Introduction: Unhappily Ever After.
It is a well-known story that Final Fantasy (1987) was to be Squaresoft’s last game when the company went bankrupt. Since then, the series has had 14 “main” games and around 80 spin-offs, which in turn have formed their own sub-franchises. In the last 34 years, not a single year has gone by without a title being released under that name.
Just a few months earlier, Chunsoft’s foundational Dragon Quest (1986) had been released. Yūji Horii’s work is very simple in its approach: here is a hero who must save the princess from the dragon, once he gets the necessary sword and armour. Good luck in your endeavours, noble knight.
Hironobu Sakaguchi’s game, on the other hand, is a slightly more complex subversion. Four heroes are introduced to rescue Princess Sara from the evil knight Garland. Once resolved, the heroes are able to advance on a journey that leads them to defeat four powerful enemies (Earth, Fire, Water and Air) which opens a portal 2000 years into the past. There they discover a surprising twist in the story: Garland, turned into an outcast after his defeat at the hands of the heroes, asked for help from the four villains, who sent him back in time to become a demon and thus secure immortality through a time paradox. The heroes destroy the demonic Garland but, in doing so, erase all traces of his heroic deeds, which have not taken place. Thanks to this discreet return, peace reigns.
The original Final Fantasy establishes two points which we will return to later, but which we will briefly summarise here: 1) the heroes are the ones who caused the problem in the first place 2) the only way to win is to give up being recognised as a hero.
What is interesting about seeing the evolution of both franchises in parallel is how they establish a very distinct pattern in the type of storytelling they handle. Both franchises were born in response to the Japan’s popularity of Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (1981) and Dungeons & Dragons, and while the influence is very noticeable, they have established their own distinct personalities. Dragon Quest wants to take you on an adventure without too much of a twist, in the classic style of a fairy tale or a story of chivalry. Final Fantasy is, from its inception, unnecessarily convoluted and subversive. Final Fantasy is not a triumphant adventure. This philosophy carries over into some of the mechanics: Losing a fight in Final Fantasy is “Game Over”, losing in Dragon Quest is waking up somewhere else with half the money.
What defines these role-playing games so focused on “grinding” is the basic idea of growth: we assume a role (usually predefined in the Japanese genre) of a low level but through combat and actions we gain experience and resources that allow us to face greater challenges. In a JRPG the goal is to “grow to advance”. No wonder, then, that they tend to be coming-of-age stories.
Take Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (1992) as an example. The first scene of the game shows us as a baby in our mother’s arms. Soon we are a child having adventures on a night-time escapade to an enchanted castle. Tragedy strikes and we find ourselves as enslaved teenagers on the run from our captors. In the event that gives the game its name, we have to declare love to our future wife. And the game doesn’t stop: now you’re a new parent, years go by, and it’s your children who are starring in the adventure. Dragon Quest V is specifically about growing up and maturing. It’s also a game where (surprise!) you’re not the hero of the game: you’re his father.
Wait a minute, didn’t we say that Dragon Quest was the saga that upheld convention and Final Fantasy was the one that subverted it? Well, by then Squaresoft’s saga had already released Final Fantasy IV (1991) where we start the game being the executioner hand of a mad king and seriously wondering if we might be serving the wrong side, something that will be repeated in future instalments.
I. Now, in 3D!
Let’s not kid ourselves: FFVII wasn’t an earthquake because its story turned genre conventions upside down. Masato Kato had already collaborated with Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura on Chrono Trigger (1995) — a game that didn’t take long to drop a cold shower on the player in the form of futuristic genocide — and soon after that he would take on the incredibly complex Xenogears (1998). If there really was a change of reception to the genre it was due to a commercial and primarily visual campaign.
You have to understand the context in which JRPGs found themselves, where the previous year titles such as Pokémon Red/Blue, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Vandal Hearts, Wild Arms, The Legend of Oasis, Persona and Suikoden had been released. They were by no means in a bad form. JRPGs were the perfect Trojan horse for more “cinematic” games: they were very long games with a huge emphasis on characters and plot. Unsurprisingly, FFVII’s marketing campaign focused on highlighting this with slogans like “Coming To A Screen Near You”, “Is Your TV Screen Big Enough?” or “You Can Actually Hear Your Pupils Dilate”.
One thing to keep in mind during its release was that the game had been delayed. Several times. The main problem arose from working under Nintendo’s restrictions, where the limitations of the cartridge format were compounded by a reluctance to some, shall we say, less family-friendly content. Not that FFVII is particularly “adult” when viewed from the perspective of 2021, beyond some very demure sexual nods: Don Corneo, Honey Bee Inn and the fade to black at the end of Disc 2 which, in turn, is an homage to a similar innuendo in Final Fantasy IV.
There were high expectations that could easily have been disappointed. Squaresoft could have stuck with just bringing the JRPG to the third dimension in style, but FFVII’s level of content is very ambitious. Namely Chochobos racing, an RTS in Fort Condor, snowboarding downhill, the combats in Battle Square and that’s not to mention other sections specifically designed for set pieces, such as the barrel throwing when you first meet Aeris in the church or the excavations in Bone Town. Comparing this to the opera and tower defence of Final Fantasy VI shows the degree of involvement that went into making FFVII a standalone.
Not that the game doesn’t have some things I don’t like. For starters, the design of some of the pre-rendered backgrounds can get very confusing. Exploring certain “hidden” aspects of the game is especially obtuse and requires a real effort in a relatively long game for its time. I hate Gold Saucer and its orthopaedic gameplay. The last dungeon is, quite obviously in retrospect, a warning of all the bad decisions Square-Enix would make in the future.
Under the Compilation project (2004-), Squaresoft (now Square-Enix), would follow in the footsteps of George Lucas and the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It’s not hard to understand why: here you have the archetypal hero, a young blond rookie knight with a sword, who, forming a group with social outcasts, fights against a technocratic Empire in defence of a more mystical way of understanding his place in the Universe. The hero suffers a great loss, confronts his personal demons and revelations about his secret origin, and returns to fulfil his role as saviour, now with the direct help of the ghosts of the past. FFVII became the Star Wars of JRPGs — or, to stay in the same country, remember that Neon Genesis Evangelion was released in the same year — and Compilation has cast such a large shadow that Square-Enix has been torn between chasing or running from that legacy.
II. “We’ve got to let go of Aeris’ memory”
Rivers of ink have been spilled over the death of Aerith (a 24 years old spoiler). The quickest way to dismiss it is to say that it’s a dramatic moment in a game that many of us experienced young, but, as others before me have noted, it’s not just about that. The real impact depends on a number of factors:
- It happens when the player has had about 20 hours to become familiar with the character,
- One of the moments beforehand could have been — depending on the decisions we have made beforehand — a romantic date with her,
- Her character is a support class (healer/white mage) who, at high levels, is very effective to the point of increasing the Limit Breaks of the other two party members, which makes combat much easier, making her absence more noticeable,
- The portrayal of her death is very clever. I think this point has been less talked about. First there is a slight deception where the player approaches her as Cloud and begins to perform actions without being very clear what is going on. At one point Cloud draws his weapon and it is clear that he is being forced to kill Aerith. At the last moment, Cloud manages to break his conditioning… we breathe with relief. A cinematic begins where Aerith looks up at us smiling, and a shocking close-up reveals Sephiroth falling on top of her! Aerith dies, and the hitherto stoic Cloud weeps, curses and rages. The whole tough guy facade comes crashing down. And something else strange happens: we jump into a boss fight, Jenova-LIFE, but the sad music (Aerith’s Theme) doesn’t stop. It continues throughout the fight and some time later, where our companions say goodbye to Aerith, Cloud takes her in his arms and lets her body sink into the lake. Fade to black: “End of Part One. Do you want to save your game? Yes/No”.
- The next piece of plot we get after this tragedy is a series of video recordings of her parents, with Aerith noticeably absent or off-camera. Except for an optional blink-and-you-miss-it moment where we get to see her spirit back in the church where we first met her, we don’t get anything resembling an appearance until literally the confusing ending cinematic.
But if this were the only dramatic part of interest, we wouldn’t be talking about it. As usual in JRPGs, each member of our party has their own character arc. Barrett is the guardian of his best friend’s little daughter, presumed dead but actually imprisoned and resentful of his partner until he can’t live with his own anger and decides to kill himself. Cid is a verbally abusive scientist who loses his chance to be the first man in space by avoiding the needless death of a scientist who doesn’t mind dying in exchange for fixing a bug in the rocket. Cait Sith is a friendly corporate mascot who, in a short period of time, goes from traitor to the group to sacrificing one of their bodies to retrieve the Black Materia. Red XIII discovers that his absent father was actually a hero whose spirit protects Cosmo Canyon. Yuffie seems harmless until she steals all of your materia with the intention that it will help her regain her people’s lost honour.
Can you already see the pattern emerging in common?
They are all stories about hated people who, in reality, have made a difficult decision to sacrifice themselves for others. They choose to do what they consider morally right even if it means being disowned by those they hold dear.
I wonder how much there is here of that hero from Final Fantasy IV who no longer wanted to be the knight in shining armour.
III. “Let’s mosey”
A concept that has been gaining momentum as video games have grown is the “Point of No Return”. The Point of No Return is that moment when all available options in the game are blocked because the main story needs a turning point or a change of act, usually the denouement, and requires blocking all previous events. If before we could wander around the map having different combats to gain experience or collect resources, now we will enter the final stretch or an event that prevents us from returning to that map.
This especially applies to RPGs because of their open-ended nature, but as many games have established sandbox worlds, other games have created their own Points of No Return. In other words: the more variety of events a game offers, the more painful it is to deprive ourselves of it.
As if the future is losing possibilities as the reality of time makes it more concrete.
FFVII has several Points Of No Return. The first occurs when the heroes are forced to leave the city of Midgar. From here, the main map opens up, allowing us to navigate between some of the main points, either by triggering events that continue the story, encountering side and optional quests, or simply taking part in one of the mini-games. Later on, we discover vehicles that allow us to unlock areas inaccessible on foot.
The division between the beginning in Midgar and the rest of the map is also thematic: from a story of eco-terrorists against an omnipotent corporation, we move on to a story of revenge.
When Aerith dies, if we haven’t raised her experience enough, there’s no going back to get her Limit Break. It also matters what equipment she had before she left the world of the living. But, the important thing at that point is that everything seems to indicate that this is a Point Of No Return. The change of disc only makes it more ominous.
Then the adventure continues on the second disc and the game limits us to continue on to another important (and somewhat less well done, IMO) point: chasing Sephiroth and discovering the truth about Cloud. There doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to explore the main map again. A catastrophic event (commonplace in many JRPGs) takes place in the Crater and we lose Cloud.
For all we know, this could be definitive. We have already lost Aerith. We have already left the main map behind. We are now chained and imprisoned by our enemies. Even in the triumphant moment when Tifa escapes her execution at the hands of Shinra, we are remarked that Cloud isn’t there, that we don’t know where he is and that, well, the adventure could go on from there, now transmuted back into its theme: it’s a kaiju story, a disaster movie, five minutes before the apocalypse.
And yet the map opens up again. Yes, there are small changes, but this end of the world is overdue. In terms of structure, we’ve just passed the “resurrection” of our story arc, where the heroes have survived their worst moment and are now back with renewed vigour, trying to make a plan. There is some relief: it has not been a “complete” Point of No Return. We can still go back to certain parts and grow our characters.
FFVII is, in itself, a Point Of No Return for Squaresoft. On a commercial level because of the huge advertising campaign, the format change (from cartridge to multiple discs), how ambitious it had been growing since FFIV. It was also trying to be a departure in JRPGs, and, in a way, it has remained emblematic of that. It will never cease to be intriguing how its intention to subvert many of the ideas and expectations that populated the genre have, in turn, become tropes of future games. That is the extent of its legacy.
But, above all, FFVII is specifically about Points Of No Return. Rather, it is about coming to terms with Points Of No Return, with what cannot be undone or changed, with what we have inherited. “This is what it is, and it’s not so bad”.
IV. “I’m going to live my life without pretending.”
A brief parenthesis:
When I was 12 years old I got sick. Nothing serious but I had to spend some time in bed without much to do. My aunt came over one day and brought me something to pass the time: a J.R.R. Tolkien collection with covers by John Howe. This included The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, they were very important readings for me. I treasure those books like gold.
Flash forward only a few years later, finishing high school. If you had met me at that time you would have thought I was a complete moron (I mean: more so than now). You would have found me explaining to you that Tolkien is fine as a starting point for heroic fantasy, but what was really important in the genre was that Robert E. Howard was much more influential, Michael Moorcock loaded his characters with moral ambiguity and let me tell you about an almost unknown saga called A Song of Ice and Fire…
At 34 years old I would say that I understand much better what Tolkien wanted to write. My mistake was to confuse it with mere escapism, to link it excessively to a childhood memory, to something I had to leave behind. He had to distance himself as much as possible in order to show, clearly and plainly, that Middle-earth had become small and old-fashioned. After all, to grow up was to move on, wasn’t it?
Who cares about Superman? He’s a boy scout in garish colours. He doesn’t have the psychological complexity of Batman, who on top of that has no powers and relies on his wits and talents and wears black while catching psychopaths at night. Superman can in no way be for adults, am I right?
Well, actually, yes. Superman may be a child’s view of adulthood (DC’s Captain Marvel is an even more obvious example of this idea) while Batman is a teenager’s view of what adulthood is all about: the former involves being powerful enough to fly and be free and happy, the latter is about growing up as a very serious and grave matter full of pain, twisted gargoyles and alleys in the rain. But… but Superman is also the desire to be an adult while Batman is a resistance to it. Yes, Superman has a boring job and the girl he likes has no time for him while Batman is rich and a playboy and he has no time for it but he has time to use his many expensive toys against his enemies.
Superman is interesting because he is the best version of being an adult: he is there, asserting his power and maturity, to protect others. Batman is the worst version of being an adult: growing up as a synonym for resentment towards a lost childhood. Superman might have it all but he doesn’t need it to be happy, Batman has it all but doesn’t enjoy it.
Switching comic book publishers: okay, Tony Stark saves the world with a funny comment at the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), but it’s Captain America who holds the Mjölnir. It’s Steve Rogers who literally lives to get (older).
What adult wants the nomadic, solitary life of Conan, the sickly obsession of Elric of Melniboné or the apprehension of the Stark family when they can be a happy hobbit?
Why is it that at this age Samwise Gamgee seems to me a much more mature and admirable character than all those other dark protagonists of heroic fantasy?
If we are talking about RPGs today, it is because the creators of Ultima I, at some point, also read Tolkien. Let’s close parentheses.
Meet Cloud. He’s a tough guy, a mercenary of few words who waves a giant sword and rides a motorbike. Women are crazy about him but he pays no attention to them. He has no ties to anyone. In fact, he only cares about getting paid for his work.
40 hours later…
This is Cloud. He’s a dork mess who can barely control his feelings. For a while he tried really hard to imitate a guy he admired but he’s not even a shadow of him. He thought he was doing the right thing when he was just being manipulated by his enemy. He has lost the love of his life but, now, he and his friends are going to protect the planet because it’s the right thing to do.
Cloud is intriguing as a character because he represents a hero archetype (honourable, persevering, a bit arrogant) but the reason he fits this archetype so well is because he is actually imitating someone else’s behaviour. It’s no longer a question of whether the hero starts out on the wrong side (FFIV and FFVI) or whether he’s the cause of Evil existing in the first place and is doomed to sacrifice his heroic halo (FFI).
Cloud is a Final Fantasy protagonist who is cosplaying a Final Fantasy hero.
Conclusion: “This day will never come again…”
If I’m not mistaken, Final Fantasy VII was released in Spain in November 1997. That means I played it for the first time in spring 1998, at a schoolmate’s house. I had previously played Rayman (1995), Resident Evil (1996) and Tomb Raider (1996) on the original PlayStation, but it would be this and Metal Gear Solid (1998) that would cement a vision that videogames were heading somewhere strange and mysterious. The move from cartridge to CD-Rom (that optical, laser-technology, almost weightless format with a rainbow-mirrored surface) didn’t just mean graphics power and game lenght. It also meant that more ambitious works could be made while remaining accessible.
It had been 23 years since I’d last returned to FFVII. Well, not quite: in 1999 I’d installed it on my PC and I still vividly remember an installer with the image of Cait Sith in front of the Chocobo Racing stadium. I’d also bought the game on its release on Steam in 2013, tried it out to see what worked, walked around Midgar a bit, and there it sat. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the release of the Remake (2020) but I knew I wanted to go back to the original game before I tried it. When I started to see what direction Nomura had taken the new version in, I made it my goal to finish the original again before playing this one.
I remember Final Fantasy VIII (1999) differently. I remember it better, or at least that’s what I told myself for years when FFVII came up in conversations. I think it was the feeling that Squall seemed more adult, and therefore the game itself was more adult, more realistic, less cartoony. Squall was what Cloud wanted to be. I plan to return to Final Fantasy VIII (maybe this year?) but the truth is that, in the process of continuing my studies and leaving the world of videogames to one side, I didn’t return to the series until (gulp!) Final Fantasy XIII (2009), another game that, I imagine, I would judge more benignly today.
I think it took Squaresoft (and later Square-Enix) a long time to understand what lesson to take away from FFVII’s success. For a while, it was an aesthetic fixation, not just on the visuals but on trying to recreate an atmosphere of surprise and confusion without understanding that none of it had any value without engaging with those characters, without worlds that you really want to inhabit and hang out in. Maybe they corrected earlier than I remember, because, in between, there are still gaps that I left when I started to look at the saga with perspective. But I think there was a conscious intention to distance themselves, whether it was out of respect or the need to show that, well, yeah, they could also grow up ignoring what the game meant to them.
In a way, I left FFVII behind. To grow up, I thought, was to move on and leave behind. Nostalgia is not good: it is, by definition, reactionary. But there is also nothing positive in discarding what has proved formative. Thinking that the next instalment was better was a way of, like Cloud, distancing myself and trying to pretend otherwise. Playing FFVII in 2021 has been about making peace with that part of me and reconciling that there is no problem in saying that yes, FFVII was, in many ways, a Point Of No Return for the medium.