“When it’s time for the Planet to die, you’ll understand that you know absolutely nothing.”
Video games as an art form are able to engage with audiences on a more intimate level than any other medium. The sheer act of having control over the games we play allows for the best titles to resonate all the more meaningfully. There’s a notion that gaming hasn’t quite achieved the same level of artistic merit as literature, television, or film, but that’s far from the case. While a young medium, video games have been making the most out of interconnectivity for decades. There’s an inherent intimacy in controlling art rather than just observing it. One can easily immerse themselves in a great book, show, or movie, but only video games can make the audience an active part of their world.
While there is an appeal to traditionally cinematic storytelling, the best games take advantage of the interconnectivity exclusive to the medium. Spending dozens of hours with any piece of art– whether it be a book, a series of movies, or a long RPG– will naturally breed emotional attachment, but the intimacy of gaming allows for the player to be a consistent part of the experience. The gameplay is the story, and few titles embody that notion half as well as Final Fantasy VII (1997.) Final Fantasy VII doesn’t shy away from the fact it’s a video game, nor is it ashamed of its medium. If anything Square embraced what could only be accomplished through gaming.
Beyond telling a compelling story about loss, grief, & identity with a strong environmentalist message at the heart of it all (which has only become more poignant with time,) Final Fantasy VII’s artistry comes from keeping the player in control of the action as much as possible. RPGs have always been one of the most story heavy genres in the medium, but that doesn’t mean they need to lack in gameplay.
FFVII is not a game that shies away from cutscenes, but it also understands that poorly directed breaks from the action can take an audience out of the experience– as can depriving control for too long, or simply neglecting to give the player a chance to rest or save beforehand. More importantly, Final Fantasy VII keenly understands that “action” pertains to more than just the core gameplay loop.
It can almost be taken for granted for effortlessly Final Fantasy VII beckons us into its world. What appears to be the black of space slowly fades into a woman praying, as the now iconic opening softly begins playing in the background. The camera follows her as she makes her way through dystopian slums. Before players can finish taking in the overhead shot of Midgar as the main theme swells, the FMV players have been watching seamlessly transitions into pure gameplay with immediate, full control of protagonist Cloud. It’s a dramatic, atmospheric opening, but what makes it truly compelling is how it builds momentum to start off the game. Right as the opening reaches its climax, Final Fantasy VII begins in earnest.
Setting a strong first impression is one thing, but consistently delivering on what an opening promises is another matter altogether. This blurred line between cutscene and gameplay not only extends both ways, it’s something FFVII regularly uses to its advantage. Cloud quite literally walks into an FMV in Disc 2, with a transition so smooth, one might not immediately realize they’re controlling Cloud inside of a cutscene. After slowly scaling a mountain, players are not only greeted with the beautiful sight of Gaea’s Cliff, they’re treated to an FMV they get to be a part of.
Elaborate in-game cutscenes aren’t anything too impressive these days, but Final Fantasy VII not only made frequent use of them in a generation where the art of video game cutscene direction hadn’t yet been refined, they’re an excellent example of how consistent storytelling doesn’t need to break a game’s pace. Cloud can’t move during every cutscene, but the few that don’t take away control help give the world character. Cosmo Canyon contains a segment where the entire party is seated around a campfire. It’s ostensibly a cutscene, but information is relayed at the pace of the player, as Cloud needs to speak with his party members individually.
Control is specifically used here as a means to reflect Cloud’s relationship with his party. When speaking to Tifa, Aerith, Barret, and Red XII– characters who have been in the party for hours at that point– Cloud will physically sit down next to them, as if to show familiarity. Whereas with Yuffie and Cait Sith, relative newcomers by Cosmo Canyon, Cloud will interact with them as if they were any other NPC. All this can be conveyed easily in a traditional cutscene, but it means more when the player has to physically interact with their party.
As this visit to Cosmo Canyon is intimately linked to Red XIII’s character arc, however, Cloud need only speak to him to move the plot along. Filled with characterization, a lesser game might have made those party members’ conversations mandatory– as a means of including everyone– but Final Fantasy VII is not a lesser game. Optional content is always frustrating to miss, especially party relevant dialogue, but there’s value in putting it on the onus of the player to fully observe their surroundings. More than just an expression of player freedom, but as a constant reward for those engaging with the RPG on every level.
Final Fantasy VII understands not only the important role maintaining control has in connecting a player to what they’re experiencing, but that bloated storytelling services no one. As only Red XIII’s arc is relevant to Cosmo Canyon, the rest of the cast is tucked aside. Everyone in the party has something meaningful to say if brought along, and even at the campfire, but they aren’t forced into this plot since there’s no natural place for them. It’s up to the player themselves to seek out their party members and hear what they have to say.
Beyond ensuring you’re driving the action whenever possible, Final Fantasy VII loves to play with the very nature of control. Midgar is full of instances where NPCs dynamically interact with the world around them, blurring the line between what’s a scripted event and what’s not. The citizens of Midgar aren’t just static RPG NPCs, nor are they beholden to the same walk cycles– or so it seems, but what’s important is that FFVII can create the illusion that Midgar is real. Midgar features multiple screens where NPCs simply scatter as players are free to walk amongst them. It’s really not much in the grand scheme of things, but these moments allow the audience to witness the effect Shinra and AVALANCHE’s war with each other has on bystanders. A little reminder of consequence goes a long way.
“It’s cuz of that &^#$# ‘pizza’ that people underneath are sufferin’!”
In general, consequence is something Final Fantasy VII makes masterful use of. One of Midgar’s plates crushing Sector 7 underneath it isn’t an impactful moment because it’s sad. It has an impact because it’s a realistic consequence to the party’s actions. As members of a terrorist organization, AVALANCHE, the party end up goading the leading global superpower, Shinra, into targeting them directly. Cloud, Tifa, & Aerith have an opportunity to intervene and save the day, but by the time they reach the pillar holding up the plate, it’s clear the player is running out of time as the supporting cast begin to drop like flies.
What’s particularly cruel about the destruction of Sector 7 is the false hope initially given to the player. AVALANCHE is in dire straits, but they’re not quite dead yet. Control isn’t taken away as Cloud makes his way up the pillar, suggesting all this can be stopped– and why wouldn’t it be? Wedge suffers a near fatal drop from above, but is still breathing; Biggs is badly injured over a railing, but alive; and Jessie is stuck, but more or less fine. At the same time, every member of AVALANCHE is staunchly resigned to their fate. The player may believe Cloud can save AVALANCHE, but they certainly don’t.
Wedge, Biggs, & Jessie aren’t fleshed out characters, but their strong personalities and inter-group chemistry make them memorable. They’ve appeared just enough where most will care enough to want to keep them alive. Some of the earliest instances of dynamic player control in Final Fantasy VII are with the members of AVALANCHE: everyone runs alongside each other as they raid Mako Reactor 1, Biggs & Wedge are incredibly expressive, and players physically need to save Jessie at one point. The members of AVALANCHE are as much a part of FFVII’s world as Cloud.
Even then, the fact Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge are built up as important recurring characters is enough to make their back to back to back “deaths” shocking. That the whole affair is bookended with an FMV of the plate coming down and crushing Sector 7 as NPCs hopelessly run away in terror puts into perspective the scope of Shinra’s villainy better than anything else in the game, while forcing the player to experience catastrophic failure they’re partly responsible in. More importantly, the plate falling and AVALANCHE’s demise is Final Fantasy VII’s way of setting up greater conflict outside of Midgar. Midgar’s multiple Sectors are introduced with the implication that the Mako Reactors will serve as dungeons, but in a single moment, the game’s very premise comes crashing on the player’s face.
Control may be an inherent part of the video game medium, but consequence doesn’t rear its head as often as it should. Consequence can mean depriving audiences of content they may feel entitled to, after all. At the same time, consequence is important for any piece of art telling a story. Missing an item or scene and having to permanently say goodbye to characters makes for a realer experience overall (along with simply being rewarding for those who don’t miss much.) Real consequence means killing off characters, locking off areas because they’re destroyed, and featuring permanently missable content.
Consequence doesn’t always have to be so dire, however, as FFVII makes clear while having fun feigning control. For as dark and dreary as the story can be, the RPG does have a sense of humor about itself. Upon reaching Rocket Town for the first time, the party will attempt to borrow a biplane from Cid, a mechanic and former would-be Shinra astronaut. Part of this sequence involves Cid narrating his backstory through a flashback, culminating in his prospective launch into space. Right before take-off, however, a scientist was fixing a fault inside of the hold. With this being his own chance to fulfill his dream, control in handed to Cid as he agonizes over canceling the launch or burning Shera alive to head into space– all the while a 30 second timer ticks down in the top right corner.
As the party has already met Shera by this point, we as an audience logically understand Cid won’t burn her to a crisp, but the timer tells a different story. Cid will cancel the launch no matter what, but just the mere idea that you are suddenly in control of this woman’s life (even in a flashback) lends the moment quite a bit of tension. In hindsight, it’s basically a practical joke on the game’s part, but the moment can be surprisingly tense. It certainly helps that the timer is only on-screen for a few seconds, ensuring players don’t have much time to think things through. Even telling a fairly mature story, Final Fantasy VII never forgets to have fun.
Of course, how Final Fantasy VII uses control is also something of a double edged sword. The name of the game is “control by any means necessary,” and that means going to some extremes. In an attempt to ensure players are perpetually driving the action, FFVII makes use of a lot of mini-games. From stealthily avoiding Shinra soldiers to fighting them off in an RTS style battle, Cloud’s adventure is never lacking in variety. To the game’s credit, some mini games feature failure states in case players are really struggling. Getting caught by Shinra three times during the stealth section results in the party wiping out all the officers on the floor, for instance.
Some mini-games in particular may be annoying, but the concept of using mini-games to move the story along instead of cutscenes is sound. After all, Final Fantasy VII is a video game, not a movie. Why show the action when you can play the action? As only so much can be conveyed in the overworld and through battles, mini-games serve as middle grounds that make important moments in the story all the more memorable. Cloud racing down the highway and fighting off Shinra soldiers on his motorcycle would be cool in a cutscene, but it’s even cooler because the player controls Cloud through it all. Cloud can accelerate, brake, and attack enemies with his Buster Sword. It’s certainly not the smoothest mini-game, but speeding down Midgar on a highway is one of FFVII’s finest moments.
Although not nearly as refined as the game’s motorcycle segment, silently snowboarding down to the Great Glacier is just one of the many ways Final Fantasy VII makes its story feel like a proper adventure. Shockingly, not only is the mountain rather intricate in its level design, the snowboarding mini-game’s controls allow for quite a bit of mobility. Maneuvering is a bit tough to get used to initially, but there’s far more mechanical depth at play than there reasonably should be. A player who takes their time to master turning, braking, and jumping will be rewarded with a fast paced dash through thickets and snow. Not all of FFVII’s mini-games are as engaging, but they consistently offer controllable set pieces in favor of traditional cutscenes.
One of FFVII’s greatest strengths as a game is valuing the player’s time and trusting they’ll seek out any optional content they want. Video games excel as a medium not only because of the interconnectivity at play, but because of how the best designed games cater to a wide range of audiences. Final Fantasy VII tells a well told and well paced story with enough confidence to let the player stray from the main path whenever they want. It’s more than possible to comfortably play through the entire RPG without touching an inch of side content and still walk away with a positive impression. At the same time, those who like to sink their teeth into games are offered frequent opportunities to stray from the main course and indulge in the host of optional, secret content FFVII has on tap.
The RPGs of yore historically did a good job at giving players the freedom to explore, but it often goes under-discussed just how freeform Final Fantasy VII ultimately is. Going out of the way to speak with NPCs will often reward the player with rather juicy bits of word building, and in some cases even further characterization. There are several secret scenes that otherwise go unseen should players stick to the main plot. FFVII rewards those who explore every nook & cranny and talk to everyone. What’s more interesting, however, is how important some of these optional moments are.
“A pro isn’t someone who sacrifices himself for the job. That’s just a fool.”
Both Shinra and the Turks– two antagonistic organizations who consistently appear throughout the story– are primarily fleshed out through missable content. Reno, the fiery figurehead of the Turks, gets most of his personality rounded out through a timed side-quest in Wutai. Rude can be stalked into an alleyway in Junon, ending with him in a dive bar. Later on, Cloud can even find Turk leader Tseng drinking with his subordinates at a nicer restaurant. Considering “…” is Rude’s favorite thing to say, optional moments like these are often a player’s only opportunity to get a deeper glimpse into the supporting cast– which makes stumbling upon these encounters all the more meaningful.
It certainly helps that the level design makes great use of dynamic angles and perspective to not only hide secrets, but present some of the best dungeons in the genre. The raid on Shinra HQ is a 60 story climb up the tallest building in Midgar. The party can either go up the stairs one by one, or take the elevator and risk fighting enemies along the way. Temple of Ancients is an M.C. Escher inspired labyrinth where players need to keep a keen eye on their surroundings to understand not only how to progress, but how to snag any out of the way items. Both dungeons are fairly straightforward at first glance, but they’re filled with secret areas and branching paths to discover.
It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Final Fantasy VII’s dungeons have puzzles, but they’re more than linear paths to the end. Players need to actually think about where they’re going, especially since there’s often so much to find. Where dungeons excel most, however, comes in pacing. FFVII makes sure never to throw lengthy dungeons at the player back to back. Between the Mako Reactors, the Train Graveyard, and the Pillar, Midgar is filled with several smaller set pieces before locking the party inside of the lengthy Shinra HQ.
Similarly, Shinra HQ is followed by a series of smaller events before culminating in the Temple of the Ancients. All the dungeons between there and the final Crater gradually build up to the grand finale in length. Pacing is hard to nail down in a video game– especially a rather long RPG– but Final Fantasy VII almost makes it look effortless. The shorter dungeons aren’t as intricately designed, but they aren’t lacking in depth either. They’re an important part of the game’s natural rhythm– constant progress in a narrative that only grows in scope. Smaller events lend to the passage of time, while also building up the meatier dungeons.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of player freedom in FFVII is the mere fact the game doesn’t go on lockdown when Cloud is removed from the party. There’s a good two hour stretch where Tifa and Cid temporarily serve as party leader. All there really is to do is move the story along, but players are actually free to tackle any active side quests sans Cloud. Recruiting Yuffie at this point will even result in unique dialogue for whoever’s leading the party. If Tifa’s in charge, Yuffie will dismiss her as “boobs,” while she’ll mock Cid’s age if he’s the leader. Worth noting is the fact that Tifa is only party leader for a brief period of time. The fact she can be in charge of side-quests– let alone with dialogue specific to her being the leader– is a testament to how much Final Fantasy VII respects its audience.
To really put into perspective just how much Final Fantasy VII values your freedom as a player, both Aerith and Cloud’s backstories are completely optional. Some might dismiss it as poor writing to leave the two most important character’s backstories in the background where they can be missed, but Cloud and Aerith have full arcs in the story proper. Simply playing through the main game will reveal enough about these characters to make them likable, and their stories compelling.
At the start of Disc 2, the party is tasked with heading to Icicle Inn in their pursuit of Sephiroth. The town itself is small, mainly serving as a lead-in to the snowboarding mini-game, but it’s actually home to roughly 15 minutes of hidden scenes. Over the course of the story, a certain Professor Gast and Aerith’s mother, Ifalna, are mentioned a few times, but really only in passing. By accessing a computer in Icicle Inn, Cloud can watch videos documenting Gast & Ifalna falling in love, giving birth to Aerith, and having their family torn apart by Shinra– all the while offering important backstory for Aerith and even foreshadowing for the WEAPON fights. There’s a sense of wonder when casually stumbling onto something so important.
Likewise, discovering the scope of Cloud’s relationship with Zack is so much more meaningful because we have to trigger it ourselves. It isn’t a part of the natural story, but is important all the same. Modern video games have a bad habit of treating side or optional content as lesser, but every piece of the puzzle matters in Final Fantasy VII. Nibelheim is an incredibly personal town for Cloud. Anyone who thinks not only to go back, but heads down into the Shinra Mansion’s basement, deserves some secret backstory for being that invested in Cloud’s arc. Rarely is an RPG so freeform to leave learning the protagonist’s backstory to chance– but it wouldn’t be as fulfilling otherwise.
“I’ll be going now. I’ll come back when it’s all over.”
To be expected, player freedom extends to combat, as well. Materia offers a depth of party customization which allows players to regularly edit their party. Rather than permanently learning skills, spells, and abilities, all party members in Final Fantasy VII need to equip Materia to access anything other than their basic attacks or items. This isn’t to say everyone is a blank slate that can fill any role, but that Materia offers an opportunity to experiment with one’s party on a deeper level. Weapon and armor have Materia slots, with better pieces of gear typically coming with more slots. Over the course of the game, players will gradually be able to use more Materia, but they’ll also be unlocking more Materia, ensuring one always needs to pick & choose the Materia they’re equipping their characters.
Worth noting, pieces of Materia often come with stat bonuses or penalties. Magic Materia will always increase MP at the expense of HP, for instance. Materia can also be leveled up to increase their properties. Magic and Command Materia often upgrade their abilities up to higher tiers (Fire to Fire2, Steal to Mug,) while leveling up Independent or Summon Materia simply offers higher stat buffs and more in-battle casts for summoning respectively. Regardless of the type of Materia being leveled, all pieces of Materia duplicate when fully Mastered. It takes time to fully master a piece of Materia, but the Materia system on a whole is worth the patience for how much player variety it offers.
Materia essentially allows players to rebuild their characters over and over again. Unsatisfied with Tifa acting as a black mage early on? Slap some Command Materia on her around mid-game and embrace her inherent Monk-like properties. Want Barret to go all out with magic? Slap Summoning Materia on him for no reason other than you can. Model builds after traditional classes, focus exclusively on stats, target specific boss fights, or just slap on as much Materia as humanly possible with no consideration for the consequences– all viable options that lead to engaging play styles. Even neglecting Materia can be a viable strategy for anyone looking to consolidate their party’s health pool.
New to the franchise alongside Materia (albeit not exclusive to Final Fantasy VII) are Limits. Characters now have Limit gauges that gradually fill over the course of battle. Once full, Limit replaces Attack, allowing players to use unique character exclusive skills– often with their own benefits (attacking enemies multiple times, healing everyone in the party.) With the exception of Cait Sith, all party members have access to four Limit levels and a total of seven Limits (sans Vincent who can access Level 4, but only has 4 Limits.) Levels aren’t linear, however, and serve more as sets. Cloud has two Limits per Level between Levels 1 through 3, for instance, and players can only use the Limits in whichever Level set they have equipped. As Limits are a consistent part of the gameplay loop, the light customization is welcome.
In a franchise first, Final Fantasy VII ditches four person parties in favor of three person teams. Parties are more restrictive than ever as a result, but this is ultimately for the best considering how customizable Materia is. Any individual party member can potentially do so much, that four in any given battle would allow players to just about cover any and every situation they’d need– flying in the face of the risk/reward elements inherent to Materia. Naturally, player choice plays an important role in party composition, especially since Cloud can’t be removed. Which helps lend the impression Cloud is the player even if you don’t name him after yourself. Characters aren’t blank slates, nor are they created equal, but Materia allows everyone in the party to be viable all the way to the endgame.
More than anything, Limits simply pair well with the ATB. The fact Final Fantasy VII is a turn-based RPG operating with an active timer in-battle wasn’t novel in 1997, but Limits add gameplay variety along with detailed renditions of characters’ signature techniques. In many respects, Limits are a means of showing off the PSX’s hardware, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Battles have a cinematic quality to them that keeps them visually engaging. For an RPG that uses gameplay to tell the story so often, it’s appropriate that Final Fantasy VII formally introduces its main antagonist, Sephiroth, through combat.
And not in a fight against him, but alongside him. All throughout Midgar, Sephiroth is only alluded to in passing. Audiences are meant to craft their own idea of who Sephiroth is based on his status as a war hero. With Sephiroth positioning himself as the true villain instead of Shinra, Cloud takes his time to explain his relationship to the man in a series of flashbacks. Although most of Cloud’s flashback takes place outside of combat, a boss fight against a dragon is used as a means to highlight the dichotomy between Cloud and Sephiroth.
Level 1, Cloud will be knocked out by the dragon almost immediately. He’ll do no damage, asserting himself as useless right out the gate (courtesy of Preemptive Materia that lets Cloud attack first.) At level 50, Sephiroth will cut through the dragon like he’s nothing, leaving Cloud to rot beside him. In spite of Sephiroth being a party member during this fight, players notably only have control of Cloud. In combat, as a member of your party, Sephiroth is someone who can only be observed from afar. Even trying to toggle his equipment results in Sephiroth responding with a stern “…” Sephiroth isn’t just above Cloud; he’s above you.
Sephiroth and Cloud are two sides of the same coin– men who believe they’re something they’re not. In the case of Cloud, he’s simply been lying to himself the entire game as a means of processing extreme trauma. He’s not a SOLDIER and most of his combat experience is non-existent. The fact players control Cloud throughout most of the game– putting themselves in his shoes– makes the reveal that Cloud isn’t who he says he is all the more impactful. There’s a pitiable quality to watching a strong character you’ve been playing as for dozens of hours deteriorate. For most of the game, though, Cloud plays the role of the traditional hero. He’s in charge, confident, and in control. Until he suddenly isn’t.
What Cloud believes to be a connection to Sephiroth is more possession. Sephiroth has been luring Cloud all along, ultimately resulting in Aerith’s death. Aerith’s death is one of the most talked about moments in the medium– and rightfully so. Losing a key party member in an RPG– let alone your dedicated healer– is impactful in and of itself, but the circumstances surrounding Aerith’s death are incredibly charged. While emotional, there’s an important element of control that goes overlooked. When Cloud and Aerith meet for the last time, players are actually forced to nearly kill her themselves. Cloud doesn’t go through with it, of course, but forcing the audience to nearly kill Aerith serves as strong shorthand for the personal responsibility Cloud feels for her death.
The fact Aerith’s death can resonate so powerfully in spite of the event being so well known is owed all to the tact Final Fantasy VII approaches death with. We don’t always get to say goodbye to our loved ones, nor do we always understand their deaths. Aerith’s passing is painfully real. Her last words aren’t that meaningful and the party never gets to say goodbye to her. Cloud tries to reason that Aerith knew all along that she would die to Sephiroth, making herself a marthy, but Tifa holds firm that Aerith– the person who talked about the future more than anyone– more than likely did not want to die. At the end of the day, though, there’s no way we can know.
A major turning point following Aerith’s death comes in the North Crater, when Sephiroth forces Cloud to confront the truth about his identity. Players maintain control as Sephiroth strips away Cloud’s “identity” bit by bit– his only respite brief dialogue with party members. It’s a hard scene to watch by virtue of Cloud falling apart psychologically, but his breakdown hits harder when players turn to their party for desperate reassurance. Cloud’s “personality” isn’t bravado, it’s performance. Very little about Cloud as depicted in the first half is genuine. In losing himself, the party loses Cloud with Tifa & Cid stepping in as temporary leaders.
Meaningfully, control isn’t returned to Cloud until after he comes to terms with who he really is. He’s actually a fairly present character post-breakdown, albeit one nowhere in the mental state to fight. Tifa ends up entering Cloud’s subconscious via the Lifestream, allowing her to intimately observe Cloud reconciling the truth about his identity. As control shifts to Tifa inside his subconscious, we become observers as Cloud finds himself. Tifa makes her way through Cloud’s memories, trying to help him not only remember who he is, but come to terms with who he’s not. Cloud is in a pure state of emotional vulnerability, and Tifa pushing him deeper into his psyche to pull him out results in an emotionally mature arc for Cloud, and a deeper relationship for the story’s two leads.
With Tifa there for Cloud at his most emotionally vulnerable, she’s able to pull him out. It would be wrong to say he comes out stronger than ever, but he comes off more genuine. His arrogance reads more like confidence, and Cloud begins displaying far more human traits like fear and uncomfortability– little details that signify to us that he’s indeed the real deal. Notably, Cloud takes a deep breath before control is given back to the player for the rest of the game. We may control Cloud, but he is not controlled by us, nor is he a puppet any longer.
“Everything must come to an end. And someday it’s gonna be your turn.”
At its core, Final Fantasy VII is a game story about loss, grief, and identity, but the script shines most thanks to environmentally conscious storytelling. Urban NPCs recognize Shinra isn’t ideal, but they feel that Mako is a necessity they can’t live without. They’re willing to put up with the poisoning of the planet for their own comfort. It’s an uncomfortable mirror to have to look at, but it’s a necessary one. NPCs reveal the culture at the heart of FF7 while serving some very poignant commentary about societal complacency. NPC’s stories resonate on a deeper level because you, the player, witness firsthand what Shinra has done to the world.
Players make their way through the Slums, watch as innocent people die for profit, and walk on soil that is being poisoned by the second. By the time the party returns to Midgar to settle the score with Shinra, players have gained a full understanding of just how much damage has been done to Planet Earth. Needless to say, you know what you’re fighting for when it comes time to stop Sephiroth. Final Fantasy often has a bad habit of ending on rather nonsensical notes, but VII manages to simultaneously build momentum towards a climax with both Shinra and Sephiroth, the latter carrying the adrenaline the party brings to take down Hojo once and forever.
Even in its final moments, FFVII finds meaningful ways to respect player control, choice, and freedom– never forgetting to be a great video game in the process. The last dungeon not only makes use of multiple branching paths, the entire party can be involved depending if the player hits certain criteria. Overall party level, secret characters recruited, and how competently players fight Jenova-Synthesis all affect how many parties (yes, parties) players get to bring in the fight against Bizarro Sephiroth. The better one does, the harder the boss becomes, and the more party members they need to bring. It’s an excellent way of including as many characters as possible in the finale, but it’s also non-intrusive. Even fighting the more challenging variants of Bizarro Sephiroth, no point does the final battle force party switching.
In typical JRPG fashion, Sephiroth has multiple forms. Safer-Sephiroth is arguably the real final boss, but FFVII isn’t content ending there, nor should it be. The battle that follows is purely ceremonial (complete with Cloud having a higher detailed model exclusively for this fight,) but it’s important that Final Fantasy VII end not with the party killing a seraph trying to end the world, but Cloud killing the man who ruined his life. Cloud’s final showdown with Sephiroth mirrors their boss fight against the Dragon, including the exact same track scoring both battles. This time around, however, Sephiroth is helpless to stop Cloud. All it takes is a single Omnislash to kill the final boss. After suffering at the hands of Sephiroth so much, Cloud subdues the darkest part of himself– a cathartic conclusion to the final boss and Cloud’s arc.
In any other RPG, the game would end there with the day saved, but the stakes are simply too high for a clean, personal ending. Shinra mistreats the Earth so badly, they trigger a world-ending cataclysm designed to destroy anything deemed harmful towards the planet. Considering everything the player has seen up to this point, the implication is very much that humanity is a net negative for planet Earth. Final Fantasy VII’s ending is ambiguous. With a white flash enveloping the main cast, the game cuts to Aerith before cutting to black. After the credits roll, Red XIII looks over an overgrown Midgar century in the future– not a sign of man in sight. Any ending that implies humanity’s extinction is going to have some impact, but Final Fantasy VII’s ending wouldn’t hit half as hard if it weren’t preceded by a 35~ hour video game.
What FFVII does with control is something all developers should take note of. Player control extends to so much more than the basic gameplay loop. FFVII approaches every facet of its journey with player freedom in mind– which not only leads to gameplay that’s frankly hard to put down, but a story that’s able to convey real consequence to the audience, both in and out of universe. Final Fantasy VII is a reflection of what the Earth can become, while remembering to be a damn good game in the process.
Planet Earth will outlive mankind, but FFFVII makes the case that this isn’t a bad thing. Bugenhagen’s concerns ring true– humanity has done too much damage to right what’s gone wrong. At the same time, we can still contribute, and help our planet as best we can, easing its pain. At the end of the day, all Final Fantasy VII can do is put the fate of the planet in your hands. Not once does Cloud’s journey slow its pace, stumble, or forget that this is a medium driven by control– allowing us to serve as more than just an audience. An RPG everyone should play, Final Fantasy VII is definitive proof that video games are art.