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Displacement in Final Fantasy VII
by Mark Filipowich on 07/08/12 02:35:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The world of Final Fantasy VII stands out as a remarkably bleak interpretation of the future. Released in 1997, it came long after the cold war, long before 9/11, while the economy was still booming and while environmentalism presented a concern rather than a crisis. Yet, Final Fantasy VII presents a world eating itself from the inside out, it illuminates the cracks in what appeared to be a stable point in time. Final Fantasy VII, while ultimately hopeful, presents a fragmented world of displaced people.

The world in Final Fantasy VII is dying and everyone knows it. The society of Final Fantasy VII operates by converting the oversoul into energy. The people of this world discover the energy that literally composes the soul of every living thing and find a way to use it to power their cars and homes. And they don’t care. It’s common knowledge that harvesting the lifestream is dangerous but no one is interested in stopping it.  Everybody, from the nameless townies to the major NPCs, are totally apathetic. In the flavour text and in the major exposition dumps, the tone is one of disillusionment. Everybody the player comes across is overwhelmed with apathy. Everyone knows that the monopolized Shinra company is harming the planet, starving people, and taking land and resources by force but nobody cares enough to do anything about it.

The global power in FFVII, the Shinra, isn’t a kingdom or a country: it’s a weapons manufacturer turned energy company. Unlike earlier installments in the series the tyrant controlling the world isn’t a possessed king or evil emperor. The world is run by a smug businessman and his heartless son. The player is never given much documentation about how Shinra came to power, which is where much of the frightening appeal comes from. It seems as if one day a private arms manufacturer realized it had more money than everyone else and bought up all the power in the world. What the Shinra couldn’t buy they conquered. The world is rigidly capitalized, with the few rich men living in a tower that is literally built on top of the educated, business class who live on top of the impoverished slums.

Beyond the political structure of the world, the aesthetics remind the player of a world falling apart. Machine corpses litter every corner of the inhabited world. There are rusted pipes and frayed wires splayed all over the polluted ground. Along every path are abandoned machines leaking oil and grease, streets are noisy and covered in grime. Advertisements blaze in different languages against a gray-brown background. The trains are crowded, and the cars belch smog. NPCs refer to a the opportunity that can be found in Midgar but nobody ever seems to reach it. Midgar could be ripped straight out of Blade Runner.

Contrast this with the sleek technotropolises of Final Fantasy VIII, or the magical whimsy of Final Fantasy VI’s steampunk castles, or the effervescent majesty of Final Fantasy X’s Zanarkand. In Final Fantasy VII, it’s made clear from the opening scene: you will disappear in these cities, and there will be no sign of you left. Characters throughout the game talk about the middle-class dream that Midgar promises, where there are jobs and houses for anybody. It’s appropriate that the player never sees the middle class dream, other than a few identical houses in a tightly packed neighbourhood. The player only sees the desolate slums, where people make houses out of sewage pipes, broken down vehicles and piles of garbage, and Shinra tower with its wide open, shining, mall-like design. It’s an incredible statement that hasn’t lost its impact.

Nothing has a fixed identity. The game references a long-finished war between countries, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear borders or even any national identity that separates one region from another. Each sector of Midgar is identified by its number, not their forgotten names. Even places that aren’t identified by numbers or codes are co-opted by the Shinra corporation. Cosmo Canyon was a hub of knowledge before it turned into a camp ground between cities, Wutai was a globally powerful capital before it was reduced to what its own residents call a resort town. Each location is described as once being a culturally autonomous community in the years before the game’s events. By the time Cloud and his party reach most locations they’re a parody of themselves, or they’ve forgotten themselves entirely.

Every location in the game is marked by the Shinra; everything is shoddily put together from parts of something broken. Rocket Town originated as a launch site for the first rocket into space, but when the launch failed, the staff built a town around the still prepped rocket: a monument to the engineers’ failed dreams. Similarly, after burning Corel to the ground the Shinra turn the town into a prison camp. There’s no place that keeps any of its history.

Even the main characters are figures of displacement. Barret is literally missing a piece of himself. After his arm was amputated from an injury he received from Shinra soldiers, he replaced it with a gun; he’s so committed to destroying Shinra that he transforms his body to serve that end. With Corel destroyed Barret is identified only by his cause: not a place or a personality, just a hatred for Shinra. Barret is only a step away from Dyne, who grafted a gun to his opposite arm when he received the same injury. Dyne is a  foil for Barret, they have the same history just with mirrored reactions to it. Where Barret guides his hatred specifically toward the Shinra, Dyne is left empty, and destroys indiscriminately. With nothing to fill the void left by Shinra (not even a hatred for Shinra) Dyne becomes mindless destruction. The Shinra hollow out Barret, leaving only anger and hatred, chance alone gave Barret–rather than Dyne–a motivation. Barret is defined by what he’s lost and by his anger at the source of his loss; Dyne shows just how close Barret is to unguided violence.

Likewise, Cid and Red XIII are also defined by what they lack. Cid was chosen to be the first man in space, but when the launch was cancelled he lingers in Rocket Town idly hoping for the mission to resume. Red XIII is the last of his species and the member of a tribe that is rapidly losing its history. Even though Cid does eventually fly in space, and Red XIII does find more of his species, they are built up as characters that lack. Cid is crass, short-tempered and borderline abusive in his relationship to Shera; Red XIII is mopey, immature and self-absorbed.Each of them define themselves according to what they don’t have (Cid does not have his maiden space flight, Red XIII does not have other members of his species). When Cid retakes the Highwind and makes it into space, he’s punished for his short-sightedness and he proves himself to be a kind and capable leader of the ship’s crew. Likewise, when Red XIII discovers his heritage he becomes more open and mature. Cid and Red XIII are able to grow only when the aspects that the world under Shinra robbed from them are returned.

Unsurprisingly though, the largest dissociation appears in the lead character, Cloud. From the beginning, Cloud acts as the romantic idealization of the soldier of fortune: cold, self-interested and distant. Before long it’s clear he has no control of himself. He’s a self-conscious misfit that craves approval. He whines, he fails and he never lives up to the romance he promised himself. Cloud isn’t the jaded wandering sellsword he pretends he is. His literal home is destroyed and rebuilt by Shinra, with undercover agents altering the replica, making it uncanny and discomforting. Nibelheim is an appropriate extension of Cloud’s mind, which was also destroyed by Shinra and rebuilt using fragments of other victims of the tragedy. Cloud’s own personality is literally removed from his mind and replaced with something else; just like Shinra destroyed and replaced his hometown. His home, his very identity, is broken and put back together using scraps.

Like Cloud, Aeris also has no home, and her identity is also formed around not belonging. Aeris is the last of the cetra, an ancient race of pagans that could communicate with the planet. Their extinction came as people distanced themselves from the planet. Aeris is now the last of a species that can commune with a dying planet. The earth and air are polluted, yet she’s able to grow flowers. While most are only able to sense a general decay in the planet, it’s implied that Aeris foresees the game’s events moment to moment. It’s never made clear just how much Aeris knows, only that she’s aware of things that she shouldn’t be. As the last of her kind she’s defined by her loneliness, by the ages that separate her from her people. Her death leaves the rest of humankind without any reference for the planets condition. With the cetra gone, the planet and the people living on it are at last totally divided.

And of course, it would be remiss of me to exclude Sephiroth from the discussion. Sephiroth is a revered war-hero of a conflict that the player never sees (at least in the original game). Some believe that he is one of the cetra, and yet also a part of Jenova, the creature that destroyed the cetra. The only thing that can be agreed on is that Sephiroth is not “one of us.” Whether it’s President Shinra mistily recalling Sephiroth’s brilliance or Cloud regaling his allies with his near invincibility, everyone that experiences Sephiroth defines him by his otherness. Those injected with Jenova cells eventually become faceless, babbling lunatics seeking Jenova’s “reunion.” The people that are physiologically like Sephiroth have their personalities wiped, they’re driven to assimilating with Jenova. The closer people come to Sephiroth the more of themselves they lose. At the center lies Sephiroth, who was created by the Shinra to be unlike everybody else, and unlike everybody else he’s totally alone.

The Shinra, and everything they represent (unethical science, corporate monopolization, rampant globalization) suck the identity from everything they touch. Even when people recognize that there is a problem, they are so disenfranchised with the world they live in that they don’t bother to use what power they have. The Shinra don’t have to actively oppress the people of the world, they keep them in a state of constant confusion and dissociation. They have no “self” to act with. Even the heroes only see an emptiness in themselves; they don’t have any real goals or personalities, they only know what they don’t have.

Final Fantasy VII is a story about people being stripped of their identities. The people have no homes, no purpose and no sense of selfhood. Every location is pared down and even the most unique locations are marked by the Shinra’s ownership. Even the characters are displaced, their bodies and minds are pulled apart and patched back together unnaturally. It’s a story of people that don’t belong and a world that has become home to no one. It’s a game that understands globalism and the power of capital over people.

 

 

Originally posted on Nightmare Mode


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Comments


Joe Cooper
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This reminds me, anyone else catch the F-14 Tomcat wreckage at the archeological dig site?

EDIT:

I should've mentioned that though I don't have much of a comment, I liked this analysis and enjoyed reading it.

Timothee Garnaud
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Nice analysis to dive once again into the world of FFVII. Still today I haven't seen any RPG with such deepness, in the world as well as in the characters (and gameplay).

Jeremie Sinic
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Very nice analysis.
I think FF7 is an exception among RPGs, but your analysis helps me point the finger on the causes. I think the reason for FF7 being so beautifully moving is that it lets players witness and feel in their guts the world's ongoing destruction, something we are all too familiar with in our real world. It's not some completely alien entity coming to destroy the world, but mostly humans exploiting their planet.
In many ways, the story was refreshingly mature, depressing, and for that reason, touching.

Gregory Kinneman
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I just started playing this one again last week for the first time in 10 years. What my 14 year old self didn't realize is that the dialogue is really atrocious. While the world is very well developed, and a lot of inference can be drawn from the world (as you have done), I am finding it much harder to enjoy the characters because they all sound like 3rd graders.

Also, the characters lack the subtlety that I've seen in other games, preferring blatant overtones and rarely letting them stray into anything resembling actual human emotional ranges. I'd take Fallout, Torment, Dragon Age or Mass Effect over FF7 when it comes to world-building, characters and story.

Side note: Though it was clearly heavily influenced by FF7, I think Septerra Core did a better job at delivering a similar world and more interesting characters, and would recommend it to any fans of FF7.

Maurício Gomes
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Yet Septerra Core gameplay sucks so bad that after I reached one third of the game I was fighting the game to see more of the story (that indeed, is just great!).

When I reached half of the game, I started to cheat (ie: use debug, and enter every battle and press F2 to end the battle immediately).

When I reached two thirds of the game... I gave up, the gameplay is SO BAD that even with cheating it is still too slow and boring and annoying (specially as late-game the dungeons get bigger, and bigger, and bigger... and BIGGER... and BIGGEEEER!!!)

Jeremie Sinic
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I am aware that I have idealized memories of the game, and it's fine that way: I don't plan to spoil those good memories by replaying it :)

And even now, I remember hating the random encounters when it was time for me to stop playing but no save point was in sight.

Yet what remain are good memories overall, and a story and characters that transcend graphics, dialogues and even gameplay.

Mark Filipowich
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Gregory Kinneman: FF7 is the game I'm probably too attached to to be unbiased about. I play through it once a year and I have to concede your point: the dialogue is wooden. As much as I'm against a remake of the game, I do like the idea of a cleaner translation. I don't know if that would fix everything, but after Bioware's latest opuses, FF7's character interaction does leave something to be desired. I still stand by my argument; I like Cloud and I like the world he has to live in, but a lot of personality is lost in stiff, unnatural writing. I haven't played through the Playstation network or digital re-release, but my hope is that a creative editor has been given the chance to take a red pen to the script and add a little more life to the supporting characters.

Andrew Reid
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I remember playing Final Fantasy VII as an 8 year old, and my lack of ability to keep up with the story or where I was led me to passing it on. It wasn't until I was 15 until I had possession of it again, and I felt like there was still an emptiness of understanding that I had with the game: it felt too "big" (in terms of 'lore') to play through. However, this article ties up the remaining loose ends I have for the game. I wouldn't necessarily say that the choice of issue (globalisation) or the development of the cast is my favourite aspects of the game, but I can gain a lot of respect and understanding for them now that I have more knowledge. Still think that the game's greatness in terms of story is over-exaggerated, but nonetheless a great analysis.

Fawzi Mesmar
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Few games managed to Nail atmosphere as well as FF7 did; even with the graphics. The world and the characters told us more than we thought

John Smith
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Mark I think your analysis of FF7 being created during a time of great economic stability is incorrect. It is true that here in the United States, we were in the midst of an economic boom. But this is not so for Japan. FF7 was developed while Japan was in the middle of their "Lost Decade," the economic lethargy that resulted when Japan's real estate bubble collapsed. Rather than a singular catastrophic economic event like a stock market crash or the TARP bailout of our own sub-prime mortgage collapse, Japan suffered a slow and agonizing decline for their economy.

Which I find to be a perfect analogy to the FF7 global catastrophe of an evil multinational corporation literally slowly sucking the life out of the planet. A problem similar to Japan's bubble as they both have no clear beginning because it happened so gradually and at the same time insidiously because it came from what seemed like a process that on paper looks good (materia = good because you've essentially become able to bottle talent and provide it to the masses / real estate bubble = more homes for the general population).


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