After pressing start: Final Fantasy VI and VII
(After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those stories influence the arcs of video games. A variety of games he’s totally never talked about before will be featured. This might be sarcasm.)
Leaving Dragon Age: Origins, I felt I’d go to a couple classic titles I’ve played more times than I can count: the “core” Final Fantasies (since I haven’t written enough about the series this week!). By the core titles, I mean VI and VII, the two widely agreed on classics of the series.
Both games begin in eerily similar ways, with one player character leading an assault on a difficult area followed by a lower intensity denouement. What they do with them, though, is decidedly different. Final Fantasy VI sets up its world and ensemble cast quickly and efficiently, while Final Fantasy VII drives home its own central point: Cloud. While the structure is similar, both games accomplish different goals.
In its denouement, Terra escapes from a group of imperials looking for her, running through a cave, told to look for the rebels. She falls in a pit, blacks out, and is saved by dashing hero Locke.
We have a very layered, subtle setup. The Empire forces the player to do evil, a thread that the game will harken back to many times over the first half of its run time (with Celes, with General Leo, with Kefka–”The Empire is evil, but not all of its citizens are”). But this isn’t the point. In the end the Empire exists, but its existence, with regards to the plot, is largely meaningless: this is an adventure to be shaped by terrifying magics beyond human comprehension. It’s a story about Terra’s relationship with the Espers.
Biggs and Wedge, though, besides being Star Wars references, are important to the plot. Yes, their existence is to establish the fragility and eventual destruction of the Empire, but there’s more than that: they establish the Ensemble nature of the cast. They aren’t equally as powerful as Terra, but they can still one hit kill any enemy you encounter besides the boss; they feel powerful, like real party members. From the beginning the game isn’t just about Terra: it’s about everyone. It’s about the world you live in and the fate that will befall it. It’s about those innocent soldiers you slaughter, because nobody is on opposite sides. Remember: “the Empire is evil, but not all of its citizens are.” The only evil is the individual, not the bodies they represent. It foreshadows the true nature of the conflict, subtly but effectively.
But wait! There’s more!
Final Fantasy VI is also like an onion. It establishes an ensemble cast, and then introduces them, one at a time, in mid-game introductions. Every character gets his own introduction, his own story woven through the main narrative. Edgar’s introduction, for instance, establishes him as a King who doesn’t quite care for his people, who’s crafty and a little mad. It advances the plot, and establishes Kefka, but also begins a personal arc for him. The game does something that its eventual sequel, Final Fantasy XIII, does not attempt: it layers its conflicts, so every character feels relevant at every moment. Every character introduction feels like the beginning of its own story, one which will sometimes move to the backburner but which is always there.
This, despite its structural similarities, is night and day from Final Fantasy VII’s introduction. VII, after a long shot of Aeris exploring the mysteries of a crack in the wall (and “Loveless”) goes to Cloud jumping off a train and killing a dozen men. He, like Terra, is infiltrating somewhere with a “team”, not quite in control of his own actions, but for him the team are meaningless—Cloud could do this job by himself. And despite his lack of control, Cloud is adamant he’s there just for himself. Barret joins the party, but even then he is mechanically weaker than Cloud by a significant degree; it’s only after you beat the boss that Barret becomes a party member approaching Cloud’s level.
It only gets more focused in the denouement. After Cloud (specifically Cloud) sets the bomb and blows the plant sky high, he’s left alone by the team to fight a lot of soldiers and escape by himself.
It’s not hard to tell what Final Fantasy VII is trying to tell us: this is a game about Cloud, about his weaknesses. He puts on a strong front through the whole thing, and probably could have done it himself, but he needs Barret’s motivation, Barret’s gun arm. Cloud’s sucked into the events of the game, rather than motivating them himself, and Barret is the whirlpool.
Compared to VI it’s a less complicated open, but it does its job equally well. Final Fantasy VII‘s chief problem is inefficiency, showing the first symptoms of the disease that would rot the franchise from the inside. There’s just not a lot happening in the first scene, and the game waits until later points to really introduce its characters and themes. VI, meanwhile, is efficient throughout its first half, telling only what it needs to to move the plot forward. Everything in VI feels important, while VII is efficient but takes a lot longer to get us places. It’s slower and spends more time lovingly attending to its good ideas, which is probably why we have Advent Children today.
Efficiency of ideas is one of the most important things an introduction can offer. Video games are massive, sprawling beasts: both of these games take thirty hours at minimum. So it’s paradoxical that the first thirty minutes are so important, but they set the tone of the proceedings. Final Fantasy VI begins with a wide shot of three characters walking through snow. It sets the tone: we know the game’s about the world these people live in. VII starts with two characters whose relationship goes on to be the defining quality of the game despite the fact that there’s a lot more in there. This structure they both use, an out of control protagonist attacking a relatively defenseless structure, sets the tone for the game and creates the lens through which we see the things that happen next: the escape with Locke and Edgar, the argument with Barret and the assault on another reactor. The efficiency of Final Fantasy VI’s opening sets it apart, in my mind, from VII, which, while a brilliant game, foreshadows the series’ decline in self-indulgence.