Final Fantasy VII. Where to begin? What could possibly be said about this game that hasn't been said a thousand times by a thousand people since its historic release in September '97? How do you describe a game that, for better or worse, changed the face of gaming both aesthetically and commercially and lead the way for the rebirth of RPG's in the western market? How do you describe a game that has caused so much debate on the Internet and otherwise? A game that, in one fell swoop, shattered Square's fandom and rebuilt it again? A game that enraptured as many players as it disgusted, and forever divided RPG fans into warring factions locked forever in bitter debate over the possibilities, benefits, and ultimate consequences of Square's ascendancy to the glitter and gloss of "Hollywood Gaming". No matter who you are or what walk of life you travel, if you are a gamer, chances are the mere mention of the game automatically stirs powerful opinions in you. I know it does for me, and the only real thing to do is offer my personal experience on the matter. What is Final Fantasy VII? What does it mean to me, as a long time Final Fantasy fan and avid gamer who's watched console RPG gaming grow over the past decade? In a nutshell, this is what I have to say.
It has been so long since my mind was saturated with the endless discourse surrounding FF7 that I often forget how personal the experience was for me when I first played it. Before I began reading about translation screw-ups, before I began reading about racial stereotypes, about over use of profanity, about people's disappointment with the music, and about God knows what else--there was this fantastic experience I had with what I remember as a fascinating and absorbing game that truly, as all Final Fantasy's before it, drew me into the grand canvas of Square's other world, the world that they have risked time and again with fearless audacity and genuine, soaring imaginative finesse. A world where they challenge my mind and heart with sight, sound, philosophy, and romance. A world I enjoy so much I cannot bear to leave when it is all over. The singular experience that this the first, middle, and last word in epic storytelling--Final Fantasy.
But enough blind praise. What about the game itself? The characters are by now woven into the pop consciousness of gaming. Cloud, Tifa, Aeris, Sephiroth, and the rest have appeared as Internet pseudonyms and have been the subject of countless fanpages worldwide, and for good reason. They are some of the most memorable characters in the history of the series and while on the surface they certainly do appear to fit certain stereotypes, a second look will reveal that they transcend these qualities and are compelling and complex personalities underneath. Cloud, in my opinion, is the most complex protagonist Final Fantasy has ever known. He is a writhing vortex of mystery and neurosis that would make Woody Allen seem well-adjusted, and his transformation throughout the story is a challenging examination of personal weakness. Tifa Lockheart, while on the surface exuding a sexual exploitivness that could liken her to Lara Croft, nevertheless emerges as a human and subtly motivated character. Aeris, again fitting the surface stereotype of the "out-going, attractive girl", is shown to harbor a formidable well of personal sacrifice. Barret, while in design being little more than a bizarre cameo by Mr. T, is shown to eventually be a thoughtful and humble person regretful of his mistakes. Cid Highwind appears to be little more than a cynical, abusive old man, but harbors a deep sense of right and wrong and is shown to sacrifice even his greatest dreams for someone he loves but would dare never admit it. Likewise, Yuffie is established as nothing more than a bratty adolescent but slowly displays the subtle motivation of caring for her friends despite her insistence that she cares for no one but herself. Vincent, the most enigmatic of the cast, at first doesn't appear to be much of anything but is gradually revealed as a truly tortured soul full of weakness, fear, bitterness and a desire to love and do good so powerful he can never live up to it. The villains of Final Fantasy VII hardly shy away from complexity either. After all, who could forget The Turks, Reno, Rude, and Elena who's varying personal desires for respect and professionalism make them neither good nor evil. And, of course, who could forget Sephiroth. Ambiguous, beautiful, frightening, at once hateful and sympathetic, the central antagonist of Final Fantasy VII is truly one for the books. And while I personally feel his characterization suffers somewhat from the demands of the plot, his presence and genuine appeal as a compellingly dark figure are undeniable.
If the flair for characterization remains relatively unchanged from previous installments, in terms of presentation and general gameplay structure, Final Fantasy VII was a clear and brave departure for Square. No other game before or since, in any genre, has attempted to bring together as many differing elements and play styles as did Final Fantasy VII. Incorporating a bizarre but effective mix of 2D backgrounds, 3D characters, linear as well as non-linear exploration, action, strategy, and text Square's most ambitious game to date literally could function as an encyclopedia of game design philosophies, and the fact that it tries this, achieves this, and manages to invoke a feeling of familiarity within the greater context of the series is probably Square's most amazing feat. This is interesting because it represents what I see as Square's greatest asset: their uncanny ability to identify, understand, and infuse their work with the "magic" that has made them a legend in their own time. Square has a clear grasp of what makes its work special and commands this knowledge with confidence and intelligence in Final Fantasy VII, so that it is able to experiment graphically and narratively while remaining true to the core appeal of the series. The "Resident Evil" style 2D/3D combination is used to create a powerfully expressive universe for Final Fantasy VII than enhances the emotional scope and spectacle of Final Fantasy far beyond the traditional sprite-based model. Who could imagine the towering monument to industrial totalitarianism that is Midgar, or the gothic terror of the Shinra Mansion without them? They make the game glow with glorious detail and vibrant colors that put many other games, before or since, to shame. The decision to incorporate FMV sequences into these scenes is not only a smart one but an important and progressive one, significantly blurring the line between the cinematic and the interactive in gaming and offering a sense of possibility and immersion that was as powerful then as it is today. This design strategy spills over into the gameplay department as well. While the basic pattern involving battle, map, and exploration sequences remains unchanged from the rest of the series the visual flair and variety that are infused to this installment make them truly unique. From the virtuoso cinematic battle engine that combines appealing strategy with visceral punch to the solidly crafted mini-games that can be so absorbing you may feel yourself neglecting your quest, the gameplay design of Final Fantasy VII is fast-paced, exciting, and genuinely pleasing to the eyes, ears, and mind.
To me what sets Final Fantasy apart from many other games is the sheer totality of the experience. It becomes very difficult for me to separate the games into categories such as "graphics", "music", "plot", etc, because the experience of Final Fantasy is so tightly interwoven. All of the elements are crucially balanced and assembled in such a focused chorus that fracturing the elements for the sake of analysis becomes tiresome at times; however, if I had to say there was one element that is the underlying framework of Final Fantasy, the one that I find my self dwelling most on for the weeks and months after I complete a game, it is plot. Storywise, Final Fantasy has always been legendary. Ever since Final Fantasy IV(II) appeared on these shores the series has been synonymous with epic, thrilling, and complex storytelling that aims straight for the sky and doesn't hold back. Final Fantasy VI(III) took this reputation to the extreme, giving us one of the finest storylines ever to grace the videoscreen, and became for many the highest standard of emotional and philosophical storytelling the medium has ever seen. Final Fantasy VII, therefore, had a hell of a lot to live up to, and while I can't say to is a superior narrative effort to Final Fantasy VI, I can say with ever fiber of my being that it is an expertly-crafted story that, despite failing to achieve perfection, achieves a greatness that is epic and absorbing from the moment you press start to the moment the credits roll.
Speaking purely of plot mechanics and how information is structured throughout the game, Final Fantasy VII does a job of plot structure that I would dare say at times is almost worthy of Hitchcock. The central plot twist of Cloud's identity and his relationship to Sephiroth is so well thought out and revealed with such skill by the storytellers that, at the point of revelation, it carries a dramatic weight seldom seen in games. Narratively Final Fantasy VII is very confident and deviates quite liberally from the norms of the series. It asserts its audacity in the very beginning when the entire first quarter of the plot takes place inside Midgar, and then branches out into the world where the quest becomes not a standard "get to the magic artifact that can destroy the world before the bad guys do" (not even something that Final Fantasy VI broke away from completely) but becomes an eerie and mysterious quest to catch a madman. Truly, the greatest plot twist comes upon reaching the Promised Land when Cloud realizes that he himself was, in fact, the very catalyst needed to complete the villain's plans which, for once, provides an explanation as to why the villain allowed the protagonists to reach him in the first place. Another place Final Fantasy asserts its storytelling skill is in the handling of the love-triangle as a central element of the plot. Square does something very audacious in Final Fantasy VII: it permanently kills off a main character. The player is encouraged to become involved in the blooming love story between Aeris and Cloud but are then hopeless jarred and stranded in a plot where no one is safe and nothing is as it seems. The second half of Final Fantasy VII which involves the exploration of Tifa's motivation for loving Cloud and her ultimate connection to both Cloud and Sephiroth (and, indirectly, Aeris and Zack) unfolds as a fascinating compliment to the first half and proves that Square really knows how to manipulate the player's expectations to produces maximum dramatic effect.
To me, the measure of a great story is the extent to which character dictates plot and how well the storytellers have allowed these two elements to coexist without cramping each other. Final Fantasy VI was an excellent example of this being accomplished perfectly. All the characters acted according to their personal motivations and what we knew of them, and the plot was constructed in such a way that the results of these motivations fit into and moved the plot along smoothly. Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, does not achieve this quite as completely. If there is one problem and one problem only that Final Fantasy VII suffers from it is over-plotting, and this I refer to in terms of how the central conflict between Sephiroth and Cloud is handled. Cloud is clearly the favorite of the storytellers, with them focusing and structuring most of the character motivation to make sense for him, but somewhat neglecting Sephiroth as a three-dimensional human being in the process. I believe Square made a tragic mistake by making Sephiroth a sympathetic character initially and then pulling a 180 on you for the sake of the plot. As it stands, the game assumes too much and says to little about Sephiroth, and although in terms of Cloud's individual character development his final fate is cathartic, in terms of overall storytelling he seems oddly incomplete. Regardless, though, he remains a powerfully compelling villain and one which I can criticize only in the most meticulous circumstances.
When all is said and done, the plot of Final Fantasy VII leaves one with a sense of strong emotional content, but fairly abrupt resolution. Much has been said of the ending of Final Fantasy VII, that is too short and that it doesn't tie up enough loose ends. These accusations, while perhaps warranted, I feel are incorrect. The plot structure of Final Fantasy VII is constructed with severe punctuations, and, to me, it only seems fitting that the ending reflect this. Therefore, much care was taken to have all the characters come emotionally and spiritually full-circle before the end of the game. If the player takes time he/she can find a sequence where resolve is reached for each member of the cast, and while it doesn't exactly add up to the more dramatically satisfying ending of Final Fantasy VI, it should be seen as perfectly adequate and even quite remarkable considering the sheer amount of characters and information involved in the game.
This, of course, is only a fraction of what could be said about this game, and, indeed, much more has been said about it. However, when I simply just think back to my initial experience of playing the game this is what I think of--an admittedly cerebral but passionate affection for what was to me a truly great gaming experience. No, it is not perfect, but this is hardly an issue for me considering the game's high points. There is a quote attributed to the filmmaker James Cameron that I feel applies here. Once when accused of being a perfectionist he replied "I'm not a perfectionist. I'm a greatist. I just do it until it's great." Square, too, are greatist. Final Fantasy VII may not be prefect, but I'll be damned if every second of it doesn't scream of breathtaking ambition and enjoyment that is so exhilarating I couldn't possibly care what problems it may or may not have in retrospect.