From Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, each branch of media has their own special works that break new ground, or show perfect artistic technique, or cause you to reflect and reconsider your way of thinking. Individually, we may all have different opinions on what exactly constitutes a masterpiece, or which works deserve that prestige, but it’s no secret that many consider Final Fantasy VII a JRPG masterpiece – the one that made them “cool.”
Why? Well, there are a lot of different reasons: Nobuo Uematsu’s masterful soundtrack, the state-of-the-art visual presentation (for the 90s), the unique combat system, and the emotional story, just to name a few. As time has gone on, however, people have given FF VII a lot of criticism as well. Anyone can look at the basic polygonal characters and pre-rendered backgrounds and say that the game’s visuals haven’t aged well. Many mysteries in the story, like the Jenova project, aren’t fully explained, either.
For me, Final Fantasy VII’s individual elements were enjoyable, but not impressive enough to belong to a masterpiece… at least at first. The Materia system was fun to experiment with, but I’ve also played RPGs with more satisfying battle systems. The Steampunk world was unique and filled with details, but I’ve played other RPGs with more compelling words. And I’ve certainly played sidequest minigames that controlled better.
However, when put all together, Final Fantasy VII became greater than the sum of its parts. The game’s story reveals a gold mine of rich ideas and emotional themes. And the way the characters interacted with those ideas (and with each other) caused me to reflect in a way only few games can.
Let’s start with Midgar, and that cinematic opening scene. As soon as the camera pans out, we become immersed in a city both magnificent and decaying. Mako energy and the company that provides it, Shinra, is both a blessing and a curse. Some people enjoy the luxuries of the energy, but many others live oppressed by the company’s all-encompassing power. And yet rich and poor alike all need it for their daily lives. I can’t help but compare Shinra to Google, Facebook, Apple, or Disney. They may not have evil CEOs or secret militias, but they’re not exactly our friends, either. How do we navigate a world where corporations have that much power, where a business’s agenda often supersedes the public’s? And how do you fight back against this megacorp without ruining the livelihood of innocent civilians?
After several hours navigating this metropolis of tin roofs, neon lights, and office networks, Cloud and company leave Midgar and begin their quest to stop Sephiroth. The shift in atmosphere is immediate. Walking around the overworld, you see Midgar has made the surrounding landscape a desolate, grey wasteland. The farther you go, the more you experience the magic of a natural world on the brink of collapse. I grew up in a religion that once refers to the Earth as being metaphorically alive, crying out for its people to repent. In Final Fantasy VII, the planet is literally alive, sending out guardians to protect it, and there’s even a malevolent being bent on stealing the planet’s lifestream for itself, like a vampire.
And what a way to introduce this vampire. Sephiroth first shows up in a flashback, as Cloud’s ally when he used to work for Shinra. You see Sephiroth’s power for yourself as a younger Cloud struggles to get much damage on monsters, while Sephiroth decimates them. And then Sephiroth discovers the truth about himself and decimates Cloud’s hometown.
From here we reach our second theme of the game: memory, identity, and learning to redefine yourself after a tragedy. We have not just one, but two unreliable narrators in this story: Cloud, for inventing a past more extravagant that it really was, and Sephiroth for his lies to manipulate Cloud. Throughout the game, the characters circle back around that hometown incident to sift through what was truth and what was a lie.
I remember trying to make my own past show me in a better light, and I’ve even tried to convince myself that my version is how it really happened. But eventually, you have to confront it and make peace with it. Accept the truth and expunge your shame, and in doing so, you accept yourself. Aeris isn’t remembered just because she dies in the middle of the game — she’s remembered because she saw through Cloud’s tough exterior. She pricked him right to the heart, and started him down the path of self-reconciliation, even though she couldn’t see it through to the end herself.
The other elements of the game definitely help it along, but it is that central message that I still remember months after playing it. And I believe that’s what everyone else still remembers as well.
I’m glad that a remake is on its way to help address the graphical “problem” that many people have with it (though personally, I think it has a certain charm that might be lost with the remake). I just hope that Final Fantasy VII Remake still delivers those same questions and ideas, and still challenges the player ask big questions. Those were the things that truly elevated the original and made it worthy of being talked about to this day.