The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.
Welcome to the Polygonal World of Final Fantasy!
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and the fourth kind, welcome one and all to the first installment of Now Loading…The Video Game Canon! In this, our virgin installment, we will be taking a look at a game that has had more critical acclaim, more cultural impact, and more salacious fan art drawn of it than quite possibly anything to come out of the Japanese video game market. A bold stance, I know, but consider the source in that we will be looking at Final Fantasy VII! I wanted to start this series off strong, and figured there was no more interesting candidate than the game that introduced an entire generation of gamers not only to the Final Fantasy series, but also to Japanese Role-Playing Games and the broader RPG genre as a whole. I don’t want to make assumptions and say that a large swath of you have been to comic book, video game, or anime conventions, but I’m going to do just that and then assert that even if you haven’t even touched this game, then you have still at least seen someone dressed up as a Cloud or a Sephiroth in your travels through the Nerdsphere. You may have been fortunate enough to see your friend pop this game into his PlayStation, or perhaps unfortunate enough to have seen your friend pop the movie, Advent Children, into her PSP. Regardless of your exposure, this blockbuster of a game has permeated so many facets of video game culture that it would be a crime not to examine it as a candidate for the canon.
Released in 1997 for the Sony PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII marked the series’ jump to three dimensions. Square Enix, then called Squaresoft, were lauded for the (then) smooth transition from 16-bit sprites and painted backgrounds to beautiful polygonal character models and gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds. The story, though vague and at times confusing, was praised as being both a welcome addition to the then fairly sizable Final Fantasy library, and also a landmark in video game storytelling in general. The world of Final Fantasy VII is vast and complex, with intricate plot details and character summaries woven together to build a universe that truly felt lived in and believable. If The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was Nintendo’s opus for the Nintendo 64, then Final Fantasy VII was Sony’s assertion that the PlayStation was a contender in the console wars.
It’s difficult to go into more detail without cutting into the other sections, so let’s waste no further time and examine Final Fantasy VII!
Story and Characters: A Rogue SOLDIER and a Dying Planet
As any fan—or friend of a fan unfortunate enough to hear “Just sit down and let me explain it to you”—knows, the story of Final Fantasy VII is something of a confused mess when you get down to its particulars. I chalk this up to an uncharacteristically poor localization resulting in a number of confusing typos, and the always slightly confusing storytelling of the Squaresoft writers. For your edification, I will provide an abridged version of the story that has been broken down to its bare essential plot elements and themes. Then, for your enjoyment, I will do my best to recount all the insanity that is this game’s story.
IN JUST A FEW SENTENCES OR LESS, SQUARESOFT, GOOD LORD
At its core, Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, a man who, due to a number of violent tragedies in his past, deludes himself into believing he is someone else. This ultimately reveals itself when a maniac known as Sephiroth tries to destroy the Planet, and is only made worse when someone Cloud swore to protect dies before his eyes. Cloud then has to work through his feelings of guilt, remorse, and borderline PTSD, all while the world is literally coming to an end around him. Ultimately, these battles, one on the outside and one in the confines of Cloud’s mind, come together when he embraces a mystical, Planet-binding force called the Lifestream, which is essentially the collective conscious of every single being to ever live. The Planet is saved, and Cloud understands that even when someone dies, they are never truly gone, and to hold onto the grief of losing someone would to do a disservice to oneself and the memory of the dead.
Fundamentally, Final Fantasy VII is a beautiful story about loss, grief, and learning to move on from tragedy. These themes are made even more poignant when one realizes that the concept of the Lifestream and the general themes for the game were the brainchild of genius series director Hironobu Sakaguchi after experiencing a tragedy of his own. After Sakaguchi’s mother died, he struggled for a long while with her death and the nature of oblivion in general. Through a lot of introspection, he was eventually comforted by the thought of a vital, living essence that composes all things and flows through the very Earth itself. This concept later became the Lifestream, and Final Fantasy VII ultimately became a tool through which Sakaguchi moved past his grief.
That, to me, is what you essentially need to know about the game’s plot and themes to understand how wonderful and timeless the game truly is. Based on this simple breakdown, the story is worth canonizing.
However, two small paragraphs does not a three-disc game make, now, does it, Square? Here’s that same synopsis with just a touch more detail.
I’VE HEARD OF WORLD-BUILDING, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS
Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, a formerly high-ranking member of a corporate military group known as SOLDIER. He is recruited by Barret and an environmentalist/eco-terrorist group called AVALANCHE to destroy the Shinra Electric Power Corporation’s nuclear reactor type power plants because they are sucking Mako energy, or the lifeblood of the planet, out of the Earth to fuel technological advancement. Cloud couldn’t give two figs about Mako energy and the dying planet, though, and only wants his money for the job he just literally killed hundreds and hundreds of people completing. And though Cloud, Barrett, and now Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa are off to destroy another Mako reactor literally one day after destroying the first one, they somehow didn’t plan on Shinra not being too keen on having that happen again. Cloud falls off a ledge and lands in a church where he meets Aerith, a flower girl with spooky old-world powers.
While Cloud is flirting hardcore with Aerith, Barret and Tifa get wind of a Shinra plot, and decide (mutually, I assume?) that Tifa will go after the local gadabout/pimp/gay icon? to squeeze some information out of him one way or another. Aerith and Cloud see Tifa going to this brothel, one thing leads to another, and Cloud is dressed in drag to infiltrate the pimp’s mansion. You know, I recently replayed this game and forgot how quickly this all happens… It’s like the first hour of the game.
Yada yada yada, Shinra blows up an entire slum because it turns out you shouldn’t blow up 1/8th of a mega corporation’s power supply/work force, the gang takes revenge in what little way it can, and then leaves for the bigger world to chase after Sephiroth, a man with vague intentions and even vaguer explanations for those intentions. Also the Sephiroth that they’re chasing isn’t actually the real Sephiroth, but something called a Remnant (as they are later referred in one of the umpteen spinoffs this game has,) which is basically just some random person with a bit of Sephiroth’s crazy DNA wrapped up inside them. Oh, and it eventually turns out Cloud is also one of those Remnants, but can’t quite remember why or how, and ends up giving Sephiroth the means to blow up the Planet because of this tenuous and, frankly, very poorly explained connection to him and another guy who eventually got an entire game of his own, Zack Fair…..
I’m going to be honest with you folks, I thought it would be fun to type out all the inanity behind Final Fantasy VII’s plot, but it would just take up all the document space in the world. Not to mention it was way less fun than I thought it might be, but hey, you take your chances, am I right?
The complex and sometimes confusing aspects of the game’s story are definitely a negative when it comes to canonization. The core of loss and grief is so strong, but I must admit that the amount of effort that goes into explaining a lot of crucial plot details smacks of poor writing. I can’t blame the poor localization there, either, because these crazy plot inconsistencies exist in the Japanese version as well. However, I, like many other people who play this game, tend to let that slide because of how strong the central theme of the game is. It also helps that the cast of characters is well-fleshed out with clear motivations and strong personalities.
I would say the strongest praise that can be given to the main cast in this game is that they are at once complex enough to be interesting and simple enough to know exactly who they are. Cloud is the strong, silent type who doesn’t fancy himself a hero due to his tragic past. Barret, while outwardly tough and ready to die for his cause, is also a loving father who really just wants the Planet to be safe for his daughter. Tifa is a bit of a femme fatale, but she cares deeply for her childhood friend and believes in saving the world. And of course that’s not even mentioning Cid, Red XIII, Aerith, Cait Sith, and the optional Vincent and Yuffie characters. Within moments of seeing these people on screen, you know who they are and what they are about. You know how they will interact with each other, and how they will react to events taking place around them. Good characters are characters who can be summed up simply, and Final Fantasy VII pulls that off flawlessly.
In short, though the story of Final Fantasy VII is at times complex, confusing, and downright poorly written, the heart of the game and the characters within it are enough to forgive a little confusion.
Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: Like a Fine Wine
Though the story may fall flat in some parts, there is nothing but praise to be given to the overall aesthetic of the game. When compared to previous Final Fantasy games, VII doesn’t necessarily break the mold when it comes to gameplay and mechanics. Instead, it takes the tried-and-true, turn-based combat system from other games and perfects it, giving players the option to customize magic, summons, and equipment such that they can truly play a role. For example, due to Aerith’s quiet and gentle nature, I always build her as I would a white magic user. She typically becomes the healer, and if push comes to shove she can send out an army of Materia summons for the offense. Likewise, Cloud always struck me as a brute force kind of character, so I would focus less on healing magic and more on strength or defensive buffs and the like. That being said, the way the game is built allows you to fill any role with any character. It’s a versatile enough roster that you can see the character’s inherent strengths and weaknesses, but flexible enough that you can play by your own rules if you’d like. For example, a mechanic that in later Final Fantasy installments that was over-complicated or ditched altogether in favor of crystal hallways, namely that of boosting your stats with different equipped Materia, adds an interesting dimension to character customization. Certain types of Materia come with boosts to certain stats, so you could theoretically load up a character with spells and abilities that you won’t even have them use in order to just buff up their strength or defense. It may not be the best in terms of strategy, but it offers the player choice in every aspect of gameplay. Who you use in battles, who you team them with, how you equip them, what spells you want them to use, all of these choices are yours and have a number of different meaningful and noticeable impacts on the way you play the game. This flexibility is indicative of an element that is sorely lacking in modern Final Fantasy titles: meaningful choice. An entire essay could be written on the bleak deterministic nature of later games in the series, but luckily this title makes you feel like your decisions matter.
The music is composed by Final Fantasy series regular, Nobou Uematsu, and in my humble opinion is some of his best work to date, if not his very best work. Each piece—from the iconic battle themes, to the character songs, to even the simple background music that greets you upon entering a town—is immediately recognizable to anyone who has played the game. Though not the most technically impressive, every piece of music serves the world of the game, and truly envelops you within it. And of course, something must be said of a soundtrack with one of the most popular final boss themes in all of video games. “One-Winged Angel” still makes concert halls go insane; look it up.
By today’s standards, the hard-jutting polygonal character models are laughably incompetent. I find it a boring argument to come to the graphics’ aid by saying “it was revolutionary at the time,” or “it was a product of the PlayStation’s limitations.” Rather, I give the choppy character models a pass because the visual world itself is so distinct that few games have been able to replicate it richness. The pre-rendered backgrounds from Midgar to the Great Northern Cave help to set the somewhat bleak and sad tone of the game. When you visit the slums of Midgar or the dying town of Corel, you feel not only that this world is real, but also that it is dying. The character models are undeniably hilarious, and are the butt of a possibly infinite number of jokes, but the full aesthetic of the world fits with the strange models in a strange way.
Though noticeably dated in some ways, the game is so distinct in these three aspects that it stands the test of time. Had the gameplay, music, or visuals been bland or inseparable from other games at the time, I imagine this game wouldn’t have left such a clear mark on so many people’s memories.
Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: Movies, Spin-offs, Remakes, Oh My!
The impact of Final Fantasy VII—not only video game culture, but on culture in general—is undeniable. This game was released at what many fans consider the peak of the Final Fantasy series, and the impressive visuals, memorable characters, and fun gameplay, combined with the time at which it came out, launched this game to an almost surreal level of fame. For many American gamers, it was an introduction to Final Fantasy and JRPGs, making the previous titles so popular that they were eventually remade and ported over to the PlayStation from Nintendo consoles. In just a few years, Square Enix made Final Fantasy: Advent Children, a CGI movie sequel to the game; this sequel was released and re-released in numerous iterations and formats. The impact of the movie alone was enough to influence anime for years to follow, making its way into innumerable Japanese toy stores to the point that Akihabara should basically just relent and have a storefront exclusively for Final Fantasy VII.
Final Fantasy VII would go on to influence how RPGs looked, felt, and even sounded, to the point that one could argue that all modern JRPGs find many of their roots in the game. It also shaped the future of the Final Fantasy series, for better or worse. The games that followed clearly took a great many cues from Cloud Strife and gang, and slowly began devolving into, ironically, games that seemed like remnants of a once-great story. But the condemnation of recent Final Fantasy games is a diatribe for another day.
Between spin-off games starring Zack Fair and Vincent Valentine, and a strange Japanese mobile phone game that was popular for a baffling amount of time, it is not surprising that we have now been promised a complete remake of the original Final Fantasy VII for the PS4. The amount of attention and importance placed on this game is undeniable: without Final Fantasy VII, there’s a good chance we would be without a huge swath of our gaming libraries today.
BONUS LEVEL: Opening, Bombing Mission
This is a massive game, and so a massive article naturally formed around it. But you’ve stuck with me this far, and I’m hoping you can stay with me a little longer before I render the verdict you have no doubt come to on your own.
There’s an adage when it comes to novels and short stories: the first and last lines are the most important. I tend to agree with that, and also think it can apply to video games. However, video games are largely a visual and auditory medium, so the opening shot, much like in a movie, acts as that crucial first line.
Final Fantasy VII opens on a prolonged view of the stars in the sky, lingering for just a moment longer than may be comfortable in order to emphasize the scope of the story you are about to witness. Without cutting, the camera falls away from the stars into darkness, where a woman’s face is lit up by a pale green light. She walks out of her quiet alleyway filled with flowers into a grimy, loud city street full of people and machines. She looks upwards, we zoom out, and see the sprawling, fetid city of Midgar. Midgar rejects the natural light of the stars above, instead radiating its own pale, sickly glow to show a gross dominance over the natural world. The title screen appears, the music changes, and we zoom in on one part of the city, on a train pulling into a station….
In less than five minutes and without one line of dialogue, Final Fantasy VII lets the audience know that it is story about natural forces against manmade forces on an epic scale. When two forces sit at odds with one another, something must change… Join us, won’t you?
VERDICT: A Game for the Ages
If you have read this far, then you no doubt know that I absolutely place Final Fantasy VII in the canon of video games. Although its plot is confusing at times and its visuals may not have aged gracefully when compared with modern games, the themes, characters, and sheer impact this game has had on the world at large is enough to encourage people to not only play the game, but to study it as well. There are so many lessons about gameplay, storytelling, world-building, and longevity that Final Fantasy VII can impart, and to let it fall by the wayside would truly be a sin. So, welcome, Final Fantasy VII, to the Video Game Canon! Congratulations, and may the Lifestream guide you.