Looking at Final Fantasy VII – Part 2: Story and Characters
Part 1: Graphics and Audio
Story, it’s always mentioned as being the key factor for most JRPG players, and it’s starting to become more important in gaming in general. A good story, a well written one, often is hard to find. The level of storytelling in games is still in a stage of growth, it’s improving but the quality isn’t always too high. I think any honest gamer would admit that stories aren’t all that great in most of the games they have played.
So with this history of poorly written stories and storytelling, how does a game that is focused around the progression of the story actually hold up? Does it mean the story is better, does it mean it should be better? Well, when the story is the driving mechanic, you would expect it to be of a high quality, but Final Fantasy VII is in the same league as most tales told; it’s not too strong and it’s a little muddled to say the least.
The story opens well enough, you find out quickly what you are doing, and what relationship you (Cloud) have with the characters. The visual storytelling works well here, and you get a very clear idea of where you are. It’s actually a good solid opening. And this continues after the first mission is complete. But this isn’t really the crux of the story being told here, and that’s the issue. The fact is, is that the games story is essentially a bunch of heroes are chasing down a deluded villain who is intent on crippling the planet.
That’s the real shame; there are some nice plots here and there, but the overall plot is that of chasing down a someone with little real meaning to the havoc that they intend to cause. Any weight of his reasoning is completely destroyed when you realize that he’s just mentally unstable, and that makes a lot of the story aspects lose some meaning.
On top of the core plot line being shallow, the general narrative has some issues too. There is emphasis put in many areas that actually end up being not that important in the end (like summoning Holy and Cloud rediscovering himself). You find out later on in the story, that Cloud is not who he thinks he is. When you find this out, you also realize that all of this rivalry that was built up between Sephiroth and Cloud is actually quite weak, it takes a lot of impact out of the core plot line and the drive of the characters. Cloud was actually a no-body who just happened to kill Sephiroth. Before this though, there really wasn’t anything between them. There even wasn’t much between them during the death scene. It could have been anyone.
So, the game’s main rivalry is loosely linked, or at least it’s only really a one way rivalry because Sephiroth doesn’t seem to be to preoccupied with the fact that Cloud ‘killed’ him. The reason for the story to continue is that the one of the main antagonists is simply a guy who isn’t sane now that the personal meaning to an extent has been lost.
Another antagonist is Hojo, a character who holds little relation to anyone besides Vincent, and Vincent is a character that you don’t need to interact with. He calls Cloud a failed experiment, but that doesn’t really tie too deeply into the main story, and the or really Cloud's personally story. It was a plot device that helped push the passing of the Black Materia fowards. Even if Cloud wasn’t a failed experiment, if he was unrelated to the experiments, it wouldn’t really have much of an impact on how the story pans out. The controlling aspect could have been replaced with something else.
The importance of Hojo is in what happened with Sephiroth, but that aspect isn’t as interesting until it connects to Vincent…which is again, not something that you will really know unless you find it out. It's not a part of the main story that is being told. It could have been considered negligible information, which to me seems like quite an oversight.
Away from the antagonists, another key plot aspect is the Ancients. This is another aspect that really doesn’t get fleshed out too much. Aeris is an Ancient, but it has little bearing on any of the story considering that her heritage allowed her to summon Holy, which in the end doesn't really server a purpose. The only result from her summoning is her death.
Beyond that, it is referenced that Jenova is incorrectly an Ancient withing the story but later defined that she is more like an alien. She is referenced as the Calamity from the Skies, something that the Ancients feared which was also something that was seemingly easy to contain in the current timeline. It seems strange that something so poweful and destructive was as containable as it is during the present. It's not a huge error, maybe not an error at all, but going from being as dangerous as it was, to becoming a research experiment is really quite a change.
The Jenova virus story aspect could have been a very interesting branch. The infection, a controlling virus that manipulates, but it never really happened. It was limited to those who were purposely infected (SOLDIER), rather than it acting as an actual contagion. The virus, the original danger and what ushered in the fall of the Ancients wasn’t active any longer even though Jenova was still very much being spread around. But perhaps this can be explained through it weakening over time due to it being isolated? I don’t know, it’s possible, but it could have been used much more. Why would Jenova no longer continue who standard process?
Although there were all of these issues with the story - and I have only highlighted some aspects that raise questions or seem to create a hole - there were also some nice ideas as well. The first time you saw the sword in the back of the Shinra President it made you ask a question. This is good for a story. And although it was poorly paced; the flash back in Kalm did work well to an extent. It was also a way of letting the player take part in the story rather than just be told, fighting alongside Sephiroth was a nice touch and it gave you an insight into the character. More is learned about him here than anywhere else in the entire game.
Another strong aspect of the story was the relationship that Shinra had with it, and how the Turks were part of this world. It was very unique how you were able to see how a mega-corp was going to take on this supernatural threat. It’s been played out in movies many, many times, but this was still something fresh for games. Often, this kind of corporation or government would be villainous and linked to the main antagonist, or on the flip side, simply be supporting the good guys, rooting for them. But in this, Shinra under the guidance of Rufus became like a kind of Lex Luthor run group. Not really a good guy, but they were doing what they believed was the best course of action. It leads to Midgar being bombarded by Diamond Weapon, but they did so because they had a realistic reaction to the threat. They didn’t just sit back and say “let the bunch of heroes do it” like many JRPG's tend to do.
The major problem with the Final Fantasy VII story is that there is just far too much going on, far too much not fleshed out, and way too many misguided plot focuses. The game had grounds for something really great, they could have built on the virus and the Shinra aspect but instead they went for a fairytale. There was a villain for the purpose of being a villain, and a hero for the purpose of being a hero. The deep potential of world that was created was never fully realized. Its story took a different route, but perhaps this version was more fitting of the title; Fantasy.
Cloud; big sword, emo dude…
It’s really a shame that people see Final Fantasy VII’s impact as such a negative one besides those who are irrationally attached to the game. The characters in the game or at least the two main characters have become something of a point of negativity for the JRPG genre. But that’s more a problem with the people viewing the characters than the characters themselves. There is an unreasonable grudge held against these meshes of polygons and textures that just seems bizarre on the grand scheme of things. What makes it more bizarre is how inaccurate some of the complaints really are too, or how the extensions of the Final Fantasy VII world have distorted some of the characters.
I won’t give each character a run down, but we’ll look at general characterization with some greater focus on the key players.
The extended world of Final Fantasy VII affected some of the characters quite a bit, and that’s only really a problem for Cloud it seems. In VII, Cloud can be dislikable sure, he’s rude, abrasive and arrogant, but he does have a sense of humour and that comes to define his character quite a lot. You see him shake his head as a humourous response, or a facepalm to something someone has said. And you see this happen more than you hear him moan and sulk. There is some sulking, but it would be understandable given the situation. He loses all of his identity, and the confidence he had is smashed by finding out who or what he is or isn’t.
This character take, one of a false identity, of self delusion and thinking you are someone else, was something new. It was an interesting character to try. But regardless of this set back he suffers in the game, he pick himself up and did what he knew had to be done. He lost friends (twice, if you include remembering Zack), he lost his identity, he was made to believe he was something he was not, and he was controlled to do things he wouldn’t do. His journey as a character was spun around, but through it all, he was a good guy. He retained his humour, and he was actually an interesting, if occasionally caustic hero.
The rest of the characters in the game really didn’t get that amount of fleshing out. Tifa for instance, there was a back story but everything that you were supposed to know about her was really false in a way. She wasn’t being truthful for the vast majority of the game, and that kind of puts a question mark over her. All you really know is that she is quite bubbly, friendly and suplexes stuff. She has a little history which tells of her past character, but her present character and that fact that she neglected to tell Cloud the truth is never an aspect that is looked into deeper.
This is the same with Aeris, another character who really doesn’t say much throughout other than friendly chit-chat. She seems to just smile through most of the game and when it finally happens, you do realize that you have lost someone, a companion, but you really don’t know much about her at all. Both are likable characters because they don’t do anything offensive, but neither contains any real depth, or the depth they have is never ventured into. When Aeris decides to run away, she is presented as knowing more that she has let on, so the point where she could potentially start to build her character outward comes too late. Maybe this helps the story to an extent, as you are left longing. But it doesn't replace what wasn't done with the character and what Aeris had to offer.
The rest of the default cast; Barrett, Cid, Cait Sith and Red XIII all have little story branches that attempt to tell you a little more about them and some of them do work well. Knowing and meeting Dyne (as massive a coincidence that it is) shows you a little more about the guy who dotes on what was thought to be; his daughter. Cid’s background and his failed attempts at space travel also help give you more information on the character, and Red XIII finding out about his father is another nice short. The revelation of Cait Sith is a good attempt at a twist, but it falls flat and doesn’t mean anything in the long run or doesn’t make sense in how the character continues to fit into the story. And this is the problem with all of those characters; they have this minor fleshing out, but it doesn’t end up meaning much to the rest of the story. It doesn’t change the way they act, it doesn’t make them more interesting either because some characters don't seem to be in positions where they influence any key story aspects.
Vincent and Yuffie potentially have the most interesting stories to tell because they need to be granted purpose for their inclusion. Although Yuffie’s tale is far from deep or meaningful, it does give you a female member with a little character, something that both Aeris and Tifa lacked, they were both very similar. Although you don’t really get a whole lot on Vincent, he does have a link to the story (which is actually pretty important), so there is a good understanding of why he is how he is, and his reasons for acting that way. It’s amazing that he isn’t a default character considering his relationship to other aspects of the game world like Turks, Shinra, Hojo and so on.
Finally, there is Sephiroth. When you realize that beyond the cool sword and silver hair there is someone who is very, very unstable, he loses a lot of what could have made him an interesting villain. Interesting villains are usually intelligent; it makes them unpredictable in an interesting way, not just unpredictable in a “they don’t know what they are doing” way. There are early instances where Sephiroth is interesting, when you first see the sword and read the name in the dialog boxes, and when you stand and fight alongside him and go to Nibelheim. But all of these aspects don’t matter when the character who you are chasing is not actually this subtle and powerful figure, but a guy who has basically lost his sanity.
As the game progresses, Sephiroth usually appears and says things that have without any context, making what he says quite confusing and not in a sense that adds mystery for the most part. It seems to be an attempt at adding depth, but it never really works. He becomes quite annoying by the end of it, almost pantomime villain like in the way that he tends to laugh off any kind of question. If not for his appearance, there really wouldn’t be the level of fascination around him. But he was one of the fortunate ones that bettered from the extended world, but that’s a different conversation…
Final Fantasy VII does manage to present you with some diverse characters, people like the Rufus, Turks, Don Corneo, Scarlet and Heidegger are all nice additions to the game. The world presents some very interesting concepts and ideas. The way the mega-corp is used and the confused hero. But it is too much and it just doesn’t get covered well enough. Instead, the focus is on the less interesting and more simplistic aspects of the game world.
There is an interesting world full of interesting characters, but the story that you are told is the most limited one that could be possible within the world, the locals, characters and scenarios that had been teased at times. There could have been more, there should have been more. But it ended up being untidy and loose. The story was caught up trying to be somewhat abstract at times in the message that it was trying to deliver. But where it was supposed to be deep, it came off confusing and actually a little absurd. But there are areas in this world that could have been deep, and characters who could have meant and offered up more.
The game tried too many things, and delivered on what could be seen as the weaker elements. Fortunately it was carried by an interesting world, and appealing visual design.
The story and characters of Final Fantasy VII are lacking in the depth that was hinted to have been there, but only some came through. Most were left behind in what could have been something very special.