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.
Anyone who managed not to sleep through literature class should be familiar with the term "unreliable narrator," the fictional conceit that the voice relaying a story may be withholding critical information from the reader or viewer. An unreliable narrator may even unaware of fundamental facts about the narrative, presenting a false story not through malice but through ignorance.
Unreliable narrators were all the rage in fiction—especially film—around the time writer Kazushige Nojima penned the scenario for Final Fantasy VII. Chuck Palahnuik's Fight Club, quite likely the most influential example of the trend during the ’90s, dominated the bestsellers lists throughout 1996—right in the thick of FFVII's development. M. Night Shayamalan's breakthrough film The Sixth Sense entered development around the time the game arrived in the U.S., with the film adaptation of Fight Club and Christopher Nolan's Memento hot on its heels. And you could probably lay the trend at the feet of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects and its running question: "Who is Keyser Soze?"
Each of these works presented a different spin on the concept of the unreliable narrator. (Spoilers ahead, in case you've missed these 20-year-old movies.) In Fight Club, the narrator had suffered a psychotic break with his multiple personalities; in The Sixth Sense, the point-of-view character didn't realize he had died; Memento used amnesia and non-chronological editing to disorient the viewer; and The Usual Suspects involved a deliberate subterfuge by the "villain" of the piece in order to hoodwink both his co-conspirators and the audience.
Perhaps, then, it should come as little surprise that Final Fantasy VII took part in this literary movement as well. Nojima has never (to my knowledge) indicated that contemporary western hits like The Usual Suspects or Fight Club influenced his writing, but FFVII's scenario certainly fit in with that literary zeitgeist. And while it seems a little strange to give a nod for literary finesse to a game with an infamously hurried and slipshod English script, in point of fact FFVII gave new dimension to the concept of the unreliable narrator.
The difference between FFVII and, say, Fight Club is that as a video game, FFVII is participatory media. The player takes an active role, whereas audiences view films as a passive joyrider forced to go where the director takes them. Of course, players of narrative-driven video games ultimately end up where the game's director dictates as well. Unlike with a film, however, a video game player takes an active role in the advancement of the plot; in an RPG like FFVII, they "become" the hero for 40 or more hours, determining his growth as a warrior along with the interactions he shares with his companions.
So when the player's on-screen self suddenly realizes his entire world view has been based on a lie that fundamentally redefines the entire adventure, it offers more than a mere plot twist. It demands players rethink their own involvement in the story, echoing Cloud's forlorn question: "Who am I?"
Who is Cloud Strife?
As FFVII begins, we think we know everything we need to about its protagonist, Cloud Strife. He's a former SOLDIER First Class gone rogue, an elite combat veteran who has become a mercenary. In his quest for money, he's even willing to team up with a ragtag band of terrorists fighting an impossible battle against his former masters at the Shinra company, the globe-spanning (and world-draining) mega-corporation that embodies late-stage capitalism's inevitable endgame. Cloud's looks are as cool as his personality — he's indifferent, aloof, uninterested in his temporary companions' cause. His inhumanly massive broadsword sets him apart from lesser fighters, as do his inhumanly blue eyes (they're a side-effect of the Mako augmentation process Shinra uses to create its elite SOLDIERs).
Cloud effortlessly slices his way through his former Shinra comrades. He wields powerful magic thanks to the rare Materia crystals he carries. He's the AVALANCHE resistance group's greatest asset, even if the organization's impassioned leader Barrett can barely tolerate Cloud's lack of interest in their cause. It's an alliance of convenience — Cloud brings AVALANCHE combat expertise and knowledge of Shinra's inner workings, while AVALANCHE brings Cloud money — held together by the last tenuous thread connecting Cloud to his long-ago sense of humanity: His childhood friend Tifa sympathizes with AVALANCHE's aims and runs the bar that serves as the organization's cover.
FFVII's designers clearly took pleasure in reworking some of the series' conventions in light of Cloud's remarkable talents. He wasn't the first Final Fantasy protagonist to begin his adventure as a high-level warrior — that was Final Fantasy IV's Cecil Harvey — and as with Cecil, Cloud's starting stats reflect the fact that he's no amateur. Unlike Cecil, though, Cloud feels no internal conflict about his actions or his role; on the contrary, he's cocky to a fault. And when you reach the series' traditional "teaching house," where non-player characters explain game mechanics to the player as a sort of diegetic tutorial to the hero, FFVII flips the concept on its head. Instead of academics lecturing Cloud on how the battle system works, instead you have Cloud showing off to a bunch of awe-struck kids who want this member of the esteemed SOLDIER team to tell them about what it's like to be a badass combat expert.
And yet, all is clearly not as it seems with Cloud. Before you even complete the first mission, he hears strange voices inside his head. By the time you leave Midgar, Cloud has allowed his cold attitude to thaw somewhat thanks in large part to the influence of Aerith, a gentle (albeit impish) woman with whom he forms an immediate bond. Meanwhile, the mysterious voice continues to filter into his mind. And then there are those strange hooded people with the numeric tattoos...
Still, it's only once the team takes a breather in the town of Kalm and Cloud recounts his history with Sephiroth that his façade truly begins to slip. His recollection of the Nibelheim incident doesn't jibe with that of Tifa's, who was present for much of it yet doesn't recall ever seeing Cloud there. Later, she produces a photograph of the moment, which depicts her with Sephiroth and a man who looks remarkably like Cloud, yet isn't him. The mystery of this inconsistency casts uncertainty over Cloud's story and character; how could he know so much about the Nibelheim incident if he wasn't there? And who was the dark-haired man who so closely resembled Cloud?
Over time, the truth comes out: Cloud was indeed present for the Nibelheim incident, but not as Sephiroth's SOLDIER First Class companion. He never qualified for the SOLDIER program and had been present as one of the anonymous masked Shinra troopers lurking at the periphery of the event. The actual SOLDIER who accompanied Sephiroth to Nibelheim had been a man named Zack, whose identity Cloud had assumed following the pair's narrow escape from a series of mind-altering experiments to which they were subjected after being found barely alive by Shinra scientists in the wake of Sephiroth's rampage.
The truth about Cloud's past brings the entirety of FFVII's story into proper focus, finally contextualizing not only the mysteries surrounding the hero's identity and his uncanny connection to Aerith — she had, in a somewhat astonishing coincidence, briefly dated Zack and found herself drawn to Cloud due to the similarities he and her ex-boyfriend shared — but also his connection to Sephiroth. It's not a flattering connection. Both Cloud's Mako-enhanced strength and his similarities to Zack came not from proper SOLDIER conditioning but from having washed out of the program and being used as an experimental subject by an amoral scientist.
Cloud's fall from from grace — from coolest combatant in Midgar to generic cannon fodder who simply didn't realize his place — comes as a huge blow to both the hero and the player. Much of Cloud's popularity among fans hinges on the fact that he gives RPG players a rare opportunity to play as someone who starts out not as a low-level nobody but rather as a unique, powerful, capable hero. And yet, all of this is a lie. Cloud's personality is based on a delusion. His combat skills and even his appearance have been stolen wholesale from a true hero, a man who died protecting him. The love interest that (canonically) drives the story is based on false memories and impressions. Cloud is nothing. He's a loser, a failure, a pale imitation of a better man. And that means, by extension, so is the player.
Cloud's fall from from grace — from coolest combatant in Midgar to generic cannon fodder who simply didn't realize his place — comes as a huge blow to both the hero and the player.
This epiphany breaks Cloud's mind, and that remarkably translates into game mechanics: It breaks his connection with the player. Once he experiences his crushing self-realization, Cloud becomes unavailable for a portion of the quest. He's reduced a catatonic state, having given up on himself after begging pitifully to be taken back into Shinra's program and rejected by its corrupt lead scientist Hojo once and for all. Robbed of his identity, stripped of his fragmented memories, denied a chance at even a final, hopeless form of belonging, Cloud ceases to be. During his catatonic episode, Cid Highwind steps in as the party leader both in and out of combat. Cloud ceases to exist for a while, both as a character and as a player avatar.
Once he finally returns to consciousness, and to the party, Cloud becomes a changed man. He sets aside his arrogance and aloof attitude, accepting the truth of his identity, at last forming genuine bonds with his fellow party members. This also creates the need for players to recontextualize their own world view within the game, forcing them to reconsider the part they play as Cloud in the adventure. After being introduced to FFVII as a top-flight warrior, a super-soldier with skills nearly on par with those of the final boss, Cloud's mental reset recasts him as an underdog. No, he's not a supremely competent, effortlessly capable SOLDIER. He's literally cannon fodder, one of the faceless Shinra mooks you so effortlessly mow down in the opening sequence. While his failed Mako therapy eventually elevated him beyond that mundane level of strength, he nevertheless failed; in the end, Cloud is little more than a botched clone of Sephiroth, one of the many faceless tattooed drones you meet lost and dying throughout the world until they're drawn together for their "reunion."
And yet, in the end, Cloud doesn't settle for being a mere footsoldier, nor does he accept his forced conditioning as a soulless JENOVA clone. As with the player controlling him, Cloud is elevated, then cast down and broken, and ultimately fights back to become something more than destiny would have him be.
An unreliable narrator in film or literature can result in a brilliant final plot twist that leaves viewers stunned, thinking and talking about the story's outcome long after they finish watching or reading. FFVII's application of the concept serves a different purpose than in something like The Sixth Sense; it comes as a mid-game twist rather than as a shocking revelation at the climax of the story. And while it certainly has as much impact as the truth about, say, Keyser Soze's identity, the revelation itself isn't where this story ends. Instead, FFVII plays up the fact that Cloud and the player share his identity. It gives you the opportunity to redefine Cloud and to continue his journey of self-discovery after revealing the lie of everything you'd been lead to believe. That's a journey other mediums can't offer, and much of FFVII's brilliance lies in the way it takes advantage of video gaming's unique strengths to make players a part of its hero's difficult journey of self-discovery.
Next week: One final encore for Final Fantasy VII explores the most challenging consideration the game's upcoming remake will have to face.