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.
(Note: this post is adapted from material I wrote on another site)
(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.
One of the biggest betrayals of genre expectations is the death of Aerith. Aerith is one of the main characters of the narrative, revealed to be the last descendant of the Cetra, or the “Ancients,” a race that arrived from space millenia ago and have a unique ability to communicate with the living planet. Her death is often cited as one of the most shocking scenes in the entire body of interactive narratives. This shock stems from a blithe betrayal of JRPG genre expectations, both narrative and mechanical.
To address the mechanical expectations first; Aerith’s death is shocking because she is a “full” character. She is added to the consumer’s party, and can gain experience, be equipped with weapons, and is fully controllable just like any other character. One of the unwritten covenants between developers and consumers of JRPGs is that full characters in the consumer’s party will not die. Resources within the narrative world, experience points, money, rare items, etc., are limited, and if a consumer pours resources into a character only to have him or her die, the consumer may feel cheated. Consequently, whenever JRPGs introduce a character that will die or otherwise leave the consumer’s party permanently, they are set aside somehow. Sometimes they are not controllable by the consumer. Sometimes their equipment cannot be customized, or there are no weapons or armor that the consumer can purchase for them. Whatever the mechanism, the consumer is prevented from expending resources on that character, and this mechanism is in turn a signal to the consumer that the character is not permanent.
Final Fantasy VII cleverly reinforces those genre expectations before betraying them. One analepsis features the protagonist, Cloud, fighting alongside Sephiroth, the antagonist in the narrative present. Sephiroth is a member of the consumer’s party during the analepsis, but cannot be controlled during battle. The consumer is also unable to change his equipment. Of course, this particular segment takes place in the past and Sephiroth has already been acknowledged as the antagonist, so the consumer knows he will not become a permanent party member. However, this segment reinforces the genre expectation that characters who will die or leave the party will be set apart somehow. Later another full character, Cait Sith, “dies” in an act of self-sacrifice. However, since Cait Sith’s body is a machine being remotely controlled from elsewhere, an identical replacement appears almost immediately and none of the character’s abilities or equipment is affected. Again, this reinforces the genre expectation that full characters cannot die, or at least not in any real or permanent sense.
Aerith, however, is a full character on whom resources can be expended, and who can be controlled fully. Her death occurs well into the narrative (probably after 15-20 hours), so the consumer has completely accepted her as a full member of the party. Yet she dies, in a quite real and permanent way. Her death completely betrays the mechanical expectations of the JRPG genre. Even now, sixteen years later, when Aerith’s death is a well-known and iconic part of the history of interactive narratives, few narratives dare to do something similar (despite it’s narrative effectiveness, a death would still leave the consumer disgruntled at having wasted narrative resources and real hours). Although the genre’s mechanics have evolved in many ways since 1997, that aspect has not, and even now her death is a betrayal of genre expectations.
Aerith’s death also betrays the genre’s narrative expectations. Usually JRPG plots involve a grand quest to “save the world.” There is always some dire threat to the world, usually personified in an antagonist who can serve as a final boss. Characters start out weak and must battle stronger and stronger opponents, slowly acquiring the strength to defeat this existential threat and save the world. However, normal strength is rarely sufficient, and the characters must obtain some sort of power with roots in the fictional world’s mythos. Sometimes this is done by acquiring legendary weapons. Sometimes one or more of the characters comes to understand that they themselves are special in some way related to the world’s mythos.
Aerith fits this genre trope perfectly. The narrative reveals that she is the last descendant of the Cetra, an ancient race of spacefarers who have the ability to communicate with the planet (which is a kind of living entity in this narrative), and who also once, thousands of years earlier, defeated a different manifestation of the existential threat the planet again faces. When she is introduced, it is revealed that she owns a “materia” (an item that allows characters to use specific magical powers) she inherited from her mother, also a Cetra, but which doesn’t appear to function. As the plot begins to expand to reveal an existential threat to the world, it is clear that Aerith is exactly the sort of legendary hero whose special abilities will be crucial to the quest to saving the world. Furthermore, the revelation of the existence of a unique “black materia” with the power to destroy the world strongly foreshadows that Aerith’s unique materia will be its counterpart, essential to saving the world. The genre expectation of a legendary hero who acquires legendary weapons and uses his or her special abilities to defeat the existential threat to the world leads the consumer to fully anticipate that Aerith will be the most important character in the narrative, crucial to the quest. However, the narrative betrays those expectations by having her die halfway through.
This unusual plot twist, however, is exactly what makes Final Fantasy VII’s narrative unique. Rather than a genre-typical narrative of heroes acquiring increasing strength and legendary power, Final Fantasy VII becomes a narrative of of the legendary hero’s entourage trying desperately to hold things together after the legendary hero has died. It turns out that before her death Aerith does set in motion a scheme to save the planet. However, it takes a long time for the other characters to understand what she was doing, and for much of the second half of the narrative they flail about, uncertain and despairing. Aerith’s death not only betrays genre expectations, it derails the whole narrative from the expectations of the JRPG genre.
The other way Final Fantasy VII betrays genre expectations is the way it participates in the genre discourse on strength. As mentioned above, the JRPG genre expectation is a narrative of characters that acquire greater and greater strength, and increasing confidence, until they are able to defeat the great existential threat menacing the world. It is the strength of the heroes that saves the world. It should be evident that such a progression of strength and confidence is neatly congruent with a coming-of-age story, and indeed many JRPG plots are exactly that. In Final Fantasy VII as well, the characters must gain great strength, but the discourse on strength is quite different. This is evident in the parallels between the protagonist and antagonist.
The protagonist, Cloud, and the antagonist, Sephiroth, experience similar existential crises. Both are the product of unethical experiments that attempted to infuse humans with the cells of an alien known as Jenova. Both discover this fact, and both face an identity crisis as they learn that the truths they had come to believe about themselves are false. However, their responses to their crises are very different.
Having been created with Jenova cells for the purpose of breeding a stronger soldier, Sephiroth has possessed great strength his entire life. He is apparently the hero of a war that happened in the past. Cloud idolizes him as a child, and a scene where a villager asks to take a photo of him makes it clear that Sephiroth enjoys a kind of celebrity status. He has always been defined by strength, and set apart from others because of his strength. Consequently, when he faces his crisis of identity, the only solution he can come up with is to acquire more strength. He decides to form a new identity as someone strong enough to stand above everyone, even those who toyed with his very existence when they created him, and therefore forges a new identity as the inheritor of the planet-menacing Jenova.
Cloud, on the other hand, has always been weak. The narrative reveals that he failed to gain admission to the elite special forces unit he had hoped to enter. Too cowardly to return home and admit his failure, he instead became an ordinary footsoldier, the weakest of the various classes of enemies the party fights. His identity has always centered on his weakness. Therefore when he faces his own identity crisis his solution is rooted in the strategies of the weak: he must rely on the strength of others. In order to do that he must regain his sanity and reenter society, quite the contrast with Sephiroth, who becomes unbalanced and rejects society. Cloud emerges from his crisis to ask his friends for help, dropping the haughty attitude he had affected before. And because he must rely on society for strength, he also needs society to survive, and renews his quest to stop Sephiroth. In the end, it is Cloud’s weakness that saves the world. Again, this discourse on weakness betrays the genre expectation of characters that steadily grow stronger and more confident.
Although Final Fantasy VII is often cited as the pinnacle of the JRPG genre, one of the reasons it holds that lofty position is precisely its betrayal of that genre’s expectations. Even after sixteen years of Final Fantasy VII being an iconic fixture of the genre, ripe for imitation, few narratives betray genre expectations as deftly as it does.