I forget exactly how I came upon Final Fantasy VII back in the day. I had a Playstation, and had gamed since elementary school, but I don’t remember the exact moment in time I heard someone first say the game’s title, or saw it played by someone else. The game sort of creeps its way into my memory with considerable stealth for something I hold in such high regard. It’s actually the same with a couple other works of art close to my heart. I have no recollection of the first time I saw Star Wars, for instance. It’s just kind of always been there.
Many will argue that FF7 is one of the greatest games of all time. The discussion I see fewer people having with any great depth is why. Beyond its graphics and mechanics, what gives a game lasting power over people? Nostalgia certainly plays a part in it, but if it were just nostalgia, individual games would still die out over generations. The Final Fantasy series is pretty loaded with games that were once acclaimed, but with less staying power than FF7. Why has that installment, despite its undeniable flaws, continued to live on in popular culture, its copies passed down to the new generation like beloved records? My answer: an artful story that becomes increasingly relevant the further along we get.
In case you need a brush up (and if you do, who are you, even?) Final Fantasy VII placed the gamer in a pseudo-futuristic world ravaged by Shinra Inc., a malevolent company harvesting the planet’s life force for energy. The story is long and becomes pretty complicated, but basically, Cloud, our mercenary protagonist, struggles at first against Shinra, but ultimately against Sephiroth, a powerful entity hell bent on becoming a god at the expense of the planet.
Over three discs, the player is immersed in an expansive world quite beyond what had been done elsewhere in the mid-to-late 90s. Though exploration is a major facet of why FF7 was so successful, the game is really geared toward narrative, which again, was a change of pace from the popular Playstation fare of the day. Characters were crafted and given an arc. The game conveys thematic statements. It makes heavy use of flashback, and dedicates hours of game time to backstory for various characters, not only in cut scenes, but game play as well. This, in turn, makes the gamer feel more invested in each character’s journey while simultaneously coloring the events of the main conflict.
The plot itself, as previously mentioned, becomes incredibly complex and even a little postmodern. Upon replaying FF7 this past year, I was surprised by how well I followed it as a tween. By adopting narrative techniques that had been pioneered by generations of writers and artists before it, Final Fantasy VII was among the first games to make people wonder if games could be more than just kid stuff, if their complexity could elevate them to actual art.
Final Fantasy VII is also lent a little extra staying power because its characters, events and themes actually feel more relevant today than they did in 1997.
The game’s environmentalist messages hit harder in 2017, when a growing body of reports continue to indicate that human activity has caused irreversable global warming. There is a sense of tense foreboding, particularly in the early hours of game play, that the planet is on the brink of death, that everybody is waiting for it to collapse. Still, you find all manner of people populating Midgar and the surrounding world, some concerned at the state of things, but most simply concerned with their own getting-by. Particularly in America, where our recent election highlighted a clear discord between those who think collectively and individualists, exploring the world of the game and interacting with these diverse people feels particularly poignant.
In fact, Cloud’s major character arc can be adequately summarized as a maturation from individualism to collectivism. Early on in the game, Cloud, in his bad-ass-hard-bitten mercenary-ness, is concerned only with getting paid and expresses no interest in the cause for which AVALANCHE fights. Through interactions with Aeris and discovering his origins, he is transformed at the end of the game. He realizes that achieving your individual agenda requires a certain amount of collective thinking and empathy.
Speaking of that recent election, the gold-headed and immoral President Shinra bears a bitter resemblance to our own turd cannon of a president.
The resemblance adds a layer of unplanned irony, but also gives the entire game an air of prophecy. Played in 2017, Final Fantasy VII actually feels very little like a fantasy at all. Its fantastical elements are merely superficial. The thematic material it grapples with are very much rooted in our present lives.
Finally, FF7 breaks away from previous Final Fantasy titles by setting its tale in a semi-futuristic world possessed of technologies we are ever closer to obtaining. In keeping with the paradox of progress, few seem to be enriched by the technology, and mostly it appears to do a considerable amount of evil at the behest of Shinra Inc. Hojo, a major figure in the game, embodies the traditional mad scientist, throwing ethical concerns to the wind for his experiments by splicing Jenova cells into human clones. His character reflects a culture’s growing fascination and concern with the technology’s incremental advancement toward omnipotence, a fascination that the 20 years of technological advancement since the game’s release has only heightened.
Haters are quick to point to any number of flaws in the game. The graphics are terrible for the most part. Much of the dialogue is clunky. Some of the characters aren’t aging well. These flaws granted, it was still a game that made you think in the age of Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot (as much fun as those games were).
I realize that as a gamer, I have been chasing this experience pretty much ever since I finished FF7 for the first time back in the day. I’ve played many games I’ve enjoyed, but few with the same sticking potential. I’m a few generations behind in consoles, but I’ve recently picked gaming back up, and I’d love to know what titles of similar quality I’ve missed. Hit me up in the comments.