FFVII and How I Got Here

8 September, 2010 § 1 Comment

My “first” shipped to America when I was eight years old, and I’m sure my brother and I bought it from the K-Mart next to our house not long after it came out. For the next year or more of our lives, “Final Fantasy VII” (PS, Squaresoft 1997) was an all-encompassing obsession.

The protagonist of "FFVII", Cloud Strife, in updated PS3 form.

We hadn’t experienced anything like it. For us and a whole new breed of Western gamers the role playing game (or RPG) was an entirely novel and alluring concept. Instead of the fast paced 2D action games we were used to, “FFVII” was an extremely lengthy game driven by story and character development. For someone used to “Sonic” and “Super Mario Bros.” games, this more nuanced production was like seeing color film for the first time in the 1930s and 40s. To this day I’ll still pop it in my PS2 and simply enjoy the carefully detailed world and Nobuo Uematsu’s masterpiece of a soundtrack (even the datedness of the midi technology can’t stop the pieces from getting stuck in my head).

“FFVII” set out to deconstruct many aspects of the RPG genre its series largely created and codified. Cloud Strife, the main character and player avatar (the character the player controls and thus relates to and develops) for almost all of the game, was a powerful warrior with a shady past; the game later reveals that Cloud outright fabricated most of his storied life as a famous warrior because he’s a pathetic wannabe seeking power in someone else’s story (sound familiar, gamers? Because IT’S YOU!!!)

Many of the characters have some sort of tragic past that isn’t outright revealed, a far cry from the heroic warriors and mages of previous RPGs. And in a massive (and a little bit uncomfortable in retrospect) relativist reimagining of the typical RPG party many of the characters are members of a desperate eco-terrorist group that bombs power reactors through the dystopian cyberpunk city the game starts in. In short, this was a RPG made for Generation X, with plenty of deeply flawed heroes, corrupt and conspiratorial authority figures, and a cynical view of technology overtaking nature.

But in its biggest subversion, “FFVII” brought the harsh reality of death to gaming in one of the most famous and shocking scenes in video games. The character Aerith was established as a beautiful, kind woman and (importantly) the last member of her species of ancients. She was the messianic character, one who would bring the depraved world back in touch with the planet it was ruining.

And halfway through the game she is brutally murdered on screen. And she’s Really Effing Dead.

A long held trope of the RPG was that members defeated in battle were “knocked unconscious”; if every party member is knocked unconscious then a game over screen would be prompted. RPGs spared the player from death in almost every occasion. This removal of a meaningful death from games that featured countless monsters (and sometimes people) killed as enemies created a naive sense of invincibility. This kept “Final Fantasy” and other RPGs firmly in the realm of, well, fantasy.

Aerith’s death was the ultimate subversion of the sword and sandals hijinks of the typical RPG. The game proved it was deadly serious (excuse the pun) in using death as a thematic device. For the rest of the game the characters must deal with the consequences of her death. The message is clear: it’s impossible to escape death, even in a medium that was (and still is) thought of as one of escapism.

Guess who doesn't make it.

Countless gamers were shocked, many to the point of tears. The timing of the death only compounds the hopelessness: after her initial stabbing the party must fight a boss battle (accompanied by the Nobuo Uematsu’s haunting “Aerith’s Theme”) and endure a cutscene confirming that Aerith is indeed dead. And then pops up the “Please Insert Disc 2” screen, leaving gamers to contemplate and reflect on what just happened (as well as reminding them to PUT DISC 2 IN HOLY CRAP WHAT IS GOING ON?).

Aerith’s death in “FFVII” wasn’t a massive turning point in gaming, but it proved that video games were capable of self-evaluation and could see through their inherent flaws and tropes. Most gamers turned to video games for escapism; “FFVII,” with its byzantine plot and emotionally involved character development, shattered the notion of games as pure entertainment and laid the ground for more artistic and meaningful works to come.

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