Design in Action is a weekly column by Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish that explores games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. Currently: Final Fantasy VII has just turned 20 years old, and it's time to examine how the series' standards shaped a medium-changing masterpiece.
Final Fantasy VII makes an incredible first impression, but the proof of the game isn't in its opening 15 minutes. As a role-playing game, it's a long-haul experience, and its merit has to be judged by the longevity of its systems.
None of those systems have as much impact on the overall game as the Materia mechanic. Every RPG needs meaningful underpinnings, and the design of those inner workings greatly shape the overall style and nature of a game. Would Chrono Trigger be the breezy and accessible experience you know it as if it had an incredibly fussy skill customization system rather than automatically assigning characters their skills and leaving you to mix-and-match party configurations? Would Persona be half as addictive without the demonic negotiations and fusions? The means by which you define your characters' skills defines an RPG, giving it depth or ease of use or customization... or not.
Final Fantasy VII, then, has its Materia system. Materia remains one of the most controversial skill systems in the entire series; normally, people can generally agree that a given Final Fantasy has a very good or very poor skill mechanic, but the fanbase appears to be split right down the middle on Materia. On one hand, it proves to be an extraordinarily versatile system, which many people love; on the other hand, some find it to be too flexible, undermining many standards they consider essential to the genre.
In every real sense, though, Materia simply represents the logical evolution of Final Fantasy's still systems to that point. Beginning in earnest with Final Fantasy V, the series had made huge strides toward redefining the idea of how character development (in the combat sense) in an RPG could work, which in turn helped Final Fantasy stand apart from its competition. Generally speaking, other RPGs stuck to standard conventions, with skills predefined by character classes, and classes typically assigned permanently to a character — or if not permanently, then certainly with strong restrictions or penalties for re-speccing.
Final Fantasy IV had worked that way: Every character in the game had a set role and lacked any skill customization opportunities in any sense. But Final Fantasy expanded on the idea of a mutable class setup — Final Fantasy III's Job System — allowing all four party members to make use of any available class at any time, swap freely between Jobs with no restrictions or penalties, and even mix-and-match abilities between classes. While the system had definite limitations, it offered unparalleled freedom for custom-building a party.
Final Fantasy VI went a step further. While each party member came with a pre-defined class, those had ultimately little bearing on the way the game played. Aside from the two optional characters (a berserker and a mime, both of whom obeyed their own combat rules), each character had a single class-specific menu command to perform a unique skill. Otherwise, characters were largely interchangeable, save for class-, character-, or gender-specific equipment. But the game's Magicite system allowed players to teach any spell to any party member; once mastered, a spell would be permanent even after you swapped its corresponding Magicite fragment to a different character. Furthermore, you could customize a character's permanent stats by allowing them to hold Magicite that granted specific stat bonuses at level-up. By the end of the game, every FFVI party member could essentially be a nearly identical magic-slinging death machine.
In a way, Materia was an attempt to dial it back from Magicite. While some Materia granted permanent stat bonuses at level-up, similar to Magicite, that was all a party member retained when you swapped around Magicite. Essentially, your FFVII party amounted to largely blank slates whose skills were determined by the Materia they held. Cloud, Tifa, and the rest each bore only the barest vestiges of a Job class, largely defined by their preset weapon types and occasional "limit break" super attacks. In practice, though, these were largely cosmetic considerations.
Materia came in multiple categories, enabling unique features. Some cast spells, other summoned monster, still others gave stat boosts or even modified other Materia. The game also contained a handful of extremely situational Materia. Previous games might have handled something like the Underwater Materia as a key item or accessory, but making it a Materia skill forced you to trade a precious skill slot for the passive ability to remain in submerged dungeons longer.
Materia was tied to weapons in a sense: Each character could only equip as many Materia as their current gear had slots for, which required some difficult trade-offs. Certain weapons allowed you to link only a couple of Materia, giving you extreme customization but strict limits on your total skill allowance, while others might give you numerous Materia slots while disallowing links. Sometimes it might be better to forego a powerful new sword in favor of a weaker old one that offered better Materia advantages.
Though characters didn't gain permanent skills from using Materia, the Materia themselves did. As you gained Ability Points in combat, Materia would level up, unlocking new abilities and ultimately reaching "master" level, at which point it ceased to grow while spawning a duplicate of itself. This, too, integrated some interesting trade-offs into the game design. One, it meant that extremely rare or powerful Materia skills were a far scarcer resource in FFVII than in FFVI; where in the previous game you could teach the entire crew ultimate spells like Quick and Ultima without too much trouble, binding skills to Materia meant the FFVII crew had to specialize and diversify. Secondly, mastery introduced a tactical consideration: Was it better to continue using the mastered Materia, squandering AP gain in return for all those stat bonuses and unlocked skills, or would it be smarter to switch to the newly created Materia and invest your AP into building up a second set of powers... with the realization that you'd be without upper-level skills until you unlocked them again.
In effect, the system turned your Materia into the "real" party members, the ones gaining skills and powers. While the characters gained levels and hit points and stat boosts in combat, they never learned new skills, and you could easily replace Cloud with, say, Yuffie simply by swapping their Materia loads. Traditionalists could recreate classic Final Fantasy Jobs by pairing characters with the correct Materia — e.g. load up someone with tons of Summon Materia to become an Evoker, or give them Steal and Throw to be a Ninja — but that was neither mandatory or even in any way encouraged.
This stood as an inversion of RPG tradition. Looking back to the origins of the genre, at something like Wizardry or even Dungeons & Dragons, a major part of the RPG's appeal had to do with creating more powerful and more capable characters. By stripping skill permanence away from the characters and offloading ability gain to what amounted to accessories, FFVII worked like no RPG before it. Even the Shin Megami Tensei games — which perhaps came closest to setting a true precedent for Materia by forcing players to rely on an ever-changing cast of demons — granted its heroes and their human allies some permanent skills. A FFVII protagonist without Materia was a fight, item, and run command, with the occasional limit break.
But if Materia undermined the long-term value of characters, it also encouraged experimentation and discovery. There was no penalty for setting up a character the "wrong" way. And while players could craft some ridiculously powerful — even game-breaking — Materia setups, they were never nudged in that direction. It was really down to trial, error, and understanding. And, perhaps most importantly, it gave players a mechanical connection to the story, an essential tradition in Final Fantasy.
Materia resulted from the knowledge of an ancient, vanished race coalescing into life energy... and in that sense, there's meaningful story symbolism in the impermanence of Materia. The entire plot of FFVII revolved around the premise that humankind lived an inharmonious existence with nature, exploiting the planet but not fully being a part of it. Materia granted the party incredible abilities, but that power never truly belonged to Cloud and his party. They could only hope, in the end, to borrow it.
Next time: The rotting pizza.