From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: This Day Will Never Come Again
I assure you that I am moving forward, pokey though my progress may seem to a speed-demon like yourself. I am motivated to explore as much for the gameplay benefits as for the backstory on offer; for example, I’m told that I should not enter the Big Crater of Endgame without having raised a gold Chocobo. Okay, then. As for the backstory, oh, the tragic tale of Vincent! “If she is happy then… I don’t mind.” I finally get what you see in him.
I’ve made my way through the underground reactor, piloted my little submarine in a weird 3D sub-battle, and recovered the final huge materia from the bottom of the ocean. The whole time I was doing that last bit I was absolutely terrified of running into Emerald Weapon; before you pointed it out to me I did not realize that Emerald could swim above me and block my exit from the deeps. Stuff of nightmares.
After I expressed my bewilderment last week regarding the Aeris-preference of so many players, several people suggested to me that Aeris possesses a certain je ne sais quoi simply because she dies. In a sense, they theorized, the allure of her character draws from that same well of abstraction that lends power to so many other aspects of this game. You know, the abstraction that we both have been banging on about for most of this letter series. Aeris is an underdeveloped character and she vanishes before we get to know her, and because she didn’t give players much to go on, they colored in the rest and imagined her to be beautiful, perfect, tragic.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better distillation of the way I felt about girls when I was sixteen years old. She is mysterious! She is unknowable, she is absent! Clearly, she must be pure and perfect! At the risk of pissing off a large and fairly intense group of people, I’ll stop there and just say that I agree with your points about Tifa wholeheartedly. What’s more, the stark differences between the two women and the different maturity levels to which they appeal raises an interesting question for me regarding the designer’s intent.
At the end of his brilliant 2010 essay “Maps,” our friend Simon Parkin speaks to FFVII’s director Yoshinori Kitase and attempts to get a sense of why Final Fantasy games always seem to be aimed at the young, why they concern themselves almost exclusively with youthful journeys of self-discovery. Simon points out to Kitase that many of us who grew up with these stories are now adults; has Kitase-san ever considered writing a more grown-up story? No, his translator relays to Simon. “The JRPG is intended for younger players because the journey of the character leaving the village to conquer the world resonates with them. He [Kitase] is happy to continue serving this audience.”
But I wonder. Despite the fundamentally adolescent bent of much of FFVII’s story, there is still a universal framework at play, there are still character archetypes that appeal more broadly than they seem to at first. That Kitase included such dramatically different love interests—the shy, mysterious and possibly empty infatuation of our youth versus the strong, loyal and true partner we hope to meet as we grow older—suggests more than a mere childish love triangle. Do you think that any of that was by design?
So okay, the music. This could get detailed. I swear, every time I’m looking around for music to include in our letters I get sidetracked, listening to track after track after track, unable to choose a favorite. They are all so compartmentalized, so focused—they have been written to save disk space, so no single piece is more than a minute or two long. As a result, every moment is vital, every measure precious. I’m continually amazed at Uematsu’s discipline and how he is able to wring such emotional range out of what is in truth a collection of micro-compositions. The fact that they come together into a cohesive symphony of sorts, one that spans not one but as you point out a whole series of games and films, well… I am impressed. The man’s work deserves the laudations that it so frequently recieves.
Man, do I love the second track you chose, “Holding My Thoughts in Our Heart.” It conjures everything I dig about Uematsu’s score, from the modulating, slightly altered main theme to the various instruments peeking in as the piece develops. Has there ever been a more noble synth-clarinet? Perhaps not. More on the instruments later.
In a similar vein, I am quite enamored of “Distracted by Fireworks,” which I linked to in my last letter. I had a hell of a time figuring out this song’s name; I must’ve gone through thirty YouTube videos before I finally just recorded the damn thing from my PS3, uploaded the MP3 to my website and asked Twitter for help. Thanks to Kris Ligman for clueing me in.
The abject romance of this piece simply slays me. Based on its title, I’m guessing that it first plays while on Cloud’s date in Gold Saucer, and so I’m assuming that most fans associate it with Aeris (and yes, a very select few with Barrett). But I’ll always associate it with Tifa, and with the memories that Cloud shares with her. (It’s starting to come off as though I’m trolling Aeris fans or something. I’m sorry! I swear, I like her fine.1) Those sparkling bells, that rolling chord progression, the fragment of Cloud’s world-map theme… it is lovely. When the synth English horn finally reprises the full theme, it’s more than just a moment; it’s the entire game in five notes, tiny stories of love and heartbreak amidst the rolling mountains of a simultaneously massive and intimate world.
Another favorite of mine is “Hurry!” which plays whenever time is of the essence.
The woodblock most obviously evokes a ticking clock, and the syncopated strings bring a groovy, slinky drive to things. But it’s that gonzo rhodes line, spiraling up, up, up and then landing gracefully before the whole thing modulates up a step… it’s rare that the big goofy purple clock is actually counting down, but every time this song comes on it gets my foot tapping and my head bobbing. Too bad it’s usually broken up by a bunch of random encounters.
Another, darker standout is “Those Chosen by the Planet,” which I’ll always think of as Sephiroth’s theme even though my google journey did bring me to “One Winged Angel.” Don’t worry, I didn’t listen.
Such a killer—it debuts in the blood-covered Shinra HQ and returns every time Sephiroth shows up to, you know, stab someone or summon some hellfire or burn down a village. It instantly conjures doom, discordant synths shimmering in and out as that relentless death-bell tolls. The weird synth-choir makes it all the eerier, and the low strings do this vaguely psychotic whole-step version of John Williams’s famous half-step Jaws chomp. I’m hard-pressed to think of a stronger, more dread-inducing piece in all of gaming; it is the Imperial March of the Playstation set.
Lastly I’ll highlight FFVII’s battle music, which kicks a metric ton of ass. From the hilariously ballsy 12/8 ripfest “Still More Fighting,” to “J-E-N-O-V-A”, which features the most inspiring, epic mariachi trumpet call in videogamedom (0:58) as well as an intro that makes me think of nothing so much as Mass Effect…
…what boss boss music! When Tifa’s stats have turned red, when Cloud is kneeling yellow behind big guard, when Vincent has gone rogue Galian Beast and all seems lost, that trumpet kicks in and pushes me onward. To Phoenix Down, to limit breaks! To victory!
You mention Ben and Brendan’s FFVII orchestral concert-viewing, which brings up an interesting question for me. A lot of people have been mentioning all sorts of redone versions of this music, and for the most part I haven’t very moved by any of it. For one thing, it’s hard with videogame music to ever really stray from the original, from the way we first heard it, even though it happens paradoxically often.For example, I love the soundtrack to The Secret of Monkey Island, and grew quite used to hearing it a certain way. I recently assembled a list of some of my favorite tracks, and I found that there are probably ten different recordings of the introductory theme music alone, each created by a different sound card with a different-sounding MIDI playback device. Each one I heard was an insult, a bizarre and twisted mutation of the version I knew, the “real” version.
So when I hear high-res digital takes on the FFVII music, I generally feel like I’m listening to enlimpened broth, even if the samples on display are cleaner and richer and the recording quality is better. I happen to like that cheezily epic clarinet sound, those taffy-like strings, that disjointed choir. They conjure FFVII for me, and in their sonic simplicity, they make it easy to focus on the melodies that make those pieces so great.
But it’s never that simple, is it? Last week a Twitter follower sent me the fully re-orchestrated, live version of Cloud’s Theme from a few years before Advent Children. I was blown away.
Here is a re-imagined version that I am okay with, but not because it gives me nostalgia or conjures my experience with FFVII. It’s simply a gorgeous piece of music, played beautifully. That theme! Those counter-melodies! Hearing them brought to life by actual, living musicians allows me to reflect upon just how good Uematsu’s compositions really were. I love the original soundtrack, but if you’re going to re-do it, do it right. Preferably with as many English Horn solos as possible.
It is in much the same spirit that I would gladly embrace an HD remake of FFVII itself; having experienced the original, I’d be happy to see it again with a different, shinier coat of paint. Hopefully there will be an option to turn off the dialogue, though.
We’re really getting there, aren’t we? I can sense the end drawing near. You’ve been waiting for me at the edge of the crater for some time now (thanks), and I’m finally within spitting distance of my showdown with Sephiroth. I’ve still got some sidequests to do and a Chocobo to raise, but I can tell I won’t be able to play the completist for very much longer.
A reckoning is coming. I feel ready.
Even though I’m probably not.
Tune in next week for Part 9 as our writers near the end of their journey.
To weigh in on the conversation, feel free to leave a comment or catch up with Leigh and Kirk on Twitter.