Part two in our ongoing retrospective letter series. An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: "You were selling flowers"
It's with the sort of self-effacing, graceful humility for which I'm well-known that I recommend our friend evaluate the extent to which I am reputed for repeating words that have been done by others!! Pffft, as if.
So you're compelled by the images of the world you've seen so far, yes? I imagined that the macro-ideas of FFVII's landscape -- the mechanized dystopia lit with green luminance, the gravity-defying coifs and ill-advised shoulder-guards of all kinds -- would be registered someplace in your conscious and given you an idea what to expect, but I'm really happy to see that the details have resonated with you.
Happy, and alleviated, too. Because as I went about my own re-play, I found myself at times thinking, "holy shit, this is beautiful": The haphazard bed of flowers erupting from the floor of a church. The flickering, artificial monitor display of a pastoral mountain scene in the middle of a slum bar. The fragile lace of a train graveyard laid out over rusted tracks; the bizarre pastiche of fake Chinoiserie and Vegas neon in the desperate, gaudy corners of the slum market. And it just gets worse, and I wondered if I was just poisoned by that irreconcilable nostalgia and the memory of discovering all these things as new.
Because how can FFVII be "beautiful" in an age where we have Red Dead Redemption's sunsets, how can Wall Market feel lifelike when we have New Vegas? And why the hell have you and I both offered up flowerbaskets full of excuses as to why the world should be impossible to find so compelling? Are we afraid of colleagues standing up to tar us with the "been there, done that, fanboys" brush?
I have a theory. The world is more compelling because it's created for art's sake; there's this weird smash-up of crude, abstract objects (the block-handed sprites, the lazily-literal translation, the slow chug of the animations, enemies spewing pixel-clouds of nebulous poisons) with this at-times startlingly vivid detail in the background. You're looking at a few rays of light coming through the cracks in a wall somewhere, glittering as if with dust-motes; you're looking at a poster for LOVELESS, widely-advertised within FFVII's canon but never actually viewed nor detailed, and you're thinking none of this is actually necessary.
It's there to be looked at; it's there to make the world feel considered and real -- no, wait, even more than that, it's there because the world is considered and real. Maybe it's naive of me to assert that "they don't make them like that" anymore, but it really does feel that way. "Realism" means something else -- the dozens of recycled assets you mentioned, each blade of grass perfectly replicated to feel "real", hundreds and thousands of booze bottles to be picked up for no reason just so you understand you're in the home of an alcoholic. Maybe an imaginary world is more interesting after all, maybe we've mis-equated "real" with literal.
Will it enrage a zillion readers if I say I don't think FFVII could have ever, then or now, been made in the West?
I have a lot more to say about how the "abstraction" concept, the contrast between image-shorthand and image-detail makes the world of FFVII more immersive: Keep in mind RPG characters had, basically, been only sprites til then, how it was our first time getting to see their "faces" rendered in such dimension, how that might have led us to attach to them more.
Meanwhile, though -- and maybe I'm going way overboard here -- but even the way you approach the game is sort of telling of our modern times. You wrote at first of spacing out our messages around waypoints in the game as if it would even be possible for you to identify them. You have no idea how long this game is, and that's even if you don't indulge in the completionist joy of its sidequests (arguably some of the most obscure and the most fun ever, the high point of sidequests in history!!)
And you are already extrapolating a logical beginning-middle-end sort of narrative about Tifa and Aeris and the loss of innocence, aiming to predict what you are being "set up" for. You will either be very excited or very confused at the extent to which FFVII's story sort of unravels itself sloppily, organically, all over the place without much thought to the "rules". So with that in mind, we have way more important questions to consider:
Who do you think is hotter, Tifa or Aeris? What do you think of the Turks, aren't they DREAMY? And what do you think of Cloud as a person, as a hero?
From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: "You were selling flowers"
As I write to you, I have raced against time in a vain attempt to stop a great plate from crushing the sector 7 slum. I have infiltrated Shinra headquarters, faced off against Rufus and escaped with my party intact. I have left Midgar behind me and set out into a larger world, stopping in the village of Kalm to get some answers about Cloud's past with SOLDIER and his relationship to the mysterious, terrifying Sephiroth. I've had a villager explain to me in great detail how to use L2 to change camera types while in the World map, and how then to use L1 and R1 to rotate the camera. I have captured my first Chocobo. Squeeee indeed!
I'll start by answering your questions, in order:
1) Tifa is hotter. I understand that Aeris is the one with the grandiose past and the great, tragic destiny (some spoilers are unavoidable in our line of work). But not only is Tifa a total babe, she's also a loyal friend to Cloud, and has been since they were kids. And with these Grand Gloves I just snagged for her, she kicks some serious ass, too. She's the Pacey to Aeris' Dawson, or perhaps more fittingly the Mr. Knightley to Cloud's Emma Woodhouse. Tifa's my girl.
2) The Turks are dreamy as hell.
3) I'm a bit ambivalent towards Cloud. I think that the broad strokes of his character are thin-to-non-existent (surely by design), but there are details about him that I do enjoy. His occasionally blasé responses to people, saying a "yeah…" where an "okay" would suffice… It makes me like him, because it betrays a youthful insecurity that I think I relate to. If I'm giving too much credit to what is admittedly an inconsistent localization effort, then so be it.At any rate, I, too, have been thinking a great deal about the various levels of visual abstraction in FFVII. You said earlier that when you played the game as a kid, you never thought to engage your disbelief because you understood the sprites were shorthand, abstractions for bigger and more important things. I think that's an interesting point, and that whether by necessity or by design, the game itself supports that. I've noticed that there are at least three representations of the characters in the game—the in-game sprites (blocky and distressingly detail-free), the battle avatars (much more detailed; here was where I realized that Aeris was not in fact an 11 year-old), and the detailed portraits that appear on character sheets. Actually, there are four, if you count the 3D representations in the cutscenes.
So as I play, I'm picturing all three of my party members moving together, chatting, trading Materia, on their guard and ready for a random attack… the degree to which I'm required to see things through my mind's eye makes a significantly different impression than, say, Mass Effect 2 or Red Dead Redemption. It engages my brain much like a good book, rather than a current-generation videogame.Have we truly forgotten how potent and vital imagination is? I daresay that many big-budget game developers may indeed have. In fact, I'll go one further and say that the makers of Final Fantasy evenforgot. For all the color-drenched dazzle of Final Fantasy XIII's blu-ray cutscenes, I found myself shutting down as I watched them. My eyes were overwhelmed, but my imagination was left fairly untouched.
So when you suggest that that Final Fantasy VII could not, then or now, be made in the west, I'd say that if anything, it's less likely now. I'm afraid that fact suggests that the reason this game so captures peoples' hearts and spirits is that its developers didn't have the technology required to cut our imaginations out of the equation entirely, else they would have. I only draw that conclusion because over the last ten years, Square's (and many other developers') designers have finally gained the technology required to make their wildest concept art into a million-polygon reality, and sure enough, they have allowed their own imaginations to take center stage while pushing ours aside without a second thought. Perhaps that means that no one has "forgotten" about imagination at all; they simply no longer need to rely on it.
Speaking of leaving things to our imagination, allow me to talk about our villain for a moment. Hot damn, does this Sephiroth guy ever get a great introduction! For all the early chapters' talk of sacrifice and death, it wasn't until I made my way through the blood-soaked halls of Shinra headquarters that I felt as though shit had gotten real. That segment was as chilling for me as I'd imagine it was for you back when you first played it. Rarely has an "aftermath" scene left such a distinct impression of terror, death, and inescapable power.
I've enjoyed further explorations of Sephiroth as well, and loved Cloud's flashback to his time fighting alongside him in SOLDIER. I'm sure I'll learn more about this nemesis as the game progresses, but so far this entire series of events has earned a place alongside my favorite all-time villain-reveals.
Role-playing junkie though I may be, I have clearly not taken into account the vast sprawl of this game, as you point out. My laughable attempts to quantify-in-advance are clearly at odds with what should prove to be a truly epic undertaking, and I do wonder if that's a result of me shifting my expectations along with the changing tide and focus of mainstream console RPGs.
So it is with an open mind that I'll continue to the west, with my eyes wide and my clock turned off. First up I think I'll chat up these nice-looking folks in Junon. I heard I can find a ship here that will usher me across the sea.
I'll leave you with a few questions of my own: Are there things in those opening Midgar chapters that struck you as more important the second time around? When you know that an area is soon to be destroyed or rendered inaccessible, do you find yourself drawing out your time there any more? And does anyone who plays these games actually change the names of their party members?
Coming up next week in Part 3: Cloud and the new breed of JRPG hero, what exactly it IS about Sephiroth, and the gameplay of FFVII.