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FFVII Week: The Who

Written By mista sense on Monday, March 31, 2008 | 9:45 AM

[Crisis Core is, perhaps surprisingly, a massive success. To celebrate its launch, Sexy Videogameland will be analyzing one aspect of the FFVII mythos each day this week, as it appears both in the new PSP title and in the original PSone predecessor. Today, we'll look at the 'Who' behind the series -- the identity issues of some key series characters.]

Plenty of video game characters are arguably mainstream properties, or at the very least, quivering on the verge. That Sephiroth even approaches that level of somewhat broader recognition despite fewer game appearances and a shorter relative cultural life than, say, Donkey Kong, speaks to the impression the character's made on gamers as an icon. Why?

Looking back on FFVII, we now see its characters for what they quintessentially were -- largely primitive, archetypal constructs. But for their time, they seemed rich on an unprecedented level. We no longer had Knight, Mage, Healer and Ninja, but rather characters that had been drawn in shades of gray. The morally ambiguous protagonist, the jerk who ultimately does the right thing, is now a repetitious convention worth mocking in JRPGs, but Cloud was arguably the mold-setting example. And in Sephiroth, we had a madman that a generation fell in love with.

It's hard to define, though, what about FFVII's character constructs gave them the degree of permanence they have -- again, while quite revolutionary for their time, it'd be a stretch to call them strikingly differential, either from one another or from the precedents. As I've said, it's mainly the game's rich atmosphere that sparks the imagination, perhaps assisting the player in projecting himself among the heroes.

It's precisely because the characters are archetypes rather than fully-fleshed individuals that helps draw the players in. Like other games under the Final Fantasy flag, FFVII is a game more about themes of the human experience than about an individual story. Cloud's abrupt realization that he might not be who or what he always believed he was, and his subsequent transition from isolationism to heroism was a journey everyone could empathize with. Tifa's status as "second woman" and Barrett's sense of responsibility as a single father were all small facts that raised the stakes in conjunction with Midgar's grim dystopian landscape.

In other words, the real stars of FFVII were its themes and the way the environment provided context to everything the characters did. Perhaps Sephiroth was most memorable because he was representative of the most natural response to that environment -- irrational human fury, and the almost delusional need to re-assert control in extreme ways.

What Crisis Core does so brilliantly is recall those themes in what is a simpler time for the game's world. And in Zack, we have what some will definitely argue is the first likable Final Fantasy protagonist. His impatience and hot temper are not unique, but it strikes the right balance with spirit and exuberance on one hand and a sincere, if faintly naive, honor and loyalty on the other. He's especially compelling because we see things like SOLDIER, Shinra and the Turks through the lens of his naivete, making them look appealingly powerful and righteous -- while we know the events of FFVII will reveal them to be corrupt.

And despite the addition of several prequel characters, Sephiroth remains the attention-grabber just as much as he was in the original game. Part of it's the sense of time-capsule joy at the sight of him rendered, fully graceful and gorgeous, by current technology, an elaboration on the somewhat crude sprite we remember. All of Square Enix's Final Fantasy characters wear beauty as their brand name, and these are far from exception.

One argument that attempts to explain a late-day onslaught of hostility toward FFVII suggests that fans were not as annoyed by the endless branding as they were uncomfortable at the evolving beauty of their heroes. Recent FFVII media -- Advent Children, Dirge of Cerberus and now Crisis Core -- are dominated by feminine-beautiful male characters, and now that next-gen technology can display every nuance of porcelain skin and tear-filled eye, some in the audience might be picking up on undertones of homoeroticism.

Some of the perceived -- okay, gay-ness -- might come down to cultural differences. Crisis Core's new villain, the defected SOLDIER Genesis, is physically modeled on wildly famous Japanese pop star Camui Gackt, and in that vein, the current aesthetic for FFVII takes big cues from the Japanese Visual Kei movement. While it's foreign to American and European audiences, in Japan it's a subculture representative of high fashion and indie style. Nonetheless, it probably strikes cultures outside Japan as odd, and takes some of the blame for decreasing comfort levels with FFVII's heroes in the West -- especially as some of the core story comes down to men's relationships with one another.

Intepretation (or misinterpretation) of sexuality aside, FFVII's boys are more beautiful than ever in Crisis Core -- to see Sephiroth as so visually stunning now during this look into his "past" enriches the context of the tragedy he will become. Viewing Sephiroth and his two career peers, Genesis and Zack's mentor Angeal, as "angels" has a point of resonance with Crisis Core's plot. Moreover, the more the player admires them, the more palpable the themes of betrayal become. So even that weirdly compelling, otherworldly look the characters have ultimately serves a purpose.

FFVII begins with a once-admired hero having gone AWOL. Crisis Core begins in the same fashion. This is just one of many overlapping themes, and Crisis Core re-stages many moments from its predecessor (for maximum fanboyism, of course). It's particularly poignant to view Sephiroth as an ally -- though Cloud's memories of him would later turn out largely to have belonged to Zack, that theme of being crushingly disappointed by a hero that pervades both games is enhanced by this early look at him.

And, of course, there's Aerith. The melodramatic and bloodless death of FFVII's flower girl has been lambasted for a decade in forums, webcomics, and in every arena where being cynically self-referential is cool. Nonetheless, something about seeing her in her church, as a much younger, wholly alive and still untouched girl is deeply arresting.

Perhaps I've just been indoctrinated to the iconography. I'm certain I have individual, personal reasons for why FFVII is important to me (as I mentioned at the end of the Brainy Gamer podcast). Tomorrow's topic will further examine the "what" of FFVII's thematics, but until then, I can tell you that during Crisis Core's first Aerith scene in the church, I misted up a little. Okay, okay, I cried. You could blame it on being a "girly girl," but I doubt I'm the only one.

Audience feedback time: Do you feel an attachment, or have a certain response, to FFVII characters? If not, did you once? If you're not a franchise fan, how do they strike you -- and how do the fans strike you? All thoughts are welcome.

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