In the spirit of actual blog entries, as opposed to whiny dear-diary bitchfests, here are my thoughts on a particular topic, arranged in what I hope is creative fashion, for your amusement. Maybe.
Final Fantasy VII was my favorite game for many, many years. Initially, “favorite game” meant exactly that, with whatever nuances such a minimal phrase can contain: it was my favorite to play, because I enjoyed it the most; it was my favorite to look at, because at the time it looked pretty damned good; it had my favorite soundtrack, because Nobuo Uematsu always kicks ass, and this was the first time I’d heard his music in non-midi format. Most importantly, though, it was my favorite story. It was an incredible, novel spin on the high-fantasy/sci-fi stuff that nerds like me were more familiar with. Yes, Square had been doing sci-fi-ish fantasy epics with a healthy dose of steampunk for some time–FFVI being the most obvious example of their blending of genres. But VII had two new things that gave it, in my reckoning, a tremendous advantage over previous RPGs: first, it had the new, powerful PlayStation hardware, which enabled the first major-release 3D roleplaying experience on a console. You could see your characters as people in a 3-dimensional world, and they looked like humans–at least, in battle sequences and cutscenes. Second, it had an edgier, darker storyline that played more with the idea of death and the multiple significances of that concept. FFVI had similar ambitions of maturity, but the mature edge was blunted somewhat by the limitations of the Super Nintendo’s hardware. The story was still phenomenal, and FFVI is a close second on my top-10 list. Kefka will always be one of the most genuinely, pointlessly evil characters ever imagined. But the system meant the graphics were cartoonish, the music was bleepy-boops, and the storytelling was at times hindered by the goofy visuals (although, to be fair, I say this in retrospect; at the time, I’m sure it was more impressive).
Kefka, actually, is a good example of what I feel to be FFVI’s biggest loss, and VII’s triumph. Consider what I said a moment ago: that Kefka was pointlessly evil. He has no motivations. He is insane, driven only by a (rather unrealistic) desire to destroy. Apparently, you only find out about the real reason for his attempted destruction of the world if you talk to a specific random character rather late in the game–something I never did during my initial playthrough. He apparently was the subject of the Emperor’s experiments with magic, which caused him to go insane (the Wiki article has the quote in a footnote). Even that is pretty thin. Insanity this, insanity that. Megalomania is perhaps capable of driving someone to destroy the world, but I’m tired of it as an explanation for villains being villainous. It feels artificial.
Anyway, I think–and this is only speculation–that the developers didn’t bother developing Kefka’s character more than they did because they already had a 40hour-plus game on their hands. There was so much going on, and already so much textual content in the game, that one of the most–maybe the most–important character, the person responsible for the primary conflict, got less character development than Locke’s dead girlfriend or the snow-ape who doesn’t speak.
VII goes further simply because it can, because they could fit more on a PlayStation disc than on a 16-bit cartridge. If Kefka is inspiringly evil, Sephiroth is downright terrifying. His theme song says it all. I was actually scared of Sephiroth on my first playthrough. The plot of FFVII is convoluted, and it wasn’t aided by a shitty localization; on my first play I didn’t fully understand what Sephiroth was. It wasn’t until college that I gained, from a friend of mine who was also into games, a better understanding of Sephiroth’s nature: by the time the events of the main game take place, Sephiroth is dead. He’s a vengeful spirit. The game tells us that although Cloud killed him, “Sephiroth’s evil refused to die”. This is why he phases through walls, why he can appear anywhere at any moment, and why he is fucking terrifying. Cloud chucked Sephiroth’s body into the Lifestream, the glowy writhing mass of planet-juice that keeps everything alive (Square’s version of the Force); but Sephiroth was a powerful descendant of the Cetra, and his spirit lived on despite his body’s death.
All of this sounds ridiculous, and no doubt it is–until you play the game. Translation issues aside, this is all revealed with expert pacing (except, maybe, the first 15 hours in Midgar…). In one scene, the heroes have scaled the Shinra building (the main hideout of the ostensible antagonists, a mega-corporation that has a monopoly on energy and has forced the world into a kind of corporate serfdom). At the top they discover the president of the company pinned to his desk by a sword through the back, which Cloud opines could only belong to Sephiroth. Before you see this guy in the game’s present, you find his calling card. And in fact, for quite awhile you only “see” Sephiroth in flashbacks or Cloud’s trippy acid freakouts. Instead of seeing him directly, you see the things he’s killed.
The scene that always stands out the most in my memory is after the heroes have stepped out of the big city and into the wider world. You’re trailing Sephiroth, following him mostly by the destruction he’s left in his wake (in the Shinra building, for instance, you literally follow the blood trail he left after killing the president and his guards). The story fluff (the background info revealed through dialogue with random NPCs) tells you that to get to your destination, you’ll have to cross a swamp inhabited by a horrible giant serpent called the Midgar Zolom. If you’re unlucky enough to actually fight this monster in the game, you will die. Again and again. Instead, you’re supposed to flee across the swamp on a chocobo. When you get across, the characters dismount in front of the latest sign of Sephiroth’s passing: a Midgar Zolom impaled on a tree. The song that played in this scene, and every scene when you discover Sephiroth’s leavings, is actually the noise that I associate with evil.
Cloud asks if Sephiroth is responsible, which of course he is. This one guy, a single man, somehow stuck a tree through a giant sea serpent without even uprooting the tree. I find the image really haunting, and it’s one of the most compelling moments in the game. This is what you’re up against. You can’t even fight one of these monsters with three people in your party and a bunch of swords and guns. Sephiroth killed one with the environment.
Unlike later incarnations of the FFVII world, the original game used tricky devices like this to create a tense, moody atmosphere while still making it abundantly clear that supernatural agencies are at work. In battle, Cloud didn’t ninja-flip and fly through the air deflecting bullets with his sword; he also didn’t look like a member of Malice Mizer (at least, not as much). yes, he had a big sword and could learn to shoot lightning bolts at people; but there was a kind of modesty to his unbelievable powers that made them believable. Cloud was strong, but looking at the character stats, he wasn’t exactly a stand-out among your party members, all of whom could hold their own in a fight (except maybe Aeris). Fights, by the way, were always a gunshot, a sword swing, a healing spell; occasionally a boss fight with a big monster that breathed fire out of its tentacles. They were fantastic, but within the established confines of the world’s quasi-science, they were believable. Physics applied, for instance. Yes, Cloud could shoot lightning bolts; but lightning exists in the real world, too. The suspension of disbelief was easy: just accept that there was a means by which a person could control lightning, and you’re set. Contrast this with the John Woo-style building-cutting-in-half idiocy of Advent Children or Dirge of Cerberus.
Cloud himself was, in my opinion, a great character. He was powerful, but he was broken. Sure, he was freaky-outy, and much of the badness in the game–like Aeris’ death–was, in some sense, his fault. That is what made him compelling. He was technically a badass, but he was so angsty, so shattered, that his badassery fell completely into the background. Again, this is a major contrast with his portrayal in the new swill, which makes my gamer blood boil. In the new stuff, he’s still angsty; but he’s also, apparently, a fucking Saiyan.
Anyway, FFVII had something that Square games since that time have not: a strong, narrative-driven game delivered with appropriate pacing that relied on visuals as much as text for effective storytelling. I cared about the characters (yes, even Aeris). I hated Sephiroth (and loved Sephiroth). I poured more than 40 hours of my life into that game, at least three times over.
Some people have Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I have games. I just wish developers would repeat their successes, rather than their stupid, teeny-bopper, boy-bandish mistakes.
FFVII is no longer my favorite game on every level. Mass Effect 2 currently holds that particular honor. But FFVII was the single most engaging, consuming game experience I have ever had, and not even ME can compete with it on that front. I lived and breathed on Gaia with those characters. Someone looking back on it all today, never having experienced it when it was fresh, could not possibly understand the effect FFVII had on me. That’s a tragedy.