in the PlayStation era, that the unwashed masses would debase a pastime whose once-marginalized status had impressed them with some sense of ownership. But no major animosity mounted against the game until a few years had been allowed to pass, when the adolescents who found it a revelation underwent the dichotomic consequence of aging, where we look back on the tokens of our pasts either with fond nostalgia or bitter, jaded scorn. Influencing this was Square's marketing, which was ubiquitous and shrewd as to make itself synonymous with the game, to the extent that most people still can't divorce the two. When they remember FFVII, they remember the hype; and in comparing the two, they find they were swindled -- cheated by false promises. Most of the game looked nothing like that FMV, and hey, the story wasn't even close to high literature! That the prevailing notion of FFVII is cynicism testifies to the importance of the expectations with which we approach games.
Not that there's any agreement on whether popular opinion of the game skews towards love or hate -- depending on whom you ask, it's either unjustly criticized or sickeningly overrated. The latter argument tends to dominate the medium's intelligentsia, while those who stand by the game are typecast as base mouth-breathers and mawkish fanboys too deluded with adolescent power fantasies to know better. Sadly, not much has attested to the contrary, because very few people know how to defend the game. Those who attempt to justify the FMV, or even the plot, just fall into the same trap as those who deride them: contrary to appearances (and apparently unknown even to the architects of the recursive, masturbatory mess known as "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII"), the game is not about any of those things.
The plot, for all it's scrutinized, is unimportant as it bears the technical definition of the word: the practical sequence of events. That Cloud and company sabotage a reactor or two, find out Sephiroth is alive, chase his apparition around for a disc, accidentally hand him a world-ending bauble of Armageddon, chase Shinra around for another disc, watch a cannon fire at the entrance to the last dungeon, and finally journey to the center of the earth is largely unremarkable -- as are the smaller acts in between the main points, however closely you wish to look. This being an RPG, a genre whose appeal is particularly dependent on its stories, that might sound like a death sentence. But there's more to narrative than plot alone, and that's why I can still say FFVII tells an original, poignant story.
The game is set in a world which, from the very beginning, is in the stranglehold of a single malevolent entity. But it's not a nondescript evil king or emperor, nor is it even a vengeful elf or Machiavellian politico. In fact, it's a company -- Shin-Ra Electric Power -- implicitly supported by its customers, who are afforded convenience, mobility, and an overall greater quality of life by its goods and services. But its global status represents the moral of capitalism brought to its ultimate, terrifying destination: every patron of something as standard as electricity is its customer, if not its employee. Having risen to prominence as a weapons manufacturer during the last war, it now supersedes government and commands its own private army. It's a completely self-sustaining behemoth, and even having achieved a majority market share of the world, the executives running it hunger for expansion.
The beginning of the game takes place in Midgar, an immense metropolis and Shinra's center of power -- but specifically Midgar's bottom half, the remnants of eight communities that existed before Shinra took over and erected a city-wide superstructure based on a circular plate. The rich moved onto the upper side, living luxuriously above the earth, while the lower level became a ghetto for the poor. This bleak setting is emblematic of Shinra's iniquity beyond mere business, and appropriately, it's also the most detailed location in the game. The urban decay is vivid, replete with crime, pollution, and shady, disagreeable characters; Barret's radical insurgent cell comprises Shinra's most obvious opposition, but their sense of social unrest extends throughout the ordinary citizenry. The remaining inhabitants of the slums are not only those who were too poor to move, but also people too prideful to abandon their homes. Yet Shinra would rob them even of that identity, phasing the names of the old towns out of use in favor of numbered "Sectors." Sequestered by high walls, scrap metal, and the plate itself, people can't even tell night from day, and it's as intuitive as it is documented that going long periods in darkness is a likely path towards depression. Then there's Aerith, who holds the ability to speak with the spirits of the deceased. But she can barely hear them over the ambient noise of the city, and besides the fact that Shinra wants to place her in a cage for study, she yearns to escape to the outside world so she can finally converse with her ancestors -- and even commune with the planet itself.
As the game's first chapter closes, Shinra inducts a new president, who promises to coerce the population more directly using a shroud of fear rather than finance. Unfortunately, no sooner does this happen than that pesky plot starts to pick up, and the corporate warlords are steadily phased out of the main conflict in favor of an overpowered Adonis with a sword. But while the plot has little merit unto itself, it serves a vital utility in providing a vehicle to convey the game's themes. And it does this by pulling you along through the lands beyond Midgar.
At first, the locales seem to regress to RPG tropes: a nondescript village, a Chocobo depot, and a cave. But those that follow possess a common quality that consistently ties back to the game's other, increasingly passive narrative: the inescapable influence of Shinra. Fort Condor is a mountain outpost built in earthen tunnels beneath one of the company's Mako reactors, where a powerful gob of magic rock has congealed in a miracle of nature, like diamonds from coal. Of course, Shinra wants to seize it, as well as drive the locals and nesting condors out of their homes while they're at it, spurring skirmishes with the native resistance that are ongoing throughout the game. Junon, like Midgar, has been segregated into two layers -- the top level a vain military base where goose-stepping zealots march the streets, and the bottom a darkened, polluted vestige of a once-prosperous fishing community. North Corel, likewise, is home to the survivors of a coal-mining town that Shinra burned to the ground to monopolize the region's fuel economy. The town's ruins now serve as a junkyard and prison at the foot of the Gold Saucer, an extravagant, towering theme park whose only purpose is to amuse the privileged. Nibelheim nurtures its façade as an innocent mountain settlement, hiding the fact that Shinra uses its remote location to host horrific human experiments. Wutai and Rocket Town are both burdened by disgrace: one is a nation of proud tradition, reduced to an exotic tourist trap since losing the war to Shinra's weaponry; the other literally lives in the shadow of a failed space launch, languishing in remorse since Shinra has all but abandoned the program. Cosmo Canyon is one of the few places reserved from Shinra's presence, but here is revealed the true function of the power source their reactors sap and refine, and Barret's environmentalist ranting from the early game fully crystallizes: by drawing from the continuum of souls flowing through the planet, Shinra will inevitably exhaust that which gives all things life, reducing the planet to a brittle, desolate rock.
If you aren't distracted by whether Sephiroth is the son of a space witch or Cloud might be his clone or whatever, it's plain to see that a business is still the greatest threat the world faces. While Meteor might destroy it in seven days, Shinra is destroying it, right this second, from a universal scale down to individual lives. Thoroughly.
This is the real story FFVII has to tell, and it's not reliant on text boxes, but reflected in the world design itself. More than a pattern of inns and dungeons, nearly every area contributes to central themes of corporate exploitation, jingoism, social segregation, paranoia, ecologism, Shinto-derived animism, human rights, genocide, and estrangement from one's own surroundings. True, the treatment of these subjects might not be as deep as in the greatest literature, but how many other games, even more than ten years later, even attempt to address themes external to the melodrama of their principal cast -- applicable beyond the mechanical process of stripping bare the villain's machinations, rescuing that girl, and celebrating the all-purpose "power of humanity"? There are certainly some (Suikoden poses moral quandaries viewed from shifting perspectives, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask undertakes the conflicted attitudes of a populace as the end of their world approaches), but they're few and far between. FFVII might not have matured the medium in effect, but hell if it didn't try.
Even as I uphold this as the game's saving grace, I can't say there's much to hate about the rest of its parts. Yes, Materia obsoletes individual character growth, but gradually mining its sheer flexibility over the course of the game is ever a source of entertainment; even though it's never required, it's a proud spectacle in its own right to arrange such ludicrous maneuvers as automatically reviving and healing the entire party upon death, attacking all enemies and inflicting every status ailment in the book in a single turn, and casting a spell eight times in a row while stealing and absorbing HP and MP. The character models lack detail, but the animations allowed by their crude polygons are even more diverse than the emotive sprites in Final Fantasy VI. The pre-rendered environments are dense with minute peculiarities and often alien creativity, exceeding their tile-based predecessors and even the patterned textures of the PS2 games, forging atmosphere with deliberate camera angles. The soundtrack is wrought in painfully low-quality synth, but the compositions themselves are, at best, some of Uematsu's finest work ever (which says a lot for a musician whose credits include Final Fantasys VI and IX?). Tracks such as "Holding My Thoughts in My Heart" and "Interrupted by Fireworks" hauntingly evoke and augment the sentiments of their respective scenes, and I maintain that, at least as much as the character herself, the main reason anyone cried at Aerith's death was because of the music.
If they're not quite as brilliant as the world they inhabit, the characters are at least more novel than for which they're given credit. Cloud's journey of personal transformation -- from a badass loner mercenary to a babbling mental wreck, to the deconstruction of his entire self-fabricated persona, and eventually, to acceptance that it's not too bad just to be a regular guy who says things like "Let's mosey" -- is genuinely sympathetic. (Which makes it all the more a disgrace that the game's various sequels have thrown his development back to square one, for no reason but that badass loners sell.) Aerith endears herself with a surprisingly brassy personality at direct odds with her dress and station within the plot, which would indicate her as just another Sheeta. Her recognition of the falsehood in Cloud's identity is understated as to be nearly invisible, and her attempts to help him are cut short when she selflessly puts herself on the chopping block for the planet's cause. This stirs Tifa, whose fear to act even as she watches a friend harm himself is all too human. As much a sexist cliché as it is for a female character to dote on the male lead, Tifa's case is at least understandable given her storied, complex relationship with Cloud. Barret makes an unfavorable first impression as a belligerent racial caricature, but as his story unfolds, he's revealed as a loving father to an adopted daughter, a misunderstood moral hero in his hometown, and a dedicated follower of nature's teachings. The cast at large embodies unexpected charm and dimension, defying the labels assigned to it based on appearances alone.
The first time I played FFVII, I was as captivated as anyone else by appearances -- by the FMV, the cusses, the plot. But when I returned to it just months ago, the hype having long since fallen through, I appreciated all of its finer, subtler points without astonishment: somehow, unconsciously, I had always known they were there. Of course, the game will always be known by its superficies, whether to be praised or rebuked, the same as ever. But now I can't help but find the usual debate irrelevant, that those on both sides continue, just barely, to overlook the point -- and one of the best games they don't know they've played.