From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Poor Pokey-Headed Young Thing
“There ain’t no getting offa this train we on!”
Cloud is back in and in command of the Highwind and all is right with the world. Well actually, all is pretty far from right, but you know what I mean. It was a long road to get him from that ghastly squeaking wheelchair in Mideel to here, and I feel as though I’ve learned something in the process. Though I haven’t learned quite as much as this game seems to think it’s taught me. If I’m being honest, ever since Serphiroth summoned Meteor and Cloud took a powder, it’s all been a haze of genetic engineering and murky backstory and government conspiracies that remain un- or at least underexplained.
And that’s really okay—as you point out, the individual beats of this story are the same as many a JRPG. A great evil has risen, the world is going to end, a ragtag team of heroes must band together to blah from the blah using the mystical bleerh. I know the steps, and I can dance to it. My enjoyment of the dance itself hinges on the particulars, the moment-to-moment experience that most games tend to favor over a coherently designed larger vision.
FFVII doesn’t fall apart even though its final act contains the dissonance that you point out, that usual videogame challenge of “Hurry and run from the monster! Also quick collect that thermos over there!” If the world is going to end, why am I allowed to whizz about in the Highwind tracking down loot and sidequests? The answer, it would seem, is a resounding “Because you can!”
That sort of disconnect between narrative urgency and open exploration can really mess with a game’s fiction (see: every Bethesda game ever), so I’m not quite sure why FFVII doesn’t fall victim to it. Perhaps it’s because the game has so willingly embraced goofiness that I simply don’t expect it to adhere to the rules of reality. But still I wonder—a mutual friend of ours recently expressed frustration when I pointed out some of the big-picture narrative threads that lie at the fringes of Dragon Age 2. “I want my narrative to come to me!” she said. And while she wasn’t being entirely serious, I do agree with her—I like it when I am told a story, when I don’t have to go read codex entries and hunt down sidequests just to know what really happened. And yet in this case, I find myself happily doing just that. I wonder why?
At any rate, Tifa and Cloud’s Big Lifestream Adventure most certainly did not disappoint, especially considering that it was a (barely) interactive 30-minute cutscene. I, too, was affected by tiny Cloud running up to Tifa’s house as she sat crying on the floor by the window. Aw, Tifa, in your turquoise dress and platform shoes. I have developed a fairly sturdy armor when it comes to the tricks and manipulations of pop culture, but I am still susceptible to the idea that unbeknownst to them, two characters fell in love as children and have been in love ever since. Promises were made and kept, and we can still dare to trust one another the way we used to when we were young. If only my own life were so simple.
I see Tifa helping Cloud through the Lifestream, carrying him from window to window, holding onto him fiercely through the strength of her own remembrances, and I find myself wondering once more just why the hell so many people out there pine for Aeris. What is the story there? Does Aeris have some appeal that I’m simply not getting? Is this maybe explained in Crisis Core, or Advent Children, or in some companion book or whatever that I have yet to read? I just don’t get it. As Barrett told Tifa as she lay semi-conscious on the shores of the Lifestream, “I can’t win against you. You’re some kinda lady.” And as I told Barrett just after he said that, “In-fucking-deed.”
I definitely feel a newfound appreciation for Cloud; the fact that he isn’t actually the reticent badass of Act One or the weird broken Sephiroth-clone of Act Two has greatly endeared him to me. Aw, Cloud, you adorable, spikey-haired little spaz. It seems like more often than not I’m watching you bobble around like a puppet while saying “urrrggg… uhhhh,” but that makes it all the cooler when you fire-up cross-slash and leap into the fray.
I was beside myself when Cloud kept his promise to Tifa, wrathfully defending her and throwing Sephiroth off the bridge—until I learn otherwise, I will firmly believe that he was given strength by the power of true love. And that moment aboard the Highwind, when he pulled himself together and triumphantly quoted Barrett… well, it outdid even The Great Sister Ray Slap-Fight of Last Week.
“This train we on don’t make no stops!”
Your points about the names in the game are well taken, of course. (I’ll also note that you seem suspiciously well-practiced in the art of conjuring imaginary fantasy-names. Hmm.) I, too, am struck by how FFVII’s simplistic monikers stand in contrast to its more inventive ones, particularly because many of the names in this game are so damn good.
“Aeris.” “Shinra.” “Sephiroth.” “Rude.” “Rufus.” “Tifa.” “Nibelheim.” “Midgar.” These names are singular and powerful, pleasing to both ear and eye and instantly evocative of the person or place to which they are assigned. And then we have odd pop references like “Sister Ray,” “Loveless,” and “Aqualung”… I wonder about the process of naming the things in this game. Perhaps it is partially to do with localization? Do you know anything of the names in the Japanese version?
Since this is Part 7 (or perhaps, VII) of our series, I thought I’d finally really broach the subject of Nobuo Uematsu’s music. I have written, thought and debated about videogame music quite a bit over the past couple of years, and among the conclusions I’ve reached is that game music is rarely more emotionally impactful than when the game in question involves no voice acting or speaking. It’s one of the big reasons why so much of the music from FFVII’s era is still so celebrated, and why so much modern game music feels like Hollywood hackwork by comparison.
My theory is that a strong melody occupies the same mental/conceptual space as spoken words do, and that it is therefore difficult to listen to both at once. You’ll notice that in most games these days (and films, for that matter), the big melodic themes only move to the foreground during action scenes; when it comes time for the characters to do some talking, big single-line motifs are replaced with wider, less intrusive chords and textures.
Therefore the composer for any text-only game has the luxury of space—with no words getting in the way, Uematsu was free to write whatever music he wanted. He really went for it, and the resultant themes and melodies do more talking than those iconic little blue dialogue boxes could hope to. There is a lushness to his work, a real sense of romance—the way he uses chord-extensions in his lilting, vertical phrases, their major sevenths and sharp elevenths draped over a richly painted harmonic hodgepodge. This game has the most soothing “Sorry bro, game over” music I’ve ever heard, a jazzy little ditty that greatly softens the blow of losing a half-hour of my life to the game’s ridiculously outdated save system. I wish I could set my bedside lamp to play this song when I turn it out every night. And make no mistake, Uematsu can write a face-ripping boss theme or a psychological freak-out as well as anyone.
There are few things that get people more excited than sharing their favorite tracks, and I of course have a few of my own. I have long since grown accustomed to your delectably difficult musical tastes, and so I am quite curious to know which, if any, of Uematsu’s pieces most resonate with you. And perhaps more importantly, why? Be it FFVII or Crisis Core or Chronos Trigger and Cross, what is it about the music of this era?
I feel like I’ve come to it at last: I have full and unimpeded access to the map, a huge reservoir of materia and skilled party members, and a laundry list of minigames and side activities (CHOCOBOS) that I want to undertake. Gold Saucer, waterfalls, limit breaks, unique items, and racetracks await. And somewhere, above it all, Sephiroth, Jenova and Meteor.
Ain’t no gettin offa of this train we on.
Tune in next week for Part 8 as our writers dig deeper into the music of FFVII and list their favorite pieces.
To weigh in on the conversation, feel free to leave a comment or catch up with Leigh and Kirk on Twitter.