It’s no exaggeration to say that Final Fantasy VII had a major impact on me. It marked my introduction to JRPG’s and broke me of my N64 stockholm syndrome and its slow trickle of games to embrace the Playstation, the platform I look back on as the defining point of my gaming life. I spent so much time breeding chocobo’s and grinding that goddamn crashed Gelnika ship that I continued to play for months after I’d killed Sephiroth and avenged Aeris’ famous death. I hadn’t experienced anything like it. Then I came to despise it and what it became in the years after its release. I thought back on the tangled weave of Cloud’s angst and Sephiroths madness and the nonsense turns its plot takes. But when you can no longer remember why you dislike something, perhaps it’s time to return and look with fresh eyes.
Final Fantasy VII was fucking ambitious. The way the opening starscape dissolves into Aeris’ CG face as she walks down a dark alley and pulls out to a longshot of the techno-industrial Midgar before swooping in on a train entering its heart. The scene turns into a static pre-rendered background as polygonal models of the eco terrorist group AVALANCHE jump off and you’re given control. That’s quite a technological leap over 6’s world of sprites and an evolution of the N64 prototype Square had developed to test out its ideas. Look at how richly expressed every inch of Midgar is on your way to destroy one of the many massive reactors sucking Mako energy from the planet to fatten the coffers of the Shinra Electric Power Company.
The CG backdrops are massively important to FFVII’s success. First and foremost, it makes every screen dense with detail, and Midgar becomes a significant setting because of it. But it’s also ideal for the polygonal models, as they could rotate and scale geometrically relative to camera’s eye. Cloud could run down a long path towards us, getting bigger the closer he came. Chrono Trigger showed the limits of a sprite-built world, where a two-dimensional image could at most be flexed between a side-scrolling and three-quarters, top-down perspective and keep the same character sprite. The pre-rendered images require a ton of storage space, and couldn’t have been done without the PlayStation’s CD format.
The technological leap upgraded the combat as well. No longer would characters wave their weapons abstractly in the air and watch as numbers subtract from their HP. Now, they run up and engage directly, giving the battles a crucial tactile, action-forward sensation that peaks with the screen-flashing crit, while the animations are appropriately fast to keep battles from dragging on needlessly. The mostly smart camera does a remarkable job framing the action, focusing on the enemy when it needs to, cutting to the active combatant as they go through their unique spell-casting animation, and spinning dynamically around the group during their victory poses. And this is before any character even casts one of the many mind-blowing summons, whose attacks were so incredible at the time that the player could be forgiven for over relying on them. In every conceivable way, these battles evolved so that they player isn’t just waiting for their ATB to fill up so they execute their next action.
The fidelity of animation helped define those models as characters. No more did they merely pantomime expressions but have articulated actions. They can sit down, lean back on their hands or flip their hair back. Consider that last one all the more because hair was really just a large polygon and had no intention of moving, to realize how evocative the simple gesture could still be. Interactions became more dramatic, physical rather than implied. Story scenes became more complex, even going so far as to overlay the models onto FMV cinematics to transition between the two dynamically.
Midgar’s cyberpunk city would fit perfectly into Blade Runner. Its got a chokingly oppressive feel, with industrial zones and down trodden slums. Shinra’s grip on the planet seems tight and their long term effect on the planet palpable. The music is perhaps the strongest component of its ambiance, its dark, hollow cathedral tone give it a twisted holiness as an entity above its people, willing to prove it by sacrificing thousands of lives to frame AVALANCHE. Finding Sephiroth’s katana sticking out of the Shinra President marks the proper time to beat feet outta Midgar, a city so well-realized that leaving it for the first time holds a wealth of possibilities. Contrast that city to the aptly-named Kalm and realize that the Megalopolis isn’t indicative of the whole world, but a terrifying example of what it may become.
FF7’s world seems like a contained place rather than a flat map, with geography gloriously rolling over the horizon as you traverse it. You’re running over land, up mountains and through forests rather than on top of drawn images. The local maps received an even larger boost. All of a sudden, screen size could be more customized. A single screen could be scaled down to a single bridge or up to an entire mountain peak and not just geometric rooms decorated to look like different environments you look down on from the same overhead perspective for the entire game. Because of the perspective, paths could be routed through the area and create depth without needlessly adding space. The crafted lengths of these screens could serve a utilitarian purpose.
The variable units built a customized flow of shots. Because they could quickly change locations, the paced beats could deal in small amounts of time compared to the maps of other RPG’s. Frequent activities break up the progression at regular intervals, and add small doses of exploration rather than dedicated chunks. FF7 is impeccably paced with little superfluous padding, the oft-maligned fact that Cloud goes snowboarding some thirty minutes after Aeris’ death being an unfortunate by-product of its desire to constantly mix things up. But that regimented pacing comes at a larger cost, trading exploration for variety and briskness. The previous Final Fantasy’s seemed more like adventures because of their space and freedom.
The care that went into Midgars tone is shown throughout the land. The snaps in the Turks theme, the tribal drums of Cosmo Canyon all give a tremendous presence, to say nothing of the tension and angelic opera of Sephiroths ‘One Winged Angel.’ The music makes a statement. But as each tone is so strongly felt, the shifts between them hurt the overall game. Look at the surface-level diversity of themes: corporatism and eco politics, high-technology and magic. Those tonally contrast so strongly that the complete picture is more a morass of competing identities than a unified one, and upon reflecting on the game, it’s hard to conceptualize exactly what the hell it’s about.
That lack of cohesion hurts many areas of Final Fantasy 7’s design. It suffers by filling its world with everything from mechs to dragons to grass monsters to sentient warning signs. Its ambition to have a comprehensive aesthetic is noble, but the disparate designs keep it from congealing. The party cohesion suffers in much the same ways. It’s easy to like many of the characters individually, but things start to crumble when you consider them members of the same team. The wise canine Red XIII is great but he’s out of place next to the bare-knuckled brawler Tifa who is out of place next to the vampiric Vincent. Cait Sith is even more aberrant, especially when you consider the disposability of a cat riding a giant mechanical mog plushy holding a megaphone that’s really just a puppet for a third party. The flexible and powerful materia system doesn’t do them any favors either, turning them into easily replaceable polygonal husks to slot abilities and magic into.
These gigantic villains are given a staggering presence. I think that’s why Sephiroth has been such an enduring figure; he walks through the proverbial front door to this faceless mega-corporation that terrorizes and murders its own citizens and hands it its ass. He drifts through the game and you often only know he’s around because of the waves of dead bodies he leaves in his wake and the few times you meet him, he’s so unthreatened by you that he doesn’t even consider unsheathing that massive fucking katana. Post FF7 content would absolutely spoil his character with his languid fetishizing, but here, here he’s a specter, his presence so haunting that you feel it the entire game.
Even outside of its tonal significance, that oppressive dread is really important to FF7’s story. Almost from the get-go, things don’t seem quite right with Cloud, what with the way that voice seems to nag at his mind and guide his actions, the way Sephiroth’s proximity makes him flip out. It goes full crazy after the Temple of the Ancients, where Cloud beats the hell out of Aeris to the point where your friends have to pull you off her. The next time you see her, she’s praying alone. When Cloud walks up to her and the player interacts, he pulls out his sword. There’s a dawning sense of horror as any button makes him lift it higher, until even your attempts to find a way to cancel it leaves the sword quaking at its peak height. Where the script had before taken over and shown that Cloud was losing it, so too does the player lose control of their actions. It’s impactful. When you snap out it, Sephiroth descends from the sky and finishes the job for you. A few hours later, the story reveals itself: you weren’t pursuing Sephiroth, you were being summoned to him, turning its linear progression to a virtue. Several times, Final Fantasy VII’s narrative becomes a postmodern rumination on player agency without being arrogant about it.
I sympathize with the trepidation some have with Cloud- his initial loner schtick is off-putting and it’s ultimately only a cover for a ball of neuroses. The scene where he reconstructs his fractured psyche was a chance to inject some timely 90’s psychoanalysis through existential melodrama. The hero/villain relationship between he and Sephiroth is strange and sordid but those two characters have endured like few others in videogames. You might just not care for the fact one is a schizophrenic that stole another guys identity and the other is a clone of a man created by an organism that fell from space.
The story of how Jenova fell from the sky is an interesting conceit for a parable on environmentalism, and allows the narrative to address nature and humanity being corrupted without making it seem like the inevitable conclusion to either, the logical result of humans being alive. It had altered the planet and people’s minds and needed to be purged. When Cloud and Sephiroth meet in the depths of the crater Jenova made when it fell to the planet, their high-polygon final showdown is given the weight of two men settling their own separate identities.
Final Fantasy VII hit videogames so hard that aside from minor changes of scale, neither of the following two PS1 games ventured that far away from the ideas it implemented, and in fact, reigned in some of its unrelenting ambition. Compare that to how different 10 is from 12 despite being powered by the same tech. Final Fantasy VII took the traditional FF form as far as it could go. It’s an important milestone in history, both for videogames and my life.