Back in the halcyon days of the late 90’s, it would always amaze me when people would say that they wanted a return to the “old style” Final Fantasies. You know what I am talking about- more Fantasy, a medieval setting, more “conventional” battle systems, etc. To them, Square had sold it soul to the graphics devil when they moved to the Playstation, trading style for substance.
After replaying Final Fantasy 7 for a third time recently, this kind of argument made less sense to me than ever. It was clear that Square did make an old style Final Fantasy with graphical updates, and no, it was not Final Fantasy 9. Final Fantasy 7 was in everything but presentation an old style Final Fantasy. Indeed, Square could have easily named the game FF6 ver. 2.0.
The similarities start with the narrative structure. Both games feature a brief opening section in which the action is completely linear. The player is walked through a series of events that serve to introduce the world, characters, and game play. In FF7, this is obviously the Midgar portion of the game- in FF6 everything up to the branching paths. Overall, I think this approach to storytelling works well in a videogame. After spending 7 hours in the Midgar slums with Barrett, the words SHINRA BAD are pretty much engraved on your brain. In this environment the characters get a good opportunity to develop. Since the events are tightly controlled, the characters in your party and their reaction to events can also be clearly defined. The result is well-drawn, if shallow characters. Shinra-hating Barrett stands out the most, but cool Cloud and sweet Aeris also deserve mention. Indeed, it is as if they designed Aeris to engender sympathy- and it works. This is one of my favorite portions of the game; it introduces the world well, and allows for a great opportunity to get to know the characters (as Square themselves undoubtedly realized- FFX is essentially one long “Midgar Part”.). The game gets a lot of mileage from these events later in the game, where story is more sparse.
The game then moves to a slightly less linear section- you have definite goals, but have a little more freedom to explore. In FF7 this is the part all the way up to the coming of Meteor; in FF6 everything up to the breaking of the world. Here, the game takes on more of an “exploration” bent; events are more random, leaving less room for characterization. That is not to say that there is none, but here it takes place in small contained sections. Cloud’s flashback is the first of these, followed by Barrett’s, Red XIII’s, etc. This is old style FF character development at its best. Each character has one or two life-changing events that are cleared up in a subsequent event later in the game. All in all, discounting dungeons, each character other than Cloud has about 10 or 20 minutes devoted to them. Other than these 20 minutes, the characters are essentially interchangeable. Even Cloud’s responses in parts that do not directly concern him are rather bland. However, this works well in its way. Since the characters are so starkly drawn, it is easy to identify with them. They have strong personalities, so much so that the player can fill in the gap during the times when they are not directly involved with what is going on (it is no mistake that FFVII probably has more fan-fiction devoted to it than probably any other game). The isolated character events in this part of the game further drive the story and enrich the game world.
Finally, there is the “deep shit,” or final part of the game. Here, the worst has happened despite the character’s best efforts. The heroes must pick up the pieces and move on. All the characters get an event to wrap up their stories after which it is off to fight the boss. This is the least linear part of the game; the player can find secrets and get hidden events to strengthen the party. In FF7, this is everything after Meteor, and in FF6, everything after the breaking of the world. Again, it is because the characters are so simply drawn these isolated character “wrap-ups” can work so well. Lengthy narrative sequences are not necessary.
Now, when I say simply drawn, I do not mean that the characterization or the characters themselves are bad. On the contrary, Square used the increased processing power of the Playstation to make Cloud and Tifa among the deepest and layered Final Fantasy characters up to that point. Like the other characters, they only get a few scenes- but damn, those are some good scenes. The part in the lifestream with Cloud and Tifa in particular uses FMV to perfectly illustrate Cloud’s madness, and Tifa’s attitude to him up to that point. FF6 had scenes like this- remember Locke and Rachel? However, dancing sprites cannot really express the emotion that FMV and art do here.
Indeed, the biggest difference between FF7 and FF6, and what elevates FF7 to a level above, is the quality of presentation. More realistic looking characters (don’t laugh, they are better that the FF6 fetuses, especially in the FMV’s) and cinematic movie scenes convey a level of emotion that the SNES could not hope to do. I mean, Aeris’s death: what more really can be said?
Because of the new power that Sakaguchi had, he was able to tell as story that was deeper and more layered. I have read that Sakaguchi was inspired to write this story after the death of his mother. He does a good job- the way that the characters deal with Aeris’s death is much like anyone, including me, would deal with the death of a loved one. At first there is denial. They do not talk about Aeris. They pretend that she never existed. Then, over time there is acceptance. They realize Aeris is gone, and then they realize how much she has really done for them. In real life, a child might have fought with a parent over they years, only to realize what the parent has done for them after they are gone. In FF7, the characters only realize over time that Aeris has already done much for them; indeed, she has already saved the world before it was even in danger. Just as lessons learned from someone resonate long after they are gone, Aeris still acts to save the world after she is gone. Her picture at the end makes it clear that she invoked the lifestream to break the stalemate between Holy and Meteor. Finally, there is the great death scene, still among my favorite scene from any Final Fantasy. Cloud realizes that Aeris is in a better place- she is in the Promised Land! She is happier now! Plus, she had to die to save the planet! (Bugenhagen says something along the lines of “someone with a pure heart has to reach the planet.” I took that to mean for holy to work, Aeris had to die) However, the sadness still remains, and the loss is no less- “Aeris will never laugh, cry or get angry…” It may be for the greater good, but at times like that it is hard to think about anything except the loss.
As you can see, Sakaguchi used the increased power at his disposal to form an affecting narrative that would have been previously impossible. Yet, in every other facet the game is essentially the same. You will have noticed that I did not mention the gameplay- this is because it is essentially the same as in FF6 with minor tweaks. Increased graphical power is again the greatest difference. The dramatic battle camera was wonderfully done (actually the camera work here was unmatched by even FF8). Yet, being FF6 mk. 2 is not a bad thing, as you can probably tell by the above paragraph. FF6 was a great game and FF7 even better. Square used tried and true methods to create a powerful narrative and an exciting, affecting game. FF8 would, for better or worse, do away with many of these conventions. The result was one of the biggest controversies in FF history- FF fans seemed to want “more of the same,” which is exactly what they got with FF7.