Speaking of thick things, let’s talk about the characters. Never before have I wished for an airship to crash and leave no survivors. It’s as if the writers had a big box of attributes and drew them randomly. For example, they drew blonde, giant anime sword, and amnesiac after which Cloud Strife came into the world. First of all his name sounds like an 80s band that did gigs at truck stops, and by “gigs” I mean “happy endings.” You can of course change all of the character’s names in true Final Fantasy fashion. I recommend going with “6pc McFucknugget.” The second thing is that his big character trait is that he has forgotten who he was, and instead thinks that he is somebody named Zack. That’s right everybody (also, spoilers. Oops?) the main character of Final Fantasy 7 is basically passing himself off as somebody better equipped and more interesting. When a character’s entire characterization is that they think they’re somebody named “Zack,” you have a literal cipher.
It’s fine to have a few characters with ill defined traits, but doing it with a main character is a recipe for nobody caring. It is occasionally okay if the main character doesn’t matter, and if anything it allows for the player to project qualities onto their avatars. For example, the Fighter, Black Mage, White Mage et al in Final Fantasy 1 didn’t have any specific character traits, but they weren’t the center of a character driven narrative. In truth they were all interchangeable. It worked in that game, but fails like an anime inspired pickup line in Final Fantasy VII.
The only thing less interesting than the main character is the villain Sephiroth. The writers went back to the attribute allocating tire fire and drew: different blond, really silly anime sword, science, and birthing hips. Seriously, he’s the only character ever created that could make Cloud Strife look masculine. Along with that, it turns out through the course of playing the game that he has issues stemming from his apparent experimentation. Oh, that’s right, didn’t you hear? Final Fantasy VII uses every possible anime trope ever conceived by laudanum marinaded brain meat; including “was experimented on,” which led directly to his insanity, evil, and the final boss fight. At some point the raison d’etre for his scheme is because the plot says so.
This is not to say that trope can’t work. Science going terribly awry is something that Stan Lee built an empire on. Just throwing that into a fetid stew of anime offal doesn’t work. Before you can just pull those traits out you need a reason to, and assuming an if / then relationship with character traits isn’t enough. Final Fantasy VII makes Sephiroth act the way that he does because the plot, and the archetype, requires it not because it makes any sense for his character. When you are building a story, a writer needs to think about what the characters would actually do, not what the writer wants them to do, and not what they would like them to do to move the story along. It’s easy to start getting into a TMNT type situation where the plot is driving the characters and not the other (correct) way around. Sephiroth is turned into a villain for basically no reason other than he happens to have the correct cliched trope.
Proof that it can be done is with the most interesting character in the game – Vincent Valentine. Make no mistake, he too is a bundle of tropes from the discount bin – stoic, mercenary, vampire, science and steampunk arm because, sure, why not? They’re all bits that shouldn’t work together, yet when the extra spice of a lost love is added he strangely becomes somebody that, if not interesting, you can at least sympathize with. Of course, Final Fantasy VII manages to tongue kiss a firework in this regard too, and you can miss him entirely. That McFucknuggets is the main character in lieu of Vincent is a clear cock up of priorities.
The Gameplay Cont.
You better hope that this song gets the blood flowing to your bathing suit areas, because you’re gonna hear it a lot. Like, hundreds and hundreds of times, over and over until it’s buried deeper in your brain that all of those Manchurian Candidate instructions. You’re going to get stopped, like a lot; every dozen steps or so. Doing a story bit? Too bad, you’re getting attacked. Trying to get back to the ship? Sucks to be you, you’re getting attacked. Just trying to walk to a save point so your progress through this festering sore of a game isn’t lost? Well, fuck you – combat party time.
Let us take a moment and really think about the concept of pacing, because the designers over at Square sure didn’t. For a good director, pacing is something that they spend a lot of time trying to control. On a very basic level, pacing is the ability to control the perceived passage of time within a narrative. An example is if something is supposed to happen quickly, the escape from a MAKO reactor for example, creating very few moments of downtime creates a feeling of speed. By moving quickly from one thing to the next and keeping those interactions unique, it makes a player get the impression that the velocity of the narrative (or gameplay) is accelerating. There are parts of Final Fantasy VII that do a decent job of this, and every single one of them is in the city of Midgar.
The issue of course is that most of the game and larger story beats take place outside of that city. This makes the game take on a pattern of: Story thing happens -> a bunch of random battles -> boss – > story thing -> repeat. Story things are great usually. I mean, the story in Final Fantasy VII reads like it could have been penned by an Assburgers riddled nine year old, but the point still stands. However, if you follow up a story beat that had implied time sensitivity with a bunch of random battles, it kills any momentum that had been created. For example, shortly after Aeris Gainsborough is stabbed to death by Sephiroth (that was a spoiler. Oops?) instead of letting the player sit and stew in that, they are thrust back to the world map to partake in more random battles. The pacing is destroyed and the player has little they can do but feel impotent and take it out on random mooks.
That’s not to say that random battles are impossible to have in a story based game. The trick is to use them correctly. A better example is Final Fantasy VI. It too has a random battle system. However, it does a much better job of creating a context for those battles to take place. In the first half of the game, the story involves the collection of characters and is almost explicitly episodic. Coincidentally the battles are usually part of some greater arc and made to seem like a natural extension of the vignettes being told. In the second half within the World of Ruin, the whole planet is messed up and landing the airship anywhere puts the characters in hostile territory. In both cases, the story beats are never put into a situation where the pacing of the story could be adversely affected.
The same holds true in Final Fantasy X. In that game the story is doled out when a player first encounters a new zone in Spira. The random battles are there, but are so wildly disconnected from the main story so that their inclusion has no effect on the pacing. The journey continues, Tidus and Wassername fall in love, Rikku looks for ever smaller shorts, and nothing of consequence is interrupted when the screen swirls and the animals attack. Comparatively, having Final Fantasy VII try really hard to convince me something is important, and then hit me with a random battle to prove that it’s not, makes my taint tighten in revulsion. It asks the player to take everything seriously, and then the mechanics undermine the whole affair until I just can’t wait for a Meteor to come on down and give everyone a great big, flaming hug.
To say that Final Fantasy VII is the high water mark of the franchise is to damn any future Final Fantasy to darkness and degenerate gameplay. In the end, there is nothing good about any particular aspect of Final Fantasy VII. The story is a super-clusterfucking grab bag of anime cliches, populated by characters that in real life you would cross the street to avoid. Like a crazy ex the game mechanics can’t wait to stop you from what you’re doing, and then go out of their way to make you hurry up and finish once the action starts. In the end it’s an awful menudo of leftover pieces and chocobo chunks, boiled and rendered away until all that remains are chewy, barely edible assholes swimming around in digital broth.
And that, is the Takedown.
Like normal, if I’ve encouraged the most savage of nerd rage, please unleash the kraken that is your hate in the comments. Its fiery anger is the only thing that still warms my increasingly cold heart. Or, if you think I’m simultaneously correct in my critical assessment and roguishly handsome, feel free to defend my virtue from their razor sharp Masamunes. In either case, a random encounter on the internet is more fulfilling than this game was, and might even turn sexy.
Until next time.