Part three in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Our Hero, Our Villain
Ah, Cloud's blasé tone. I think Cloud is where the trend of the "angst-addled RPG protagonist" originated, at least to the degree to which we know him today. I know he seems sort of vaguely-drawn to you, but the very tones you point out: saying "yeah..." instead of a more generic "yes" or "okay"—or, even the fact that he's vague or appears insecure—I think were considered pretty strong character decisions at the time, coming as they did following a trend that favored voiceless protagonists or, at best, upbeat heroes.
I think with the character of Cloud, the aim was to strike a happy medium between "voiceless" and "characterized"—you'll probably see what I mean as time goes on. Who Cloud really is becomes pretty central to the plot later on, and I'm sure you've maybe had an inkling of that.
But anyway, at the time he was characterized as angsty or brooding, even though that's one of the few things that didn't really appear to translate on my grown-up playthrough. And he was sort of popular, or at least noteworthy, for having those frailties, that identity angst, which might be why FF8's protagonist, Squall, was much more emphasized in the "brooding" department, even to the point of people finding him roundly fatiguing.
I think people love to hate him, though. I think people love to hate a lot of the Final Fantasy characters, but never so much as in these adolescent RPGs where the line between character and caricature is so awkwardly straddled. You can brood one minute, be psyched over catching a chocobo the next.
It's an interesting point you make, about the characters' names: You have the option to name almost anyone, and yet why would you want to? It's exciting to have the game show you who these people are. Yet I have heard from a lot of people who do that. I think those who change it are carrying the behavior over from older RPGs, where the characters really were little but constructs.
FFVII gropes for the line between giving you a story to be told, and giving you one you can own. It does it imperfectly, and yet I'm hard-pressed to think of ways it's been done better. I know we keep beating up on poor New Vegas, but games like that can give me all the customization options in the world and yet fail to make me feel very strongly about who I am and what I'm there for. I'm impressed with the worlds of modern RPGs and want to mess around in them, but I don't emotionally attach. People have probably written more fanfiction about FFVII than any other video game. This is a blind guess, but a bet a glance at Fanfiction.net would confirm. People out there are still writing FFVII fanfiction. That has to say something. Still figuring out what.
And what IS it about Sephiroth? I think the reason he doesn't to this day win every villain toplist is because it's become a cliché. For me it's impossible now to be objective about Sephiroth; it's sort of like I was trained as a kid to just react to him, to that iconic choral theme of his, whether it's FFVII or Crisis Core or Advent Children or Ehrgeiz or wherever of a million places they have had him make appearances. Is it because he manages to truly surprise the player every time he shows up? Is it just because he looks like a complete bad-ass?
Or because he used to be a hero—not just any hero, Cloud's? The FFVII backstory that you're just seeing for the first time is well-known to all us fans, and something about it always has just gotten to us.
Like, I just don't know. I'm too indoctrinated to theorize. This is what I need you for! And yeah, that laboratory sequence, with the blood trail of Jenova's head leading to the body of the dead president? Blew my mind when I was a kid. That was the moment I knew it wasn't no flippin' Dragon Quest I was playing.
It seems silly to say FFVII is "adult" now, but I still remember how I felt at that moment, like things had suddenly become very serious. I wasn't frightened—chilled, maybe, I mean, it's a creepy part—but mostly I was excited. I felt as if the game was telling me it was going to treat me like a grown-up; like I had broken with the naive, cheerful doll-world of RPGs past. That feeling of "whoa this is completely different" was part of what made us so eager to engage our imaginations with FFVII's world, yeah.
Did I approach Midgar differently knowing I'd lose parts of it? Yes, but not in the way you think; it was in a systematic way, a gameplay-oriented way. Calculatingly scouring for items, making sure I did my best at all the little Wall Market discoveries before I have to leave the city for a while, rifling through Sector 7 until I'm sure to have everything. FFVII engages that part of my brain, too—the orderly completist, the obsessive power-gamer, the level-grinder. We're talking a lot about the story and the world, but how are you finding the gameplay?