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FFVII Week: The Where

Written By mista sense on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 | 12:25 PM

[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 'What' behind the series -- the themes and elements that helped earn the franchise an enduring fanbase. Previously on SVGL's FFVII week: The 'Who' of FFVII's key characters, and the 'What' of its key themes.]

We're having FFVII Week at SVGL because as a phenomenon, it's provoked a larger and more enduring fan reaction than some games much more pivotal to the medium itself. Some ten years after the original game's release, though, it's fairly clear that the fandom's evolved -- mutated, even -- into something that has very little to do with the core gameplay experience.

Fans think of it now more as somewhat more as a concept than as a game. In the 'Who' and 'What' earlier this week, we tried to isolate exactly what it is about FFVII that has inspired that kind of imagination and loyalty. To recap some thoughts: it's an identity story that had a point of resonance with the teens we were when we first played it, and its characters were drawn as natural responses to an intriguing environment.

And we said that FFVII's environment is arguably its biggest star. The Where of the game creates a context in which everything else gains depth.

Mile for mile, most fantasy worlds in RPGs tend to be the same. Cobbled villages, thatched huts, and fortresses of some stripe or another. FFVII gave us a planet suffering under the strains of abuses done by a few of the powerful -- and even that was hardly a unique theme in RPGs. In fact, it was a common one. What differentiated FFVII was how viscerally it was able to portray distinctly urban decay, blanched deserts of the desolate. It was a luminous and imaginative look at the human race in a state of deprivation, and much closer to the way we might imagine our own homeworld in such a state.

At the same time, it was an appealing fantasy. It may be a polluted metal fortress of the corrupt, but FFVII's Midgar also captured some of that Blade Runner-influenced cyberpunk decay. It was the perfect breeding ground for a hero story -- lawless enough to leave room for a revolutionary, with the ruling class just complacent enough that they deserved a revolution. The atmospheric music was a perfect companion, too -- sparkling tones that filtered slowly through melancholy palls of violin, reminiscent of specks catching the light in the air thick with dust.

Perhaps it's really just this periphery that sucked us in; an example of story, environment, visual aesthetic and story in a wholly-unified symphony.

In Crisis Core, we see the city of Midgar through Zack's eyes. The unfortunate citizens needn't worry -- they'll soon be rescued. The slums are an afterthought. And the seeds of the Shinra's decay are only just being sown; the image of Aerith and Cloud as fresh-faced and naive, the city when it still ran on ideals, all combine to present a picture of innocence and a portent of the future. Subtleties, like the way the Shinra brand is stamped on almost everything like a warning, take on new meaning.

This discoloring of innocence is right in parallel, for us, with the idea of growing up alongside an identity story. To see what was once safe become savage, and to have our core values handily disassembled by a reality that's larger and more vicious than our storybooks is part of growing up. We watch FFVII's gameworld fall victim to this, and at the same time, we watch our heroes suffer it, too.

It's an injustice and a violation that it was easy to be sympathetic to as young people discovering that game -- and the evolution of the gameworld provided a cautionary tale about adopting any value system too absolutely, whether oppressor or revolutionary.

Both the Shinra and its opposition, after all, ultimately aimed to do right by the world -- and by the end, just about everyone had done it the wrong way. Confronted with increasingly complicated social, political and geological issues in our own world and wondering how to address them as we came of age, FFVII's world must have come as a much-needed companion.

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