Mechanics as Motif in Final Fantasy VII

Aerith

Japanese Role Playing Games have something of a mixed reputation. When I was in my early teens, JRPGs were the de facto king genre of gaming, succeeding the mascot platformers of the 8- and 16-bit eras and predating the modern trend of cover based first person shooters. For a while there in the 90’s, we had a slew of high (or at least acceptable) quality RPGs imported from Japan, and they had a pretty massive impact on my palate as a consumer of video games. Unfortunately, though, we are no longer in the golden era of Japanese Role Playing Games. These days western studios have become a much more dominant force in gaming, shooters have become the genre du jour, and JRPGs struggle to find an audience when they’re exported from Japan at all. Although nostalgia is sometimes sickeningly strong in “gamer” circles (so there’s no danger of the 90’s classics being disparaged any time soon,) these days it’s not unusual to hear scorn from the average video game fan regarding the byzantine, unapproachable genre conventions typical of Japanese Role Playing Games. Increasingly high profile voices in gaming communities have made their anti-JRPG sentiments public knowledge, to the point that Kotaku’s Jason Schreier launched that site’s Random Encounters column almost as a weekly defence of the genre. The Escapist’s beloved and foul mouthed critic Yahtzee has often turned his nose up at JRPGs, and on this point he and I will have to respectfully disagree (he’s occasionally used images of the box art of Suikoden V as a stand in for “bad JRPGs” which breaks my sentimental heart, but I get where he’s coming from.)

It’s in Yahtzee’s review of The World Ends With You (a game I’ve made no secret of personally adoring in the past) that he cuts to the heart of why he dislikes JRPGs so much. There’s a moment in that game where a basic math puzzle is presented to the characters, who then proceed to solve the puzzle without the input of the player. “This is not interactive storytelling,” he insists, “this is just reading.” And he’s quite right. JRPGs are wordy. Most of them take in the area of 60 hours to complete, and they are usually laden with the angst-heavy tropes of Japanese stories aimed at boys and young men. Too often JRPGs convey information using dialogue instead of communicating information through mechanics. Too often characters are only understood by the player because they discuss their histories and goals and motivations out loud, instead of allowing their actions to speak for them. Too often JRPGs have plots so byzantine and mythological that they can only be explained through exposition, as opposed to understood naturally by exploring the story through play. This is a big problem that a lot of JRPGs have, and although I love them with all my heart, I’m forced to admit it’s one of the biggest flaws of the genre.

So with that criticism in mind I’ve decided to mount a defence of the game least in need of defending: Final Fantasy VII. Since at the time of writing this game was very recently re-released on Steam, I think it’s actually quite topical in its own way. I’ve decided to use a scene in this game to demonstrate that although JRPGs are undeniably wordy, their backstories often pointlessly dense, and their stories even pointlessly denser, that the genre can achieve the hybrid of mechanics and narrative that only video games can deliver. Specifically, I’m going to be discussing a scene that occurs towards the end of disc 1. No, not that scene- the one that occurs just before it. Cloud and his party have reached the bottom of the staircase beneath the fish guy in the Forgotten Capital, and they can finally see Aerith, praying on a platform a little in the distance. The party heads in her direction, but Cloud stops them- he wants to make this journey by himself. He hops across the stones between the party and Aerith, and ends up standing in front of her. What happens next is one of my favourite moments in the game, and although it’s brief, and overshadowed in overall importance to the plot by what follows, it serves as the centrepiece of today’s essay.

Cloud stands in front of Aerith, and for a moment, the player’s control over Cloud takes an unusual form. You are no longer free to move Cloud around, open your menu, interact with characters, etc. Instead, the directional buttons and face buttons are mapped to new functions- Cloud can shift his weight, look to either side, and most importantly, he can draw or sheath his sword. Using X and O, the player can move Cloud closer to or further from the act of personally killing Aerith. The only way to progress the scene is to very nearly carve the girl in half with your Buster Sword, but your party members will interrupt you and bring you back to your senses before you can finish the deed.

What’s going on in this scene? The most basic answer would be that Sephiroth is manipulating Cloud and trying to get him to kill Aerith for him before she can finish casting Holy. Thematically and narratively speaking, though, the scene is more complex and demanding than that. This moment, maybe even more than the actual death that follows it, is one of the most important moments in the game for the way it comments on multiple themes and relationships from throughout the story using only its mechanics. Let’s talk about how the moment immediately preceding Aerith’s death is even more important to our understanding of the characters of Final Fantasy VII than even gaming history’s greatest spoiler.

(One minor note before we continue: Although I have no personal investment in the for some reason ongoing Aeris/Aerith debate, and have usually referred to the character as “Aeris” in casual situations, I’ve here consistently used the name “Aerith” since apparently that is the new party line on what her “official” name is. Then again, the new party line is that Rufus survived Diamond Weapon’s attack on Midgar, so my personal philosophy has for the most part been to discard the whole Compilation of Final Fantasy VII thing as an often interesting but more frequently stupid non-canonical fever dream.)

Cloud and Sephiroth

Cloud’s relationship with Sephiroth has been a straightforward antagonistic relationship up until this point. Sephiroth is a character from Cloud’s past with whom he has unfinished business and against whom he harbours a personal vendetta. They exist in a fairly classical hero/villain paradigm, with the villain representing a twisted version of the hero: Cloud and Sephiroth were supposedly both in SOLDIER, both were experimented on by ShinRa and were traumatized by those experiences, and both were present during the Nibelheim incident. In fact, the two characters’ behaviours during that incident calibrates the player’s understanding of this rivalry and serves as the ‘origin story’ for these two characters, giving us the context we need to understand Cloud as a self-sacrificing hero and Sephiroth as a bloodthirsty momma’s boy. For the majority of the first disc of Final Fantasy VII, the relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth is narratively rich and satisfying, and as a player we empathize with Cloud’s desire to defeat Sephiroth and make peace with his past.

Something changes about this relationship towards the end of disc 1, though. Specifically, this relationship is elevated after clearing the Temple of the Ancients and recovering the Black Materia. The Temple of the Ancients was, I think, specifically designed to stand out as memorable and important to the player. It is unusually designed, has a high difficulty level, requires the player to exercise hitherto unused skills in order to progress, it’s where the player learns what Sephiroth’s endgame is specifically re: Black Materia and the Lifestream, it features two memorable and difficult boss battles, and is the location where two of the game’s characters die (sort of. Cait Sith comes right back as if nothing happened, and Tseng was retconned into having survived his injuries after all.) Once the end of the dungeon is finally, triumphantly reached, and the goal of acquiring the Black Materia is achieved, Cloud totally undoes all the hard work of the characters and the player, and hands the Black Materia directly to Sephiroth.

This exercise in demonstrating the futility of the player is a pretty cruel move, but it accomplishes a lot narrative heavy lifting without resorting to textual exposition. Most importantly, it represents a turning point in Cloud and Sephiroth’s relationship. We all remember, I’m sure, specifically what happens in the bottom of the crater where the Temple of the Ancients used to stand. Cloud collects the Black Materia, Septhiroth appears, and Cloud starts going lollipops. The player’s control is switched to a ghostly version of Cloud as a child, while the corporeal adult Cloud very slowly surrenders the Black Materia to Sephiroth.

The scene in the Forgotten Capital deliberately echoes this scene as a comment on Cloud’s relationship with Sephiroth. By stealing control away from the player, and granting them instead an almost taunting parody of actual control over their player character, the gap is bridged between Sephiroth’s two most devastating attempts so far to take control of Cloud. Importantly, these scenes don’t take place in cutscenes, and aren’t simply conveyed through dialogue. During cutscenes and in-engine conversations, players’ direct control over Cloud is temporarily suspended anyway, so the true gravity of Cloud’s manipulation at the hands of Sephiroth wouldn’t be fully communicated. Surrendering control during cutscenes and dialogue is part of a sort of implicit contract the player enters into with the game. By having the player and character alike forced to perform actions we the player would never choose, the thematic weight of Cloud’s loss of control to Sephiroth is communicated much more efficiently.

Temple of the Ancients and Forgotten City

What we see here, then, is a parallel being drawn between two scenes in order to create a connection between them. In a book, two scenes might invite comparison by the use of a repeated line of dialogue. In a film, two scenes might reflect one another by the use of deliberately contrasting camera shots, or musical cues, or any of the other conventions of film. The way that, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Tycho Moon Anomaly appears with a sun-moon-earth alignment on two separate occasions, once with early proto-human apes and once with technologically advanced 21st Century astronauts. It creates a deliberate thematic link between the two evolutions that take place during that film, and it invites that comparison without uttering a single line of dialogue, using only the conventions of visual storytelling. Final Fantasy VII, though, being a video game, uses the conventions of interactive storytelling to suggest similarities between the two, inviting its audience to compare and contrast two scenes without explicitly prompting them to in the text. Through its mechanics alone, this scene subconsciously invites the player to make connections between Cloud and Sephiroth, and reflect on how their antagonism has evolved since Nibelheim, and how spectacularly cruel it is that Cloud is now being very nearly manipulated into being Aerith’s executioner.

By granting the player partial control over trivial commands during these scenes, and leaving the player first unable to prevent them (at the Temple of the Ancients), and then later a prisoner forced to perform them in order to progress (at the Forgotten Capital), the game uses its mechanics alone to drive home information about the level of Sephiroth’s villainy and his motivations vis a vis Cloud. Sephiroth demonstrates full well that he could have simply taken the Black Materia or killed Aerith himself. The game could have chosen to have Cloud deliver the Materia or nearly kill Aerith in a cutscene, but instead partial control is given to the player. Sephiroth doesn’t just want to use Cloud to achieve some goal or further his own agenda- he wants to torture him.

Cloud and Aerith

In the same way that Cloud and Sephiroth have an extremely traditional hero/villain relationship, Aerith is very obviously positioned as Cloud’s romantic interest from the beginning of the game. She’s the first face we see in the game proper, and although Cloud the character has been friends with Tifa since childhood, the player meets Aerith first, in the slums after the Mako Reactor mission. This creates a stronger connection to Aerith than to Tifa in the mind of the player. Once Cloud and Aerith have met, their arc together is an archetypal blooming romance story. The two of them meet briefly, and are reunited under unusual circumstances (does falling through someone’s roof count as a meet cute?) They face obstacles to their relationship, especially in the form of Tifa, who also loves Cloud. Aerith is clearly infatuated with Cloud, but feels confused and guilty since her feelings for him are tangled up in her love for Zack. In other words, as of about half way through disc 1, Cloud and Aerith are on a traditionally romantic trajectory with their story, and the conventions of romantic subplots would dictate that by the end of the story the obstacles will be removed (probably by the introduction of a love interest for Tifa and some manner of gaining closure over Zack’s death for Aerith), and that after Sephiroth is defeated Cloud and Aerith will share a great big toungy kiss and live happily ever after.

An important step in moving towards this traditional goal occurs a little more than half way through disc 1. Although Cloud and Aerith’s friendship has always been vaguely flirtatious, there is one scene in which the relationship veers closest to a traditional romantic one: the date at Gold Saucer. Specifically, the “Interrupted by Fireworks” sequence in the Round Square gondola. During this sequence, the only really explicitly romantic scene the two share, the player has control over Cloud, but in an atypical fashion. He can shift his weight awkwardly, look out the window or look away, stare at his feet, and generally behave like he is on a first date.

(Note that although it’s possible to go on this date with Tifa, Yuffie, or Barrett, I think the date with Aerith is the closest thing the game has to a ‘canonical’ outcome, because the method by which the game determines your partner for the date is prejudiced in favour of Aerith. Not only does she start out with a significant point advantage over her competition, but she can accumulate points more easily and is less likely to lose them.)

Mechanically speaking, this scene is identical to the one immediately preceding Aerith’s death at the end of disc 1. The player’s usual inputs for Cloud have been locked out and replaced with context sensitive actions mapped to the d-pad and face buttons. In the same way that the Forgotten Capital scene uses its mechanics to draw parallels with another scene in the story of Cloud and Sephiroth, it is simultaneously drawing parallels with a completely different scene in the story of Cloud and Aerith. There is a difference this time, though. Where the Sephiroth parallels are a simple manner of recurring mechanics underscoring or heightening an already established paradigm between characters, for the Aerith parallels the mechanics are superficially reproduced in order to create an ironic reprise of the couple’s most romantic moment together. If the parallels between the Forgotten Capital and the Temple of the Ancients were reminiscent of 2001, here the parallels are more closely related to A Clockwork Orange. In the beginning of that film Alex and his droogs invade a private residence and commit acts of violence upon the homeowners while Alex sings showtunes. Towards the end of the film Alex accidentally stumbles upon the same house after becoming a victim of violence himself, and after absentmindedly singing the same song finds himself at the mercy of the man he had terrorized at the story’s beginning. The scenes are superficially similar- it’s the same characters on the same sets using the same musical cues culminating in an act of violence- but the meaning of the scene and the relationships between the characters have been reversed.

Interrupted by Fireworks and Forgotten City

By invoking superficially identical mechanics between two scenes with opposite contexts, the game creates a dissonance in the mind of the player. These two scenes, the most heightened emotional beats in Cloud and Aerith’s relationship, are able to feed off each others’ energy, and each scene is richer for what it borrows from the other. Particularly upon repeat playthroughs (in which the player will know already about the impending scene in the Forgotten Capital,) the Interrupted by Fireworks sequence’s unabashed romanticism will be slightly tempered by its mechanical connection to her impending death, and the moment before her demise will be all the more devastating for its mechanical connection to the climax of Aerith and Cloud’s romantic plot. By forging this gameplay connection between the two scenes, the game adds depth and pathos to both of them, allowing for a sort of emotional cross pollination that lends tragedy to the story’s most romantic moment, and romance to its most tragic.

Cloud

Finally, and most importantly, this sequence is significant for the insight it gives us into the player’s relationship to Cloud, Cloud’s world, and Sephiroth. The relationship between player control and linear narratives has been explicitly explored in other games- Bioshock comes most immediately to mind- but here the relationship is explored not just between player and character, but between player and antagonist.

In my Persona 3 essay I borrowed a phrase from Egoraptor that successfully described the purpose of mechanical storytelling. The idea is that story elements that are delivered through gameplay cause emotional responses directly within the player, rather than being caused by an empathetic reaction to events that are happening to a character. Final Fantasy VII is a perfect example of the difference between the two, and how mechanical storytelling can make our experiences with and responses to the story of a game so much more powerful.

I’ve mentioned above that from a strictly narrative standpoint, the antagonism between Cloud and Sephiroth makes sense. Up to the end of disc 1, the player’s desire to see Sephiroth brought to task is a result of our empathizing with Cloud as a character. But beginning with the events after the Temple of the Ancients, and climaxing with the scene immediately preceding Aerith’s death in the Forgotten Capital, the relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth begins to transcend simple textual delivery and graduates to mechanical delivery. The effect of this transition is that the player becomes personally involved in the struggle against Sephiroth, instead of experiencing that struggle through merely empathizing with Cloud.

Using a marriage of gameplay and narrative elements to raise stakes and emotionally effect the player directly is actually a relatively popular move, even in JRPGs. But not very often does a game rise to the heights of revoking a player’s control over the game to make a thematic point. Frequently a game raises its stakes by removing a character from the plot who is also a serviceable mechanical asset. We can see this move being attempted in games like Chrono Cross, in which the player’s accumulated party is lost after a certain point in the plot and a new party must be built for the game’s second half. Or in Suikoden II, in which losing Jowy the character from the plot stings all the harder for the simultaneous loss of Jowy the party member and the Buddy Attack unite attack and Black Sword Rune he brings with him. (The death of Aerith and her removal from your party is also an example of that sort of mechanical/narrative marriage.)

In Final Fantasy VII, though, the sense of narrative and mechanical loss is taken to its logical apex. The player’s control, his or her gateway into this world and method of propelling the story and experiencing the plot, is hijacked. It is at this point that the stakes are increased not just for Cloud, but for the player, whose investment has been strictly empathetic up to this point. Once Sephiroth displays his control over Cloud, he is effectively demonstrating that his rival is not only the character, but the player. Cloud is the protagonist of Final Fantasy VII to be sure, but starting with the end of disc 1 Sephiroth makes plain that the real battle is being fought between himself and the player. If the story of Final Fantasy VII concerns Cloud’s struggle against Sephiroth, starting at the end of disc 1 the metastory concerns the player and Sephiroth’s battle for control over Cloud.

This is an unusual and very rewarding metanarrative for the game to adopt, and it’s difficult to think of examples of games that pull a similar stunt. Ordinarily in games the plot and mechanics occur at two separate levels. In Mega Man the rivalry is between the Blue Bomber and Dr. Wily. The player is invested because he or she empathizes with Mega Man, and/or because the game is a test of his or her skill and dedication. Dr. Wily never makes attempts to transcend the text of the game and challenge the player personally- he only ever antagonizes the player’s proxy in that world, Mega Man. Games in which the player is explicitly pitted against the game itself rather than the conflict between player and computer being played out by characters are not unheard of, but they usually take the form of non-narrative puzzle or sports games. To have a character driven, narrative heavy game in which the main villain antagonizes the hero on a textual level, and implicitly antagonizes the player at a metatextual level, has been very infrequently attempted.

Versus

I think the results here are very interesting. For fifteen years and counting now players have understood subconsciously how high the stakes are in Final Fantasy VII without ever truly understanding why they feel so personally motivated to bring Sephiroth to justice.

Sephiroth

That’s right, fifteen years. When Final Fantasy VII hit shelves I was eleven years old, and had never played anything like it. In recent years the cultural clout of the Final Fantasy series has started to decrease, but the classics have remained popular enough to routinely top PSN Classics sales charts and warrant a high profile re-release on Steam. A lot of people probably suspect that nostalgia plays deeply into that, and frankly they’re partly right. At the risk of speaking with my rose coloured glasses on, I really do believe that these games had a level of depth in their text, subtext, and metatext that many games today could learn from. Fifteen years later people are still discovering things about this game that they never knew before, and even today eggheads like me are dedicating thousands of words to discussing the literary conventions employed by a single scene from this game. Only time will tell whether modern entries in the series will survive the level of scrutiny and thematic mining to which I’ve subjected this title. I’m an optimistic sort- maybe fifteen years from today you’ll be reading an article on this very site about the unplumbed thematic richness of Final Fantasy XV?

Until next time.