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.
Once upon a time, the term "role-playing game" invariably called to mind archaic journeys through a medieval setting: Trolls and treasures, dungeons and demi-humans, swords and sorcery. That is, right up until the point that Final Fantasy VII changed everything.
To be fair, Final Fantasy VII wasn't the first RPG to break away from the classic Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic mold, not by a long shot. The early Ultima games had a pronounced sci-fi element amidst their high fantasy settings; Namco and Atlus had taken RPGs into near-future Tokyo with Megami Tensei; Wasteland took us into a post-apocalyptic hellscape; and Nintendo's EarthBound set things in a whimsical take on present-day America. And D&D itself had strayed from classic fantasy as well, to say nothing of competing tabletop systems like GURPs and Star Wars. Even Final Fantasy had given us such technological set pieces as the devastating WarMech, the robot colossus Bab-il, and an empire in Final Fantasy VI that ruled through mechanized authority from the towering technological city of Vector.
What Final Fantasy VII had on all of these games was appearance and context. Sure, Final Fantasy VI began with a brainwashed woman riding high-powered robot armor, but the game still felt largely medieval with its emphasis on swords, spells, and rustic towns. EarthBound was cartoony, Wasteland abstract, Megami Tensei notoriously unlocalized into English and therefore unknown to the average American RPG fan. Plus, none of them featured detailed computer-rendered cinema sequences that clearly depicted a world running on baroque-yet-advanced technology, with vintage steam trains existing alongside high-powered energy reactors one step beyond nuclear power. Presentation matters.
FFVII's heavy emphasis on technology and futurism extended to every part of its story. Now magic didn't come from sorcery and eldritch monsters; it came from energy extracted from the earth and focused though modules on the team's equipment. Two party members wielded guns rather than melee weapons, one of whom had his ballistics integrated into a cybernetic arm. Meanwhile, another team member was a robotic mascot character, while at least three combatants had backstories involving genetic experimentation. The game's most powerful attack involved summoning Arthur and the knights of his Round Table, yes, but the second best summon was a robotic dragon that could have gone to the ropes with Godzilla... and, incidentally, you could only acquire that ultimate summon by becoming a champion bird-racer at a futuristic sports arena.
Of course, much of FFVII also took place in rustic and rather archaic-looking locations, just as its predecessor did. The first place you visit in the open world, Kalm, resembles a classic central European village with its cobblestone streets and wood-frame buildings. Gongaga Town consists of brick huts, Nibelheim of more Swiss-style chalets with a decrepit mansion looming in the background, and Wutai smacks of old-school Japan with its tile roofs and red wooden frames.
But FFVII exudes a profound sense of futurism that never quite fades, no matter how pastoral the scenery becomes. That's because the game sets its tone and establishes its world view from the very beginning by dropping players into the depths of Midgar: A sprawling, modern-Tokyo-inspired metropolis that sits at the heart of the FFVII universe. Even on the other side of the world, you never quite escape Midgar's influence. It's the seat of Shinra, the corporate empire that rules the planet. And while it may be presented as a capitalist institution, there's never the slightest doubt that Shinra is in fact an empire in every sense of the word. It has its own army with which it's conquered nearly the entire planet, and even the one country that managed to fight back Shinra's thirst for conquest years before — the hidden village of Wutai — doesn't enjoy true sovereignty. Shinra's private agents, the Turks, operate with impunity within the city, harassing Cloud and company without any apparent regard for Wutai's independence.
The World of Midgar
Final Fantasy's entire first act takes place in Midgar, a walled city whose imposing boundaries serve to keep foreigners out and residents in. There's a lot about FFVII that feels unhappily resonant in America 20 years after the game's debut, and the wall surrounding Midgar is a big part of that. Not to mention the fact that the eco-terrorist group protagonist Cloud falls in with, AVALANCHE, came into being as a result of Midgar's thoughtless and destructive exploitation of energy resources in a desert-like foreign region. In terms of game structure, though, the wall surrounding Midgar serves to contain the story within the city's boundaries for nearly 10 hours of narrative, firmly cementing the advanced technological state of the game's world as well as the inescapable influence of the Shinra corporation.
FFVII does a glorious job of revealing Midgar to players, bit by bit. The opening zoom of the game helps set important visual context — the dominating Shinra Tower at the center of the hub-like city, the assault on Reactor 1 and its close proximity to where Aerith sells flowers — but as you advance through the story, you learn more about this dense urban center Shinra has created. Perhaps the single most striking moment in the hours that follow the opening sequence comes in a brief, subdued scene in which AVALANCHE's members escape their bombing mission by metro line. As Cloud's new ally Jessie explains the lay of Midgar to him, the camera pulls back from the subway car to reveal it as a mere speck running along a track suspended high above the massive city.
This sweeping incidental cutscene view in turn helps provide a visual reference for the city's stratified design. Midgar has been constructed at two separate levels, with the wealthy (presumably people connected to Shinra) living on the upper plates and the lower level consisting of slums. Most of the game's opening hours take place in the slums, which have a rickety, haphazard appearance, like an endless shanty town. The inegalitarian design of the city runs as a narrative thread throughout much of this portion of the game, with the upper plates blocking almost all natural light from the benighted masses who live below in squalor and misery. When Cloud and Aerith's paths collide again after their brief, post-bombing meet-cute, it revolves around a rare and slender shaft of sunlight streaming into an abandoned church, which gives life to a fragile flower: Nature struggling to survive in the oppressive gloom of Midgar's slums. Later, the two get to know each other by talking in the ruins of a children's playground, which has been overrun by the monsters and rogue technology that maraud through Midgar's slums and clearly is no longer a safe place for kids.
Cloud's journey through Midgar takes him through a number of settings never before seen in an RPG. You have your obligatory sewers, but you also have things like a lean-to black market, a salacious bordello capable of satisfying any and all sexual appetites, a cluttered rail switch yard, and more. There's also a brief detour to meet with Aeris' mother, a charming slice of real-world behavior that sees Cloud's flirtatious new friend introduce him to her family (an introduction fraught with all the awkwardness and symbolism that always entails).
Ultimately, the journey through Midgar culminates in the towering headquarters of Shinra itself. Shinra Tower dominates Midgar's silhouette, and as an in-game location it carries a similar psychological footprint as well. A significant portion of the Midgar phase of the game takes place across the skyscraper's multiple floors, leading from board rooms to detention cells to the executive suite, where things go wildly off the rails. And when the party at last leaves Midgar, it has a profound sense of finality about it: Having been framed for Shinra's false-flag destruction of an entire sector of the city and the presumed death of tens of thousands of people, then accused of murdering the president of Shinra, Cloud and company stage a desperate escape from the city. They leave by descending a rope over the perimeter wall, a one-way route from a deadly urban complex in which they've been deemed public enemy #1. While it's possible to return to Midgar at any time, the party can't do anything more than wander helplessly outside the wall until they finally make their plot-driven reentry late in the game.
Yet even once the party leaves Midgar, its reminders are never far from sight. Most of FFVII's world consists of humble villages mired in poverty, yet their simple structures usually have elements of Shinra tech grafted onto them. Reactors, mines, and rusting energy collectors cling to desolate towns like parasites, mirroring the structure of Midgar itself. Just as the upper plates appear to have expanded over top of the existing city as Shinra Tower rose, plunging those established neighborhoods into misery and darkness, Shinra's mechanisms drain the life from every town the company has coopted.
One of the primary themes that drives FFVII's story concerns the conflict between technology and nature, and the dangers of the exploitation of natural resources for profit. Shinra literally sucks the life from the planet in a not-so-subtle metaphor for environmentalism, but what the game lacks in narrative delicacy it more than makes up for with its world's visual design. Shinra's influence looms like a cancer across the world (except in Cosmo Canyon and Wutai, the two locations whose entire crux has to do with their independence from corporate control), and its garish and inelegant structures destroy the pastoral beauty of an otherwise charming world.
You're left with the impression that Shinra's explosive growth and technological advancement over the past few decades came as a completely unnatural disruption to the rest of the world's line of progression... which, as it happens, is the point. Shinra's rise depended heavily on the involvement of a malign alien entity called JENOVA, which truly does act like a cancer on the planet. Shinra's creations, then, are tumors, both unhealthy and unnatural-looking. Shinra's ambitions threaten to destroy the planet, and their irresponsible approach to profit and power shines in locations like Cid's home of Rocket Town. Shinra, it turns out, used Rocket Town as the base for its failed space exploration program. When the corporation abandoned those aspirations, it abandoned the town as well, leaving its unfinished and unreliable rocketry construction to languish and rust, a monument to a once-thriving village's ruin.
Of course, Shinra's exploitation of the planet was merely a side effect of JENOVA's influence — something that came about more because of the company president's greed than due to a conniving scheme on the alien's behalf. But her destructive impulses and Shinra's thirst for wealth combined to create an even deadlier threat to the world, one that brings together the threads of FFVII's narrative, mechanics, and protagonist all at once....