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

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