Saturday, September 3, 2016

Missed Opportunities - Final Fantasy 7 and the Death of Aerith

Missed Opportunities is a series dedicated to looking at narrative and mechanical choices in games.  It is not an indictment of a game's quality, nor is it it a look at mediocre games that could have been better. It is a discussion of differing paths, of choice in design.

Final Fantasy VII is a great game. While it is not my Final Fantasy of choice (that honor would go to VI) it is unquestionably one of the most influential JRPG's in video game history. It was, for many, their first major  JRPG and one of the first to tackle major themes and ideas. I came late to the FF VII party, not owning a playstation until well into its life cycle. By the time I got around to cracking open the multi disc case of Final Fantasy VII, it was already one of the most well regarded games around. It was raved about, not just in magazines, not just in playgrounds but among the entire spectrum of video game enthusiast. It was a phenomenon within the industry and made a wide impact on gamers.

FF VII was not my first JRPG. It was not even close to my first JRPG, and VI, the previous entry in the series, had left a high water mark to overcome. The 2D, sprite based predecessor of this newer game, with its expansive cast of characters, memorable story sequences and amazing soundtrack had left an impression on me that would be hard to beat. I have to admit, going into VII, I was skeptical.

This newer game, this latest in a long series was a departure. It was the first Final Fantasy to be 3D, using primitive polygons and textures over the handcrafted look of sprites exhibited by the game's predecessors. It was the first on a disk based platform, complete with loading times and impressive, pre-rendered cut scenes. But those were only surface differences. A deeper, more meaningful change was waiting.

This of course, was the materia system.  The previous Final Fantasy games were class based with the familiar mixes of Fighters, Thieves and Mages. Black Mages cast powerful destruction magic while the ever useful White Mages healed the party and kept your characters in the fight. There were Red Mages and Monks, Bards and Knights. Each character had their role to fill in the party. While they may level up, earn new abilities or change to advanced classes, their roles were largely the same. The brave knight hitting hard and soaking up damage, the wizardly black mage hanging back and casting fireballs or calling down lighting bolts and the battlefield medic of a white mage, curing poisons and patching up wounds.

In Final Fantasy VII, this all changes. Now, instead of classes or jobs, characters had materia. These little, spherical items of magic were slotted into the characters equipment and gave them special abilities. You no long had to be a Black Mage to cast a fireball, or a White Mage to heal, now all you had to do was equip the fireball materia to whichever character you wanted to be able to use the ability and it was theirs, enabling them to sling balls of fire with the best of the them.

And this is where I think they missed an opportunity, not from a game play perspective, but from a narrative one.

The story of Final Fantasy VII is not what one would call simple. There are the familiar tropes of the series for sure, oppressive governments out to put down the little guys and evil masterminds seizing powerful magics to destroy the world and become a god. A rag tag band of heroes who have to come together to stop it. This is not just well worn territory for the series, but the fantasy genre as a whole. Final Fantasy VII mixes their magic with technological elements, a terrorist with a cybernetic gun for an arm, energy reactors controlled by evil corporations, and cloned cells from an alien specimen known as Jenova.

The story weaves itself through these tropes, beginning with the main character, Cloud Strife, acting as a mercenary for hire to a group of eco terrorist trying to save the world by destroying a city's energy reactors. The job goes sideways, the reactor explodes and Cloud falls down into the city's slums, separated from the rest of his party. It is here that he is found by Aerith, a lowly flower girl with a pretty face and a pure heart.

Aerith is who the player would presume to be the love interest. A sweet, idyllic young lady living in the slums, making a living selling flowers to passers by. She is also who one would presume to be the White Mage of the party. The healer, the nurturing hand to bring the party back to life. She even gets Cloud back on his feet after he crashes on to her flower bed from above. In true fantasy fashion, bad guys show up for the girl and Cloud agrees to be her bodyguard. All the pieces are in place for a grand adventure, for the hero to save the world and woo the girl and live happily ever after.

But this is Final Fantasy VII, and in Final Fantasy VII, Aerith dies.

Her death, more than any other in video games up to that point had a profound effect on those playing the game. Even knowing her fate before I ever started the game, her death was an impactful and meaningful scene. This wasn't a one off character, this wasn't some living piece of the background with a generic name and a few lines of dialogue. This was a major character, one the player's party had spent significant time with. Aerith was the sage of the story, the Zelda to Could's Link. She, with the help and protection of the hero was supposed to save the world, not get stabbed in the back and be left dying his arms.

This was a video game, and characters aren't supposed to die in games. Well, at least not permanently. Mario might fall down a pit, Link might need a fairy to get him back on his feet, but in Final Fantasy the death of a single character was never game over. A trip to an Inn or a Phoenix Down would bring them back to life as if they only needed a little rest, a little time to get their strength back. It was only when the entire party went down would you be faced with a game over, forced to restart from your last save point and continue as if the defeat had never happened, as if it was part of some aborted timeline that no longer held impact on the rest of the world.

There would be no Phoenix Down for Aerith, no bandage for her wounds. Our hero carries her to a pool beneath the city and lays her to rest beneath the water. You could restart from a previous save, but it wouldn't matter. There was no avoiding this fate. This is how the story goes. Aerith dies and there's nothing you can do but swear vengeance and chase after the villain who killed her.

Vengeance was not what I was thinking about when Aerith died. It wasn't anger at the game's villain who killed her, or how I was going to stop his plot to end the world. I wasn't shocked, or horrified. I wasn't stunned by the lost of the pretty flower girl or a potential love interest. I was worried about my materia.

You see, Aerith was my White Mage. She held all my healing magic, all my spells that I used to keep my fighters fighting. And when she died, those spells were lodged in her inventory. An inventory that was now floating at the bottom of a pool around Aerith's lifeless corpse. How was I going to continue without a White Mage, without a healer? Would I be able to get enough potions? Would I find new materia that would allow me to heal? How was I going to stop the bad guy, to fight through his army of minions and save the world without the ability to heal my party?

Here was an idea that I had never encountered before in a JRPG. Killing a character is one thing, killing the love interest even more shocking, but to kill the white mage, to kill the healer. This was unheard of. Remove a character from a story and you're left with one less character. Remove a class from a]the party and you're left with an entirely different game.

Video games, the best of them anyway, are not just stories, they aren't just game play, they are the marriage of the two, each supporting and enhancing the other. This is where, to me, Final Fantasy VII fails, where it misses its opportunity. Because the healing materia, the spell I needed most, was safely moved to Cloud's inventory after Aerith's death.

All gameplay consequences were removed from her demise. Now another member of the party could be the healer, could be the defacto White Mage as we traveled across the world in search of an evil man and his evil plans. Aerith, while fondly remembered, would no longer be missed. Instead she would fade into the background as the party pushed on, meeting new characters and finding new spells.

How often would one have thought of her, had FF VII kept their class structure, had removed their White Mage from the game half way through? How often would you have missed her when neck deep in a dungeon, when in the final stretch of a tough boss battle?

Final Fantasy VII could have shown just how important a single character can be to a party, just how important of a role one person can play among a larger narrative, among a war. Instead they chose to build a system around materia, around spells that can be transferred from character to character with little consequence.

And in the process, missed and excellent opportunity.