How Final Fantasy VII Handles Narrative Drama
With a large ensemble cast, the game presents some solid character work even when the plot doesn’t fully work at times
“Final Fantasy 7: Remake” comes out this Friday, April 10, 2020. I’ve played the original “Final Fantasy 7” game back in 1997 and it stands as one of the greatest games of all time and one of my personal favorites. I’m excited to see what this new remake has in store for a beloved game of my childhood. To celebrate, I’ll be doing an article series tackling on some different aspects of the game that I find interesting and what made it so memorable. Be careful as there are MASSIVE SPOILERS throughout this article series so approach with caution (if you care). Today’s article will focus on how the game handles its characters and how it effectively creates conflict and drama in the story while allowing said characters to grow by the end of it.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy video game series, once said, “I don’t think I have what it takes to make a good action game. I think I’m better at telling a story.” Initially, the Final Fantasy games were somewhat rip offs of the Dragon Quest games in terms of style and gameplay aesthetics but Sakaguchi began introducing some complex storytelling elements in the games that it quickly took on an identity of its own. You see, when you begin playing a RPG, you are usually asked to create a character, their class or role (swordsman, healer, ninja, etc.), and how they go about their lives and their gameplay mechanics. Most RPGs do this but Final Fantasy began to break away from that mechanic and integrated story with gameplay and it strangely worked. Since then, a lot of RPGs took cue from Final Fantasy and began doing the same thing. While the franchise has never been known of delivering genre-bending stories, the series has done a good job of telling effective, well-thought out stories that gamers can follow, enjoy, and even relate to some extent.
Final Fantasy VII doesn’t necessarily have the best story in the series (that title belongs to either IV, VI, IX, or XII) neither does it have the best ensemble cast in the series (that definitely belongs to VI). What it does have is meaningful messages that can captivate an audience, provide excellent characterization and makes effective use of narrative drama in the series. I know that may not seem to make a lot of sense but here me out. You see a good story needs to be able to identify these key points* in order for it to be effective:
- What does this character want?
- What does this character need?
- How do those wants and needs conflict with each other within the character?
- How do they conflict with the outside world?
- How do they conflict with the other characters?
- How does this character change through those conflicts and how does the resolution affect them?
- What impact does that change have on everyone else?
Characters in stories are figures of complex emotions, goals, and ideals. They cannot simply state their desires through bland dialogue. That makes a story uninteresting. Characters usually endure both internal and external conflicts that challenges their ideals. They always have a “want,” a desire or belief that their way of thinking is right but they must have a “need,” the correct approach to their livelihood. If they stick pursuing a “want,” it can be destructive and damaging to other characters as well as themselves and the world they inhabit in. They must learn to face opposing factors that challenge their ideals and come to grips about the errors of their approach and learn from them. The seven basic questions mentioned earlier are vital whenever you’re following the story and if it doesn’t answer any of these questions the story falls apart. It isn’t necessarily the “be all, end all” method of storytelling but it does help provide a better guide on how to make a story effectual.
Final Fantasy VII does this with near perfection and it is thanks to the well-constructed story arcs on the characters and the series primary antagonist. For this article, I’m going to focus on four characters who have the arguably most noticeable character arcs in the game compared to the other cast members: Cloud Strife, Barret Wallace, Tifa Lockhart, and Aerith Gainsborough (who happen to be the characters of focus for the first part of Square’s “Remake Project”). The reason why I chose those four is because they are often the most “flanderized” or misinterpreted characters in the game along with series antagonist Sephiroth. It’s not surprising given that the original game is over 23 years old and its bound to have misconceptions since not everybody remembers it the same way as they initially played. That includes the critics, the fans, and even Square Enix themselves. To be fair, looking back at the game now there is a lot of the story content that is INCREDIBLY flawed but it doesn’t negate the story’s original goals for the characters and their arcs.
We’ll start with Barret since he has by far the most overt character growth in the game next to Cloud. Barret grew up in a coal mining town of Corel. Like his relatives and fellow neighbors, he became a miner and was providing income for his wife and their future family by harvesting coal and selling it to neighboring towns. When Shinra started building Mako reactors across the world, use of coal was becoming obsolete and Barret and his fellow miners were on the verge of losing their livelihood and needed to find ways to generate income for the town. That’s when Scarlet, the Chief Weapons Development Executive of the Shinra Corporation, came to Corel to implore the mayor and its citizens to allow Shinra to build a Mako reactor in town. Barret thought this would be a great opportunity to bring income to the town again and allow progression to take effect. However, some of the villagers — more specifically Barret’s best friend Dyne — opposed to the idea of the reactor being built in town because that would mean losing what Corel identified with their entire lives. Through persuasion and encouragement by both Barret and the town mayor, Dyne relented and agreed to help build the reactor in town.
Initially, things went smoothly. The reactor powered the town, money was being brought in and everyone was happy. However, a malfunction happened to the reactor, believed to be caused by an insurgency group that opposed Shinra. The company believed that the town aided said insurgency group. In true Shinra fashion, they retaliated by burning the town and killed most of the villagers while Barret and Dyne were away on some business. When they came back, Barret tried to escape with Dyne but lost his arm in the ensuing gunfire with Scarlet and the other Shinra soldiers. Dyne fell off a cliff during the conflict and Barret thought his friend was killed in the fight. After surviving, he went back into the village to see if he could find anyone who survived the onslaught and found Dyne’s only baby daughter Marlene, who Barret decided to adopt as his own child. The surviving villagers blamed Barret for the incident and he was ostracized and thrown out by the very place he called home his whole life.
Barret traveled to Midgar to start a new life for himself and Marlene. For a while, he suffered immense depression after replacing his missing hand with a prosthetic one but decided to replace it with a gun arm after deciding to pursue revenge against Shinra. He gathered a few, fellow like-minded individuals in Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie and called his new eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE. He decided to take vengeance against the Shinra Corporation while claiming to have the desire to protect the planet from the Mako reactors that were causing damage to it even if it means attacking anyone who’s affiliated with the mega-corporation innocent or not.
Right off the bat, you can see the setup for Barret’s story arc: his “want” is revenge against Shinra. His want is flawed because innocent people will suffer thanks to his actions. The “conflict” is that Barret tried to justify his actions by claiming its to help the planet from Shinra’s greed but his methods were flawed and a lot of innocent people were killed during his crusade, including the members of AVALANCHE. His “need” is to recognize that he can’t harbor responsibility of taking down Shinra on his own and that he has to fight for Marlene’s future. He comes to grips with this reality when he eventually returns to Corel in the game while he and the rest of the party were pursuing Sephirtoh. He confronts his past actions with the villagers who still harbor resentment towards him. He eventually discovers that his friend Dyne was alive and was continuously murdering people after developing a nihilistic view upon the world. Dyne represents the image of Barret’s “want,” which is the desire to inflict vengeance upon those who wronged him. When Dyne threatens to kill Marlene so he and her can die together in a familial murder-suicide, Barret decides to take action and stand his ground and fight Dyne. After winning, Dyne gives Barret Marlene’s mother’s amulet and warns Barret not to follow his path of vengeance and kills himself.
Barret comes to grips with his mistakes when the group sits at the bonfire at Cosmo Canyon and admits to himself and to the party that while he thought he was fighting for the planet in reality he had selfish goals and just wanted vengeance against Shinra. He thought that he and the members of AVALANCHE would arrive at Cosmo Canyon to celebrate but he can only harbor guilt and sorrow for feeling responsible for their deaths. He makes a stand and decides that he will fight for Marlene’s future and will help Cloud and the others defeat Sephiroth and Shinra without blind vengeance fueling his actions. The change he goes through is that he has to have legit altruistic goals to help others and that means stopping Sephiroth and Shinra who seek to destroy the planet in their own ways. This affects Cloud and his party because he has a supporting “Team Dad/Big Brother” figure who will help him on his journey. It’s even culminated to him saving Corel when Shinra tries to use a train filled with explosives to destroy the town after obtaining Huge Materia. He makes peace with the villagers thanks to his efforts (mind you this only happens when you play as Barret during that segment of the game but it’s often believed to be canon so we’re rolling with it). If he didn’t recognize his mistakes, he would end up just like his darker counterpart Dyne: nihilistic, murderous, and having no value for life.
This is a very good character arc — especially for someone who happens to be the first major Black character in a Final Fantasy game — and this story arc for Barret often gets lost due to his “Mr. T-like” design and eccentric (LOUD AND ANGRY) personality that turns people off which is understandable because Black characters (and by extension a lot of people of color) in video games have either been misrepresented for years or are just flat out invisible. The idea of them being comic relief characters or loud, annoying jerks is something that irks a lot of colored gamers (myself included) and you want a fair representation of a person of color to not be simply seen as a stereotype and showcase complex emotions and undergo change like any of us would in real life. That said, Barret is probably one of the few Black characters in gaming that actually HAS a character arc, does mature and grows overtime during the course of the game. He goes through legit hardship and makes a selfless decision to truly help others, including his daughter.
Tifa’s arc doesn’t necessarily feature quite as a dramatic change in her identity the same way Cloud and Barret’s does but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t undergo some conflict and a merit of growth at the end of the story. You see, Tifa believed for the longest time that she was only survivor from the destruction of her hometown in Nibelheim by Sephiroth. When she runs into Cloud in Midgar, she was happy and relieved that she finally had a connection to her old life. The reason why she puts up with Cloud’s delusions about being in SOLDIER and surviving the Nibelheim tragedy is because she was scared that not only something tragic would happen to the person she loves and cares about the most but that she would also lose the only legit connection she had to her old life. Her want is to be with Cloud regardless of his lies and identity issues.
The conflict is her needing to tell Cloud the truth and her learning to be more open about her feelings (hence her last name “Lockhart,” as in “lock heart”). The opposing conflict to her want is Sephiroth, another figure that serves as a connection to Tifa’s identity as well as Cloud’s. Sephiroth takes full advantage of Tifa’s reserved nature since he knows the truth about Cloud’s identity. During the fight at the Reunion at the Northern Cave, Sephiroth unveils the “half-truth” to Cloud that he wasn’t at Nebelheim during the massacre. Because Sephiroth is the villain we wouldn’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth but because Tifa, a person we know and trust, doesn’t say anything and seems to validate Sephiroth’s truth it destroys Cloud and ultimately breaks him to the point where he surrenders the doomsday weapon known as the Black Materia to Sephiroth and essentially dooming the entire world when he summons the powerful Meteor to wipe out the planet. And this could’ve been avoided if Tifa was more open and honest with her feelings and just talk to Cloud about the incident.
It wasn’t up until later on when Cloud and Tifa enter Cloud’s subconscious by falling into the Lifestream that she finally tells Cloud the truth and makes the choice to help him regardless of what the “truth” may fold. When they both discover that Cloud WAS in Nibelheim during the massacre but wasn’t the SOLDIER who accompanied Sephiroth but rather one of the infantryman because he didn’t qualify to be a SOLDIER this provided a renewed sense of purpose in Cloud and the strength he needed to take on Sephiroth and save the planet. Tifa’s actions here saved Cloud and best of all made her more honest about her feelings where near the end of the game (assuming your affections with her are high enough) Cloud and Tifa share a “moment” underneath the Highwind and let their feelings show.
Tifa’s “want” is to be with Cloud regardless of lying to him about his past. She “needs” to be honest with her feelings and tell him the truth about his past and his identity in order to save him from himself. The want “conflicts” with the need because Cloud is vulnerable to Sephiroth’s manipulations and it endangers the entire planet when she waited too long and did nothing. Her resolution is realizing that she needs to be more open and accept the truth no matter how frightening it can be, even if she loses the only connection to her old life. By helping him find himself, she not only strengthens him but also learns to be more honest and open with herself.
Like Tifa, Aerith’s arc doesn’t feature a dramatic shift to who she is as a character but she does endure some growth within the story. Both women are intertwined with Cloud due to their affections for him. However, unlike Tifa, who is somewhat shy and reserved, Aerith is much more outgoing, jovial, flirtatious, and confident. She doesn’t hide her attraction for Cloud and is amused by his “SOLDIER persona.” Plus, Aerith displays a level of strength that Cloud and the others appreciate and respect. She is the last of her ancient race, the Cetra. They were a mythical race that had the power to use magic and died off a long time ago due to a “calamity from the skies” that wiped them out. Her mother Ilfana died when they were on the run from Hojo and Shinra. Aerith was found by a woman named Elmyra Gainsborough and adopted her as her own child per Ilfana’s request. Since then Aerith has been on the run from Shinra while living her life in the slums making ends meet by selling flowers in Midgar.
At the beginning of the story, Aerith barely had any understanding of her heritage but knew she was special and could communicate with the planet Gaia and had immense spiritual power. However, she was never interested in learning more about her identity. She was content being the “Flower Girl from the Slums.” When Cloud fell into the church roof she was tending her garden after his failure facing Shinra at the Mako Reactor, her world was flipped upside down and she apparently was put on the journey thanks to Shinra finally making the move to kidnap Aerith so she can show them “The Promised Land,” a mythical region heard in legends were there’s an abundance of Mako energy and they would profit off of it to make more money.
After Cloud and the others rescue her from Shinra, and with the sudden reappearance of Sephiroth and word about the Promised Land being a reality, Aerith makes the decision to accompany Cloud and stop Sephiroth while learning more about herself. As they proceed during the journey, she begins to learn more about her identity, who the Cetra are, and her “important mission.” It’s a daunting task and she comes to grips about being alone and scared. For once, the jovial, tough girl from the slums is vulnerable despite Cloud’s best efforts to cheer her up.
After Sephirtoh manipulates Cloud into handing him the Black Materia the first time at the Temple of the Ancients, she takes off on her own and makes the choice to accept her destiny and complete her mission of stopping Sephiroth. She knows that only a spiritual being like her has the power to stop him and her sacrifice at the end was a necessary act to save the world.
Aerith’s “want” is to continue to live her life in the slums no problem but that conflicts with her need to stop Sephiroth from destroying the world and embracing her destiny as the last Cetra. She “needs” to accept her role as the last living spiritual being left and utilize the planet’s powers to stop Sephiroth from destroying it. While she doesn’t necessarily change her personality from the beginning of the game to her death, she still becomes accepting of who she is and encourages Cloud to find the strength to reclaim his identity as well while she fights Sephiroth.
And last but certainly not least, we have Cloud, who goes through a massive character arc in the story. When we are first introduced to Cloud, he’s not interested in saving the planet or supporting AVALANCHE’s cause. His goal is to generate profit and move on with his life. Several factors make Cloud decide to support AVALANCHE even if he didn’t believe in their cause. Barret and Tifa have been trying to convince Cloud that he has a “moral responsibility” to help the planet and fight against Shinra but he continues to be uninterested. It isn’t until Tifa reminds him about the promise they made all the years back when they were kid convinces him to ultimately go out of his way to support her and AVALANCHE. When he runs into Aerith, he agrees to be her “bodyguard” and protect her during their time together. When she gets captured by Shinra and Sector 7 is destroyed, Cloud makes the decision to rescue Aerith and take on Shinra. When the mission fails but he’s rescued by Sephiroth of all people, he makes a decision to pursue his old mentor and “settle the score.”
Right here you can see how this character arc would work in Part 1 of the Remake because his character arc is initially completed here. Cloud’s “want” is to get out of dodge and be somewhere else. This conflicts with the fact that Shinra is destroying the planet and innocent people’s lives are at risk. He “needs” to realize that there are others he must care for and put off his aloof persona and stand up for what is right and save people. Aerith’s kidnapping and the death of millions of people at Sector 7 inspire Cloud to take action. Sephiroth’s reemergence gives leeway for continued character growth for Cloud considering he’s the driving “conflict” as he manipulates Cloud to pursue him as a means of bringing a false sense of closure.
After leaving Midgar, Cloud is given ample chances of defeating Sephiroth but fails every single time. His failure reaches its peak when he surrenders the Black Materia to Sephiroth the first time at the Temple of the Ancients. In doing so, he freaks out and passes out unconscious. His fear of being controlled by Sephiroth are made clear and he initially wanted to pull back from pursuing Sephiroth despite knowing that he was on his way to the City of the Ancients to kill Aerith. After much convincing from Barret and Tifa, he decides to push on but even then it results in failure as Sephiroth succeeds and kills Aerith. Now you could chalk up his failures to simply bad luck but there’s actually a deeper meaning here as to why he continuously fails at this point: his strength and resolve of defeating Sephiroth are false goals. He’s not pursuing him. He’s being summoned by him.
Cloud’s “want” of defeating Sephiroth and closing a book on a chapter of his life is harmful because he can’t face his tormentor without understanding himself. He “needs” to come to grips with his true identity so that he can have a stronger conviction and be mentally ready to face his foe. Tifa is the figure who tries to help Cloud regain his true identity despite fearing that it could destroy her only link to her hometown. Sephiroth is the driving force who manipulates Cloud into being weak while staying true to his false identity. Once Cloud accepts the fact that he wasn’t in SOLDIER and that he was just an infantryman soldier who stopped Sephiroth and defeated him all those years ago, he finally regains his true resolve to fight and defeat Sephiroth. With Tifa’s help, he gains self-confidence and comes to accept his “true self.” He chooses to take action to atone for his mistakes and it culminates to him finally having one last showdown and defeating his tormentor for so many years.
VII’s approach to narrative drama has been effective due to the fact that it answers the crucial questions in regards to characterization and storytelling. What does this character? What does this character need? How does it affect the world around them? What do they need to do change? It doesn’t even apply to the heroes but also to the villains as well since some of them have their own arcs even though most of them serve as mainly plot devices to move the story along. While its story can be downright ludicrous at times, it does a wonderful job of making good use of narrative drama.
*This article was inspired by a piece written by Film Critic Hulk about the Man of Steel and how it fails as a narrative. Be sure to give it a read as I’ll post the link. It’s really good.