Part seven in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Poor Pokey-Headed Young Thing
So by now you saved Cloud and came upon the game’s most major plot twist. Confession: When I was a teenager, it wasn’t quite clear to me. Like, I often still have to go back and read up to refresh my memory of what actually happened in Nibelheim and remind myself—where’d Jenova’s head end up? So how has Sephiroth been showing up all this time? How’d Cloud and Zack get away?
Actually, you don’t know about Cloud and Zack getting away. You have to go back to Nibelheim later and find out. Check out the tanks in the library. Zack was a real super-SOLDIER.
Cloud, obviously, wasn’t. Even though it gets a bit muddled mako-and-Lifestream nonsense at this point, I like it. It’s the first time, for me, that I really start to feel a sense of love and protectiveness toward the hero. I mean, in those Nibelheim flashbacks of his childhood, look at his cute little-kid sprite walking determinedly up to Tifa’s house while she is inside hanging out with the cool boys. Aww! And so what if Cloud never became a real SOLDIER—he kept his promise to Tifa, awwww!
From there I felt he was realized, in a way that was pretty advanced relative to the times. It made me want to really invest time in making him and the party stronger. Actually, most of the really good character moments from here are pretty optional. You can, by the way, go back to Midgar now whenever you feel like. The key’s at the archaeology site; it’s considered a “normal treasure” and I think you can get it if only you talk to that dude chilling by the fence.
Anyway. What’s interesting is that from this point forward, actually numerous characters become more sympathetic, or more nuanced, or the gaps in them get filled in if you seek them out (can you reach Vincent’s waterfall yet?) Even the Shin-Ra are engaged in a misguided and yet somehow appreciable attempt to help save the planet; you’ve got to love Reno’s very selective sense of when he is “on the clock” or not.
And the game kind of builds this slowly, right? You’re getting this sense of people coming together around the end of the world. So even when the dialog is cheezy pep-talk LET’S DO THIS FOR AERIS AND MARLENE AND LUCRECIA AND FOR MY SPACE DREAMS type stuff, you can’t help but feel fond of all these cute, blocky little people and everything they’ve been through and believe in.
Every Japanese RPG threatens you with the end of the world. Some supernatural villain is planning to cause a great disaster event to eliminate or take over the world, either because he’s some soulless nihilist, vengeful psychopath, or wannabe despot, and you and your ragtag band have to stop him. The game usually ends with an 11th-hour showdown on the top of the tower where you finally challenge what’s-his-name while he’s just about to do whatever.
But FFVII’s pacing is surprising, and it remains unique. You noticed that you had two thirds of the game left after Aeris’ famous death. Sephiroth gets the Black Materia and summons Meteor halfway through, and then you’ve gotta play out the rest of the game with that ominous object looming, with townsfolk having accepted their likely end, with the guts of the planet erupting up from the sea and apocalyptic monsters just, y’know, flying around. Life goes on! There’s still Chocobo racing!
I always thought that was cool, the relatively slow pacing of the quintessential-RPG-disaster events. You get to see the world and its characters change as you go, and that’s probably another incentive to explore: Return to a place and it’s different than the first time, like Mideel. Or learn something you didn’t know, like Nibelheim. The narrative is telling you you have one thing to do -- but from elements that have piqued your emotional attachments and curiosity to those that are scratching your gameplay itch (CHOCOBO)—you actually feel the urge or desire to do a lot of things.
It makes the world feel bigger and richer right when it’s at its most vulnerable. I think that’s why FFVII’s later game is satisfying. It’s dug into your heart, and you can feel it ending, which is interesting on its own—and yet there’s so much more you can do to prolong your relationship with it. Which is maybe why I never noticed a narrative disconnect: Hey, Meteor’s coming, we’re running out of time, what are we going to do, oh yeah play at Gold Saucer! There are just enough visible “game” frameworks in FFVII that it feels okay. There’s another benefit for abstraction; you can be “gamey” without losing immersion.
Anyway. I don’t think you’re in “late game” yet. Lots of stuff to do yet—but the pace will pick up.
And on the over-simplistic names? I think it’s brilliant. Yes, it is funny having a weapon named WEAPON and a meteor named Meteor and an archaeology site called Bone Village and a gold saucer called the Gold Saucer. But it makes it a lot easier to follow, doesn’t it? Supposing Aeris was busy calling on Thyllullia to stop Sephiroth from using the Phthalath to summon Mytheteon and destroying all of Rephistytheles with the resulting surge of the W’teva? Could you still go and race K’thul at the Aurelio Magneo or dig for the Stone of Opening Midgar in Wyzemere Village without feeling kinda stupid?
The basic names are abstraction at work again. You can map such simple things onto your brain without even trying—you won’t need to be reminded what the “Highwind” is or where to find Cosmo Canyon (duh, in a canyon). That frees you up to think about what things are instead of what they’re called.
And because most things and places are named pretty clearly after what they are, it also makes it more magical when Cloud can do something called “Climhazzard” or Vincent can become “Death Gigas”. Or when you have a weapon called a “Premium Heart”, or truly important locations named after Norse myths. Letting simple things be simple helps make other things intriguing, beautiful by contrast, and again, that’s something that RPGs stuffed with lorebooks just don’t get.