Nobody in the game industry has ever retained long-term relevance by being risk-averse. Nobody, except Square Enix, perhaps. It's a familiar story: the first Final Fantasy was supposed to be 'final' -- i.e, the dying Squaresoft's last title. Against even the company's own expectations, the game was a salvation. And while the company today generally thrives, producing some of the biggest-budget games out of Japan, it's possible it's never lost the spirit of being on the verge of death, given that all of its new games rely on the concepts, characters and thematic language of their predecessors. You can't exactly blame them -- why change a consistent million-dollar formula?
Maybe it's because the industry is still so small and young relative to other media, but we gamers like seeing familiar things in new games. Smash Bros.'s insane success proves that, and other cross-franchise fantasies are the regular talk of fan forums. Similarly, Square Enix has carefully propagated a virtual memetic language in each one of its games, a checklist of familiar features that every Final Fantasy must have. There's the literal, like Chocobos, Moogles and certain summons; and the less so, like a particular visual and musical aesthetic, or themes of war ethics or class struggles.
Final Fantasy VII rang all the familiar bells and even cemented some components of the formula for future generations, and yet it's more thematically divergent than the rest of its siblings. RPGs in that era, even others in the FF family, were more likely to feature purer fantasies and more supernatural forces; among these, FFVII's semi-steampunk dystopia and "evil corporate" villain entity stood out. The Shinra had no devil horns, no superpowers -- the quiet cool of men in dark suits was much more accessible. And, the idea of a massive conglomerate slowly broadening its locus of control? Realistic, even.
One of the strengths of Crisis Core is that, in the shoes of Zack, it takes the player inside the Shinra. The lines of good and evil were never starkly drawn in FFVII to begin with -- by the game's end, a mega-corporation, a violent revolutionary group, and a lone maniac seeking personal justice had all had their turn as hero, villain and victim. There was just enough depth presented on the Shinra in FFVII to sow a seed of curiosity, even empathy, and Crisis Core nurtures that.
Of particular note: a visit to the oppressed slums comes as a surprise to an innocent Zack, who's so interested in being a real hero that the player genuinely feels sorry for his hurt feelings at the popular anti-SOLDIER sentiment. It's a pleasingly deft and subtle reversal.
Those refreshing gray areas were one key reason why audiences found FFVII immersive. Second, there's the fact that FFVII was in large part an identity story -- characters and groups had to face who they truly were, and decide who they wanted to be. Given that the game hit the core market in 1997, a time when most of you reading this were probably adolescents or teens, the themes of displacement and identity had particular resonance.
One favorite pastime of teenagers is to try and find themselves in their favorite music, movies and games -- teens who "found themselves" in FFVII now have an interesting opportunity in Crisis Core. In reintroducing those gray areas, those issues of identity, and the familiar repetition of favorite themes, Crisis Core actually seems capable of reaching the fanbase on a deeply personal level -- by association, it's filling out the story of their own younger days.
For me, it's utterly fascinating to be revisiting that world from another angle over ten years later, both as a fan of the game and as a human being for whom games have been a big part of life, and I know I'm not alone in having that point of connection. FFVII fandom wouldn't be such a provocative topic otherwise. Familiarity does breed contempt -- but there's also long-term value in it.
Speaking of themes, Crisis Core's music is really unbelievable. It's listenable and still patently original -- there are some (beautiful) reduxes of Uematsu's FFVII themes, especially the quintessential Aerith's Theme, but the soundtrack's rather differentiated from regular Final Fantasy-style music. The YouTube video I embedded above contains some music samples -- give it a listen.
Do you have adolescent or teenage memories of FFVII? If not that game, is there an epic that you permitted to become a time capsule for your growing up? Either way, what singled out that title for you individually and personally?