Squaresofting the circle

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Squaresoft released a pretty big PlayStation RPG in 1997 that you may have heard of – Final Fantasy VII – and as expected Europe only managed to collectively get their hands on the game after everyone else on the planet had been given enough time to finish it and move on to the next big thing. I was well aware of this regional injustice at the time and for once I didn’t mind at all because getting Final Fantasy VII dead last was still a huge improvement over the many nevers we’d suffered for Final Fantasy I to VI and countless other titles not-released in the territory over the years. It also helped that I had a very special trailer on a magazine demo disc to tide me over in the meantime; a smattering of clipped movie sequences from all over the game – including that farewell – interspersed with out of context battle summon magic. It was perfect. Heck, it still is: The piece of music used isn’t from Uematsu’s score at all but a deliciously dark track playing over an inscrutable tangle of conflict, flames, and jarring snippets of Jenova-based body horror, and the unusual emotion this unexpected collaboration creates is much like trying to hold your breath for too long or the quiet rumbles in a night sky during a violent thunderstorm – the trailer isn’t promising a tale of wild adventure and grand heroism but a complex series of world-changing events you can’t hope to fathom and may not even survive. I consumed that two and a half minute teaser in all its CD-streamed glory over and over again, building up almost unbearable levels of excitement that were exceeded only by the frenzied rumours taking up pages in gaming magazines at the time (one particularly daft one I fondly remember is that the game could possibly come on physically larger CDs to accommodate Final Fantasy VII’s vast quantities of data). There was no way the game could match that level of hype. There was no way any game could match that level of hype.

But Final Fantasy VII did it anyway.

And it always knew it would.

You can get a taste of this raw confidence – this faith – Squaresoft had in their incredibly expensive next-gen RPG simply by looking at the original Japanese packaging: The front shows the game’s logo. The back, Squaresoft’s. Other than tiny lines of legal text and other Sony-directed packaging requirements that’s all there is to see. It exudes a breathtaking level of self-assured spirit that goes way beyond any glossy celebrity-led marketing campaign or canny social media sass – “This is Final Fantasy VII. We know you already know what that means.”, the box cries. You turn it over in your hand only to be greeted by Squaresoft’s logo sitting at the center of another expanse of enigmatic white. “We know you already know what that means, too.” When faced with such a dramatic display of cast-iron cockiness buying the game is as much of an outright inevitability as the sun rising in the morning rather than a considered choice based on personal preferences and review scores.

Those of us who had to make do with more mundane box art (even PAL-land’s eye-catching logo-on-white front gives way to a more typically descriptive rear) had to wait until we placed the first CD in our PlayStations to really grasp the enormity of Squaresoft’s vision for the 32-bit era, to start up a new game and lose ourselves in a swirl of FMV stars. No, not stars… these shining points are now shifting, falling away in the dark… a young woman’s face fades into view, lit from underneath by the ethereal glow of these mysterious specks of light. She’s so close and so detailed we can trace the shape of her eyelids, point out loose strands of hair, and see the decorative tie hanging around her neck. She’s walking towards us now, her long pink dress and ribboned hair standing out amongst the darkness and grime of the narrow alley we met her in. Who is she? Are those flowers in her basket? Where is she goi- our questions and our view of the only person Final Fantasy VII has shown us is abruptly cut off by the sudden appearance of a heavily industrialised vehicle as the camera pulls away from her and glides across the street. She’s n- And then another motors by. A flash of pi- Cruelly blocked by a person crossing the road. Please can we j- Then even more people. The camera insists on taking us further and further away from the flower girl, our only visual anchor in this unknown world, the view passing backwards through an archway inlaid with an analogue clock face leading a tiled city square, not stopping until all of those people and even the street they were standing on has long disappeared from view, replaced in one smooth single movement by industrial noise and smoke as the music blooms at the exact moment the game’s iconic logo appears.

Welcome to Squaresoft’s creative glory. Welcome to a whole city created in industry-leading computer graphics from the petals of individual flowers to the dark skies above and travelled through in mere seconds.

Welcome to Final Fantasy VII.

All we can do here is gaze upon Midgar in all its terrible majesty as the scene lingers on the broken grandeur of this dystopian panorama, able to appreciate the scale of this strange place wreathed by metallic carbuncles belching out green smoke thanks to the signs and streets we were looking at just a short while ago.

A train. It’s so close we can’t see anything more than a few wheels.

Closer… closer… Wait – this isn’t the same part of the city we just left, this is new…

The train’s wheels crash into view again, braking so harshly the screen fills with red-hot sparks.

Closer… We’re now close enough to be able to make out details again, individual lights and buildings and smoke… and that train, no, our train pulling in to the station as two red-coated officials stand guard…

But those guards are… they’re polygonal, aren’t they? How did Squaresoft…? Because the background’s still moving… And they’ve just been knocked out by… who were those people?…  Oh no, they’ve already run off… Hold on, those were real-time 3D people!

Anyone holding the controller can tell by the way the music trailing off in time to the camera settling into position next to the now-stationary train that this is the part where the fancy animated sequence ends and the game really begins – even people playing Final Fantasy VII for the very first time back in 1997 knew the “rules” for FMV. FMV is meant for intros, endings, and clumsily tacked on to games that didn’t need it to justify their CD re-release. It’s expected to be a soft letterboxed barrier between us and the real content, a heavily dithered glimpse into what the game we’re about to play would look like if only the hardware was powerful enough to cope.

Final Fantasy VII breaks those rules. There is no clear line in this between the nice bits for us to passively consume and the parts we’re allowed play – the end of the opening and the start of our own adventure are the same thing. It’s utterly exhilarating to experience this singular flow of action – without warning the reins have been handed over and we’re given full control of whoever the heck this spiky-haired showoff is, chasing after a man we’ve never seen before and don’t know the name of after just a single line of dialogue and getting into fights with machine gun toting guards before we’ve even left the first pre-rendered screen.

As with the opening movie this nonstop rush only leads to even more questions: What is this place? Why are we here? Who are we playing as and who are all these other people we seem to be tagging along with? The only difference is now we start to get some answers as names are quickly given and snatches of our current mission as well as Avalanche’s purpose are doled out during dashes across restricted areas to unlock security doors. Another seamless movie clip brings the surrounding area to life as the camera unexpectedly pans up to the reactor we’ve just been asked to destroy, the angle giving the impression we’re craning our necks upwards to take is all in as Cloud – as we’ve just been given the opportunity to name him – does the same.

Even in this small opening area there are lots of fantastic examples of the development team using their newfound graphical freedom to express scale as well as emotional intimacy. In amongst the indifferent slabs of concrete and snaking pipes of the reactor Cloud will sometimes be nothing more than a tiny blue speck running around in a sea of metal and mako. Ladders, freed from their 16-bit shackles, no longer have to present themselves as flat vertical streaks down the screen but can plunge away into the depths, visibly leading our eyes to dangers far below. In other spaces he’s so close you can make out his eyebrows and the specific gestures the other members of the perform with their blocky fingerless hands.

The shocking thing is Final Fantasy VII does all of this so effortlessly. The points of view chosen for areas you need to navigate are practical, the special shots are restrained and to the point. It’s so darned professional at a time when other game directors, keen to revel in this exciting technical freedom, would have taken the camera on an extended spin simply to prove how very modern they were.

Sadly it doesn’t take long for anyone to get used to Squaresoft’s luxurious gaming standards, which is why the story throws a boss battle our way just as we were getting comfortable with our mismatched team and Barret’s emphatic speeches on Shinra’s evil mako-devouring ways. Unlike everything else encountered so far this new mechanised beast physically dwarfs a man carrying a man-sized sword and an even larger man with a gun where one of his hands should be, and this surprise is only made all the more thrilling by a new and famously miscommunicated gimmick – [don’t] attack while the tail’s up or it’ll respond with a powerful counterattack. A character has just spoken in battle and now we have to rely on looking out for a visual clue – a battle stance – to save ourselves from taking an avoidable beating – that’s incredible! The pleasure of defeating this scorpion-tailed mech swiftly turns to panic as this fallen foe fades in a cloud of translucent red polygons and the ten minute countdown timer for the reactor-destroying bomb activates. That’s plenty of time… isn’t it? Surely they wouldn’t… Oh. They did. Casual confidence in the apparent leniency of that time limit soon evaporates as we see that beautifully crafted nixie tube style font in the corner refuse to pause even for random battles or victory poses, and the explosive blast at the end – another load-free FMV that once again ignores the expected boundaries between the ordinary and the dramatic – is executed so brilliantly whether Avalanche get out with minutes to spare or barely scrape by we can believe they were in real danger the whole time, the aerial shot of the reactor’s destruction a sombre reminder of how for all this effort there is still so much work left to be done.

 

And only after all that – after falling in with an anti-Shinra group, after blowing up one of the gigantic reactors that forms a ring around the city we’ve still not learned the name of, after fighting off waves of soldiers, giant battle cats with tentacles, and an assortment of robots – do we get our first breather. It should be the perfect time to relax, a triumphant return to base walking shoulder-to-shoulder with familiar faces, but instead the entire the group run away in directions Cloud can’t follow and he’s left all alone in unfamiliar territory.

He is – but we aren’t. The end of the bombing mission means we’re about to find ourselves back at the game’s beginning, Final Fantasy VII drawing a perfect circle within itself as Cloud bumps into the still unnamed flower lady from the intro – a scene that feels forever ago after the intensity we’ve just fought our way through – in the exact same area we, the players, first saw her in. We can even buy one of those flowers we spotted in her basket if we choose to before walking away, our path leading us to stand under the same clock in the same tiled square seen for just a brief moment in the game’s unforgettable introduction. It’s not just a neat narrative trick – although it is a neat narrative trick – it’s traditionally off-limits and apart FMV made into something real. We’re now standing right there, in the place we saw in what was at the time one of the most expensive, detailed, and dramatic openings gaming had ever seen only now we’re walking around inside it with no loss of detail, interacting with whoever we happen to meet and going wherever we like. In this instant Final Fantasy VII is a game where absolutely anything is possible, every rule made to be broken.

 

As we all know the game takes off in all sorts of directions from there, boasting enough plot twists, lost memories, and extra characters to produce merchandise, movies, spinoffs for decades afterwards, it’s popularity today still strong enough to justify live concerts and a full-priced series of remakes; the first entry of which has sold and reviewed very well even though at the time of writing nobody can honestly say when it’ll be complete, how many parts it’ll take to tell its expanded story, or how much it’ll cost us all in the end.

But that all came after this perfect moment. After causing havoc within a city so detailed we can take the time to count individual paving stones on an anonymous street if we choose to, a world where posters on the wall advertise shows we will never get to see yet always wish we could. To think Squaresoft had the sheer ego to even attempt any of this in 1997 – in the year before the Game Boy Color’s technologically humble existence – and yet also the awareness and self-control to not constantly draw overt attention to their many bar-raising achievements is nothing short of extraordinary. This game should have, at best, been a rough if well-intentioned first step towards the new future. What it actually accomplished should have been impossible.

It did it anyway.

And every RPG created after dreamed of having just a taste of Final Fantasy VII’s success, and that’s why so many of them failed to reach the Olympian heights of Squaresoft’s classic.

Final Fantasy VII never wanted to be a successful RPG.

Final Fantasy VII wanted to be a legend.

10 thoughts on “Squaresofting the circle

  1. I still remember the tv spots for FFVII. Showing Sephiroth menacingly turning around and vanishing into the flames. Thinking to myself “Final Fantasy? Never heard of hear. Looks like one those games way too busy looking cool than anythings. Hard pass”.

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      1. Well, peer presure eventually got me to get FFVIII. And while I was still on the great part of that game, otherwise known at CD1, I was faszinated enough to get the platinum edition of VII too. So I was, as they say, late to the reactor.

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  2. I remember that trailer! I only remember two specific images from it though.

    One was the silhouette of Aeris with her hair spreading out around her, though I didn’t know what I was seeing and assumed it was a squid dropping out of the sky XD The other was Cloud climbing up to the Highwind’s landing pad.

    I’ve never seen anything like it. My brother and I watched it over and over. I didn’t know how it was possible for a game to look like that. And I don’t think it would have been as effective without Midgar’s grimy industrial look punctuating everything.

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    1. A squid?! That’s a new one! XD

      I am very happy to hear I wasn’t the only one playing that trailer on a loop though – it was mesmerising, wasn’t it? :o

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  3. “ another load-free FMV that once again ignores the expected boundaries between the ordinary and the dramatic “ – also happens to be one of many infamous scenarios that causes an instant crash in the original PC version of the game. It was my first introduction to the rude awakening that computers aren’t necessarily friendly for gaming – I’ve stuck with consoles ever since.

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  4. FFVII was my first JRPG (deeply unoriginal, I know!). I remember being fascinated by the character description in the manual on the way home from buying it, and utterly obsessed with the game for a while thereafter. Red XIII remains one of my favourite JRPG characters to this day.

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    1. Hey, no reason why something as huge as this shouldn’t be your first!

      (And Red XIII was always my favourite too!)

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