Trying to understand how games work

Monthly Archives: July 2020

So after playing Final Fantasy V and VI, I decided to take a break from the series. I spent that time playing the Resident Evil 3 remake. That game was fun but largely underwhelming in comparison to the much stronger Resident Evil 2 remake. The break was short-lived as I ended up feeling very eager to return to Final Fantasy, so this time I went through:

  • Final Fantasy VII (FF7) – A game
  • Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – A Movie

I thought about having this piece be entirely focused on the game, but my thoughts on Advent Children ended up short enough that I decided to include it here. So let’s get into it:

Final Fantasy VII

For many people I’ve talked to this game is Final Fantasy. It’s the most popular of all of them, having been the second-highest selling game on one of the most popular consoles of all time. If I were to mention Final Fantasy in a conversation to a random person, this would be the game that they’re most likely thinking of. It’s easy to see why Square keeps coming back to it, seeing as it was the height of popularity for it all.

Usually when anything gets big, it’s a matter of being in the right place and time, or a huge financial push. Final Fantasy VII admittedly had both of those, but it holds up extremely well too. This was my second playthrough of it and I’ve enjoyed it much more this time around. The 3D graphics do look a bit blocky and weird by today’s standards, but I think it comes across as charming. The developers also really leaned into the strengths of what they could do with the then new techniques. It’s hard for me to believe that this was their first effort in this style.

It cheats a little by placing 3D characters on 2D pre-rendered backgrounds (except during battle scenes where it’s all 3D). This actually allows for a much more dynamic kind of presentation, where moving between screens allows for new and interesting camera angles for each background, which is used very well in how the game tells its story. Having pre-rendered backgrounds meant that much more detail could be added into each one, and many of them do not repeat unless they really need to. They’re also used greatly to convey scale since an area doesn’t need to just cover a lot of ground to seem big, it can do so with the right camera perspective.

This game was a huge and expensive project at the time. Only now when it’s directly compared to more modern incarnations does it seem somewhat modest, especially when it’s being sold at a considerably lower price like it’s a budget title.

Through all this it’s able to pay a lot of homage to other media in a way that’s more blatant. In particular it’s easy for me to spot influences from things like Akira, Berserk, Blade Runner, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Metropolis (there’s also some Mobile Suit Gundam in there but only really in the design of a few monsters). Characters do a lot of miming to convey emotion, especially since all dialogue is told through text boxes, it’s almost like silent cinema. It doesn’t just borrow from its influences for the sake of seeming cool as well, it has learned from them in order to build its own narrative.
As you might guess from that list of influences, Final Fantasy VII leans a lot more in a science fiction direction, though it does remain a fantasy game as well. Admittedly touches of sci-fi have been present since the original game, and especially in FF4 where a whale-shaped spaceship was used to fly to the moon. Within this new kind of setting, corporations replace kingdoms, and the difference that makes allows the game to be much more relatable.

The Shinra Electric Power Company operates a monopoly on energy production and distribution, while also having invested in many other technologies such as genetic engineering and space exploration. Through this they have been able to amass a strong military might which they have used to strongarm nations so that they can continue to harvest Mako, a fictional fossil fuel mined from the planet’s “lifestream”. Midgar, the largest city on the planet is effectively owned and operated entirely by Shinra. The greed of the company has been an incredibly destructive force, the production of Mako energy is literally sucking the life out of the planet. All of the party members available in this game have had their lives made materially worse by the existence of Shinra.

Shinra don’t act as the primary antagonists, that would be Sephiroth, but they have been responsible for the destructive events that have taken place throughout the game, literally murdering considerable amounts of people for their benefit. Sephiroth also would not have existed if it wasn’t for Shinra. So much so that when the guardians of the planet, the Weapons, get awoken after Meteor is summoned to destroy the planet, their first target is to attack Shinra. The game knows that megacorporations such as these are real sources of evil and doesn’t fully close until the last parts of it are seemingly destroyed by Meteor. The destruction of Shinra is a happy ending, as they resemble real companies who have plundered the planet for resources. Large-scale factories and fossil fuel production are huge contributors to the current state of our real planet. It would be nice to see those go away too.

Even though that makes up a large part of Final Fantasy VII’s setting, the real central conflict of the game is between the characters Cloud and Sephiroth. It’s through this where I think everything comes together to make extremely effective storytelling sequences. Specifically within the Nibelheim flashback sequence, which is actually the first time in the game where you see Sephiroth.

At this part of the game Cloud tells the party the story about going back to his hometown during his first mission with Sephiroth. There’s a point during this recounting where it’s mentioned that Sephiroth seemed a bit off and has gone into a local mansion, and Cloud goes to check up on him. The game gives this moment a really foreboding atmosphere through its use of camera angles, dark colours and music.

On his way Cloud has to descend a spiral staircase downwards, shot from above so that he appears to get smaller as he gets further towards the ground. He finds Sephiroth in a library too focused on doing research to pay attention to anything else, so Cloud leaves. There’s then a tilted-angle shot of a library corridor, showing Sephiroth’s research progress. He begins close to the camera, but as he gets further he gets more distant from the camera, leaving piles of books as he moves through, a blatant visual metaphor for how Sephiroth is distancing himself from humanity. It culminates in Sephiroth discovering his own heritage. He is the result of Shinra’s exploitative genetic engineering projects. As revenge he decides to use the power of the planet’s lifestream to become a god. In his initial rage he destroys Nibelheim. It’s an excellent sequence and I’m probably underselling it through this description.

The game comes back to this sequence a few times since it is the defining moment between those two characters. Cloud saw Sephiroth as a person to look up to, he was the reason that Cloud wanted to join Soldier (Shinra’s elite military group) in the first place. When he sees that the ideal that he strived for could be intensely destructive, it almost destroys him. Even past this point Sephiroth continually takes advantage of Cloud through mind control. I can’t help but see some parallels with abuse that can happen as a result of hero worship. Those in positions of power have been known to abuse the trust people have in them.

Cloud was also victim to another experiment which distorted his memory and fused it with someone else’s. He took on parts of the memory of a member of Soldier named Zack. While he had aspirations to join Soldier, Cloud didn’t successfully become a member of it, he was just an ordinary member of the Shinra military. Because of the conflicting memories in his head, Cloud genuinely thought that he was a member of Soldier, and his confidence is dramatically shaken when he figures out he really wasn’t. Realising the mismatch meant confronting his own failure to live up to what he wanted to become.

It’s why when Cloud finally does gain confidence to properly face off against Sephiroth, it’s a strong moment because he’s able to confront the person who’s caused him so much pain and defeat him. It’s not just that he’s able to fight too, by this point Cloud has effectively become himself, a much more confident person overall. The game doesn’t spend much more time after this confrontation, since it’s the central conflict. Everything else is wrapped up quickly.

By this point I’ve really noticed that Final Fantasy seems dedicated to the personal stories of its protagonists, ever since Cecil’s journey in FF4. They tried expanding it to a larger ensemble cast in FF6, but some of them came across rather diluted by not having much focus, and the ones that were focused on were uninteresting. Because of what I’ve mentioned I feel that Cloud’s journey comes through more strongly in FF7.

There’s also a major character death here, which again isn’t the first for the series but it has a much bigger impact this time around. Throughout the first act of the game, a lot of importance is placed on the character of Aerith. She’s the last surviving member of a race known as the Cetra, and the one most likely to help defeat Sephiroth. Except that Sephiroth suddenly kills her. It’s followed by a very sad scene where the party quietly and wordlessly mourn for her. It’s more impactful here because she never really shows up again after this. The last few games had character deaths, but their spirits would linger around and still talk to the party from beyond as if they weren’t truly gone. There’s moments where it feels like she’s helping out, but it’s only a feeling and not so explicit.

I’m only touching on a fraction of what’s really good about Final Fantasy VII I just wanted to highlight what I found particularly strong in this game. This game is exceptionally well-paced, and at times feels very dense with how much is in it. It’s easy to see how they ended up expanding the opening first few hours in Midgar into an entire game with the remake.

Part of why this game works so strongly is because its RPG systems are designed to not be terribly intrusive. Exploration is fairly painless since these games haven’t made use of maze dungeons since the first few entries. While the cast of characters is larger than the three-person party you can build, members outside of the party still gain experience when not in use. These games now seem to be dedicated to having much more malleable systems for character growth, as again there are no specific character classes in the game, and battle abilities and stats are defined by equippable items called materia.

Materia is similar to FF6’s Espers but I think it’s much better. Espers required temporarily equipping them to every character in order to learn abilities and raise stats, and then moving them onto another character to do the same. The result of which was that I ended up with an extremely powerful party with little to distinguish between members. I may not have had to do it, but it seemed like the ideal solution. Materia keeps the abilities and their growth attached to the equippable items, so a maxed out materia can be passed onto another character so they can instantly use a high level ability. Each materia came with pros and cons, for example if I was to attach a lot of magic ones onto a character they would end up as powerful spellcasters but have much lower health points.

It meant that I had to use different combinations of materia in order to build my own character classes, and because the main party is reduced down to three members this time, I had to get a little more creative. This also meant that when the game forced a change in party members, I could quickly create useful character classes again. I actually spent more time experimenting with it, giving different characters different setups over the course of the game. While I did have some very powerful characters by the end of the game, it ended up being much more interesting as my party members were very different from each other.

The trend of adding in variety which started in FF6 is continued in this game as well. During certain big set piece moments the game will require you to take part in various minigames, and I’m not a big fan of them. They don’t happen extremely often, but when they do it’s usually a fiddly mess. It’s good that a lot of the game’s other systems are much stronger or I would have gotten more annoyed at these. However if I had played Final Fantasy VII as a child I reckon I would have loved this stuff, since I adored the idea of minigames then.

The localisation of this game is also a little odd. The dialogue can come across a little clunky at times, but at least the intent still comes through. Thankfully it’s not incomprehensible like some game translations I’ve seen out there, but it’s interesting to me that despite this being Square’s biggest game they never attempted a retranslation. The first six Final Fantasies all had multiple translations some of which cleaned things up or changed spell names to consistent with more recent games. If anything though, I’m glad that the version of this game available on almost every current platform is mostly untouched, but not entirely.

For convenience I played the version of the game available on the Nintendo Switch. Here it’s rendered at a much higher resolution which makes a lot of the polygonal characters look a little too clean. I imagine in its original Playstation incarnation they were meant to have more jagged edges, since they were meant to display on a CRT television and not a newer HD screen.

This game also has an excellent soundtrack! Nobuo Uematsu once again leans into the weirdness that comes about from the odd-sounding digital samples in order to create some wonderful eccentric music. Of course his taste for dad rock comes through here too. Of course a good piece of music can enhance the quality of a scene, but here the scenes elevate the music as well. In the past before I played Final Fantasy VII I tried listening to the music on its own and I wasn’t particularly grabbed by it at the time. By playing it I was able to really determine what the music was doing. By getting to know the characters alongside hearing the music, I would be able to associate the leitmotifs with each theme and character, which in turn made me further appreciate the story that music itself was telling.

Aerith’s Theme, a melancholic piano piece that grows into a full orchestra while still remaining a sad song is beautifully put together. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music throughout the entire series. I will always associate the song with the moment of mourning after her death, which really gives the track an emotional impact for me. When I heard it performed at the Distant Worlds orchestral concert, I’ll admit I did well up a bit. The funny part about that concert is I had to walk up a lot of stairs to get to my seat (Final Fantasy VII fans will know).

I’ve also put together a Spotify playlist of my favourites, which could be the entire soundtrack but I enjoy the challenge of picking the best ones.

There’s so much to dive into with Final Fantasy VII, and so many people have already been doing that work. I don’t think any of the games have been written about as much as this one. All things considered I’m extremely glad that I revisited this game. Because this is the second time that I played through this one I was able to spot more things and get more out of it. This makes me much more excited to revisit more games in the future!

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

I’m cheating a little here as this isn’t actually the next thing that came out chronologically. I’ve actually seen this movie before. I was given it on DVD for Christmas by my parents when I was 13. Final Fantasy wasn’t something I’d actually played before, I guess the movie just looked like an anime thing to them which they knew I was into. I didn’t really understand what was going on in it but the action scenes were cool. I’ve now watched it after playing Final Fantasy VII and through that lens this is a terrible movie.

The action scenes are nicely put together, they really tried to go for wire work martial arts with more destructive shonen anime energy. Sometimes the camera work is a little messy, and they go on a little too long at times, but there’s some good qualities to them. I really enjoyed any of the fights involving Rude and Reno since those two characters seem to exist in a martial arts comedy.

It’s the unimaginative plot that really kills this movie and undermines all character development that happened across FF7. Part of what made the game’s story so strong was Cloud being able to move past his own trauma, but the movie acts as if that never happened. It decides to ignore the confident Cloud that emerged towards the end of that game and reset him back to how he was at the start, quiet and miserable.

Barret comes off even worse by being absent for a lot of the movie and not looking after his daughter, playing up an awful stereotype for the only black character here. He’s also into getting oil now for some reason, which majorly conflicts with his prior dedication to stopping Shinra from using Mako energy.

The film is truly just a lot of setup to have an excuse for Cloud and Sephiroth to fight again, only this time it’s a lot more flashy. Throughout the movie I became impatient for this confrontation to happen only to find it dull. After having sat through so much fighting this one didn’t seem that much different from the others. It didn’t help that the English voice actor for Sephiroth does one of the flattest performances I’ve ever heard. His line-reads sound like a voiceover for a boring insurance advert. Maybe I should have watched the film in Japanese with subtitles instead, since many of the other voices come across as weird and awkward.

Nobuo Uematsu returned to score this film, and while the odd track is nice I’m not into the whole mid-00s metal tinge a lot of the soundtrack has. The version of One-Winged Angel where the guitars kick in is kinda cool I guess, but a lot of the other renditions of FF7 hits feel like they’re overdoing it. It seems a little haphazardly placed as well as I’m not sure why Shinra’s theme plays during a scene focused on remnants of Sephiroth.

I’m not really certain who this movie is actually for. When I saw it before I had any knowledge of Final Fantasy VII I found it confusing. When I saw it after I played Final Fantasy VII I found it to be dreadful. I don’t think some decent looking action sequences can paper over such a poorly plotted film. At least this was only two hours instead of being a 30-hour epic like the game. If they really wanted to reset Cloud’s character development and have him fight Sephiroth again, they should have just remade Final Fantasy VII. I guess they’ve started doing that now.

Final Thoughts

I won’t be jumping onto Final Fantasy VIII just yet, as there’s still more FF7 to get to and it would be best for me to do so when it’s all still fresh in my mind. The next couple of games I’ll be playing are part of what’s called the “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII”, which is a fancy name for what is basically just “more Final Fantasy VII”. However if Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is any indication, I’m not really sure that Square Enix understands what Final Fantasy VII is. After those I’ll be getting to Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I’m extremely curious about since I know it only adapts 1/6th of the original game (it says so on the back of the box). It’ll be interesting to see what they’ve expanded upon. I hope I don’t have to buy five more videogames in the future just for this remake.

While I’m breaking the timeline a bit with those games, I still appreciate having played a bunch of them in chronological order. I already thought of Final Fantasy VII as an excellent videogame, but now that I can put in context with other great games that it outshines, it looks even brighter now.

I should also mention that I’ve put together a new hub page for my Final Fantasy articles. I thought that since I’ve made this thing into a project it would be best to have it all linked in one place. You can visit that here!

I’ve decided that I’m not going to include a full ranking list on these any more. It’s a little unwieldy after a while. If I did Final Fantasy VII would be ranked the best out of them so far. Advent Children doesn’t belong there at all.

Until next time!

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