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.

Final Fantasy VI differs from VII primarily in its cast: it is an ensemble, rather than being primarily one man’s story. It begins with Terra, the “head” of its ensemble, attacking the town of Narshe alongside two imperial soldiers. It begins with the unconscious commission of an act of war on behalf of the protagonist, who has no free will of her own. This is expressed, of course, by the player not being allowed to leave town, by the game pushing you into a linear path. You kill a large number of innocent defenders, fight a throwback giant snail, and find an Esper, a magical being around whom the plot will center. The imperials are killed—this is an important gesture—and Terra is freed from their control by the beast before waking up in a rebel sympathizer’s house.

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.


  1. I’ve always been struck at how elegant the introduction to FFVII is. Not just the introduction, too. The opening hours of FFVII show a remarkable way of introducing cast and game mechanics with little to frustrating handholding. Even the decision to make Cloud explain what Materia and such is to the other people in the party is a clever way of introducing systems without breaking the narrative.

    But then the rest of the game is a mess. The world map outside of Midgar is awkward and has little to none of the dense characterisation and scripting that characterised Midgar. But then, I suppose, people at the time thought that Final Fantasy meant “WORLD MAP” at all times, regardless of whether or not it fit.

    • Tom Auxier

      Yeah. It’s an introduction that, even to me, gets infected by how bloated the rest of the game is. It’s remarkably efficient, but it leads into a long, drawn out story with lots of world map wandering.

  2. IMO, this matter of “slow-pacing” for unveiling the characters and the story events is quite elaborated. I guess what really matters is how the narrative information is distributed throughout the game, which differs from game to game, and in some cases the “slow-pacing” is the tool used to brings the narrative events all together without plot holes. It is good to remember that the FFVII is a series actually (unlike other FF games), which only makes total sense if thought together with its parallel texts (including the novels).

    This review also brought me the interesting thought: are these two games really comparable? Or else: are two FF games comparable. Although we are talking about the same game series, it is interesting to think that they might have really little in common, the barely acceptable for they to be considered a JRPG genre.

    Also, the each-character-presentation system is quite canonical among JRPGs. The series that most developed this is Wild Arms, in which the player get to play each character separately before really starting the game.

    • Tom Auxier

      I wouldn’t think of Final Fantasy VII as a series, if only because if I did it would be a profoundly worse experience. Advent Children is passable at best (because of its pretty pictures), Dirge of Cerberus is illegal in some countries, and Crisis Core is…well, Crisis Core is okay.

      And I think they have a lot in common. They differ greatly in a few areas of their narrative, but in terms of their gameplay structures they’re almost identical. They just tell different stories in terms of their focus.

      • Andrew McDonald

        Advent Children tried too hard to be meaningful without really understanding what to do with it.

        Remember the part where main villain guy says, “So what if I’m a pawn. At one point, so were you!”? Uh… ok? Doesn’t the fact Cloud is no longer a pawn mean that the guy should strive to be his own person than just Sephiroth’s back-up? His acceptance of his fate is never properly justified from what the story tells us.

        And I was thinking of continuing, hut I’m sure someone out there has a detailed rant of everything wrong with Advent Children.

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