FINAL FANTASY VII

a review of Final Fantasy VII
a videogame developed by Square
and published by Square
for the sony playstation computer entertainment system and windows 95
text by J. Jonathan Brett

3 stars

Bottom line: Final Fantasy VII is “probably the closest Square has come to making a worthwhile game.”

A while back, Square-Enix moved its center of release date festivities from Akihabara to the Tsutaya across the street from the Hachiko statue at Shibuya Station. On the day of release of Final Fantasy XII, the young man at the front of the line who’d parked his carcass in front of the Tsutaya for something in excess of two days was given a special treat: the opportunity to shake hands with Square-Enix president Yoichi Wada and a few other important types, and the opportunity to “express his thanks” to the company’s executives and the game’s creators. Clearly uncomfortable with all of the eyes and cameras trained on him, he braved it out to take the microphone into his hand and, staring at his feet, used this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stammer out, “Please release a remake of Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation 3.”

This is how fervent Final Fantasy VII‘s fans are.

Final Fantasy VII takes a lot of flack from the gaming community. (Note: for the purposes of this article, we will consider a fractured group of finger-pointing, name-calling jerks a “community”.) The game has a lot of problems! Therefore, detractors reason, its popularity can only be for two reasons:

  1. Final Fantasy VII‘s fans are imbeciles.
  2. Prior to playing Final Fantasy VII, its fans hadn’t played another RPG. (The implicit assertion being that, of course, RPGs older than Final Fantasy VII are necessarily good.)

The most eloquent, expletive-free propounding of these propositions I’ve found is Jeremy Parish’s review over at Toastyfrog. Now, before those of you reading dutifully sneer in Mr. Parish’s general direction, let me say that I quite like his writing and his site — I check it out more or less every day, as a matter of fact! — and I think that that his combination of off-the-cuff humor and clarity of thought is remarkable. (Even though he refuses to allow me to join his message boards. Presumably he takes issue either with my name, desired user name [Pro Tip: jayjaybee], or location, seeing as this is the only information I had to supply when I attempted to sign up.)

However, I believe that the imbecile-slash-n00b theory doesn’t adequately account for Final Fantasy VII‘s ongoing popularity. I offer a second theory: that Final Fantasy VII struck a chord with so many players because it is possibly the only Final Fantasy game (and one of the very few video games) which is actually about something.

That’s a pretty bold assertion! To substantiate my wild claim, I’ll need to address the following:

  1. What I mean by “game” when I refer to Final Fantasy VII as such.
  2. What I mean when I say that a game is “about something”
  3. What, specifically, I believe that Final Fantasy VII is about.
  4. Why I say “possibly”.

I’ll even follow that precise order, so other people like me who break into a cold sweat whenever they move the different types of bread around at the grocer’s can breathe a sigh of relief. Let’s get started!

What I mean by “game” when I refer to Final Fantasy VII as such

Around the time the 3D0 was hitting shelves and the existences of the Saturn and PlayStation were confirmed, publishers and their marketing people attempted to popularize the term “interactive entertainment”. They asserted that games were changing, and that in many cases it was unfitting to call a piece of software a “video game” simply on the basis of player input.

They had a point! Unfortunately, they obscured this by applying the term to barely-interactive, video-laden garbage. The term was soiled by association, and fell into disuse.

Now, we have essentially two very different types of interactive software which are referred to as “video games”. For the first group, the term “game” is perfectly fitting. These are the challenges of reflexes and dexterity which can trace their lineage all the way back to Pong. Also within this group are those games that require mental alacrity and strategy, which can trace their roots all of the way back to whatever game has the distinction of being the first video-based simulation of go or chess. Many video games of this first sense are combinations of the two.

The second type is a little more tricky to nail down. These are the software experiences which are lumped into the term “video game” on the basis of requiring player input. (As opposed to user input — so no, to prevent at least a few Internet Jerk posts at the bottom of this article, Microsoft Excel doesn’t count.) For the sake of clarity, let’s call these “interactive media” for the duration of this review.

What complicates matters is that “interactive media” have “game” elements. Console RPGs are an excellent example: the “game” element of your average RPG amounts to an elaborate game of paper-scissors-rock. Beyond that, players are urged forward by the story (which is almost always laughable in comparison to decent literature) and the tag-team of our magpie-like instinct to horde and whatever you’d like to call the instinct to grow things that urges us to waste time and money on Chia Pets and gardening.

Final Fantasy VII is a game in the second sense — a work of interactive media — and its “game” elements of the first sense are pretty lousy. Not only is the battle system an elaborate game of paper-scissors-rock, it’s paper-scissors-rock with a man with an unchecked obsessive compulsion that forces him to always choose “paper”. You can’t skip past the drawn-out, superfluous summon scenes, the characters flip-flop between body sizes, the mini-games were tacked on and are frequently out of place, and even something as basic as controlling your avatar was complicated by (a) the inability to discern what could be interacted with and (b) a digital control scheme that only offered 16 degrees of movement in what was, for all practical purposes, a three-dimensional world.

These are some pretty serious flaws! So, just why do people like the game so much? I believe it’s because Final Fantasy VII is one of the few games (of either sense) that’s about something, leading neatly into the next subheading. (To make this the ultimate segue, please imagine a Star Wars wipe before continuing.)

What I mean when I say that a game is “about something”

I’m going to lay this right out on the line: 99 percent of video games are not about anything. They’re playgrounds, and we are provided with action figures. (I consider the term “sandbox” a misnomer: the appeal of a sandbox is that you can create whatever you want.) The earliest games, like Pong and Asteroids, were games in the truest sense: they were the logical next step from pinball machines, made possible by new technology. Next came games like Pac Man and Mario Bros. that put players in control of avatars — action figures — in tiny and exceedingly dangerous playgrounds. Entering the 16-bit era, tiny and exceedingly dangerous playgrounds alone were no longer enough. Now we had large playgrounds, with branching paths, multiple exits, and extra lives and other bonuses hidden to reward players for exploring these playgrounds. Trace this lineage past Mario 64, on through to Halo, and right on down to Brutal Legend and Gears of War 2; action figures and playgrounds, divorced from reality.

In order to be “about something”, a game (or film, or anything else for that matter) needs to be about some thing, and the only place things (and events, as the interaction of things over a span of time) exist is within reality.

That probably sounds confusing. Here’s an example: the first Spiderman film. I think we can all agree that the odds of being bitten by a radioactive spider and subsequently discovering that we have super powers are pretty low. (I’d reckon pretty darn close to zero.) However, Spiderman‘s message is about something that can be traced back to reality: learning to accept the responsibility that comes with adulthood. Suddenly Peter Parker has power and the freedom it grants! However, as he discovers the hard way, he’s also responsible for the consequences of his actions. While adolescence may not grant us super powers, the relationship between growing freedom and personal responsibility is a fact of reality each and every one of us comes to terms with. Spiderman employs medium elements: they are in service of telling a story that’s about something.

In 99 percent of video games, the relationship is reversed. They have a story, all right, though it serves merely as an impetus for the player to continue pushing his action figures through increasingly elaborate playgrounds. Developers do, on occasion, attempt to graft on a more elaborate and emotional story line. In almost every case, players find the story laughable and hop on to their message forum of choice to poke fun. Although they may not be able to place a finger on what it is, specifically, that rings so hollow, they’ve grasped it intuitively: when you strip from the avatars all elements of believable human behavior and place them in situations and environments entirely divorced from reality, what we’re left with are action figures in playgrounds. When the developers attempt to put on a little play with their action figures, it’s creepy and we instinctively dislike it — Metal Gear Solid 2 is Craig Schwartz making puppets hump at the beginning of Being John Malkovich.

An important question, then, is why are so few games about something?

We, the people who play games — whether we post to online forums or even write for Web sites or magazines — are part of the reason. We don’t demand games that are about something. In message boards, people are prepared to debate ’til they’re blue in their respective, proverbial faces the most inane minutiae; people writing for Web sites and magazines, in their “astuteness” arms race, point out that the shadows at one part of a game are sort of too blue; yet no one mentions that the way your “average Joe” guns down hundreds of people in the course of his adventure might have something to do with the popular portrayal of video games as murder simulators.

We, the people playing and writing about games (whether it be on forums or for Web sites and magazines) are prepared to go into nitty-gritty detail about the lack of a jump button, yet nobody bothers to consider these games in the larger context. At this point, when game engine solutions exist suited to just about any platform and genre, in-game elements and mechanics should be given the same treatment by game reviewers that camera techniques and set pieces are given by film critics: basic competence is taken for granted — only substantial successes or failures are mentioned. As it stands, most game reviews are like if Variety‘s film critics spent the first four-fifths of all of their reviews discussing makeup, camera techniques, equipment, and set design, and then — oh yeah! — in the final paragraph got around to a few sentences about the films’ messages and social relevance.
final fantasy vii screenshot

Composing the other half of the equation are, of course, the people making games. (Here, allow me to make it clear that it’s not my intention to point fingers; I’m trying to call “spade” on a few of the spades I’ve seen, and it’s my genuine hope that this article will lead to some constructive discussion in the section for comments found below.)

The observation: many of the people making video games make video games simply because they really want to make video games, not because they have ideas to express.

There was a need, in the beginning, to establish the tool set. That work is finished now; video games have graduated to a medium. Unfortunately, people are still so enamored with the tool set, they aren’t treating “video games” as a medium. We’re stuck at the mentality of the 12-year-old: it’s so much fun to brandish the hammer — to use it to crack rocks and put holes in rotting logs — that it doesn’t occur to use it as a tool to create something.

For the purposes of illustration, compare this creative process with that which goes into the creation of the vast majority of manga. Contrary to what many Internet-savvy manga fans (who may or may not be Internet Jerks) will tell you, the vast majority of manga are pretty crummy. This is because the vast majority of manga are written by people who have read a lot of manga, really like manga, and decide that they, too, would like to make manga. They realize that if they’re going to make manga, it has to have some sort of “story”, and “characters” to populate the story. These people are quite literally writing to fill pages.

If you’re in the mood for contemplation, consider how this issue is evident to varying degrees in every medium.

The remedy — the proper approach — is to treat a medium as just that: a medium to channel your ideas into reality, where they can be taken in and reflected upon by other human beings. Until we advance to the level of a godlike hive-mind, we’re stuck with the task of expression. If you’ll pardon me for sounding like a broken record here, mediums provide us varying sets of “tools” which, to the extent that any given member of an audience possesses a normal, properly-functioning psychological apparatus, will be mutually comprehensible in largely similar terms. When creating, we arrange these “tools” in such a manner as to evoke to the greatest degree we can manage similar ideas and emotions in members of the audience.

Often this task requires metaphor and imagination: if Spiderman dropped its titular element, depicting a young man coming to terms with adulthood in the starkest terms possible, it may get the point across — yet think of the impact that would be lost! By using “super powers” as a metaphor for young adulthood, Stan Lee also managed to capture the subjective factor which is shared in largely the same way by all of us, as members of a single species, each possessing largely the same psychological apparatus. The result is a story that remains popular decades after its inception because it is about something and about what it’s about so effectively that you don’t have to be a comic book fan or a film fan to understand it and appreciate it.

Now here’s the rub: creating something that’s about something requires familiarity with things (and events, as the interaction of things over a span of time!), and the only place things are to be found is within reality. Look, sorry: I really struggled to think up the least pompous way of phrasing this possible. Here’s another way of looking at it: accurately gauging a work’s affinity to reality requires a basis for comparison, and the only basis for comparison is reality.

The life course of many of the people involved in making video games has removed them from reality. They grew up playing video games. In school, when given the freedom to select a topic, they wrote reports about video games and video game characters. They entered college or took vocational classes to learn programming, art design, or 3D rendering to create video games, and eventually got jobs at companies making video games. In their free time they play video games, their friends are people who play video games, and they marry other people who play video games, or maybe that nice girl from the accounting department (of their video game company employer) who puts up with their obsession with video games.

Our minds contain only what contents we put into them, and their minds are filled only with video games. Point out that a game is completely divorced from reality, and the message is lost: recognizing that something doesn’t mesh with reality necessitates familiarity with reality.

It’s been noted time and again: the most able creators, from philosophers to writers to film makers, ventured out, gained life experience and the ideas that come with it, and at that point chose a medium to express those ideas. The written word has had a major advantage: for centuries, when a person had an idea he wanted to express, it was the only option. (This is why the term “literature” instantly conjures the mental image of a fat, leather-bound tome.) As a result, while there is certainly the analogous phenomenon of the “literature nerd”, the written word has been more likely to be put to use by people who had ideas they wanted to express than by people who were writing simply because they liked the idea of making a book.

Now think of the general quality of the other approach: the songs by people who just really like the idea of being in a band; the manga by people who just want to write manga; the films by people who simply enjoy the idea of making films; and yes — the video games by people who just like the idea of making video games. In this simple formula, we’ve accounted for the vast majority of creative garbage from throughout all of the annals of history on down to the present.

Of course, I don’t believe that all game creators are universally narrow-lived; that is demonstrably untrue. However, it has been my observation that the vast majority of game creators gain their life experience after becoming game creators, rather than gaining life experience, weighing the pros and cons of the mediums available to mankind at present, and selecting video games as their medium of expression on the basis of the medium’s unique merits. (What these unique merits are, I’ll address shortly.)

Still, the former pattern (game creator first, life experiences second) results in people who have interesting ideas about something that they are interested in expressing, and the knowledge of a medium which allows them to do so. I believe this is what happened in Final Fantasy VII‘s case. So without further ado:

What, specifically, I believe that Final Fantasy VII is about.

– OR –

ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE GAME NOW

 

A few years prior to the production of Final Fantasy VII, producer Hironobu Sakaguchi’s mother passed away. This affected him profoundly, and he wanted to incorporate his reflections into a project. In short, he’d thought deeply about something, and wanted to use a video game to express his ideas. In one of those tiny miracles of large-scale creation, one of his next projects happened to be Final Fantasy VII, and other key members of the project, such as director Yoshinori Kitase, were enthusiastic and helpful toward his vision.

Although the planet earth may not have an actual “life stream”, and we may not be able to command magical powers by equipping spherical gems (let alone wield a sword the size of a surfboard), we share a similar predicament with the characters in Final Fantasy VII: we’re created by the people who create us, we get the DNA we get, and we’re dumped into the circumstances we find ourselves in with no room for “freedom of will” whatsoever at the outset, and only ever to a questionable degree in our lives. Final Fantasy VII‘s planet-destroying corporation served to provide particularly dire circumstances and to give two of the game’s characters particularly screwed up DNA; like Peter Parker’s super powers, these are exaggerations — metaphors — used to approximate the subjective factor of an objective reality.

Ultimately, what the game is about is learning to accept this combination of physical make-up and circumstances beyond our control that we refer to as “fate” or “destiny” or “kismet”, if we’re a scriptwriter writing an “intelligent” character who uses words specifically to confuse other characters to establish his intelligence. Cloud, the protagonist, and Sephiroth, Cloud’s rival and the main antagonist, have both, in very separate ways, refused to accept their fates. What happens over the course of the game is a parable, the result of two characters falling upon very real, very human reactions: denial and rage — respectively.

Most importantly, Final Fantasy VII doesn’t just present this theme to players as a light-and-sound show: by famously depriving players of one of the most powerful and empathetic characters halfway through the game, with no means of ever returning her to life, it drives the message home by forcing the players themselves to accept an unpleasant situation dictated by the logical march of events yet completely out of their control. While I suspect Sakaguchi and his crew did it only intuitively — that is to say, I don’t believe it was a conscious ploy presented in a Power Point presentation at a weekly meeting — they took remarkable advantage of one of the two most powerful traits unique to video games as a medium: the human tendency to feel a connection with the things we’ve nurtured and grown. Even when they’re garden plants, or Chia Pets; even when they’re characters in a video game.

Final Fantasy VII‘s theme is universal: learning to come to terms with who we are and the circumstances we’ve been given. In this way, Final Fantasy VII is very much a game that is about something. The result is that Final Fantasy VII boasts fans among people who would probably never think to classify themselves as “gamers”, and fans who are about as loyal and fervent as they come, these 13 years later.

Contrast this with other titles in the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII“. Dirge of Cerberus is ridiculous in all of the same ways that Final Fantasy VII is: melodramatic and claustrophobic, with characters that dress like lunatics. Its “game” elements (of the first sense) are not superb, but they’re arguably no worse than the game elements in Final Fantasy VII. Yet Dirge of Cerberus, as a calculated effort to play on Final Fantasy VII‘s success, is decidedly a game about nothing, and the lukewarm response it received even among fans is the result.

Meanwhile, Crisis Core, as a game of the first sense, is undeniably superior to Final Fantasy VII. The controls are better, the battle system is more enjoyable, and the world is more fun to explore. Like Dirge of Cerberus, when it’s absurd, it’s absurd in all of the same ways that Final Fantasy VII was absurd. And again like Dirge of Cerberus, as a calculated effort to be a game about a game, it is ultimately a game about nothing — and the lukewarm response it received even among fans is the result.

This brings us, at last, to my final point.

Why I say “possibly”.

The first of the three Final Fantasy titles were action figures in playgrounds. More specifically, they were Chia Pets in playgrounds, and what scant story there was served only to provide direction toward the next playground. The fourth and fifth titles in the series deserve credit for aspiring to gussy up the Chia Pets and playgrounds with vaguely Western, fantasy-inspired outerwear. These two games were Dungeons and Dragons filtered through the sensibilities of Japanese people who’d never played a game of D&D in their lives. It’s always been a thing of curiosity to me, that fans of the fourth and fifth Final Fantasy titles (the fourth, in particular) don’t recognize that a “bizarro” version of either title would be, “Like, ninjas! Totally going at it with those dudes from the mountain with the long noses and those raccoons with the huge balls! And then some samurai show up and then Mount Fuji attacks!”

The sixth title in the series deserves further credit for ditching the D&D in favor of opera filtered through the sensibilities of Japanese people who’d never seen an opera in their lives. It was also the closest the series had ever come to being “about something”, though what Final Fantasy VI is ultimately about is getting the band together and then staging one last reunion tour if you feel so inclined.

Final Fantasy VIII was about consciously trying to make a game dissimilar from Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy X was about consciously trying to make a game similar to Final Fantasy VII, yet not so similar that people would recognize it immediately. On both accounts, the result was a game about nothing.

Final Fantasy IX is another multi-thousand-word article for another day. Suffice to say that I don’t believe it to be about anything. Final Fantasy XI doesn’t count.

So why do I say “possibly”? I’ll come clean: I stopped playing Final Fantasy XII at the first boss. I dislike the game’s aesthetic (this sort of “Alexandre Dumas with micro-skirts and Hutts” mish-mash) and I thought the battle system was ridiculous. However, Tim assures me that Final Fantasy XII is indeed about something — about multiple somethings, even! — if I continue playing, and I realize that I’m dismissing it on the sort of superficial grounds I’ve spent the last 4,500-plus words taking detractors of Final Fantasy VII to task for. So I guess that’s two more multi-thousand-word articles for other days.
epilogue.gif

I have, I hope, made it clear what it means for a video game (or anything for that matter) to be “about something”, and I further hope I’ve made it clear why being about something is the preferable antithesis to action figures in playgrounds. I’ve also addressed one of the things that makes interactive media (i.e. games in the second sense), as the only truly interactive medium, unique: the attachment that we form with the characters we’ve “grown”.

There’s a second, which I consider substantially more powerful: the way that we feel a sense of responsibility for the actions of the characters we’ve controlled. Wanda and the Colossus uses this perfectly, and is, I believe, the best video game released to date. It’s the only video game I’ve seen that is about something through and through. More importantly — and I can’t stress this enough — it communicates what it is about in a manner that would be impossible in any other medium.

To come cleaner: I was asked to write for this site because I’m one of the best examples you’ll find of someone who loved video games dearly, tired of them over time, and reached a point where he barely plays them at all. I play games that I have reason to believe will be about something. This is my criterion. I keep up on game news and periodically talk about games with my friends in search of games that meet this criterion.

People point to Nintendo as a developer that is bringing lapsed gamers back into the fold; the only thing Nintendo has done is make the action figures easier to play with. Perhaps some developers will read this article. Perhaps none will. If some do, and they’re interested in knowing how to bring aging former gamers back into the fold, I’ll state my opinion in clear terms, as one instance of an aging former gamer:

I’m almost thirty years old. I’m tired of playing with action figures. I want to play games that are about something.

–J. Jonathan Brett

Comments

73 Responses to FINAL FANTASY VII

  1. Bravo – reads like one of the meatiest semiotics essays I’ve read in a while.

  2. fuck.

    that’s all i can really say after reading this. is it a good “fuck” or a bad “fuck”? i don’t know.

    fuck.

  3. “This is because the vast majority of manga are written by people who have read a lot of manga, really like manga, and decide that they, too, would like to make manga. They realize that if they’re going to make manga, it has to have some sort of “story”, and “characters” to populate the story. These people are quite literally writing to fill pages. ”

    The one thing I’d like to say – for all the auteurs who quite accidentally came into their chosen field (Miyamoto I guess is the huge one here for video games), there are plenty that have been obsessed with their field from birth. Though I’d really like to note Orson Welles, whose early obsessions were magic and theatre basically shaped his movies. I guess I’m suggesting I wouldn’t like to see the guy who grew up on manga drawing manga, but I’d sure love to see what soap operas he’d write (theoretically).

  4. I feel obliged to make some points. First, it appears to me that your (cogent) critique applies only to the “videogame” in your second sense, the dressed-up story vehicle. “Videogames” in the first sense don’t need to be about anything in particular but themselves, because they are already about competition and mastery, which are virtues indeed and perhaps even the highest ones. A football game doesn’t need to be “about” your mother’s death.

    Second, the dichotomy (like all dichotomies) is really a spectrum, and it’s difficult to see how your critique would apply to the many games that fall along the middle of that spectrum. Left 4 Dead is a fantastic game of skill, but is infused from top to bottom with a consistent aesthetic, based largely in character and story elements, that renders the game coherent. Sure, much of the meat of the mechanics would remain if you stripped them of all context and rendered enemies as red blobs and friends as blue blobs, but a good portion of it would be missing, because all the “story” elements reinforce the mechanical ones. The aesthetics exist in service of the mechanics, but the mechanics would be poorer without the aesthetics. And yet I wouldn’t say Left 4 Dead is “about” anything in the way that War & Peace is “about” something.

    As for FF7, your analysis is nice and all but it just falls apart when it comes in contact with the actual bloated absurdity of the game’s script. Your interpretation of the game’s theme relies heavily on the Zack/Cloud thing but the game mentions Zack a total of like five times in 60 hours and I never understood what the fuck was going on. Moreover, Aeris’ death is entirely fatuous. At the age of whatever (12?) I literally laughed out loud when it happened, bloodless impalement and LEGO smile and all. Actually I was relieved, because Aeris sucked in battles and I knew I wouldn’t be forced to use her any more. (Cracked the game wide open with a Cloud/Barrett/Cid team.) So there’s another triumph of mechanics over plot, I guess: when the latter is so ludicrous that you can’t pay attention to it, the former is all you’re left with.

  5. mcquill:

    The fundamental problem for the “guy who grew up on manga” is that the contents of his mind are almost exclusively derived from manga. Virtually all of his knowledge of reality comes second-hand. As a result, while it would be fascinating to see the sort of thing this hypothetical individual would make if he suddenly find himself in charge of the creation of some instance of a medium other than manga, I have to doubt his ability to make anything that is about something.

    CubaLibre:

    You’re absolutely correct: a “game” in the first sense need not be about anything at all. However, video games in this first sense can never be anything other than, in the apt words of a skater friend I had growing up, “finger games”. If this is the only thing we ever ask of video games to be, then let’s end the navel-gazing over whether or not games can be art right here and now. Finger games — toys — can only ever be art if we allow the term “art” a definition so liberal and wide as to make it useless (if not counter-productive) to discourse.

    I would also argue that “competition and mastery” are virtues only when we are competing to master something useful.

    As for your comments on Left 4 Dead, I can only say that I’m not discussing “aesthetics” and “story elements” with this article. My question would be: what are the zombies metaphors for? What do the events of the game represent? From the sound of your comments, it seems that they are only present to keep the player playing.

  6. Precisely. Does that mean Left 4 Dead is a bad game?

    The characters have voice samples that trigger on certain events. These have blatant game-mechanical uses, but they also serve to deepen the characters. You could remove the character and keep the game-mechanical information (have a plain text warning pop up on your screen, for example). Why did Valve bother putting all that time and money into making a game-mechanical event in a game that’s about mechanics collaterally characterize your avatar? A misplaced sense of auteurism? The willful deception of the sad proles who buy games, who confuse themselves on this distinction you’ve drawn?

    Furthermore: are you saying that people who play football aren’t doing anything useful? Are you saying that playing football can’t or shouldn’t be considered an art?

  7. Not having played the game, I really can’t say either way. If it is a game in the first sense, it may be a fantastic game. Gears of War 2 is tons of fun! It is, in fact, the most fun you could ever have playing with action figures. I’m not calling for the banishment of games of the first sense; I simply wish they didn’t account for 99 percent of all video games.

    And if it is a game in the first sense, that certainly doesn’t preclude the developers’ putting love and detail into their work.

    As for football: I would say that, much like defining “God” as “some mystical force that we can’t even imagine”, we would need to fall back upon a definition of “art” so vague as to be useless in order to include a game of football under the umbrella of the term.

  8. Also, just a quick note: I don’t think that games in the second sense need to be a “story vehicle”. It would be a pretty big stretch to call Wanda and the Colossus a “story vehicle”, and it is, I would assert, “about something” through and through, and every bit as much as a Moby Dick or Citizen Kane.

  9. “Final Fantasy VII takes a lot of flack from the gaming community. (Note: for the purposes of this article, we will consider a fractured group of finger-pointing, name-calling jerks a “community”.) The game has a lot of problems! Therefore, detractors reason, its popularity can only be for two reasons:

    Final Fantasy VII’s fans are imbeciles.
    Prior to playing Final Fantasy VII, its fans hadn’t played another RPG. (The implicit assertion being that, of course, RPGs older than Final Fantasy VII are necessarily good.)”

    I’m sorry, I can’t take this seriously. In lieu of considering that people could have legitimate recourse to any disapproval of the game, you’ve resorted to hasty generalisations and straw men to point something out. I don’t give a bloody toss about the game’s fanbase nor their history – I care about what a horrendous abortion the game is and how it contributed to the utter dearth of good storytelling in games we see today.

    This reviewer are sick.

  10. There’s a curious contradiction running through this otherwise fantastic review. Right at the start you attempt to debunk the major criticisms of FFVII, and throughout the rest of the review you subtly admit to its flaws (the mechanics are lousy, the characters dress like maniacs, and it’s generally absurd). Despite admirably being “about something”, it’s still a fairly objectively awful piece of entertainment.

    What I don’t get is, why do you assume most people hate it for the admittedly shitty reasons you provided at the start rather than the entirely sane reasons you’ve hinted at?

  11. I’m not particularly interested in debating the merits of a word called ‘art’ that would fit playing football underneath its umbrella because, as you say, it’s navel-gazing. But since you brought it up, and since, as the exclusivist, it’s you that has the explaining to do (how is football different from ballet?), I wonder at whose navel we are gazing exactly.

    I’m glad you point out Shadow of the Colossus (sorry, I’m American), because that’s precisely one of those games that occupies the middle of the spectrum here. The game certainly isn’t about skill and mastery, though there is room consciously planned for such in the mechanics (have you ever seen boss speedruns?). The visceral character of the mechanics – that is, they make killing the colossi feel less like danger and more like very hard work – combine with this possibility, but not requirement, for doing it faster and better, to impose upon a player the profundity of the sparse story’s “aboutness” (I believe I wouldn’t be off the mark to call this “theme”). The mechanics reinforce the story reinforce the mechanics ad infinitum. It is an almost-perfect interactive package that demands that you ascribe responsibility to yourself, and not some player-avatar, to feel the true weight of the theme.

    While this seems to be what you want to say about FF7, it’s not what you actually say, because you go on to admit that all the game-mechanical parts of it are worse than useless. If “interactivity” is this golden idol that allows stories experienced through videogames to be more compelling than stories experienced through so-called “passive” media (a description I dispute), then FF7 is wasting all its potential. It may as well be an anime, and lo, such has it become. Understand that this criticism is entirely separate from my other quarrel with you, which is the subjective value of the story itself quite apart from any videogame-related discussion (i.e., it’s noble how you tried to save it, but it’s shit).

  12. When the developers attempt to put on a little play with their action figures, it’s creepy and we instinctively dislike it — Metal Gear Solid 2 is Craig Schwartz making puppets hump at the beginning of Being John Malkovich.

    On this note, if we’re going to ask developers to make sure their puppet shows are actually about something, I’d like to request the contrapositive. If it’s not about anything, drop the puppet show. Mechanical games can be fun without some taking-itself-seriously justification… just let me punch somebody in the face.

  13. Very nice article! I often find myself thinking about why video games are the overwhelming majority of the time just attempting to be entertainment. It’s my opinion that an aesthetic language hasn’t yet been parsed out. We see every now and again flashes of brilliance from people that are attempting create an aesthetic around interaction but they rarely feel like complete works like a painting, film, literature, et al. I’ll use ICO as an example of when it works.

    ICO’s main mechanic is connecting you to a girl. She needs you and you need her to progress. You actually are forced to hold her hand through the walking parts and it’s a little unnerving and stressful when you have to let it go to fight or transverse something that she alone can’t. Anybody with any sense is going to understand this while playing the game however people don’t seem to understand how important it is. Ueda has created a way to elicit emotion that could not be created using any other medium. He has created something that will one day become convention.

    Sorry to jack your review/critique with my own crappy agenda. I just started typing and the preceding is what came out.

  14. ninjafetus:

    What about all the movies, books ad musical works that aren’t really “about something” but are still entirely valid pieces of entertainment? Or am I being obtuse in thinking Star Wars has no real message?

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  16. When you are doing that mountain climb where you have to button-mash to get your temperature up, or playing the arm-wrestling game in the Gold Saucer, or playing the Fort Condor minigame, or dressing Cloud up in drag at Wall Market, or rescuing Yuffie from Don Corneo at Wutai, or (god help you) breeding chocobos, FF7 is absolutely not about anything apart from being a video game.

    So why does it stand alone among other games as being “about” something? I just don’t see how so many games are “action figures on a playground”, but FF7, a game that has you snowboarding headlong into smiling snowmen within hours of the death of the main character’s love interest, is any different.

    I’m not saying the game isn’t about what you say it’s about. But I will say that damn near any game can be evaluated and deconstructed sufficiently to be about something. And I can’t get behind the idea that FF7′s being Sakaguchi’s attempt to cope with the death of his mother makes it any more legitimately “about something” than any other game. Partially because I’m sure there are plenty of games with similar stories attached to their creation, and partially because the theme FF7 ends up with is common and unremarkable on its own, but then gets squeezed through the filter of a bloated, rather poorly-realized game.

    Why is FF6 nothing more than “getting the band together and then staging one last reunion tour,” instead of, say, a fable preaching self-reliance and determination and the need to accept and then learn from one’s failures? I wouldn’t say that FF6 does a particularly good job of getting that point across; but I could argue that it’s there. It’s not the most mind-blowing idea, and it’s certainly not present in every facet of the game, but that’s not true of FF7, either.

    And honestly, I can understand why you might bristle at the common notion of the FF7 enthusiast, because you obviously don’t fit the mold. But can you deny that those people exist, or that every terrible product to come from the “FF7 Anniversary Collection” has been made specifically and exclusively for those people – and have sold pretty damn well as a result?

    Given that the main point of the piece seems to be to prove that there is a deeper reason behind FF7′s enduring popularity, it should likely follow that the majority of FF7 fans would have known better than to bother with terrible games like Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core, and terrible whatever-it-is’s like Advent Children, all of which seem to miss the point of the original completely.

    But it certainly seems that, for having made FF7 with the idea of acceptance at its core, Square has spent a lot of time trotting Aerith’s walking, talking, giggling corpse out in front of its fanbase. And an awful lot of people seem glad to see her every time.

  17. jjb, i enjoy your articles. please keep writing.
    a point that makes me question my own ff12 review (though my main enjoyment of ff12 comes from the world-atmosphere, and not the story): if ff7 has all of the mechanical failures it does, but a story that is “about something,” doesn’t that then, by extension, still categorize it as a poor video game? i mean, couldn’t one say that, because of the argument that a medium should be chosen by necessity, any mechanically excellent video game with an inoffensively weak story (that is, in turn, somehow tied to the mechanics) is, by definition, a better video game than ff7, as it supports the designer’s choice to select and exploit the medium more than ff7?

    “Ultimately, what the game is about is learning to accept this combination of physical make-up and circumstances beyond our control that we refer to as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ or ‘kismet’…”

    doesn’t this lead to the critique that the game’s ending is self-saving nonsense (in the same way that wall-e’s memory is restored in the end of the movie to satisfy feel-good expectations)? in other words, if the game is about accepting “fate,” and the conclusion undermines this by conforming to a general “the player must ‘win’ the game/the hero and most of his friends must survive” ideal, doesn’t the ending translate to representing nothing, and accordingly wrap around to affect and nullify the rest of the story’s meaning?

  18. “What about all the movies, books ad musical works that aren’t really “about something” but are still entirely valid pieces of entertainment? Or am I being obtuse in thinking Star Wars has no real message?”

    it might not have ONE message but there’s lots of stuff about accepting responsibility, Oedipal conflict, etc
    i prefer videogames as toys. every morning i decide what to do on the bus. if i want a good story or characters or ideas i’ll pick up a paperback book. if i want to fuck around i’ll pick up my DS. there’s some overlap when it comes to the pulpiest books and the better games but i like media to do what its good at
    its like pinball. i don’t really care what the theme of the table is. sure, its fun hearing that Indiana Jones or Twilight Zone sting on their respective tables but i can have just as much fun on World Series Of Poker

  19. CubraLibre:

    The distinction between football and ballet supports my thesis: a game of football is only about itself; any given ballet production utilizes dance to express ideas and emotions about situations encountered in reality. Which is to say, a ballet is very much “about something”.

    Kinto (and, relatedly, Ario):

    If I presented my idea such that it appears as a contradiction, I’m not being facetious when I offer my apologies. I suspect I’ll be considering this little theory of mine from a variety of angles in future articles and reviews and will, I hope, be able to present my ideas more clearly over time.

    Here, I don’t see my argument as a contradiction: yes, Final Fantasy VII has flaws. However, as one of the few games that is about something, no matter how fumblingly, it has been blessed with lasting appeal. The people who made it, made it a game “about something” by accident; hence their inability to recognize what made the game so good in the first place, and hence the way they undermined the message with an unfitting, feel-good ending.

  20. Adam Chance:

    Why is FF6 nothing more than “getting the band together and then staging one last reunion tour,” instead of, say, a fable preaching self-reliance and determination and the need to accept and then learn from one’s failures?

    You should write an article about this and submit it. It would be an interesting read.

  21. You don’t seem willing to address the most trenchant arguments against your thesis. I really don’t care to argue with you about football and ballet (though I certainly could!, in some other forum in the context of some other discussion). I’m much more interested in hearing why Shadow of the Colossus is a vastly more successful game than FF7, even though it is “about” much less, quantitatively speaking. I can say: because it is a perfect marriage of mechanics and plot, that shows the necessity of both and, ultimately, the fact that they do not admit of being separated. But you can’t say that, because you have set up this duality where a game can be valuable for its story quite apart from massive, widespread, utter failures on behalf of its mechanics. Well, isn’t FF7′s story a lot more interesting than SotC’s? Certainly a lot more happens in it. Why isn’t FF7 a sweeping, epic War & Peace to SotC’s lovely and poignant but closely circumscribed sonnet? Or is that indeed what you’re saying?

    Similarly, you don’t address Mr. Chance’s quite cogent critique that, if FF7 is about something, then certainly so is FF6 to no less a degree, and so are a panoply of other games that, when totaled, certainly falls outside of your 99% figure. I daresay that if you never found out that Sakaguchi’s mother died shortly before the creation of FF7 from some external source you never would have derived that theme from the game, because the game is ludicrous and incomprehensible. If that’s where you set the bar then the banalities of whatever bottom-barrel bargain games you care to mention (freedom is good! domination is bad!) must also suffice.

    Now, your main thrust I quite agree with, which is only that cloistered manchildren shouldn’t be responsible for creating art or entertainment of any kind. This isn’t so insightful a point, but it’s worth saying in this industry’s climate, which produces a host of thoughtless me-too games above and apart from other media, which of course do the same but not quite to such a quantitatively large or qualitatively servile degree. But you seem to have missed the boat completely on the importance of game mechanics and the distinction between them and story (my position: ultimately, there isn’t one). Even leaving that aside, the grotesquely baroque FF7 is one hell of a bizarre ground upon which to stake this claim. You already flirt with SotC in this review; why not focus fully upon Ueda’s games, or Shigesato Itoi’s?

  22. CubaLibre:

    Either a game is created to justify its own existence, or it’s created in service of expressing ideas and emotions derived from reality; though I understand the appeal of a spectrum (you’re 50 percent right, I’m 50 percent right, let’s go have a tea party), this is indeed a dichotomy.

    I believe that Wanda and the Colossus is more successful as a game in the second sense as Ueda did it consciously where Sakaguchi and crew did it largely unknowingly, with the result that Wanda and the Colossus uses medium elements in service of expressing ideas thoroughly, and Final Fantasy VII is indeed rather spotty and fumbling. However, because Final Fantasy VII was one of the first games to be so extensively about something, I think that it deserves credit where credit is due.

    Incidentally, I’m something of an Itoi fanboy; I had the idea for this article while playing through Mother 3, which I’d intended to be my next article for Action Button. It probably will be my next article.

  23. I don’t know that FF7 was one of the first games to be so extensively about something, at least not if you contend that it was all rather unconscious and haphazard. By those lights FF6 isn’t any less about something and you dismiss it with so much hand-waving. I guess I simply don’t understand the distinction.

    Corollary: is it your contention that games aren’t part of reality?

  24. I really enjoyed this review, specifically the distinction between games consisting of action figures and those that are about “something.” However, I’m not quite sure you clearly defined what you mean by “something.”
    I would agree that FFVII is about something however I would also argue that so are FFVI, VIII, IX, Chrono Trigger, Mother 2&3. I would even argue that games like The World End With You and The Last Remnant, despite all of their flaws, are “about something.” I’m curious how FFVII is different from these other.

  25. Not to disrupt the flow of the conversation or anything, but did you (jayjaybee) check this thread before registering at Parish’s forums (Talking Time)?

    http://www.gamespite.net/talkingtime/showthread.php?t=8353

    That was probably your problem.

    Anyways, has anybody here considered the possibility that this game might/kinda/sorta actually be a pretty good game (audiovisual presentation aside), or is that option not allowed for us hardcore gamer folks?

  26. “Either a game is created to justify its own existence, or it’s created in service of expressing ideas and emotions derived from reality; though I understand the appeal of a spectrum (you’re 50 percent right, I’m 50 percent right, let’s go have a tea party), this is indeed a dichotomy.”

    Like CubaLibre (I think – forgive me if I’m misrepresenting your point of view), I don’t understand this distinction, and I have serious doubts that it exists in reality – that is to say, I doubt that if you asked the developers of whatever run-of-the-mill “action figure” game (let’s say, for the hell of it, that the game is another WWII game) what their game was “about,” they would say “The mechanics of killing virtual people in a virtual environment.” They would say their game was about war, and possibly even tell you about the specific conflicts that are simulated within their game, and maybe even something about the character they have created for the player. That is say, I doubt that people who make “action figure” games are creating games in a fundamentally different way from, say, the way that the makers of Shadow of the Colossus went about creating it.

  27. Addendum (that’s not really an addendum but is actually just because I submitted my comment before I was finished writing it):

    “While this seems to be what you want to say about FF7, it’s not what you actually say, because you go on to admit that all the game-mechanical parts of it are worse than useless. If “interactivity” is this golden idol that allows stories experienced through videogames to be more compelling than stories experienced through so-called “passive” media (a description I dispute), then FF7 is wasting all its potential. It may as well be an anime, and lo, such has it become.”

    I think this is CL’s best point, and I don’t think you’ve addressed it: why shouldn’t FF7 have been a movie? or manga? or whatever? If its “gameness” is not enhancing its narrative (or “aboutness” or what-have-you (and, indeed, I would argue not just that its gameness doesn’t enhance its aboutness, but that it actually DETRACTS from it)), then why is it a game? And if we can’t even justify its being a game, then why should it be regarded as a Good Game (or even a Great one)?

  28. Puh- leeze, every single anime which one can claim with a straight face that it’s mainly about plot and/or characters might as well be declared to be about something the same way Final Fantasy VII can be. Heck, every single JRPG ever made can be considered to be about something while were at it if we use that kind of thinking.

    Damn it, why not go even further? Everything can be considered to be about something, so long as you want to! Hell, even this post of mine can be considered to be about something, and it’s up to each and every single person to personally decide what it’s about!

    In no way does Final Fantasy VII differ from any other JRPG/anime/science fiction story/fanfiction/emo poetry of it’s kind. To read anything into it is simply dumb. That’s why Advent Children is the superior product of all the Final Fantasy VII titles: it was Squaresoft admitting that taking Final Fantasy VII seriously is foolish beyond belief, so they gave a flawless piece of fan service to everybody sane enough not to take the original game seriously.

    It’s also sorta the reason why Final Fantasy VIII is both better than Final Fantasy VII, and was the last Final Fantasy game anybody should have cared about until Final Fantasy XII: it had an entire one more well developed character than the previous game.

  29. I personally find it far less annoying to be around Final Fantasy VII fanboys than, say, Halo fanboys. Admiring a single culmination of several RPGs from the same company to the exclusion of its immediate predecessors makes me far less angry than admiring a ham-fistedly serious and ridiculously simplistic ripoff of far better games (THAT WERE ABOUT SOMETHING, DAMMIT!) and ideas from Valve and Blizzard.

    But in that milieu of early-release PSX games I ignored FF7 (and 8, to this very day!) for dedication to Final Fantasy Tactics, the FF12 of the PSX era, if we’re going by principal character designers, composers, story writers, difficulty, and overall feel. Cloud, Sephiroth, and the death of Aeris affected me as action figures playing a story might, but the simple playing experience of a few maps in FFT stayed with me through my entire high school year. I didn’t feel a principal connection to the characters or the story, mainly due to the near incomprehensible translation at the time, but damn if the experience didn’t color my opinion of the entire world. To place battle, music, ridiculous tactical difficulty and high oratorical proclamations so well together forgave a multitude of difficulties and learning curves.

    I did not learn, and suffer, and focus, as such, because I cared about the characters. What I did care about was the abstractions they represented. If I may bring some of my actual military experience to the table, the notion that men die because they care about the men fighting with them is a carefully worded lie. Men really do fight because they care about abstractions, like justice, or peace, or love, or a better order of things, and for this they will tolerate fighting with and dying for among the worst of men. It’s not really politically correct to say such things, of course, because this implies that most men are actually religious at heart.

    To wit: the most oft-repeated and oft-remembered personage in FFVII is neither Aeris nor Cloud, but Sephiroth, and his ominous Latin chorus. That particular baddie and his heavily religious over-and-undertones dominated all discussion of the game back during that day, and it’s only after 10 years and several playthroughs when I finally started hearing people finally giving a shit about Zack, Cloud, Aeris, Jenova, or all the backstory that had little connection to reality or religion as the Western world knew it. Every other character becomes a mere action figure as soon as he steps on scene anywhere; he has no equals to speak of.

    And this is actually very, very bad from a story, design, pacing, and hold-it-all-together central message standpoint. So bad that it actually refutes the article and shows what was and is really good about the FFs previous and afterward-not a stinking one of them, to my knowledge, ever were on unequal footing with the heroes. While quite often more powerful, none had impenetrable plot armor/powers as often or as ridiculously as Sephiroth did. Never did I fight so many battles that had absolutely no effect on the villain’s plans. The article, sadly, has it exactly backwards-in the other FF games, your characters are much closer to avatars than action figures, capable of at the very least hindering the villain. It’s only in FFVII where the description of “action figures,” poor doomed plastic souls to be toyed with by the real master puppeteer, applies.

    Actually, it’s very much worse than that-they’re closer to the My Little Ponies than the GI Joes-they win against overwhelming odds simply because they’re the designated heroes!

    The point is driven home by the last line of a Cracked article: “While boys were taught that evil giant transforming robots could only be defeated with other giant transforming robots, girls were taught that evil could be defeated with the power of rainbows and flamboyant song and dance. Which one better prepared their audience for the real world?”

    Rest assured, you will never feel this way when playing FFXII, X, IX, VIII(presumably, haven’t really played it), Tactics, I, II, III, IV, V, or VI. You will be ambushed, surprised, overpowered, chased away, and often defeated. You will never or very rarely feel that such setbacks are simply the game toying with you until the last battle, where you win simply because you’re the good guys. If you beat someone difficult it’s because YOU practiced and YOU mastered the action button, not because Sephiroth or the Gravemind simply didn’t feel like using their all-powerful plot devices reserves of doom at that moment.

  30. well, there’s at least one part i can remember where ff7 memorably uses its format: the flashback segment, where cloud and sephiroth fight a large creature on their way to a village. sephiroth cannot be controlled. iirc, when the monster attacks, cloud’s hit points are reduced to a critical state; sephiroth will, in response, cast a strong healing spell. if the player attacks, the damage dealt is tiny. when sephiroth attacks, he kills the monster in a hit or two. it’s the same as dragon quest v showing the strength of the player’s father — numbers reinforcing the narrative.

  31. CubaLibre and Dozer:

    Any given video game was developed either for its own sake (because the people involved liked the idea of making a game, because the company’s executives demanded/requested it, etc.) or for the sake of depicting ideas derived from reality in terms comprehensible to other human beings. There is no “spectrum”: it’s one way or the other. Even in the case of something like The Dark Knight, executives certainly demanded the film be made, though Nolan made the film that he made because he had ideas he wanted to express — not because executives demanded it of him. It was not a “compromise” or a meeting in the middle of some “spectrum” which can only exist in the mind.

    While you can certainly argue anything, either a game was made for the former reason or for the latter. If you argued that a game was made for the latter reason when, in actuality, it was created for the former, you would be mistaken: that a stance can be argued does not make it true. To put it another way: the truth exists and it is one way or other; our arguments are only valid to the extent that they arrive as closely as possible to the truth.

    In Final Fantasy VII’s case, I don’t think that “mass idiocy” adequately accounts for the game’s widespread appeal and long-lasting popularity. This is all the more suspect when you note that other games in the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”, despite being in the same tone and absurd in all of the same ways, hardly made a splash. When attempting to reconcile this, even fans will say that Crisis Core (for example) is “missing something” or “doesn’t have the same magic”. I’ve attempted to formulate what these people have intuited in a more fleshed-out argument.

    When I read that Sakaguchi’s mother had died not long before Final Fantasy VII’s development (and that Sakaguchi considered this a major event in his life), it merely gave added certainty to my belief that Final Fantasy VII was developed for the latter reason. (And while I suppose I may be accused of pretentiousness for saying this, I’ve always believed that Final Fantasy VII was about what I wrote of in this article, and thought that it was fairly evident. )

    On the other hand, reflecting upon the events in Final Fantasy VI (and even flipping through a walk-through to refresh my memory), I couldn’t find a single event or element that wasn’t fully in service of “creating a game that’s sort of like an opera”.

  32. I have now read through this review three times and I don’t see any qualitative explanation as to why FFVII is “about something” beyond iterating simply that “it just is”. I find it particularly odd that an effort was made to mention the wholly non-interactive manner in which games these days are increasingly presenting themselves, and that a solid argument clarifying why FFVII is separate from this category really isn’t present.

    Honestly, I can’t see anything beyond circular self-referential reasoning here. Some very good points were made regarding channeling ideas through a medium to a third party, but every attempt made to connect these notions with the game itself seems to fall short. The one point you actually do spell out – the death of Aeris – is a horrendous example of interactivity-divorced narrative obfuscating the game itself. The unintentionally hilarious portrayal of what so many people considered the game’s pivotal moment gave way to a marginally improved narrative and a renewed resolve to work with the remaining (actually useful) characters.

    To finish: I really don’t see any merit in a review that self-defeatingly acknowledges why a game is terrible and yet tries to admonish its detractors. Arguing an untenable position is in itself foolish – reiterating its flaws in doing so is just careless.

  33. There are spoilers in this comment

    The absurdity of this review lies firmly within the belief that no RPGs before it were a. Good or b. About anything. Also ridiculous is the assertion that a bad game can be a good game.

    Addressing my first point:

    A sampling of RPGs that predated FF VII that were good and/or, in many cases, better than FF VII

    1. Mother 2
    2. Chrono Trigger
    3. FF VI
    4. Dragon Quest V (more on this sucker later)

    What are they about?

    1. Nihilism, love, family, youth, and responsibility. I played Mother 2 after FF VI and I was way more disturbed by losing my humanity (and transplanting my soul into a robot) than I was ever torn up about Aerith’s death. In fact, Aerith’s death highlights the game-ness of the world. When anyone else dies in a battle, phoenix down revives them. Why not Aerith?
    2. Fate, determinism, the cycles of history/inevitability of history repeating itself, and sacrifice. Again, watching Crono be eradicated by Lavos or witnessing Lucca’s mother’s loss of legs were both more intense than losing Aerith
    3. Loss, racism, more nihilism, and terrorism. I hated Gau as a character and I still get a little choked up thinking about his father rejecting him upon his return thanks to his advanced dementia.
    4. This one is almost entirely about family. You can’t tell me that watching your father be brutally murdered, being sold into slavery, and having your children grow up without you aren’t greater emotional events than losing a girl who you don’t even have to be all that attached to within the game.

    As far as experiences impacting a game’s development, I quote Mitch Hedberg:

    “I like when they say a movie is inspired by a true story, because that’s weird; it means the movie is not a true story, it was just inspired by a true story. Like, hey Mitch, did you hear the story about that lady who drove her children into the river and they all drowned? Yes I did, and it inspired me to write a movie about a gorilla!”

    Final Fantasy VII may be inspired by Sakaguchi’s loss, but it’s hard (for me) to pinpoint how the game reflects those themes cohesively. In fact, cohesion is the true reason why I don’t think FF VII is a watershed moment. I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the RPG genre, but I do know that DQ V has a much better handle on how to wed mechanics to narrative, the true measure of an artistically well-executed game.

    Diversion: When a painting is truly great, it does things that only a painting can do. While there is some overlap with photography, in general, the “best” (subjective!) paintings are not like photographs while the “best” (more subjective!) photographs are not like paintings. They do what they do best in the way their medium allows. It’s why books that try to be movies are pulpy, mundane, and ultimately failures while book-to-movie adaptations fail so often. The things that work in one don’t work so well in others. There are tools at your disposal that are not available in other media. Use them!

    So, back to DQ V. As someone (I think CubaLibre (Azucar!)) mentioned, the game actually goes and makes its RPG conventions mean something. There’s a level difference and a strength difference at the start of the game between the hero and his father (like that Cloud/Sephiroth segment mentioned above), but that’s not all. The game’s emphasis on family is also emphasized in the wagon/recruitment system. Like Oregon Trail, your party travels with you all around the world map and you can just chat with them. They are with you because the game wants you to create a community/family because that’s where true strength is derived from (in this game’s artistic message). It’s no surprise that the most powerful characters throughout the game (and the ones without which you cannot progress or survive) are your father, mother, wife, and two children.

    It’s not the most sophisticated use of media, but it does take the typically abstract concepts of the RPG (levels and parties) and try to make them mean something to the player. It’s why forcing me to pull the trigger in MGS3, a game about action forcing me to take action, resonates with me as the most emotional killing I’ve ever committed in a video game by forcing me to do it while Bioshock feels empty because control was wrested from me when Andrew Ryan “forced” me to kill him.

    If a game fails at being a game, it’s failing its prime directive. True genius, like what you see in FF VII, will come to the Final Fantasy series when they stop divorcing story and mechanics and start remembering the lessons of their path. Like people have said before in this comments section, if FF VII is a better anime than a video game, it’s doing something wrong.

  34. It’s important to remember that all characters, whether they appear in movies, books, or whatever, are already action figures to begin with. It is only through precise presentation and manipulation (tools of the creator) that they are able to come off as anything human. Also, in the case of books and movies, the audience is allowed to play with them only after the creator has had his turn. Or died.

    Do videogames really need that advanced level of manipulation to be enjoyable? What is at stake for that sort of evolution (I believe, Mr. JayJayBee, you would consider it an evolution) to take place in game development?

  35. this review feels a lot like those manifestos using “Citizen Kane” and “videogames” in the same sentence.

    I can see that you’re arguing for content over form, even to the point where you can’t seem to recognize the merits of form, but FF7 is a really shitty example to use. even Final Fantasy 8 is at first glance more “about” something (teenage angst/love) and devotes more of its story to being “about” teenage angst and love than Final Fantasy 7′s fifteen minutes spent on pretty girls dying, or whatever the hell it’s about (supervillain angst over being born in test tubes? the environment? what)

  36. ElCapitan: i am pretty sure that JJB likes all those games you mentioned, quite a great deal, even.

    and let’s not start saying that something or other is “about” “nihilism”. that would get real creepy, real fast!

  37. ElCaptain: It seems like you’re confusing “thematic depth” with jjb’s “about something-ness.” There’s probably a significant difference between the two things, but I’ll be darned (to heck!) if I know what it is.

  38. the problem with your analysis is that while FFVII may be “about something,” it certainly doesn’t express that something very well. if you toss out the entirety of the “game” elements in favor of literary value, you are committing a perversion of the sin you accuse of game designers: they make a game because they want to make a game, and you play a game because you want to play a game that pretends it is not a game. you could very easily, in quest for works of literate merit, ignore the medium as relevant to what you wish to experience. the result is that you’d read a lot of books, because books do what you want games to do better than any game ever has. every quality work must be aware of how it engages its particular medium; this nuance is, in fact, the cornerstone of artistic criticism. you annihilate it in the name of a good yarn. there’s a lot of work left to be done.

  39. and the problems that arise from the split between “game games” and narrative games are hard to get around. empty academics simply draw a line and build forts of theory around each, but we’re going to need something to effectively reconcile the two if people are going to start making transcendent games with any regularity.

  40. Fnool:

    I can “prove” that Final Fantasy VII is about what I stated just as much as I can “prove” that Peter Parker’s super powers were intended as a metaphor for young adulthood. This isn’t a science experiment.

    Most people would agree that Peter Parker’s super powers are a metaphor for young adulthood; how do we know? For one thing, reading the original comics or watching the film, it simply seems apparent. For another, Stan Lee has stated himself that such was the case. Maybe we’re wrong! Maybe Stan Lee is blowing smoke up our collective rear!

    Similarly, it simply seems apparent to me that Final Fantasy VII is about what I described it as being about. Adding weight to my argument are statements to that end Sakaguchi made himself (the death of his mother affected him profoundly, he wanted to include his reflections in future work, etc.). In addition, were the game truly about nothing, I don’t believe it would have enjoyed the wide and long-lived success that it has. In addition, when you contrast Final Fantasy VII with other games in the “Compilation”, while they all feature the same setting, many of the same characters, etc., these spin-offs aren’t nearly as popular or beloved as the original game, which would seem to indicate that the original game has something they lack.

    Even a perfunctory read of my article and subsequent comments would show that I did, indeed, offer these arguments in support of my theory. You simply don’t find the arguments compelling.

    Fair enough! However, I must note that (a) you were able to access this article, the work of another person’s labor, absolutely free of charge, and (b) you evidently found it interesting enough to read numerous times. Seems to me you got your absolutely no money’s worth!

    So quit being a jerk.

  41. negativeedge:

    I never, at any point in this review, called for the “game elements” of games of the second type to be thrown out.

    ElCapitanBSC:

    Like Tim said, I like all of those games quite well, with the exception of Dragon Quest V (which I haven’t played for more than a few hours, so I have no opinion about). I consider Mother 2 superior to Final Fantasy VII in every conceivable respect.

  42. I agree with the substance of this review, but I think you are way too pessimistic about how many games are ‘about something’. Although it’s perhaps not the majority of games, there are a lot which meet this criterion, either on purpose or accidentally. And if it’s only accidentally, that doesn’t diminish the fact in the least.

    Final Fantasy X was about the relationship between dreams and reality. Which is quite a fitting theme for a videogame. It doesn’t get ruled out just because they hammered on this theme in an obvious and goofy way.

    Final Fantasy VIII is about something too, just something that is not very interesting. Like ’16 Candles’ or ‘The Breakfast Club’ it’s about maturing from an angsty teenager into an adult with responsibilities. An appropriate theme for a jRPG, but one which has been overdone in that setting.

    Final Fantasy XII, as near as I could tell, wasn’t about anything. I’d like to hear what Tim thinks it was about, because when I was playing it it was like ‘blah blah blah blah blah’. For me, if FF12 was about anything it was about how hell is other people and how we should just pack a bag and go camping in the great outdoors for the rest of our lives. That would be an example of an unintended theme.

  43. jayjaybee: Ah, sorry about implying you didn’t, I just felt that you were implying that nothing before FF VII was any good/worth mentioning/artistically valid. I was being a bit too bold with “absurd” and “ridiculous.” My strong dislike for FF VII stems from the industry learning the wrong lessons from it and, like tim was saying most recently on Kotaku, a lot of the shit we see nowadays comes from this game. In actuality, I think it’s a serviceable game, but I found the story of X, XII, and VI far more interesting (not in that order), and the game itself (aka mechanics) better in VI and XII. It’s certainly the best of the Playstation Final Fantasy games.

    RT-55J: You’re right about the “thematic depth” and “about somethingness.” I agree with you there. I do think that a game having clear thematic depth is on par with being about something. I also think that DQV is, by jjb definition of about somethingness, about family, but that doesn’t refute his claim that no other FF is about anything and I’ll be damned if I know what VI is “about” in that sense.

    108: You’re right, they’re not about nihilism, they just have nihilist antagonists (or I might be reading too far into Giygas and Kefka). It kind of ties in with what RT was saying in that I was missing the right distinction between themes and “aboutness”

    There are many games that aren’t about anything or without a clear-cut aboutness behind them, but I don’t think that FF VII is as much about motherhood as, say, Mother 3 is, but, then again, maybe I should replay VII, it’s been ages.

    Random thoughts that popped into my head:

    Do you think that MGS4 was so bad because it lost sense of what it was about? Do you think that Metal Gear is actually about nuclear non-proliferation? Just wondering, because that’s another series where the creator has applied an about tag like Sakaguchi did here.

  44. I haven’t read any of the comments here. I intend to, but knowing me probably won’t. I make note of that because I usually do at least scan every comment in every thread on every site to make sure that nobody said what I’m going to say or already responded to the thoughts in my (and, apparently, others’) head (s). Because of this, I read a lot without speaking up, or if I do speak up it’s in a sort of faux twee, cute snarky kind of way.

    This time I have to say something before scanning (if I go back and do that) what’s already been said, because this is one of the infrequent times in which I have something to say and I want to say it in a way that won’t come off as aloof or insincere.

    Here is what I have to say:

    Congratulations. You’ve solved it.

    To unpack that a little, I think about video games a lot. More than I play them, really, which is almost a point of shame. It’s not that I’m fascinated with game mechanics or theory or whatever; it’s just that there aren’t many games I want to play, but the medium itself is pretty interesting to me.

    In all this time, I’ve become pretty familiar with what I think of as “the Ebert Argument.” This is the idea that games can never be an artistic medium equivalent to film or literature because the nature of interactivity carries special limitations that drown authorial intent. Most people who consider games as art come to this conclusion, and most of them argue fairly eloquently and logically in favor of it. I used to be fond of this idea, too, but a few things changed my mind.

    a) Interactivity in games is illusory; the player can only do what’s scripted for them to do. Ergo, authorial intent remains intact if the author utilizes the illusion of interaction in a meaningful way (forming emotional connections to the things we grow is a good example).

    b) No one tries.

    Really, I think it’s that simple. No one tries to write meaningful games (I’ll avoid saying “narratives,” because let’s look at this holistically first) and no one seriously expects anyone to. On the very rare occasions that someone does, game culture has no idea how to respond. Look at the clamoring for Mother 4 or the general responses to Shadow of the Colossus or Killer7.

    There are no special barriers imposed by interactivity. Games simply need to be written better, with more sincerity, and to integrate their mechanics into a narrative rather than fighting them; to use mechanics to tell a story, instead of draping an empty script over the way a game plays. Criticizing and valuing (and, unlike most talk about certain infamous Japanese RPGs, actually meaning it) story in games is part of that.

    My initial reaction when I saw this article on the front page was, “Oh god, not again.” I’m sure that’s an attitude that’s pretty much instantly understandable by anyone on this site; we’ve seen “the Final Fantasy VII article” a million times over, and at first I thought this would just be the Action Button flavor of that article (again). It isn’t, and only a few paragraphs into it that thought shifted to, “This is the best piece of video game writing I have ever read,” which is probably exactly the kind of hyperbole that taints most game writing, but if not the best, this ranks very highly and hits notes I haven’t heard since vintage Insert Credit.

    As a weird synchronous anecdote, the day this was published I thought of a good metaphor for where games are. I reasoned that games are in a place like films or novels, if every film were written and directed by a cinematographer and every piece of literature penned by a typesetter. I thought that was a pretty good simile (I know I just called it a metaphor, but it’s flexible that way) and I tucked it away into some mental corner to be used later in my own writing and/or forgotten entirely. That Mr. B. had published it on the day that I thought it reduced my thoughts to, “Woah, woah, woah.” and “Yeah!” for about ten whole minutes. I suspect life in the godlike hivemind is very exciting, at least.

    But I’m not just agreeing. It’s well written, and well structured, and the references made and names dropped used well in service of the ideas. It’s sort of why I drift through these parts from time to time. It isn’t game writing all about games written from and for game culture. Life is poking in through the cracks.

    I never know if it’s okay to say I like Tim’s writing. I don’t know if it’s okay to use Tim’s writing as a template for everything written on this site, but I’m sort of going to do that now (not really) and we’ll just have to make that work (it doesn’t, I know). Anyway, I do, but there’s usually a sort of hipster posturing in the buzzing around it that doesn’t leave room for blunt sincerity like that. A lot of people in other, dirtier spheres of game culture hate it, too, and I don’t want to provoke their pitchforked fury. The cosmic irony here is that what I like about Tim’s writing is exactly what they hate about it: any given Tim Rogers article is something like 10% game, 20% references and 70% Tim Rogers. There is life and personality coursing through it all; most other game writing is, well, dead by comparison. It’s 100% game and it isn’t even really about what the game is about so much as the little shiny moving parts.

    To tie this tangent up: this article isn’t like either of those but it, too, has life. That’s a good measure, I guess, for how well something walks the thin line between taking games too seriously and not taking them seriously enough. Is it all about Game? Is it about what Game is really about? Is it trapped within game culture or peering in? Does it breathe?

    This breathes, and I just had to say so.

    (Also, longest post I’ll ever make sorry for any eye bleeding or brain collapsing from the recursive article within an article thing going on here it just sort of came out that way you won’t hurt my feelings by skimming/skipping etc.)

  45. Thanks, CubaLibre, for clearing out a few of the mistakes the author of this article makes when presenting us with the admittedly interesting concept of the “theme”. I guess I´ll try to go ahead and puke my own mind out:

    Shadow of the Colossus is a great success of a videogame because it balances near perfection what I would consider the three big elements of the videogame: Mechanics, Atmosphere and Theme.

    Mechanics, here, would of course mean the game itself: what the game would be reduced if we were to take out the atmosphere until only abstractions remained. The atmosphere is how the game itself is contextualized, which would of course be everything from the “plot” to the “graphics”, to everything that simulates something other than the game itself (WWII is an example of a typical atmosphere for a FPS, etc). And the theme, well, I believe the author has already done a pretty good job explaining it.

    Any game needs only the mechanics and the atmosphere to be good. A great game is one with great mechanics and great atmosphere that support one another. That´s it. Then along comes the theme, which is a completely different beast. The theme would logically be carried across in the atmosphere, yet in an ideal game the mechanics would also support it.

    The theme is anything but necessary to make a good videogame, but it naturally makes the game special, regardless of how bad it may be.

    FF VII is a curious example. It may have a theme, but the fact is, it is not in any way enhanced by the mechanics. The mechanics, in fact, hinder the atmosphere and theme, making it a bad example of a game to look up to as far as themes go, because the medium in this case instead of being used correctly is used just because its makers set out to make a videogame. FFVII, I reckon, would be much better in any other medium.

    In fact, no matter how “noble” its theme may have been, FFVII atmosphere sucks in such a way that I actually hope that Sakaguchi lives far, far away from where his mother is buried, else he might be prey of some terrible nightmares (even though I don´t believe in ghosts). Because if someone made such a game and then claimed that it was inspired by me and my relationship to this person, I would be pretty hurt by all the ridiculous stuff to be found in its plot, no matter where you look at it from.

    (I am overreacting, though. FFVII does have its moments, which why I don´t simply ignore the possibility of a theme in it.)

    But SotC is a perfect example, and I can´t understand the reason why the author didn´t just set out to present his idea of the theme through this particular game. In it, all three elements are brilliant, and what´s more, are made from the ground up to support one another, in a such a way that Shadow of the Colossus couldn´t work right in any other medium (because what´s essential about it is not the atmosphere (plot, or what have you), or the mechanics, or even the theme, but the combination of all of these).

    Also: “These people are quite literally writing to fill pages.”
    Didn´t you yourself say that FFVII theme was “included” in it subconsciously? Sakaguchi just needed a story for his new videogame, and it just so happened to end the way it was because he could only write it that way, because of the things that had been important in his life. How is this not “writing to fill pages”, and how does it not have a valid theme nonetheless? I would argue in fact, that most people do not write out stories to tell a particular message, they simply write stories and they end up having a message BECAUSE they reflect their author. This is the way music is made, after all. The author´s “original” intention is not as important as you make it out to be, many great writers have started out improvising a story (the wind-up bird chronicle, as far as I know), and yet making something that reflects them perfectly, and that is certainly art (there is in fact, I believe, a branch of painting that supports that the highest art is that which doesn´t have a conscious message, but its name escapes me right now).

    I guess what I´m trying to say is: the problem is not people “without a message to give” making art, because as long as they are worthwhile people, they will make something worthwhile, because they will naturally inject their art with a piece of themselves (be it conscious or not). The problem is simply uninteresting and/or stupid people making art, as it has always been.

    (I do realize that I am still basically saying the same as you, lol, but I think this is more akin to reality)

    “Now think of the general quality of the other approach: the songs by people who just really like the idea of being in a band; the manga by people who just want to write manga; the films by people who simply enjoy the idea of making films; and yes — the video games by people who just like the idea of making video games. In this simple formula, we’ve accounted for the vast majority of creative garbage from throughout all of the annals of history on down to the present.”

    This is so blatantly false I am almost offended by it! I mean, Quentin Tarantino, anyone? All he ever wanted to do was make movies, because he loves movies, and this is EXACTLY the reason his movies are so good. They are movies about movies, which is a perfectly good theme, and even an interesting concept. MGS2, for example, is a videogame about videogames (be it a joke or not), and in this sense, it has a good theme that can be traced back to reality, especially the reality of the people playing it. It is one example of something that could only be done in the medium of the videogame, and, it, by the way, is both a better game and a better videogame than Final Fantasy VII ever was.

    (I would like to start to use those two words as the distinction between “games” and “interactive entertainment”, if possible. By this logic, MGS3 is obviously the best game in the MGS series, but as far as videogames go, the best one is still debatable (I guess!)(and sorry for the long post!))

  46. @Ikiru
    Treating mechanics and atmosphere as separate from theme is ludicrous. Themes arise from the work itself.

    @jayjaybee
    Spiderman is about young adulthood not because Stan Lee says so, but because we can point to work itself; quote directly from it. Peter’s powers cause rapid changes that he cannot stop (just like adolescence). As his power’s mature, he has to learn to be a responsible person (just like adolescence). What the author thinks their work is about can be useful, but is ultimately meaningless. The piece must speak for itself.

    @vonlenska
    Welcome to ABDN! One thing, concerning your statement that the freedom games offer is illusionary; you seem to have a very deep misunderstanding of the word ‘script’! Scripts dictate not only actions (exit stage right) but when they happen (after the monologue). (Good) Games do not limit the time for actions in such in a manner. They can have triggers for scripts, or segments that are so reliant on memory that they might as well be scripts, but on a very fundamental level, the agency the player feels is NOT an illusion*.

    *at least, no moreso than anything you ‘feel’ in any artwork is illusionary.

  47. Just stumbled onto this site. It’s midterm week and I’ve been reading the review archives instead of animating stuff for class. Nice job.

    I played FFVII some months after it came out, when my younger brother borrowed his friend’s PS1. I got fifteen minutes in, and thought, “whatever story this game has, it can’t be worth sitting through this warp effect before every random battle.”

    So I just watched my brother play it, having him call me over when there was a cut scene. Granted, I must have missed tons of dialogue in between, but to this day I don’t know what the plot was. Sure, I got bits and pieces of “aboutness” here and there: corporate exploitation of natural resources, search for identity, useless characters who die-half-way-through-the-game-so-aren’t-you-glad-you-didn’t-level-them…

    I dunno. When I get pulled into verbal orgies of nostalgia with schoolmates, (Art Institute of California, a.k.a. Fanboy Cabbage Patch) I can’t help but feel a little left out when this game comes up. In any event, thanks for the stimulating thoughts on the subject.

    In parting: I’m loving the site so far. Although I’m disappointed that Tim seems to pull his FALCON PUNCHES at the end of the SSBB article–2 stars is a little too generous…

  48. p1d40n3–thanks! “Script” was definitely poor wording, as what I meant is a lot less rigid and basically what you described. Ad lib is probably a better metaphor, if we really need a metaphor, in that there’s a set structure in place and some contextual rules but you still get to pick your own lines. Video games offer the same kind of freedom–there’s context and some basic rules–but the choices offered are necessarily a bit narrower. A good game makes you feel like you have some agency in the events, but you’re really only allowed to do what developers write for you. You can do it all out of order, of course, or you can choose to ignore the push of the plot if you want, but that’s written in for you, too. It’s more akin to reading at your own pace or pausing a film, except in this case it can help draw you into something instead of breaking you out of it (not to mention novels and films rarely work if you decide you want to take a break from the “main story,” but plenty of games keep going even after you opt out of that). A good developer uses that feeling of player involvement to tie the scripted narrative and improvised interactivity together. Games have the potential to be pretty poignant if anyone really gets this down, I think, but we’re not really there yet.

    So, yeah, to skate right back onto metaphorical thin ice, games are “interactive” in the same sense music has melody. It’s a part of what makes a thing work, and it can still be effective mixed up a little, but when you break it down it follows a certain pattern.

  49. @p1d40n3

    I´d say that atmosphere and mechanics simply present the theme. Of course, without them there can be no theme, because they make up the work itself. Without them, there is simply nothing. Yet the theme sort of exists outside of the work, in a way: this is to say, one can have one hell of a theme, yet have a work that hardly carries it over. This is completely reasonable, it happens when the creator(s) is (are) not quite comfortable with the medium they chose, for example.

    FFVII has a good, heartfelt theme (you may disagree, but pretend that it does for a second), yet the game itself muddles it. This is because the people who made it had problems expressing themselves aproppiately.

    Without the work there is no way to present any theme, thus one could argue that without the work there is no theme. This, however, does NOT mean that the work is the theme itself.

  50. All the talk about “theme” reminded me of a concept that might help clarify the discussion. In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri defines premise as the central thesis or claim that a work sets out to prove. For example, the premise of Romeo and Juliet as taught in high schools might be formulated as, “Great love defies even death.”* The premise of Macbeth would be “Ruthless ambition leads to destruction.”

    Egri uses “premise” as an umbrella term to encompass terms used interchangeably by playwrights to describe dramatic purpose, “theme” being one of them. Now, I think Egri’s definition of “premise” is a good deal more precise than the way “theme” is often used–a work can have a theme (a central idea or motif), but may still lack a specific claim about human experience.

    Does FFVII have a premise? I can’t say, as I honestly don’t remember the story well enough to try to summarize it (I didn’t even play it; I only watched some of the cut scenes). But if there was some aspect of the characters’ journey and growth (assuming they grow) that resonated with players, that may help explain why so many people recall the game so favorably. They may have been more willing than others to slog through an average work week’s worth of hideous game design to get it.

    This then leads to the question of whether a game needs a premise to be great. It doesn’t–plenty of games that are widely considered to be “great” (many of which are reviewed on this site) lack any discrete premise beyond “Poor tactical decisions lead to death” (games involving combat), or “resistance is futile” (Tetris). What is the premise of Gears of War? Who cares? You get to operate a rifle with a chainsaw on it.

    *Contrary to popular belief, the premise of Romeo and Juliet to the attentive reader is actually more like, “miscommunication leads to tragedy.” The opening act has Romeo pining over some random girl. His homies suggest he go to a party to get his mind off said girl, and there he meets Juliet. He instantly forgets about this other girl. Juliet is the flavor of the week. Their “great love” is merely infatuation. The lovers die because Juliet’s written message fails to reach Romeo in time. Whether their love defies death or not is irrelevant, as death claims them either way.

  51. “’m not calling for the banishment of games of the first sense; I simply wish they didn’t account for 99 percent of all video games.”

    I would consider Gears of War a great game. You know what might make it even better? Suppose, over the course of your violent and explosive antics, you arrive at a scene that takes place inside a Locust nursery. These larvae are helpless, but you are given the opportunity to destroy the facility, slightly hampering the invasion. Do you:

    A) Kill them all, deciding that human survival outweighs the lives of the young of another species, OR

    B) Decide that they are innocent, and that it is the warlike alien society/culture that you are fighting to bring down.

    Suppose your choice in this small premise hardly affects the events of the game in any way, save for having to deal with a bunch of nursery staff who are keen on not letting you murder their babies. It wouldn’t necessarily be an isolated scene–perhaps in an earlier chapter you are tasked with repelling an attack on a human city. You arrive in the midst of the attack and witness the enemy slaughtering civilians. This weighs heavily on your choice. What if this were another game, and the enemy were human–the army of another nation?

    And here’s where I think the medium sidesteps the “problem” of authorial intent–the theme, or premise, or whatever–is (in part, at least) decided by the player’s actions. Either “human survival justifies the killing of innocents of another species,” or “the sanctity of life must be upheld, even in the face of extinction.” The work isn’t trying to prove a claim to the player; the game is asking what the player would do, if presented with a scenario. And in making their choice, the player learns about him or herself. From the comments I’ve read, I think people here would agree that this is what Ebert doesn’t get.

    Games like Fable II and Mass Effect don’t get it, either. Fable II staples on contrivances to make it more “difficult” to be good; while moral choices in Mass Effect boil down to a choice between a “by the book” response, or “the funny response.” Hardly a dilemma in either case. Hopefully in the future developers will figure out a compelling way to tie moral choices to gameplay.

    Gears of War is great as far as “first-sense” games go, but with the addition of the aforementioned scenario, it might also provoke something meaningful to the player beyond mechanics and atmosphere. I love it when games do this–but even more significant–you also have a scenario that is easily understood by a non-gamer. It’s the “reality” factor at work, and it’s supported by the mechanics (blowing stuff up) and the atmosphere (alien invasion).

  52. Ikiru, that would be why I qualified my statement with “the vast majority of” rather than, say, “all”. I understand that using qualifiers simply for emphatic purposes is popular with Internet people these days, though I assure you I’m not in the habit. Obviously, people whose aspirations overreached their technical abilities have “graced” the world with some real stinkers. I simply believe, as my use of the term “the vast majority of” would strongly imply (that’s a joke), that the vast majority of crummy things are the result of the approach under discussion.

    If Cliffy B. gives us the most awesome action figures in the most enjoyable playgrounds, Tarantino puts on some of the best puppet shows around. (I find it telling that there isn’t a single natural, unstrained human relationship to be found anywhere in his films.)

    Honestly, if people are going to get all pithy with their comments, I’d appreciate it if they actually read what I’ve written before accusing me of stances I’ve not adopted.

  53. I’m going to recycle some ideas from my insertcredit days here, because every single time there’s a discussion on jRPGs someone says “FFVII should just be an anime”. That’s wrong. It should not. FFVII is a good videogame (in Brett’s second sense), but it is an awful anime (or movie, or novel). That’s because an interactive story is different than a static story, EVEN IF — this is the important part! — EVEN IF the interactivity is worthless as a game (in sense 1).

    Some years ago there was a visual novel (dating sim) on the web with a curious characteristic: no game¹ elements at all. Not even choosing paths. Just text and images and — again, this is the important part! — the need to press the action button to *make* the narrative go on. Most people said that wasn’t really a videogame. I say it is, and furthermore, it’s an important edge case to understand what games² are (just like DuChamp’s Fountain or Warhol copies or native nonrepresentational decoration are important edge cases to understand what art is).

    That visual novel (where all you have to do is to press the action button to advance) is the essence of FFVII, and the other FFs, and jRPGs in general. FFVII is not simply an anime, it’s an anime where stuff happens only when you press circle. Why is that so important? Because it’s YOU who makes the story go on. YOU are the protagonist. That’s the magic of the action button. Make the viewer to do something — even something as small as flexing the base of his thumb — and he’s not audience anymore, he’s an actor —he’s part of the story. In other words, jRPGs are *stories told in the second person*.

    There’s (almost) no second person narratives in literature. There’s plenty in first or third persons, but no second. Second person sounds cheesy and fake, because the reader (i.e. the second person) knows he isn’t at all deciding the actions described by the writer (“you open the door and look inside”). The only way to make a second person narrative is with something like tabletop RPGs. But tabletop RPGs are simply an expression of something more fundamental, more essential to human life —something which I could call “improvisational dramatic collaborative storytelling”, but instead I’ll call make-believe.

    It’s no accident jRPGs is an acronym with RPG in it. They were derived from Dungeons and Dragons not because they have dungeons or dragons, but because they’re a form of make-believe. And the mechanism that holds together this escapist illusion is the action button. The action button alone is what’s responsible for me crying when Aeris died. Take that button away from FF7, and all that’s left is a pretty crappy, amateurish plot that wouldn’t wrestle a single reaction from even my 15-year old self. But because I had to press circle to go on, it was *me* who was there, dude. It was my best friend who died.

    Some people complain that in jRPGs people ask you questions with no consequences; some people complain that Aeris died without blood. These are the same people who would interrupt a coppers-and-robbers game saying, “these guns are stupid because they’re bright blue”. These people hate FF7.

  54. okay. so what is the difference between this “action button” and the turning of a page in a book?

  55. The same difference between pressing the trigger of the blue plastic gun, and pressing the light switch of your room. It’s not the physical action per se. Like Master Onion says, it’s all in your mind.

    It’s so much so, that some books did actually make an action button out of page-turning; we used to call them choose your own adventure, and i read basically all of them plus derivatives (my favourite was a comic-book Indiana Jones parody done by the father of the Brazilian tabletop RPG scene, Marcelo Cassaro). Those books are in the same interactive second-person narrative category as D&D, coppers and robbers, and Final Fantasy.

    If you think all of this is children’s fare, well, you’re right. but that is, i feel, not a limitation of the medium but of what we have done with it. I’m told contemporary drama has used RPG-like techniques for great effect, and things like Mother 3 make me feel like there are literary gems waiting to be made in game² format.

  56. Jay,

    I don’t object at all to your insight (and in fact appreciate the attempt to provide it), but it’s worth recognising that resorting to argumentum ad populum and irrelevant conclusions – I don’t deny at all that I “got my [no] money’s worth”, and I don’t see why having not paid for something precludes criticism – is a really good way to undermine whatever point you are trying to make.

  57. “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

    Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” ( http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/sontag-againstinterpretation.html )

    I didn’t bother reading most of the comments, but everybody should go read that essay. Anything can be interpreted as being “about something”, therefore being “about something” is a piss-poor excuse for shitty art.

  58. Oh, what a load of addlepated nonsense. Where anything man-made exists, it was created for reasons. To the extent that we are self-aware and contemplative, we will be on familiar terms with the workings of our psychological apparatus, which is largely similar to the psychological apparatus of every other member of our species. As a result, we can take extremely educated guesses at the motives behind any given work of creation.

    As I mentioned above, just because anybody can arrive at any interpretation doesn’t mean that any interpretation is correct; either we have accurately discerned the motives and the message behind a thing, or we’ve not.

    Where proper motives exist, of course. I think we (the readers of this site), as intelligent and largely college-educated people, are generally familiar with the over-sized shade-wearing, cigarette chain-smoking, self-styled “artist” who hurls garbage, paint, etc. at some surface on the basis of vague impulses and, correctly, rejects the idea that the resultant nonsense has any sort of meaning or was created for any purpose.

    This is just another example of someone with atrophied rational faculties who, rather than admit even to herself that her rational faculties are lacking, finds it congenial to dismiss ration entirely.

    If you were looking for someone whose thoughts (and I use the term generously, in Ms. Sontag’s case) are diametrically opposed to my own, then congratulations, Necroyeti: you’ve succeeded admirably.

  59. Jayjaybee, I too have grown the same attitude towards videogames as you have, skipping nearly everything coming out these days and looking for something that might capture my interest. Besides Ueda’s newest project, I really can’t think of anything I want to play. And I don’t even have a PS3!

    This attitude started a while ago, but at present it’s as worse as ever. I decided to go back to some games I missed out on that were revered as “classics”, FFVII being one of them to help save my waning interest in videogames.

    I was severely disappointed from the beginning.

    I played through the whole first set piece, where you’re on the train, then in some factory or something and you have to kill big bad boss monster and then soldiers hunt you down and blah blah. None of it stuck in my head much as you can tell This was about 2 years ago. I don’t play that many RPGs, so it wasn’t that I had played plenty of games between now and then that blow it away. I just found it boring. I saw Aeris. Yes I understood from the cinematics that she is supposed to be that sweet, innocent girl that seems more mythical than a unicorn. It didn’t resonate with me. It resonated with you though, apparently. The “about something” you talk about may be subjective , but the expression of it is key to manipulating its appeal to a broader audience. In expression, FFVII undoubtedly fails to be anything remarkable. As for the premise of it; it is nothing unexplored nor done particularly well. I’m sure Sakaguchi was inspired to do something after his mother’s death, but maybe like Tim said about himself (in some review on this here website), he’s just not that good at being inspired.

    So while I can appreciate attempts and intentions, I cannot excuse execution. It’s like a corporation saying to its shareholders “Yeah, so we’ve suffered a massive loss this quarter, but you know we tried! And we wanted to make loads of money! So we’re cool, right?”

    I stopped playing Counter-Strike:Source for 4 years; I started playing again almost 4 weeks ago. It is still fun, and still going strong. It is not about anything. It is multiplayer, though, so maybe we’re talking about single-player games here? Something that should always be clarified.

    Halo was not created with any premise to convey in mind (though it seems to swerve between “one determined man can accomplish anything” and “luck makes everything else futile”), yet it is a great game.

    Just because a game is created because one wants to create a game doesn’t mean he does not also have something worthwhile to say. Context has somethign to do with the outcome. A game developer is more likely to create a game regardless of what he has to say, while someone who always had spare time and always wanted to might not start a game until he’s given a final push in the right direction by an event. This happened to me a week ago; I wanted to write an article for something but refrained from it because I had nothing particular to say, then something happened in The Real World that gave me the material needed to write. Showed it someone, got my positive feedback. I’m not calling myself an artist, but I know what something lacking inspiration can end up being: uninspiring.

    Also, second-person novel: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Worth a read.

  60. Necroyeti: Sontag’s essay reads more like a caution against the kind of irresponsible interpretation–wherein works get fed into some extra-textual apparatus, and out the other end comes neat little ideological sausages–than an rejection of interpretation in general. Look at the way Marx and Freud get manhandled in freshman writing courses.

    Yes, she claims that the current (1964) climate encourages this kind of interpretive behavior; but she also calls for a return to first things–hence, her “erotics of art” as an expansion of the formal analysis approach. If you start with what’s plain to see in the work, there is less risk of, well, being wrong. As Jay asserts, you either discern the motive behind a work correctly or incorrectly. That’s not to say you can’t introduce outside ideas into the discussion; but Sontag’s point is that doing so without good reason and support “pollutes” the discussion. The motives become your own instead of the work’s (or the author’s).

    PriorityShifts’ mention of context is also pertinent. Take Duchamp’s Fountain, if you want a piss-poor excuse for shitty art. Its context, however, solidifies its place in art history as an indictment of the European academy system.

    I won’t suggest that FFVII is a bold indictment of anything but good storytelling and elegant design, but examine what it did have in a historical context: FMV was relatively new for console games, and I must admit they really did look amazing. It wasn’t the first game with FMV, but prior to this, most console gamers had either an SNES or a Genesis. There’s the jump to 3D with Sony’s new gray plastic spinner. Add to the equation the loyal fanbase of an established franchise (previous installments of which were on the SNES and its predecessor), and its influence on the industry might not seem as puzzling.

    I haven’t even mentioned Jay’s thesis yet. It isn’t such a stretch of the imagination that the game’s “aboutness,” however ill-adapted to the medium, might have been more compelling to a lot of players because of the factors mentioned above.

    Maybe the game being “about something” is still a somewhat vague criterion, and could perhaps be narrowed down further, but reducing the game’s success to two insults (“idiot” and “n00b”) doesn’t make for enlightening discussion. This article does, and I appreciate it.

    @fnool: the internet is coop, not deathmatch.

  61. “As a result, we can take extremely educated guesses at the motives behind any given work of creation.”

    If this was the case, would you put your money on FFVII being about death and acceptance, or merely just the manga author filling pages? I think a much more alarming number of games these days are “about something” than you give them credit for; I’ve never actually played the game, but read a number of articles about Gears Of War 2 where the team wanted to make a story worth caring about touching on difficult subjects like euthanasia. You argued that FFX was simply trying to be like FFVII, therefore was about nothing (as opposed to it being about dealing with family issues (nevermind how poorly it did that)). The exact thing could just as easily be argued about FFVII.

    I actually agree with your argument about wanting more than just action figures in videogames, but to say that a fairly poor game that is “about something” is better than a well designed and executed game that is just about dudes shooting shit is kind of dumb. In fact, that seems to be the complete opposite of what ACTION BUTTON DOT NET is about in the first place. The action button “manifesto” praises…
    “clean games with crunchy, frictionous play mechanics, self-confident graphics and sound, and natural flows, where the in-game challenges get progressively more and more difficult due solely to the arrangement of obstacles and positioning of enemies, not because you’re under-leveled or ill-equipped: in most of these games, the game is over when you are not good enough, not because you don’t possess the orange lantern, whose red fire is the only thing that can burn down blue trees.”

  62. I believe that the author did not say the not-about-something type of game is inferior to games “about something” even if the former is well-executed and the latter is not.

    I bet if that rumored FF VII PS3 remake does get made though, the original’s fans will either complain about the “lack of non-graphical upgrades” or “the blasphemous changes made to the updated version”. Both *could* be excuses if FF VII indeed was a one trick pony that only succeeded because of the circumstances of its time. Or they could not!

    It’d be interesting nonetheless.

  63. Easily the best gaming article I’ve read in months maybe, if not years. Bravo. I’m a long time reader, but I registered for this site just to post my comment.

    It really saddens me to see some of these comments and I urge you not to let them impact you (i’m sure they won’t). I find it unbelievably sad and cruel that after 12 years of tireless jihad, some people still refuse to allow their brains to accept the fact that many people like Final Fantasy VII for valid reasons. I almost literally lol’ed when one poster said that FFVII, or any relative piece of entertainment, can be “objectively bad”.

    There’s a lot of people on the internet who recognize games like Call of Duty as mediocre re-imaginings of better executed game traditions in the past. But they don’t go online to write multi-page thesis-papers trying to make their own insecure stubbornness seem like a rational viewpoint.

    I don’t want to take up a lot of space because the article says it all, it was incredible and no one should try to steal your shine. But I did want to tell you that I’m like you, I’m always waiting for the next game that’s about something. But I’ve learned in the meantime to embrace the games that don’t and have enjoyed myself quite a lot. I hope you can do the same.

  64. hey, Rex687, nice comment.

    are you saying you are one of the people who don’t think call of duty is great? why not?

    i think modern warfare is, in general, pretty great (as i say in my review on this site), and though i understand it’s neither perfect nor The Omega Entertainment, i dare say it’s one of the better, more entertaining, more meaningfully executed pieces of videogame entertainment to come out of the west in the past ten years, at least, and stars many Nice Little Touches that i would very much like to see every game developer on earth try their hand at one-upping.

    square-enix, for example.

  65. Hey 108, thanks, I’ll check out your review.

    I actually like Call of Duty quite a lot, especially the first one, and have been on Modern Warfare 2 regularly since it came out. It’s one of my favorite FPS series, but I can’t bring myself to say it’s anywhere near the cream of the crop. Some games are better in technology and gameplay like Killzone 2, some games are better at storytelling like Half-Life, and a handful are better at both like Far Cry 2 (opinion!). While I think it’s done some pretty bold things with perspective, brushing up on some important issues, it’s failed to take the next step and say anything interesting about them. And there’s nothing wrong with that – its releases are consistently among the most exciting and most enjoyable every year.

  66. After reading this, as well as your Uncharted review, I have to say you are perhaps my new favorite contributor to ABDN. I don’t feel like I’m crazy anymore, like I’m the only person who notices how insane it is that games are so often one individual mowing down an ARMY, and that maybe this isn’t a good thing. It’s a pity I’m catching up on the site only now; Kite did a pretty good job of scaring me off from here with how opaque he can be in his writing (he often has good insight into the games he’s reviewing that comes out through the comments, but just as often the review itself is a damn near impenetrable wall of text). But enough of that, back to your review.

    The life course of many of the people involved in making video games has removed them from reality. They grew up playing video games. In school, when given the freedom to select a topic, they wrote reports about video games and video game characters. They entered college or took vocational classes to learn programming, art design, or 3D rendering to create video games, and eventually got jobs at companies making video games. In their free time they play video games, their friends are people who play video games, and they marry other people who play video games, or maybe that nice girl from the accounting department (of their video game company employer) who puts up with their obsession with video games.

    Our minds contain only what contents we put into them, and their minds are filled only with video games. Point out that a game is completely divorced from reality, and the message is lost: recognizing that something doesn’t mesh with reality necessitates familiarity with reality.

    This part of your review struck me like a ton of bricks.
    1. I’ve lived a life full of video games, almost as saturated with them as your example.
    2. I’ve taken on a career as an illustrator, and cultivated some level of skill in writing and speech, yet I’ve often secretly felt that I don’t have anything to say, that I’m in truth wholly uncreative.

    Reading this, I had a realization that these seemingly disparate (to me) things were in fact connected. That maybe I feel uncreative because I’ve only ever dealt with and imitated abstraction, never reality. And here’s where I had a real epiphany: Throughout my life I’ve crafted myself into a tool for expression, but with nothing to express for myself. Which perhaps explains my otherwise inexplicable preference to work for others rather than myself, despite the constant assurances from others that, professionally, I could do very well on my own.

    So I’m gonna get some more hobbies. Maybe call up that girl again. Just live in the real world more. So, uh… thanks for inspiring me. And please please PLEASE, let us see more writing from you!

  67. You bastards, leaving this guy’s comment at the end like that looking schitsophrenic and lonely!

    Vilnius, we all feel that sometimes! Don’t feel intimidated by how much other people seem to be able to say, that’s not the point! Usually they’re blowing their entire expressive load or they’re bullshitting. We’re all as deep as each other, as long as we’re not ashamed of those depths – as almost all of the above described video game designers, basically, are.

  68. Pingback: This seems a little fishy… | The Embattled Spatula

  69. I loved FF7. It was probably the first game I ever loved and I still love it. When I first played it, many years ago, I fell into the world that it presented. The immersion was there, from the character’s depth to the backgrounds to the world map to the music. I don’t know why you keep citing reality as something to compare it to, when ‘fantasy’ is part of the game’s title. It’s Final Fantasy, it isn’t supposed to be similar to reality. It’s another world, another reality, so well crafted that even with the blocky LEGO graphics it still comes across as genuine. I felt like the battles fit right into the story, the materia system, the strength of the planet helping to support the struggle against the evils of the world. Cloud, pretending to be something he isn’t, having to face the reality of who he is: a nobody. A freak. And then his rival kills his best girl, makes him give up the ultimate black materia against his will, and Cloud still finds the inner strength to save the fucking world. And then there’s the bad guy. Sephiroth. You get chills reading his name. Because he is one of the best villains ever. Because his sword is twenty goddamn feet long. Because he is a hero before he is an enemy. Because he has a legitimate beef. Shinra had his mom’s head in a fucking jar at their corporate HQ. Then there are the little plot points that develop the cast of characters. The childhood friendship with Tifa. The tragic fall of Nibelheim, your childhood home. Cid’s dream to get into space. Red 13 being a cool talking tiger/tribal thing. Vincent being a vampire frankenstein experiment. Tifa being an annoying bitch. Cait Sith being useless and annoying. The submarine. Black Materia. Ultima weapon. The whole second CD, where Cloud is all fucked up in a wheelchair. The Highwind. And I’m just scratching the surface here, this game has SO MUCH awesome content that any detractions are inconsequential. It got me emotionally invested to a point I never thought a game would get me. And when I omnislashed the shit out of the final boss, it was the perfect ending. I get your point, but I’ve never had a game suck me in so completely, and I’ve been playing games for twenty years now, HARD. It’s my favorite game, not because I’m stupid, not because I haven’t played other games, but because I enjoyed the experience more than any other game I have ever played.

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