The title should let you know that this is going to be about a rather old game. Final Fantasy VII was released back in 1997 on the original PlayStation and immediately became the poster child for what RPGs could be. The graphics were amazing, the story was stellar, and the game itself spanned three discs, which was nigh unheard of. As I decided to write this article Alex Russell asked, “What is there new to say about FF7?” He had a good point and I held off writing for a few days because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just rehashing what thousands of others had said. I finally settled this inner argument because I actually ended up with two different ideas, and neither of them really focuses on the game. Instead, they focus more on implications and revelations of what Squaresoft/Square Enix has accomplished. There will be no review of the game or achievement rating. These two articles will purely be about FF7 and how they relate to the real world.
The first aspect I want to focus on is why Advent Children and the various spinoffs should be the general direction games –especially RPGs– should go in. So, spoilers.
FF7 is a game about a group called AVALANCHE that wants to save the planet. They do this through terrorist acts against the government, Shinra, which is stealing the life force of the planet to create usable energy. Imagine if when we used all the gasoline Earth would implode. They decide to use this opportunity and kill a bunch of people (AVALANCHE members and the poor) by literally crushing the entire town where AVALANCHE is headquartered. The government wants to move forward with draining the energy from the planet and decides to use an alien object called Jenova to do so. Jenova corrupts one of the most powerful humans in the world and he calls forth a meteor that will impact the planet and kill everyone. The main cast must race against time to stop this from happening.
That is the extremely watered down version of what occurs in the game, but just from that you can get the feeling that this is intense. The first few times I played through this game I was absolutely blown away by the story and the characters. There was no game that I had played where so many characters were fleshed out so well. This didn’t just include the main villain and the main cast, but side characters and family members as well. There were so many people that impacted the main story that it was easy to forget just how integral they were to the story. This led to an issue that occurs across all forms of entertainment: I was really interested in knowing more about these characters that received second billing and there was no avenue to get more.
There is an oddly accepted gaming mindset that once the game ends, that is that. FF7 ends with a meteor almost wiping out the entire planet. It is now 2014 and I know that I never really asked myself after 20 something playthroughs “What happened?” I, and most everyone I know who played it, accepted that the planet survived and some things lived. You see Red XIII in the post credits. This is unfulfilling, but that’s just the life of a game, it isn’t a real world.
Square then started releasing supplementary material to help flesh out the story of FF7, and most of it was solid in terms of world building. The two biggest projects were Crisis Core and Advent Children. Crisis Core is a prequel to FF7 and follows a character you hear a lot about in the main game, Zack Fair. This guy is probably the most important person in the story (he personally interacts with Cloud, Aeris, and Sephiroth, the triumvirate of plot driving characters) and Cloud more or less absorbs his life into his own. This prequel is stunning in that it manages to completely work on its own without using the main cast as crutches to push the plot along. Zack manages to be a beautifully tragic hero when his own story is told. This is a far cry from the sentiment you get when playing FF7, where you think, “Oh, so that’s where that sword came from.” You start Crisis Core knowing precisely how it is going to end and it carries that weight the whole way through. The general air for FF7 is tragedy. Zack is a purely bright star that is a foil to the general squalor and misery every other character is in constantly in 7.
The misery is the next focus and that comes through in spades in Advent Children. It’s an animation that also has an accompanying collection of short stories, On the Way to a Smile. These stories take place in between the end of FF7 the game and the animation portion of Advent Children.
Square initially released Advent Children on its own and it was great to see all the characters fully rendered and running around the various locales you played through in the game. The problem was it came off as extremely heavy-handed because there was a lot of omitted information and it forced you to just accept: THIS is what happened in two years. There is a new disease called Geostigma which is killing people since the meteor was stopped by the planet. People seem to think it is the planet’s punishment for draining the energy. Also, Sephiroth is back after being completely stomped at the end of the game. These are all a bit crazy and just seem like a thoughtless means of bringing the Cloud and Sephiroth conflict to the big screen.
The 2009 release of On the Way to a Smile alongside Advent Children Complete changed everything. These stories manage to explain things that the creators clearly had thought about but were incapable of putting into a game or animation. Geostigma is explained as the corruption Sephiroth/Jenova is spreading through the Lifestream. The main means of infection? Attacking those who are fearful of death. How can Sephiroth exist in the Lifestream when most spirits simply dissipate into it? Through sheer hatred, and the memories that people have of him (Cloud in particular).
The stories follow different characters from the game, but there is no story following Cloud or Vincent. Cloud has the most stories told about him in the series and Vincent received his own spinoff game so I find this omission understandable. The stories expand on each character’s personalities and occasionally overlap with one another to show that there are still ties that bind them to one another. This is done eloquently and it makes the reader/player really ask how the world would rebuild after such a close calamity. You always get the sense that everyone would just celebrate and everything would go back to normal. Square shows that this is far from the case and even the heroes don’t return unscathed.
This is the most jarring realization I got while reading OTWTAS: this world is HORRIBLE. They have the ability to use magic and all the technology of the modern world, but every single person is merely surviving. Throughout the game you have a slew of speeches to motivate the characters and they all culminate in a victory over the bad dude. The ending always felt a bit cheap since there was no real celebration like most games have, but really there is nothing to celebrate for anyone. These people were on the brink of destruction and then what they are left with is worldwide pain and suffering. Maybe it was because I was young, but I always thought it would have been amazing to be one of these super powerful characters. This quickly goes away when you realize that no level of power, even that of a god, saves anyone in this series. This led me to think about other games and you quickly realize that, yes, you technically won, but was the world still doomed (Looking at you, FF6).
The whole point of this article is really to ask why games are one of the few mediums where the happy or tragic ending is often seen as adequate. There used to be a lot of backstory and information in the booklets of games, but there was still that same sense of “great, I won and the game is complete.” More companies should run with the example that Square and Blizzard have set and give canonical story to the consumers. Many games set out to simulate life, yet there are tragically few that have realized that a game is usually not capable of relaying all of the details that make a story engrossing. Invest in animations, books, and sequels and consumers will keep coming back for another slice of these characters’ lives.
Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at firstname.lastname@example.org.