Minigame Theory: Final Fantasy VII

Zack Fair

Hello there my beauties. Here at Game Theory I’ve made the effort to have each and every one of my essays keep up a certain level of quality, focus, academic self-importance, and so forth. This means that articles tend to take at least a month or so to fully research, write, edit, and illustrate, and it also means that a lot of potentially interesting stuff hits the cutting room floor. This has the advantage of keeping article focus tight and length relatively low, but it also means that a lot of ideas just never see the light of day, and that updates tend to come pretty infrequently. So, I’ve decided that every now and then when I’ve got some leftover material that I think could be worth sharing but doesn’t warrant an entire essay-style article, I’m going to plop a “Minigame Theory” between regular updates. So introduced, let’s see what didn’t quite make it to the finished version of my Final Fantasy VII article.

Yuffie Kisaragi

The biggest thing slashed from my VII article was an overly long parenthetical about Cloud’s flashback in Kalm. Originally my VII article wasn’t exclusively about the scene in the Forgotten Capital, but was instead a much broader article about mechanical storytelling throughout that game. In the end, though, I decided it would strengthen the article to narrow its focus down to a single scene, and I carved out any references to the Kalm flashback and its non-narrative storytelling elements.

The basic point I was going to try and make revolved around several subliminal clues scattered throughout the gameplay of the Kalm flashback which either provided early hints to the player that Cloud’s story didn’t add up, or which foreshadowed future events in the story. The first and strongest of these clues came in the level disparity between Cloud and Sephiroth during the flashback. Cloud and Sephiroth were both supposedly SOLDIER First Class during the events of the Nibelheim Incident, but while Sephiroth is a burly level 50, Cloud is a measly level 1. The point the game seems to be trying to communicate is that Sephiroth is some kind of combat God-King (giving a mechanical context for the man’s borderline legendary status) against whom even other First Class SOLDIERs fail to adequately compare. Once we’ve learned the truth about Cloud’s history and memories, though, the level disparity between Cloud and Sephiroth makes much more sense: Cloud is remembering his own “level” accurately, but misremembering the role he played in those events. Cloud being level 1 is an early indication that he was not, in fact, a SOLDIER First Class during the Nibelheim Incident.

The second clue during this sequence, one that foreshadows future occurrences in the plot and gameplay, is that Sephiroth is “unplayable” during this segment. Sure, he’s a party member and he’s on your “team”, but he doesn’t really answer to the player. The player cannot issue him commands in combat, nor can they alter his equipment. Like the level disparity, this element of the flashback is employing a fun bit of misdirection. The idea of having a computer controlled “guest” party member is a well understood trope of JRPGs, and Sephiroth’s presence in the party here seems to adhere to that structure. But, once again, progressing the plot will reveal the player’s lack of control over Sephiroth to be more sinister. Sephiroth isn’t simply a “guest” party member, he’s the player’s direct antagonist, and is competing with the player for control over the game, especially the game’s main character Cloud. Allowing the player to control Sephiroth as a party member or tool around with his inventory would undercut the idea that Sephiroth has as much control over the game world as the player. By refusing the player control over Sephiroth, it instead reinforces this idea.

Refusing to allow the player to control Sephiroth during this sequence also positions it as the unspoken earliest point in the “Sephiroth controlling Cloud” arc mentioned in my proper article on Final Fantasy VII. If the events that occur after clearing the Temple of the Ancients represent Sephiroth suspending Cloud’s control over his own actions, and the events at the Forgotten Capital escalate that control so that Sephiroth has basically taken full control over Cloud, the events in the Kalm flashback represent the earliest and most docile incarnation of this control. Here, rather than explicitly exercising his control over Cloud, Sephiroth simply rebuffs the control of the player. That behaviour still positions him as an antagonist for the player, but it isn’t until later in the game that the player will realize the true weight of Sephiroth’s behaviour during the Kalm flashback.

Tifa Lockheart

This isn’t a segment cut from the original article, but I’d like to discuss it all the same. Tetsuya Nomura catches a lot of heat for his indulgent and sometimes (okay, often) silly looking designs, but his work on Final Fantasy VII resulted in his creating some of gaming’s most distinct and meaningful character designs. The original PlayStation’s shamefully weak processing strength meant that the game’s every 3D character model had to be rendered using as few polygons as possible. In order to make sure characters could be easily told apart, Nomura quite rightly focused on giving every character a distinct and simple silhouette and one or two identifying colours. The game’s animators also gave each character certain distinct animations in order to give everybody a little more personality, which was a big step forward from Square’s previous efforts in which every character shared a pool of animations (in Final Fantasy VI, for example, characters had a common laugher animation, surprise animation, end-of-battle celebration, etc.)

(Personally, I much prefer Yoshitaka Amano and Akihiko Yoshida as both character designers and as artists, but that’s just personal preference.)

What I really wanted to bring up with regards to the design of the characters is the way in which each character’s design is emblematic of their most superficial or affected characteristics, but obfuscates the real heart of the characters. If it’s not clear, I mean this as a compliment.

Barret, for example, is decked out in military style fatigues, sports a no-nonsense high top fade, and even his body is partially weaponized. This is representative of the character at his most surface level: a hard fightin’, hard cursin’, militaristic eco-terrorist. Underneath, though, the character is a doting and sensitive surrogate father figure, and gets more fulfilment out of his relationship with Marlene than he does from his terrorist activities as a part of AVALANCHE. Red XIII, likewise, is designed to display his surface level personality: that of a wise old spiritual non-human. Underneath this facade, though, we eventually learn the character is a sulking, petulant teenager with daddy issues. Cait Sith is the same way: goofy comic relief mascot character on top, plot important enemy spy underneath.

Aerith Gainsborough

This design philosophy with regards to characters is especially interesting with regards to the game’s ladies. See, the game’s women are deliberately positioned to occupy spaces in pre-existing paradigms for female characters. All three together fit into the slots proposed by the “Three Faces of Eve” structure, while Tifa and Aerith as the game’s romantic interests also fall into a Madonna/Whore complex. Again, though, the characters are designed and written in such a way that they deliberately clash with, comment on, and struggle against the structure into which they’ve been placed.

For example, Aerith is a humble flower girl. She works in the slums, grows her flowers in a church, lives with her mother, fills a “healer” role in the party, is modestly attired in a floor length pink sundress, and wears her hair in a chaste french braid. Superficially, Aerith is being positioned as the “Madonna” to Tifa’s “Whore”, and as the “Wife” Face of Eve. Tifa is designed to be Aerith’s opposite. She works as a bartender, is a physical bruiser type character, dresses in a leather miniskirt and tank top, and her hair somehow manages to always slink seductively into her cleavage. This character is clearly being positioned as the Whore/Seductress archetype.

And yet, the role the two actually play in the story is the opposite of what their design cues tell us. Aerith’s role in the story is to be flirtatious and available, and is romantically aggressive with Cloud. Only shortly after meeting him she procures his services as a body guard and offers to pay him with a date. If you go on your date with her at Gold Saucer she is headstrong and confident about the whole thing. She also has a romantic history, eliminating her claim to the “virginal” status that is supposed to be the baggage of the Madonna archetype. Tifa, meanwhile, is the awkward and shy “unlucky childhood friend” stock. She is bashful and reserved when discussing her feelings with Cloud, and if she ends up as your date at Gold Saucer she initiates the date nervously and by admitting she was “rehearsing” asking you out. Basically, Aerith and Tifa’s behaviour as characters is the opposite of the roles assigned to them by their designs.

(Yuffie’s role in the whole thing is a little less deep, since the only archetype she’s there to fulfill is the “Child” face of Eve. Usually this character is an unsullied innocent- not necessarily a “virtuous” innocent like the Wife, more of a “naive”, childlike simplicity. Most of the time this character’s role in the story is to be protected by the other characters, but obviously in Final Fantasy VII Yuffie is actually perfectly capable of fending for herself, and indeed there comes a point in the story where the party needs to protect ITSELF from HER. She’s still rebelling against the role assigned to her by her design, but she isn’t positioned as any other character’s direct opposite.)

Cid Highwind

Anyway so yeah, Minigame Theory. I probably won’t be putting these up all the time, but expect one now and then, whenever I’ve got enough leftover material to make a sort of academic Bubble and Squeak. I’m pretty much spent on the topic of Final Fantasy VII now, so I probably won’t be revisiting the game for a while, if at all. Maybe there’s a little bit still kicking around here. The first screen of the final dungeon deliberately references the spiral staircase descent in the Nibelheim Mansion, so that’s pretty cool. Maybe I’ll see if I can write a 5000 word essay about that.