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This is the reverse design for Final Fantasy 7, the fifth entry in the Reverse Design Series. The goal of the series has been to reverse-engineer all of the game design decisions that went into classic games. Before this entry we published books on Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario World and Half-Life. You do not need to have read any of those books in order to understand this one, although the entry on FF6 makes for a good point of comparison. This is because many of the historical trends expressed by FF6 continue, and indeed culminate, in Final Fantasy 7. (Hereafter I shorten the title of all the Final Fantasy games to the traditional “FF”, except at the beginning of a sentence). But everything you really need to know about this game, or the history of the Japanese role playing game (JRPG) will be recapitulated in the early sections of this book.

The principal challenge in writing about FF7 is that it is one of the most-criticized videogames in the history of the medium. From the time it came out until the present day, critics have considered the merits and failures of FF7 time and again. Admirers of the game have defended it for almost two decades. Critics have poked holes in the game, and in what they perceive to be the game-playing public’s nostalgia for it. Many writers still feel a remarkable ambivalence about the game. That is, they can’t make up their minds about the game, but they’re still writing about it even now. Such a mixed field of criticism makes the writing of this book somewhat different than the writing of any of the previous Reverse Designs, which were all about games that are classics by consensus. My task in this book is to explain why FF7 was a classic game because of its game design ideas, but I won’t try to persuade you to like it. I do not believe in persuasion, as such. Rather, I believe the only honest and upright way to change someone’s opinion about a subject is to reveal that subject more fully, and let that other person reconsider their opinion in the light of those revelations. This is exactly what I intend to do for FF7, for I believe that critics on all sides (positive, negative and ambivalent) have not seen the game for all that it truly is.

There are three criticisms which have typified the negative perception of FF7 that I feel are important to address. The first and oldest criticism is that there is too much story and too many cutscenes, and the game is boring as a result. Because it uses so many of these cutscenes, FF7 was once a lightning rod for critics who thought games should eschew storytelling. Thankfully, this criticism is mostly obsolete because dozens (if not hundreds) of games have since surpassed FF7 in regards to story, cutscenes, and other noninteractive forms of content. Some critics still do not like it for this reason, but now it is clear that such an objection is a matter of taste and not really worth debating. The second typical criticism is that the game is too simple and/or too easy. Critics point out that FF7 has been denuded of all the interesting tactical choices that are present in games like Pokémon, Shin Megami Tensei, or even FF5. Final Fantasy 7 is not a particularly hard game, but in section three of this book, I will explain how FF7 didn’t get rid of complexity and difficulty—it simply moved those things to a place in the game where players don’t necessarily notice or expect them. Indeed, the decision to do this is very important in the historical context of the JRPG. The third typical criticism of FF7 is that its plot and characters are juvenile. Some critics say that FF7 was originally popular because it appealed to an immature audience through immature themes. By tapping into the “teen angst” of its audience, it cemented its place in the audience’s memory in the same way that bad, old pop songs do. This is the most easily rebutted criticism, and the one that I will address first.

Final Fantasy 7 tells a story about survivors. Or, to use a bit more nuance, it tells a story about characters who have outlived the people, places and things that gave them their identities. Most of the characters in FF7 are motivated by the loss of something that once defined who they were. The loss of something—usually a loved one or a hometown—is a common motivation for videogame characters. It’s something that prompts them to seek revenge, and that revenge gives structure to the game. This kind of motivation can often come across as very lowbrow. Everyone understands the motivation for revenge because it is one of the petty, hasty, and emotional reactions we have all felt from the time that we were children. And since everyone knows from personal experience how childish and base that emotion is, it comes across in many videogames as inauthentic and shallow. Final Fantasy 7 isn't just a story of revenge, however. The story it tells is, at times, a deconstruction of a revenge story. Some of the characters appear to be seeking revenge, and indeed they sometimes even fool themselves into believing as much, but we'll see in section two of this book (characters and their motivations) how the FF7 team dismantles the idea of revenge in an insightful way. With that in mind, I do want to give a brief example of the point I’m trying to make.

Barret Wallace is the easiest example to use in illustrating the theme of tragic survivorship in FF7. Barret was a coal miner in the town of Corel, until Shinra Inc. arrived and made coal obsolete. Rising tensions between the former coal miners and Shinra led to the slaughter of the townsfolk and the destruction of the town. Barret, an important figure in a coal mining town, reacts to the loss of his identity by becoming a militant environmental activist. This unlikely change of career captures the wonderfully imperfect ways in which all the FF7 characters deal with the loss of their identities. Several characters remark how badly Mako energy damages the world in which FF7 takes place, but presumably coal (if it is anything like its real world counterpart) is quite environmentally damaging as well. In the 20th century, Japan was beset by serious pollution problems, and so there is simply no way that the writers of FF7 didn’t know what coal mines and coal power plants do to the environment. Having a survivor of a coal mining town become an environmental extremist is a deeply ironic and totally intentional move on the part of the writers. Indeed, Cait Sith points out that Barret’s crusade is not nearly as noble as he imagines it.

In a later scene (also taking place on the airship), Barret comes to realize that his true goal was much more personal and much less political than he originally claimed, and that revenge was never the right motivation.

Beneath the idealism and the violence that are products of his pain, Barret’s real goal is to safeguard the life of the only connection he has to his past and to his identity: his daughter Marlene.

Final Fantasy 7’s central theme is not about growing up. If anything, it’s the opposite: it’s about characters who are left behind with no meaningful identity after the world changes. All but one of the main characters behave the way that Barret does, by desperately clinging to the last remaining fragment of their old identities. I’ll cover each character’s particular relation to the theme in section two, but I want to make a point here about the maturity of this idea. This is a problem which only adults can have: one must have a firm sense of identity for the loss of that identity to be a problem. The resilience of children means that they can quickly form new identities while they are still young, and avoid this. How many teenagers can properly understand how Marlene represents everything meaningful in Barret’s past and future? How many of them can understand what it means for Cid to strive his whole life for a single career goal of going into space, only to have to give it up, apparently forever? How many students in junior high school can understand how Tifa has to keep a violent, unstable, compulsive liar in her life, because otherwise she has no tangible connection to the majority of her past experiences? Maybe there are a few young people who have had enough misfortune to experience these things, but I doubt that any of those few have really processed and understood those experiences yet. The original audience of FF7 interpreted—one might even say allegorized—the message of the game to be about themselves and their struggle to grow up. I would never deny an audience the right to see the high drama of a fictional narrative as a metaphor for their own lives. That is the very essence of catharsis. But FF7 is a game made by adults, and it reflects adult anxieties and concerns.

The Structure of this Text

The thematic material in FF7 would not be very interesting if it were not also reflected in the design of the game. The story that FF7 tells is one of characters who have outlived the contexts they grew up in, and who therefore struggle to find a place in the new world. The designers of FF7 had a similar problem. The original RPG, Dungeons & Dragons (hereafter D&D), was so massive and so artistically complete that designers who came later had trouble doing something truly original within the genre. Like many popular series, Final Fantasy started off as something like a simplified D&D campaign, with a few small modifications. Only so many games like that could exist in one market, however, and so the Final Fantasy team—like many RPG design teams—had to struggle to find a new voice for their game in a rapidly changing environment. This struggle is a fascinating one, and it explains why FF7 is so different from the RPGs that are popular today. In section one of this book, we’ll trace the lineage of FF7 by going all the way back to the beginning and seeing how RPG designers employed three different strategies for dealing with the titanic influence of D&D. Although we’ll look at all three strategies, FF7 is a great example of just one of them—the strategy of specialization. This strategy explains why FF7 became focused on storytelling, characterization and world-building at the expense of traditional RPG ideas like class systems and tactical combat.

In section two of this book, we’ll see how the character design in FF7 reflects the central thematic concern in a variety of ways. All but one of the player characters are driven by the loss of something that gave them their identity. What’s more, the antagonists (Rufus and Sephiroth) actually embody two villainous extremes of identity, context and survivorship. I want to be clear that at no point will I actually try to defend FF7’s script as a literary achievement. Its prose is not of an especially high caliber in either English or Japanese. That said, character design is an aspect of RPGs that goes back to the very beginnings of the genre, and I think that FF7 is artistically great in that regard. The really interesting thing about FF7’s character designs is how they’re clearly driven by game design ideas. Each of the main characters in the game is the result of the same process that a game designer would use to fill a platformer or shooter level with content. Thus, we can study these characters not just as fictitious people, but also as artifacts of a game design process which transcends genres.

In section three, we’ll also look at the actual word-for-word how of the script by comparison with other texts both in the Final Fantasy series and outside of it. Although FF7’s language is not especially expressive or rich in metaphor (at least not most of the time), it is often judicious and works as a template for how to tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of game. One of the ways we can understand the intent of the creators of FF7 is to look at the script of the game in comparison to earlier entries in the series. This examination shows us that story became an increasingly important part of the project’s vision and voice. As a point of comparison, I will compare the statistical analysis of the text of FF7 to the same analysis performed on the text of the classic American novel The Great Gatsby. The comparison between the two reveals some useful points about the structure of conflict in novels and videogames, specifically in the way that conflict in those different media is portrayed. The eBook version of this text also contains the same analysis performed on the game’s thousand-plus NPCs, with a large discussion about the practical use of NPCs in RPGs generally.

Section four of this book examines the way that difficulty in FF7 is structured. Final Fantasy 7 has been criticized for being easy and simple. It is a fairly easy game, but it is far from being simple. The game can be divided into four phases, all of which have a different design principle that shapes the challenge in that phase. Those phases are: introduction, abundant inconvenience, damage racing and level acceleration. In each case, the player has to contend with a qualitatively different set of enemy behaviors that shape the experience of the game at the whole-dungeon level. Section five of this book goes on to examine the greater challenges and complexity of phase four, and how the real challenge of FF7 is in exploiting the game’s many interlocking level-up systems. Although the Final Fantasy team had to strip away many of the traditional elements of the RPG in order to make the game they wanted, they didn’t merely leave holes in their game. Indeed, they added quite a bit to their game, but in ways that weren’t totally orthodox at the time or obvious to the casual observer. Thus, phase four is the best place to find and understand complexity as it exists in FF7.

Section six adds to sections four and five by outlining the six important archetypes of enemies found in the game. Most enemies in FF7 fall into one of these six categories that describe their behavior and a range of stats they tend to have. There’s still a large variety of battles that can be composed from these, and even enemies in the same archetype group are not exactly the same. Nevertheless, there are patterns among these enemies that show us what the designers were thinking of when they set out to make the hundreds of encounters the game has to offer. The eBook version of this text also contains a significant statistical analysis of these types, and also addresses types of enemies which fall outside (sometimes only a little bit outside) normal type definitions.

Section seven, which is only in the eBook version of this text, explains the construction of towns and dungeons. The design of maps largely confirms what we see elsewhere in the game—that the focus of the developers was on creating a persuasive world first, and on using typical town and dungeon structures second. This isn’t uniformly true, but there are lots of examples of the trend being true in FF7. Moreover, there are a few surprises not just in the way that maps are constructed artistically, but how they are filled with loot and enemies. Although it’s not easy to sense it all the time, the random encounter rate for the game is fine-tuned to allow the developers to use maps for storytelling purposes. The distribution of loot in dungeons also has story-related causes in significant places, although overall it follows a fairly traditional RPG pattern. In general, we’ll see how towns and dungeons create a sense of place while still affording the kind of gameplay that keeps players engaged through loot and battles.

Section eight analyzes the music of FF7 with special regard to the structure, length and purpose of the music. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer for FF7, was a pioneer in musical techniques idiosyncratic to the videogame form. One of his techniques was a non-repeating introduction which—although used by his contemporaries—is developed in surprising ways in Final Fantasies 6 through 8. The introduction of seamless cinema-to-gameplay transitions forces a change in the structure of individual tracks in FF7 and the score as a whole, as compared to earlier titles. The purpose of these tracks changes in meaningful ways as well. The central focus of the design in FF6 was on the large roster of characters, and the score reflects this clearly. In FF7, the focus of the game has changed significantly, and so the use or purpose of each track has changed accordingly. Because the relation of characters to places is such an important part of the game’s main theme, the score emphasizes place over character. We’ll take a look at all of those things in a statistical fashion to see the differences between FF7 and its predecessor and successor.

Next: From D&D to FF7

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