The Game Design Forum

Narrative and Design

Because the narrative aspects of a JRPG are a feature of design as much as anything else in the game, we have to study them with an eye toward the practical necessities of design. With everything we’ve seen about FF7’s place in the history of RPGs, we know that the story was of central importance to the design of this particular game as much as any JRPG ever. Now, I have said before, and I will repeat here again, that I will not make a defense of the literary qualities of FF7. To my knowledge, nobody has ever praised the prosody of FF7 in English or in the original Japanese. The inconsistent translation for which it is famous certainly did not help. Other assessments about the story’s literariness are a matter of taste and I won’t debate them. I think, however, that there are some structural ideas from which we can glean quite a bit of useful RPG design knowledge. When I say “structural,” I’m referring to two concrete ideas: the character design and the measurable way in which the story is told, line by line. Character design is something as old as the RPG format; players and dungeon masters have had to design characters for their campaigns since the first edition of D&D. Final Fantasy 7’s characters are, as we’ll see, the product of a well-established game design process. That is, the important people in FF7 are designed in the same way a level designer might generate the contents of a platformer. The other way in which we can analyze the structure of FF7’s storytelling (in the second half of this section) is by seeing how the story is delivered on a line-by-line basis. It’s not the nuances in the language we’re interested in here, but rather a statistical analysis of how story and dialogue are meted out over the entire course of the game. As a meaningful point of comparison, we’ll see how FF7’s statistical profile measures up to a novel of similar length (and similar themes), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Do the Designers Really Want to Say Something Meaningful?

Before talking about the narrative of FF7, I want to show that it is a subject which has not received nearly enough attention. Earlier, I argued that the game is about survivors—people who have outlived the worlds that defined them. Below, I am going to show how this is true for each character, but I realize how easy it would be to believe that I have cherry-picked all my evidence and that most of the game is inconsistent with my thesis. After all, this game is nearly 20 years old at the time of this writing and—as far as I know—nobody has ever made this claim before. But to show how pervasive this theme actually is, I want to give a few examples from the setting of the game. During the escape from the first reactor, the party has a conversation about the history and geography of Midgar.

It’s easy to overlook that the game is already communicating its central theme through the setting. Final Fantasy 7 is a game about people who have outlived the world that once defined them. Midgar is the embodiment of this. It is a new city built over an old city—a new world order literally burying the past. Yet the buried people of the slums, for the most part, cannot move on from the place that gave them their identities. In that regard, they’re quite a lot like the player characters. The key difference, as we’ll see shortly, is that the connection the player characters have to the past motivates them to action.

Although it’s easy to miss, because it happens mostly as passing NPC chatter, this idea of people who have lost their identity is reiterated in many of the towns across the world of FF7. Kalm, Junon, Corel, Rocket Town and Wutai all used to be something far different than they are now.

In every case, the original inhabitants of the town have lost what defined them, and in some cases, nothing has really replaced what was lost. Although a few of the residents of these towns have found ways to live in their new world, most of them seem lost now that their identities are irrelevant to the world that Shinra has created.

Another thing most people have overlooked as a vehicle for the theme is the limit break system. These days, critics put special emphasis on consonance between narrative and mechanics. I don’t intend to make that issue a big part of my examination of FF7, but the limit break is one place where we can see such a consonance. The limit break system rewards the player for keeping the characters alive through large amounts of damage.

For every attack the player characters survive, the limit meter fills; the bigger the attack, the greater the gain—but if the player dies, the limit meter empties. In other words, the limit break is a reward for surviving, not a reward for taking damage. This is a reflection of the general theme of survivorship in the game. It isn’t a particularly insightful example of the theme: limit breaks are acts of violent rage. By the end of the game, the characters in FF7 all transcend that rage. Despite this inelegance, the limit break system does reflect the main theme of the game. What’s more, a number of player limit breaks (which need to be unlocked by items) are found in meaningful locations that tie the characters to their pasts. A widow in Corel gives Barret his ultimate limit break, Lucrecia gives Vincent his, a letter from Zangan contains Tifa’s limit break, and a reward from Godo gives Yuffie hers. Not every limit break in the game is so thematically located, but I think it’s meaningful that a few of them are. In the section just below, we’ll see how survivorship and an empowering connection to the past are two parts of a three-part checklist that defines the way that the characters were created in accordance with the game’s main theme.

Characters and the Ludic Method that Made Them

The creation of characters is, and always has been, a facet of game design. In the previous section I explained how Dave Arneson’s principal contribution to the RPG was the roles which characters played. From his experiences modifying and refereeing Braunstein, he understood that the RPG would depend heavily upon the player’s investment into the character they role-play. This idea carried right over into computer and console RPGs. A well-designed role/character gives its player an over-arching reason to push through dungeons and battles. Not everyone needs a reason to go questing; some players will do dungeons for the sake of doing dungeons. But for the audience that Arneson originally imagined, characters and their motivations were just as much a part of the minute-by-minute gameplay as dice-rolls and stat tables. Any examination of FF7 as a work of art must take into account the design of characters as an essential game design task. From a purely practical perspective, consider how well the motivations of the characters work to drive the plot. Final Fantasy 7 has 31 quests, but none of them consist of collecting eight snow-hare tails, killing twelve giant dragonflies, or curing four cursed treants. Every quest is relevant to the plot, and it’s always fairly obvious why the characters are pursuing it. If that isn’t enough, each of the party members, and most of the villains, all embody the theme of the game (outliving a world that gave them their identity) in a different way. Indeed, the way that the characters were designed is actually idiosyncratic to games. Because they were game designers, the FF7 team implemented the idea of survivors in an iterative way. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’m going to cite a completely different type of game. There’s a level in Donkey Kong Country in which the designers use essentially only two mechanical ideas: a rotating barrel and an enemy bee.

To keep the level interesting, and to fill it out with content, the designers do all manner of different things with the barrel and bee. The barrels rotate at different speeds, they move up and down, they’re placed at all manner of different angles. The bees move at varying speeds, in varying shapes and in varying positions. With only a barrel and a bee, the designers are able to come up with more than a dozen possible combinations with which they can challenge the player. The FF7 team practices the same kind of innovative iteration, except they do it with character design. In place of a barrel and a bee, the FF7 team has three ideas, what I call the “survivor’s trio,” which apply to nearly every character and the main villains. With one important exception, all the main characters:

  1. (1) Have lost the world that defined them
  2. (2) Have had near-death experiences
  3. (3) Have someone or something which both connects them to the past and motivates them in their quest

For some characters this is obvious, and for others it is subtle. But for each main character, we’ll see how the designers manage to fulfill these three characteristics in different (and very game-like) ways. I’ve already talked about Barret enough, but I do want to point out that he has all three of these criteria. He lost the world that defined him (Corel), he had a near-death experience (having his arm shot off), and he has someone in his life that connects him to his past and motivates him in his quest (Marlene). All but one of the characters have these three elements somehow worked into their design.


Besides Barret, Tifa has the most typical story of a near-death experience and the loss of a world she belonged to, but the person who connects her to the past is anything but typical. Tifa was nearly killed by Sephiroth during his rampage in Nibelheim. Her world was destroyed, her friends and loved ones murdered, and if Zangan’s letter hidden in her piano is true, she survived against long odds. Those two details are quite similar to Barret’s experience, but the contrast between Marlene and Cloud—who are Barret and Tifa’s respective connections to the past—is stark. Marlene represents all the memories Barret has of Corel, and all his hopes for a future in a world free from the control of Shinra Inc. Tifa’s connection to her past is different. Cloud represents the only living connection to her previous world, but their relationship is nothing like that of Barret and Marlene. Although the player only learns of Cloud’s psychosis late in the game, Tifa knows about it the whole time. Cloud is unstable, a compulsive liar, and in possession of a set of deadly skills and weapons. His behavior and motivations are suspect, and at key moments, he even appears to be under the control of the very same person who murdered her father. Critics of FF7 have often made the mistake of thinking Tifa longs for Cloud romantically. She may have these feelings at the end of the game, but it’s not clear that this is the case in the middle of it.

Tifa wants to believe that some part of her past still lives—that she shares her identity and the destruction of it—with someone else. She is so desperate to have this that she will endure all of Cloud’s eerie behavior, and will even help him to maintain an illusion she knows isn’t true.

Although she clearly cares about Cloud, Tifa’s underlying reason for denying her suspicions is a selfish desire for a connection to her past, not a patient acceptance of Cloud’s troubles. She’s not even sure that the person before her is Cloud, but she’ll take whatever connection she can get. There’s so much humanity in that contradiction, though. Tifa’s selfishness—her need to be connected to the past through Cloud—ends up doing her as much harm as good.

Although almost every party member adheres to the formula of loss of identity, near-death experience and a motivating connection to the past through a single person or thing, it’s not always as clear as it is with Tifa and Barret. Such is the case with Cid. Although we hear very little of it, Cid belonged to a world that ceased to be when the war between Wutai and Midgar ended.

The NPC chatter in Rocket Town makes it clear that Cid was a very important figure in the Shinra air force, and at the end of the war he was going to finish his career by going into space. Cid aborts the launch to save Shera’s life, and the space program is subsequently de-funded as Shinra switches from being a weapons manufacturer to being a utility company. Cid has nothing to fall back on now that the war is over, and the party finds him brooding over his lost ambition. In Cid’s case, it’s not entirely clear whether the thing that ties him to his past is Shera or the rocket itself. On the one hand, he certainly blames Shera, and relives his frustration every time he sees her. On the other hand, the party encounters Cid in the rocket—where he spends most of days. He obviously hasn’t moved on, even while a town has sprung up around the infrastructure left by the launch site. Cid’s near-death experience, too, is easy to miss. The malfunctioning tank which Shera was working on during the original launch really does explode, and very well might have killed Cid the first time he tried to get into outer space. Just because Cid wasn’t aware of how close he was to death doesn’t mean he didn’t narrowly miss a cruel fate. It’s easy to see Cid as a throw-in character because he isn’t wracked with guilt, anguish or grief. But while Cid’s brash reaction to the loss of his identity is different from most of the other characters, he still fits the same pattern as the rest of the party.

Vincent is in a similar situation to Cid, in that he was discarded by Shinra, Inc. A former Turk (secret police), he didn’t necessarily lose a world that gave him his identity—he lost his very humanity when Hojo experimented on him. One might say that Vincent didn’t have a near-death experience as much as he had an undeath experience. His connection to the past, meanwhile, is a bit more remote than those of other characters, but it fits the pattern well. The party does eventually encounter Lucrecia, who is Sephiroth’s human mother. Although she appears in only one scene, she nevertheless fulfils the criterion of connecting Vincent to the past and motivating him in his ongoing quest. Indeed, she does a better job of bringing back the past than most of the minor characters in the game. The flashback in Lucrecia’s cavern is the only time the player gets any explanation of Sephiroth’s actual parentage or any background on what Shinra was like before and during the war. Despite the brevity of her appearance, Lucrecia definitely does accomplish for Vincent what Marlene, Cloud, and the rocket/Shera do for their respective characters.

Want to read more? The rest of this section can be found in the print and eBook versions.

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