Emotional symbologies, realism and the next hardware generation

Recently I re-consumed Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997.One thing that threw me off at first was the gestures. The characters all use comically exaggerated gestures that always seem a little off: Cloud’s response to everything is shrugging, while shaking seems to denote almost anything from fear to laughter to anger. But I couldn’t recall being bothered by this during my first run-through fourteen years ago, and I realized that we used to have this whole symbolic gestural language for conveying emotion back in the ultra-low polygon count days. The gestures didn’t necessarily depict real-world body language, but had their own unique symbology that could be deciphered by consumers in order to understand character emotion. It’s impressive, actually; each of the characters has their own distinguishing gestures linked to their personalities, and the game is able to convey a fairly wide range of emotion even though the only facial movement available is blinking.

Final Fantasy VII and Genre Expectations

(Note: this post is adapted from material I wrote on another site)
 

Recently Final Fantasy VII became available on Steam. Originally released in 1997 for the first Playstation, FFVII is considered by many to be one of the best interactive narratives ever created (although, as with all narratives, it certainly has its vocal detractors). A cinematic followup, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children was released in 2005, and the world and characters continue to be a popular subject for fan creations, reworkings and pastiche. I took the advantage of its new availability in order to play through it again and reexamine a narrative that captivated millions, and is still recalled fondly even now, sixteen years later.  

 
(Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII follow!)
 
One of the most striking features of Final Fantasy VII is it’s betrayal of genre expectations. Final Fantasy VII is a JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game), a genre with a problematic definition, but nonetheless describing a family of interactive narratives with recognizable common features in terms of both narrative and interactive mechanics.

The Forensic Narrative

One of the reasons I’m so interested in interactive narratives is that they often attempt some form of narrative innovation. Not always, of course: character building and storytelling are hard work even for traditional narratives, and interactive narratives that must center on some autotelic activity make it even more challenging.  Therefore many narratives choose to do their narrative work via “cutscenes,” clips that use all the familiar cinematic techniques developed over the past century or so (framing, camera angles, depth of field, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a tried-and-true method for telling stories.

In a way, I think right now we’re in a period similar to the early days of cinema.  In the beginning, movies took their cues from stage performances, and lots of early movies look like recordings of a play. Of course, cinema quickly started to experiment in ways unique to the medium.  Both traditions thrive today: many studio TV shows still rely on splayed-out stage sets, while other kinds of productions use techniques that could only have been developed in a mature medium.  So I expect that the cutscene variety of storytelling will continue in interactive narratives, but at the same time another vein of storytelling will develop innovations unique to the medium. We’re only at the beginning of the life of this medium, and it’s exciting to see what people are starting to do.

One of the narrative innovations we’re seeing is something I’m going to dub the “forensic narrative.” In this narrative scheme the consumer moves through the narrative world collecting fragments of narrative that they must stitch together to form a picture of past events. Often, the narrative world is the site of some disaster, and as more and more snippets of narrative are linked together they eventually coalesce into a picture of just what happened to cause that disaster, hence the “forensic” nature of this narrative technique. One of the most relevant recent works would have to be Bioshock (2007), in which the consumer explores an underwater city that seems to have once been a beautiful art-deco paradise, but is now a ruin filled with the murderously insane.

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