Part nine in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Train, Stops, No, Etc.
Sorry it took me a little bit to get back to you. I know you must be edging up to the lip of the snowy North Crater by now, arranging and kitting your troops for the last push (including Tifa’s Premium Heart, Cloud’s Ultima Weapon, the Knights of the Round materia and everyone’s Level 4 limit breaks, which I trust you have collected with due thoroughness).
Honestly, I took a few extra days because I wasn’t sure exactly what to write. I mean, we’re done, right? We’ve talked about how great all the characters are, how big the world is, how deceptively good the minimal infrastructure is at pulling players in. We talked about Aeris dying and all the sidequests (by the way, I see you have raised a Gold Chocobo. Congratulations; I like the name). Like, what am I supposed to say, now? I know you thinky types of writers like to go on and on about nothing. I wouldn’t know anything about that, and whose idea was this anyway? Why do I have to write another letter, can’t you just beat the game already, and we all wipe a tear and go back to Portal 2?
I’m joking. Mostly. See, there’s this weird thing that comes over me when I get to the endgame of a big RPG. I can’t remember if this happened to me the first time I played FFVII or not, but it sure happened on subsequent playthroughs. I work so hard, I obsessively accumulate everything, and then it’s time to face the last areas and I just kind of stop and I’m not sure why.
The easy answer is because despite the sense of steady achievement and empowerment RPGs provide, they’re about the journey, not the final result. Of course that’s such a cheezy line—what’s the opposite of that sui generis you threw in a few letters back, Professor?—but it’s true. And it leads me to another thing that’s so unique about FFVII, or about Japanese roleplaying games of its fashion in general.
All RPGs are about growth -- you get a little stronger, you get able to visit other areas—but JRPGs in particular are about growing up. The merit of a protagonist the game gives you, versus those self-generated characters we get these days that are ultimately a pair of eyes and hands for you to borrow and little else, is that the story arc sees a person beginning as someone and ending up as someone else.
The boy-to-man journey is evident in a lot of JRPGs, where the dopey little villager you begin with ends up earning his way to real threat, to final hero. But Cloud’s arc is deceptively creative, I think. You start off as this ultimate bad-ass -- even before you know what ShinRa or SOLDIER is, the game gives you enough context to understand that Cloud is an elite, stooping to aid this little ragtag band of activists (“Don't go thinkin' you so bad jes cuz you was in SOLDIER,” Barrett warns early on, to which Cloud replies, “.......”). Players see him as this chilly super-rogue, reserved, ambivalent, hefting a giant sword, and if he’s got any motive besides being paid, one can only guess.
Where’s there to go from there? Well, gargling and drooling in a wheelchair, apparently. Players don’t join Cloud as he goes from super-SOLDIER to superer-SOLDIER. They follow him on this quest of self-discovery that sees him discard a fake self-concept in favor of a more genuine one; where he’s touched by someone with ideals outside of herself—and then faced with the inequity of her death. He has to go inside himself and face the fact that he felt weak and inadequate as a kid, and that he failed in his goal to get stronger, that his hero, Zack, died so that he could go on. That basically, in the face of a suffering world he hasn’t been much.
It took an immediate threat to Tifa to give Cloud the balls to confront Sephiroth in Nibelheim all those years ago. Now he's going into the heart of the North Crater for all kinds of things: So Aeris didn’t die for no reason. To save the planet. Because everyone believes in him. FFVII is like any RPG in that it takes us on that journey to strength—it just has, in the end, a far different definition of “strength” than “leave your hometown to get more powerful.”
I think that the fact so many of “us” went through our adolescence and teens with FFVII helped make it more powerful. Sometimes growing up doesn’t mean being more of a badass, it means being more aware of others, or more honest with oneself. I’m sure many of us felt a stronger sense of connection to the game as we learned those things alongside Cloud.
In a way, it doesn’t even matter if you win against Sephiroth or not. The Planet could crumple in tragedy and I think I’d probably still feel okay about the effort our heroes mounted. Saving the world from disaster of epic scale isn’t believable, but doing your best is. We’ve already done the real part -- do we really have to fight our way through a canyon of skeletal shadow monsters to beat three different incarnations of a hyper-powered seraphic Sephiroth to prove the merit of our journey?
Actually, yeah. Speaking as someone who’s always felt that the final boss in an RPG was a mere formality, an absurdist event from which I felt generally detached (or through which I’d suffer just to see the ending cutscenes—emember when we’d confront entire obstacles just to see if there’d be a cutscene?!), we’ve kind of got to see this through.
Sephiroth isn’t some pissy wizard or some power-hungry king. This confrontation is more important than the fact that Sephiroth wants to destroy the world (what was it again? Black Materia Meteor Lifestream wound JENOVA etc blah blah?). Sephiroth is an avatar for everything Cloud fears and that’s caused him pain. We said early on that part of the reason he’s compelling, or scary, is because we know Cloud knew him before. This isn’t about the end of the world, it’s about the end of the relationship.
And the fantastic part? The game knows that. When you get to where that song we keep telling you about is over and it’s time to deal that very last blow, I think you’ll be even more impressed with this game than you’ve been all along.