Sephiroth was… half right.
Video games have a bad rep when it comes to plot analysis, and it’s entirely the fault of the medium. As obliquely discussed in the Final Fantasy 4 article (one of ‘em), many video games with complicated (but linear) plots discourage replays of earlier areas or “chapters” thanks to very rigid save structures. Yes, you may have the foresight to keep a save before an important event, but it’s only a recent innovation that a healthy number of save files were allowed for a game. For much of gaming’s history, we’ve been limited to a maximum of three save files per cartridge, or an “unlimited” number per memory card… and each memory card costs real life dollars. It took Final Fantasy thirteen installments and 22 years to allow for a full “chapter index” of save files, and, again, that was only if you had the foresight to create such a thing. An eighty hour game would take forty hours to reach its middle, right? Hope nothing important happened around then!
Final Fantasy 7, despite redefining the JRPG for generations, was no different. I remember maxing Cloud’s level, and, likely due to some level of masochism, I maxed out my materia and earned all the Master Materia before drowning Emerald Weapon and burying Ruby Weapon. Whether it was thanks to a genuine affection for the game or a teenage wealth of free time (or both), I played Final Fantasy 7 for nearly 86 hours. By the time I was done with the game, Cloud and company were singlehandedly responsible for the extinction of more species than European settlers.
To devote 86 hours to practically anything should make you an expert on the subject, but video games are misleading that way. Video games are like icebergs: the final areas are traditionally ripe with playable content, but all the plot and game that led up to it is drowned, gurgling and ignored beneath the surface. To compare it to another medium, it is like rewatching the action-packed, final 15 minutes of a film over and over again, and completely ignoring everything that came before. Wow, this “I am your father” thing is pretty important, but who’s this Yoda guy you’re talking about… oh well, he’s not part of the finale, so he can’t be that essential.
So you’ll forgive my contemporaries and me for ignoring the fact that Final Fantasy 7 has much more substance to its story than originally perceived. I can safely say many of us practically memorized the party’s airship comments prior to touching down at the Northern Crater (“Our battlefield is now beneath the earth. The gate to tomorrow is not the light of heaven, but the darkness of the depths of the earth.” … That was off the top of my head!), but completely forgot every word from earlier Sephiroth encounters. Sephiroth, Rufus, Hojo, and even Cloud have a whole lot of literal and figurative things to say about the world/plot of Final Fantasy 7, but if it wasn’t during the ending or the iconic Aeris scene, it’s forgotten. Hell, I’ve met people that seem to have devoted their entire personas to Final Fantasy 7, but can’t believe that the Sephiroth you see for most of the game is just a Jenova copy. It was spelled out right there when the Weapons awoke, but if you missed those, what, three dialogue boxes, then too bad.
All this is preamble to my main point, though, and that’s that Final Fantasy 7 was an amazing deconstruction of the JRPG genre well before Bioshock drenched the word “meta” well and totally into the medium. Final Fantasy 7, practically from its first moments, knows exactly what it is doing.
We say it so much that it has lost all meaning, but consider the acronym “RPG”. Role-Playing Game. It got its start back in the days of tabletops and Dungeons and Dragons, and it was meant to describe exactly what you did in your typical RPG: play the role of an imaginary character, and navigate a fictional world. If you’re any good at a Table-top RPG, and I mean in a social sense as well as a dice way, you will totally inhabit your character, and create a unique personality that will grow to dictate your actions over your “real” 21st century persona. TTRPGs evolved past D&D as time went on, and, like a gift from Friend Computer, we received all kinds of scenarios and worlds to inhabit and explore with a variety of oddly-shaped dice by our side. Want to be a cyborg elf kidnapping people and selling their organs thanks to a botched inebriation spell that may or may not have involved the detonation of an ice cream truck? There’s a TTRPG for that!
Through it all, Dungeons and Dragons was the standard for RPGs, so it was only natural that when Final Fantasy practically defined/invented the genre for the West (Dragon Warrior is not recognized by this blog), it was logged as a “RPG”. Let’s face it: Final Fantasy 1 pretty much is a D&D campaign, complete with a Beholder guarding valuable cave treasure and job classes that rely on the somehow-medieval nunchucks. Yes, there’s time travel and enormous, floating cities, but every dungeon master has their kinks, it’s no surprise when someone watches a Miyazaki movie and a few ideas bleed through. Maybe the assumption was, at the time, that this is just the opening salvo from video game producers, and, as technology increases, we’ll have RPG characters that are more “role-playable” than what was possible on the NES. Fighter, Black Mage, and Thief are just blank templates now, but by the time we’re controlling “playable movies” (the standard for future gaming of the 80’s), you’ll be able to totally play that role (in a game!).
And while we would eventually (sorta) see that in what became the Western RPG genre, the Japanese RPG genre kept cranking out Final Fantasy games. The NES series seemed to experiment back and forth with various degrees of “role playing”, but it wasn’t until Final Fantasy 4 when Final Fantasy became codified as “you are Cecil Harvey, Knight of Baron.” From that point on, JRPGs dropped any pretense of true “role playing” and decided on dragging the player along for the ride. Yes, you could still fill in the gaps in Terra or Buttz’s backstories to more adapt to your own beliefs or “role playing” needs, but, in the end, Squall Leonhart is his own man, just as rigidly defined as Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins. “But thou must” was there from the beginning, but it was the 16-bit era where JRPGs became, more or less, interactive novels.
Final Fantasy 7 came a console generation after this shift. Final Fantasy 7 also came, as one may expect, after Final Fantasy 6. FF6 was an opera through and through, with a very serious plot (not to say there weren’t a few jokes) and an epic story that saw a world destroyed and rebuilt with the power of hope. Say what you will about FF6 and its impact on its contemporaries and descendants, but I think we can all agree that any game that wrings milestones out of teenage pregnancy and starving children is taking itself pretty seriously. I believe the reason no one ever begs for FF6 HD: Hyper Edition is because, rendered realistically, an entire world reduced to pebbles and dirt by a murder clown might be a bit too much to bear (though I’ll gladly accept that Amano-inspired remake, please). It’s my opinion that two games were created in response to Final Fantasy 6: Chrono Trigger, a “light and breezy” adventure through space and time (and, incidentally, a game codified by happy, smiling Akira Toriyama drawings), and Final Fantasy 7, a game that continually trolls you for thinking you’re playing a role-playing game.
You have no choice. You are a puppet. Because of course you are.
Final Fantasy 7 is the story of Cloud and AVALANCHE saving the world, yes, but what defines much of the game is the chase after Sephiroth. From the moment Jenova mutates up her own Masamune and knocks off Rufus’s dad, Cloud and company have no choice but to chase down Sephiroth and stop his nefarious plot to do something or other. Yes, they literally have no choice. Chase Sephiroth, or, what? Spend all day at the Golden Saucer? Save the condors? Wander around the desert hunting cactuar for forty years? Everything else in Cloud’s world is just a distraction from hunting Sephiroth. It might seem like clunky NPC dialogue, but every single town in FF7 is filled with named and unnamed characters that exist exclusively to relay, “Sephiroth went that-a-way.” The world lives or dies according to Cloud’s choices, and Cloud has no choice at all.
Cloud is a puppet. You are a puppet. But that’s okay.
Cloud is eternally tied to Sephiroth, and, yes, he must descend into that final dungeon and battle that final boss for the fate of the world, just as his Final Fantasy forefathers did before him. But it doesn’t matter, because Sephiroth’s taunts about Cloud having no free will were simply half-truths. Cloud may be a puppet, but he was not simply grown in a laboratory like this guy that are sick, he was a real boy before the Nibelheim incident, and, thus, he’s a human with feelings and emotions, just the same as the other humans on the team (and fire dog) (and toyasaurus) (and Dracula). Cloud may be stuck on rails until Meteor is repelled, but that’s not important, because what’s important is how he feels about his situation, the choices he does make to care about his friends, and the memories of those that are lost. Cloud is a puppet with emotions, and it makes all the difference.
For a game that defined the JRPG genre for generations, this is the most important lesson.
JRPGs, now, more than ever, are on rails. Lightning has no choice but to stalk through hallway after hallway in single-minded pursuit of saving her sister, and Edea must strike down her father if there’s going to be hope for her world. And while you, the player, have choice over the minutia of how these tasks are completed (like if characters are wearing swimsuits while they save the world), you ultimately don’t get a choice in how these events play out. You can either fight that big boss to the death, or you can turn off the game and do something else, leaving your digital avatar to float in limbo until you return and complete the task before you. There is no third choice, there is no negotiating, there is no sitting around and being psyched for the end of humanity, there is just what you have to do. Do or do not, choice is a lie.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel something.
Final Fantasy 7’s showcase piece is the death of Aeris. Aeris was built to be liked, and, as I’ve argued before, Aeris almost had to die for Final Fantasy 7 to work. Cloud is nearly manipulated into doing the deed himself (with the help of your controller), but he resists, he has a choice!… only to learn he never had a choice at all as Sephiroth descends and finishes the job. What you do doesn’t matter, Cloud, because, no matter what, what’s going to happen, happens. Aeris is dead, and you could do nothing. You or Cloud. Replay the game over and over again, nothing will change, Aeris dies every time, and no hidden materia or Golden Saucer date manipulation is ever going to change that. Aeris dies.
But Aeris lives. In 1997, I recall every single gamer having an opinion on this legendary event. Some were merely upset, some attempted to play it cool and claim they never liked the *misogynistic term deleted*, some erupted with lies regarding revivals and uncles that had managed to save the poor girl. But no matter what, everyone had an opinion on the event, and, often, an opinion on the murderer involved. Not everyone had the same steely determination to destroy Sephiroth for slaying their favorite white mage, but that’s the thing about subjective events, they affect different people in different ways. It was the same event for all of us, but we all had different reactions.
And that’s why choice doesn’t matter.
Choice is important in life, in real life, but in a story? Not so much. Novels, television shows, and movies are all mediums where authors lay down the law and tell you how this story goes. Want to go write some fanfic? Works for me, but, to say the least, I don’t think the world at large recognizes that story where Batman is also an anthropomorphic dog that can read minds and finally kills the Joker (who is also a golden retriever). JRPGs, meanwhile, are constantly derided for not giving the player enough freedom. It’s a valid concern, perhaps, but in a game where you can choose between seventeen job classes before the first line of dialogue, is it really that important to also steer the plot? Can’t you just trust the author has intent with this story, and it might be ruined if you constantly choose to make Cloud a pretty, pretty princess instead of an emotionally stunted mercenary? (Though to be fair, he can play princess for a little while with the best of ‘em.) Yeah, I get that you want to deviate from this same damn hallway you’ve seen a thousand times, but maybe that hallway is there for a reason, maybe you’re supposed to hate it, and appreciate the world devoid of hallways that you’ll eventually inherit.
Because that’s what’s really important in a JRPG: not what you do, but what you feel. Exclusively replaying the final 10% of a game is terrible for noticing the nuances of a story like this(because, nine times out of ten, you have more freedom at that final save point than anywhere else in the game), and, when a story is the focal point, you’re doing the author a disservice. What matters in a story are not the choices you make, but how the story makes you feel, and how you make choices in the real world based on what you’ve experienced in fiction. We live in an overtly cynical society that discourages being subtly influenced by any source, but who among us can say that they have never learned a lesson from a video game that could be applied to reality? Final Fantasy 7 touched millions of lives, and how many of those people now cherish the Aerises (Aerissi? Plurals are hard) in their lives? How many people treat animals better after bonding with Lucky Red 13? How many people relish the choices available in reality, after experiencing what it is to be a puppet in a (final) fantasy?
JRPGs are about stories first and foremost, and fiction is about reflecting reality for an attentive audience. Final Fantasy 7 isn’t just a story about a basket case pursuing a bundle of neurosis, no, Final Fantasy 7 is a story about choice, about people and their feelings, and about JRPGs themselves. No, you have no choice, you are a puppet; but you do have emotions, so use them, feel the game, let the story wash over you, and value what you have. Do not lament a lack of freedom, because freedom was an illusion all along. Cherish what’s real, and what’s actually there next to you.
There might be no getting off this train we’re on, but at least you can enjoy the ride.
FGC #176 Final Fantasy 7
- System: Playstation. Playstation 3. Playstation 4. Huh. Wonder how we never got even a passing remake on the PS2. It’s also on PC and Vita/PSP, too.
- Number of Players: One player. Though I suppose you could cudgel together some 2-player Golden Saucer action. Or you could hit yourself in the head with a 2×4. See, you have so many choices in reality!
- Port ‘o Call: I played the Playstation 4 re-release of Final Fantasy 7 for this review, and, boy, that thing is a Godsend. I don’t care about the fact that someone may be able to defeat Ruby Weapon via a severely under-leveled Cloud loaded with HP Plus Materia, what’s important is that I can absolutely skip any of the JRPG nonsense I do not have time for anymore. Yeah, it’s great this stupid cave is an impenetrable mosh pit of carnivorous monsters, but I just want to save right now, time to toggle on the “no more monsters” switch and walk around with impunity. And instant Limit Break fills? Thank you very much, ability to actually unlock Tifa’s Seventh Heaven before we all die of old age. I would have really appreciated a “Chapter Select” menu as well, but I guess that will have to wait another generation.
- Cold as Ice: Everyone always talks about how Sabin suplexed a train, but Tifa can suplex an entire glacier!
- Keep the Party Going: I appreciate the variety, but I could definitely see a version of this game that was just Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aeris. I tried sticking to that core battle party for most of the game, and I realized that Yuffie and Cait Sith barely make appearances before their sudden but inevitable betrayals, and Vincent and Cid barely react to Shinra dudes that you’d think would warrant a little more than a shrug. Red XIII is kind of a gray area, because at least he gets some development before Cosmo Canyon… but then he fades to nothingness. I realize that this was the “old days” of JRPGs, and we don’t need everybody giving their opinions on current events all the time, but maybe at least two scenes where someone asks what the hell Cait Sith even is seems warranted.
- Barret? Lotta Barret. Barret is integral to the story of Final Fantasy 7, and, arguably, the only reason this whole plot goes anywhere in its initial stages at all. Granted, he seems to be mostly forgotten, give or take a desert, past Midgar, and, unfortunately, that trend will continue through the Compilation. Maybe his gun-hand just requires a lot of maintenance…
- Secret Origins: Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Take an average, unexceptional teen…
Expose him to the good ol’ super science…
Knock off his mentor…
See the poor kid utilize two different personalities, one shy and reserved, the other a constant attempt to be the center of attention and “cool”…
Break his brain when his first girlfriend is murdered by the villain…
The villain that, incidentally, knows the hero’s secret identity…
Throw in a few homicidal mad scientists…
Maybe a clone saga or two…
And a girlfriend that knows the truth and is, incidentally, built like a supermodel…
And you’ve got a hero everybody loves! Squaresoft’s most popular character is Spider-Man!
Tune in next issue for The Revenge of Sephiroth! (“But I thought he was dead?”)
- Did you know? According to enemy data tables, the humble Tonberry, which can only be battled in Battle Square during the game proper, was originally intended for the Whirlwind Maze area of the party’s first trip to the Northern Crater. This could have been a neat bit of world-building, because, eventually, the party ventures lower into the Northern Crater, and encounters Master Tonberry. Come to think of it, if Tonberries are just increasing in strength as you get closer to the center of the planet, does that make Sephiroth the ultimate Tonberry? Chef’s Masamune?
- Would I play again: Yes, but not for a while. Even with the amenities of the PS4 version, the game takes an awful lot of time, and I have to practically restrain myself from spending all day tossing elixirs into pots for materia growth. Final Fantasy 7 OCD is not a recognized ailment (or reason to never leave the house again), so I will have to go without.
What’s next? Sephiroth is a pretty good warrior, but how does he fare against a man with a gun for a hand. What? We already had one of those in Final Fantasy 7? Well, let’s try it again! Please look forward to it!