When the absurdity of the modern video game scene becomes too much, I find it pleasant to step back into the comforting embrace of the retro. Once every seven or eight years, that means Final Fantasy VII.
90s-era JRPGs were one of my first loves, and Final Fantasy VII is always a good reminder as to why that was. It is, in many ways, much better than similar games that followed, especially with regard to its story and writing. It is nice to see a game with a sincere story that doesn't rest on a convoluted cosmology or sequel-baiting lore, one featuring dialogue that isn't polluted with self-aware snark or desperate stabs at relevance - something that makes you feel good once it's done.
All that said, in other ways it is much worse than similar games that followed. JRPGs use a lot of plot devices and structures that are very dated, and FFVII leans into some of those hard.
On my last playthrough, I kept a few notes on everything that didn't sit well with me in the presentation of the story, intending one day to tell the world what I would change. And as everyone is currently talking about Square Enix's latest efforts to milk the game for every cent left in it, now seems like the time for that. I suspect this one could generate some passion, so feel free to meet me over here or send me a message here and you can tell me all the reasons why I'm brilliant and/or stupid.
Parameters, Principles, and Overall Changes
My focus here is on the story of FFVII. While I have some issues with the mechanical side as well, I won't be touching on that too much.
The way I see it, there are three top-level problems with the plot of FFVII:
- Uneven pacing. Most of the core plot in FFVII is condensed into a handful of plot dumps with episodic content between them. This gives the feeling that the plot keeps speeding up and then slowing down because so much time passes between key moments.
- Railroading. For those not familiar with tabletop, "railroading" is the act of forcing the players to go somewhere they otherwise wouldn't go, usually by fabricating excuses to block off every possible alternative. Every linear RPG does this, but in FFVII there are several places where the player must take an action that the characters have absolutely no organic reason to take and it makes the progression feel artificial.
- Incomplete worldbuilding. The world of FFVII was greatly simplified for the purposes of gameplay. This was meant to be expanded in the Compilation, but that didn't exactly work out, and from a modern perspective the world can feel a little thready.
None of these are issues unique to FFVII - they're actually quite common in JRPGs of that era, and there are certainly far worse offenders (looking at you, Chrono Cross). But there are also games from this era that simply didn't have these problems, including some from Square. For my money, FF6 - with its more character-focused plot - didn't have the same pacing issues.
I have devised a few models for fixing the game's plot, some of which are a lot more radical than others. One of my concepts involved writing Sephiroth out of the game entirely, but I had a feeling that no one would really go for that one (though I will explain my rationale near the end). Instead, my approach here will be very safe, keeping the fundamental structure intact.
At a high level, I do propose making some changes to the cast. For one thing, Red XIII can go. Despite his weird design, he's not a particularly interesting (or even popular, as far as I can tell) character and doesn't have much of a connection to the plot. Ditching Red would also free us up to add Yuffie and Vincent as standard characters. It never made sense to me that those two were "secret" characters - they're both very mechanically ordinary, and both of them (Vincent in particular) are tied into the plot. Throw in that both have proven very popular among fans as well as the devs tasked with turning this game into a series, and there's no reason not to just have them as regular mandatory party members.
Finally, this won't cover the entire game, but about the first 10 hours of gameplay - everything up to Nibelheim. If there's any genuine interest, I could be goosed into doing a part 2 that goes deeper into the game.
Believe it or not, the entire Midgar section is only 4-5 hours of gameplay. It feels longer in part because it's become so iconic and is one of the things everyone remembers, but also because it is one of the most fast-paced parts of the game. It's hard to imagine that so much happens in less than five hours.
This isn't the worst thing. Most JRPGs (and plot-driven video games in general) tend to be very deliberate in terms of pacing - the better to get that requisite 40+ hour playtime. All things being equal, though, it's better for a story to have a pace that's too fast than too slow. I'm fine with learning almost everything about Aeris within minutes of meeting her. I find it's better than having to get the information dribbled out over a third of the game as many other titles would do.
Even so, there are some tweaks I'd make here. Midgar could probably stand to be slightly longer - an hour, maybe two. There's still a lot that's undeveloped here, particularly with regard to Shinra. We meet a lot of Shinra-linked characters in this section - the President, Rufus, Hojo, Scarlet, Heidegger, Reeve, Palmer, Reno, Rude, and Tseng. Most of them only get a few lines of dialogue, which isn't much to really establish them as characters. Now, be honest - did you even remember that there was a character called "Palmer" in FFVII before I mentioned him?
There are a few small additions that will tie into changes I'll be making later:
- When Sector 7 is destroyed, Barret's reaction is more pensive than angry.
- It's established that Reeve is involved in "internal" intelligence - basically keeping tabs on other Shinra people to make sure that they're loyal.
As long as we're touching up Midgar, we can get rid of Don Corneo and, with him, the single most uncomfortable part of the game. This would slightly complicate things later as my long-term plan includes turning Wutai into a mandatory visit and Corneo is a big part of that area. We can cross that bridge if and when we come to it.
Most of the proposed changes in my notes come in the second five-hour span. This isn't exactly the most memorable part of the game for most people. However, it does appear to be the part of the game that Square Enix is remaking next, so this is me trying to outmaneuver the actual devs.
The section up until Junon is fine and I have only one thing to change: You can't get Yuffie here as, again, she's now a standard party member and will be joining a little later.
The story diverges after Sephiroth appears aboard the Shinra ship. His attack on the ship damages it badly enough that it starts to take on water and the party is forced to abandon ship. As they retreat to an emergency vessel, Cloud spots Sephiroth on deck and - driven by either a Reunion-esque supernatural impulse or his own base instinct - splits off to fight him. During the clash, Sephiroth knocks Cloud into the water and the rest of his companions are unable to rescue him.
I'll admit that using a sinking ship/man overboard situation to split the party was a well-worn JRPG trope even back then - Square themselves used a variant in both FF4 and FF6. In this case, though, it happens to make sense. I never understood how the ship could arrive safely at its intended destination despite Sephiroth killing most of the crew and unleashing a monster belowdecks. It should have sank anyway - that fact is simply convenient for me.
Cloud regains consciousness on a beach, pulled from the surf by Yuffie. She tells Cloud that since he owes his life to her, he is now part of her "crew" and obligated to help her with a job, which turns out to be a robbery of Gold Saucer. Cloud has no loyalty to this girl (who, as far as he knows, is just a common thief), but he also has no clue where he is so he goes along for the sake of convenience.
A brief aside before we get to Gold Saucer: I think a lot of FFVII is best understood as symbolic/allegorical. The game isn't trying to be realistic, it's trying to leave an impression. Midgar is a good example. Realistically speaking, the design of Midgar makes no sense, but as a visual metaphor - a literally stratified society with the elites living atop an underclass trapped with the city's pollution and detritus - it is very striking.
Gold Saucer works in much the same way. The architecture is nonsense, the location is absurd, but as a symbol of the grotesque wealth running through this world, it makes perfect sense - or rather, it would if it had more of a connection to Shinra. Gold Saucer feels like it should be a Shinra joint, but it's really just the obligatory JRPG coliseum town and has only a very forced connection back to the actual plot. Even the game makes fun of this, with Barrett asking rightly why it is that they are breaking off their hunt for Sephiroth to go to a casino resort.
The real reason they're here is due to railroading. There's no plot reason to go to Gold Saucer - you have to go here because there's a patch of quicksand blocking your path and there's nowhere else to go. The means of crossing that quicksand is in Gold Saucer, but neither the player nor any of the characters know that and there's no reason to assume it either.
In my rewrite, Gold Saucer is a Shinra resort, explicitly tied to the company. It is not only an additional means of making money, but also a way that Shinra keeps tabs on their employees. Shinra employees are encouraged to spend their holidays here, not knowing that the entire resort is monitored by Shinra personnel.
The Shinra connection also gives Yuffie a reason to want to go there. Cloud assumes it's just a normal heist because he doesn't yet know about her anti-Shinra activities. In reality, Yuffie has some information suggesting that Gold Saucer contains a treasure trove of Shinra materia - perhaps even including a "special" materia, implying the existence of Meteor and/or Holy hours before they are revealed.
The involvement of Shinra would also explain why there would be a Shinra spy here. Since there's no reason why the party would need to go to Gold Saucer, there's also no reason why Reeve - in the guise of Cait Sith - would be waiting for them here. On the other hand, if Shinra owned Gold Saucer and Reeve is established as a kind of internal spy, it flows a lot better. Cait Sith is here to monitor the patrons, he recognizes Cloud (anyone in Shinra would at this point) and finds an excuse to tag along.
Rather than going to Corel Dungeon, there is a short dungeon inside Gold Saucer. Cloud, et al, find evidence of Shinra's monitoring (and possibly the Keystone, which Yuffie ignores since it isn't materia and doesn't look valuable), but they don't find the massive materia stash that Yuffie assumed was there. However, they do find information pointing to an alternate route to Nibelheim via Cosmo Canyon and set off in that direction, aided by an "appropriated" Shinra buggy.
While this is going on, the rest of the party (Tifa, Aeris, and Barrett) arrive at a town somewhat off their original course. Had the voyage been less eventful, the Shinra ship would have landed somewhere much closer to Nibelheim and Rocket Town, but now the second group has to take a longer route through the mountains which will ultimately result in them meeting up with Cloud and his new group.
Along the way, they pass through North Corel. It's not right outside of Gold Saucer this time - Shinra wouldn't have any patience for a shanty town at the entrance to their opulent resort - but on an easily missed mountain pass leading to Gold Saucer.
This is the start of Barret's character arc, and while it is fundamentally the same as in the original script, there are some changes meant to redeem the game's most mocked character.
The original account of Corel had some gaps in it that seem to exist mainly just to make Shinra look evil. Why, exactly, did Scarlet have Corel torched when the people there were giving Shinra everything they wanted? The original script offers no explanation other than the bad guys being bad guys.
There are better explanations for the crisis that befell Corel. A disaster at the Mako reactor is sensible, but a more interesting alternative is that Shinra still torched the town, but this time Barret was vocally against their presence. He organized some sort of protest (maybe a strike - presumably the locals were working on the reactor project), Shinra moved to put it down, and Barret was injured in the fighting while the others died. As a result, he suffers from a wicked case of survivor's guilt as he was the one who lived despite the resistance being his idea.
This is why Barret has a more somber reaction to watching the destruction of the slums back in Midgar - it was history repeating itself. Once again, Barret has invoked the wrath of Shinra, only to survive that wrath where many others have perished.
Since the release of FFVII, many people have commented on a very plain fact: Barret is a terrorist. Even the game acknowledges - in a throwaway line that is never explored after Barret says it - that his attacks on the Midgar reactors killed people, and not just Shinra stooges either. The game takes a real "greater good" angle here, but even so it's hard to just move beyond the fact that many, many innocent people have died - either directly or indirectly - as a result of Barret's actions.
This, then, is the start of Barret's redemption arc, one that might just elevate him beyond being Angry Black Man With A Gun For An Arm. It begins with him acknowledging the violence that follows him.
The two groups are finally reunited shortly before arriving in Cosmo Canyon.
I'll level with you: I hate Cosmo Canyon. My original notes called for excising it entirely, and here's a list of reasons why:
- The connection to the plot is tenuous. Cosmo Canyon exists primarily to contain what passes for Red's "arc," which is introduced and then concluded here. This is why I want to write him out - he is simply such a flat character insomuch as all of his development can be contained in a single dungeon. Absent Red, there's no reason for this place to exist, especially because:
- Gongaga serves the same purpose. I really don't understand why Gongaga is an optional area. It arguably contains more of the plot (at least as far as Tifa is concerned), it shows off the environmental damage that Shinra is causing in a much more elegant way than having Bugenhagen drop another plot dump, and the presence of high-level Shinra personnel hints at something deeper going on at Shinra. So why is this area not just optional, but easily missable?
- It has the worst railroading in the entire game. I realize that most of you don't know how the game gates off Nibelheim given that, as RPG aficionados, you instinctively stop at every town to buy upgrades, and doing that here locks you into Red's story. Well, here it is: If you try to pass Cosmo Canyon, the buggy abruptly stops working with no explanation. I don't know why people still make fun of the king in FF1 building a bridge in your honor when this is so much worse. The sensible solution would have been to put Cosmo Canyon at the end of the canyon and make the Cave of the Gi a passage through to Nibelheim, so I don't know why they didn't do that.
- Cave of the Gi is an atrocity of a dungeon. That's more of a gameplay issue, though, so we can set that aside.
Nevertheless, in the name of keeping FFVII's essential structure intact, I have opted to keep Cosmo Canyon around, but this time it serves a different story purpose.
Cosmo Canyon is now on a mountain with a single passage leading to Nibelheim and the entrance controlled by Bugenhagen. Bugenhagen initially doesn't want to let Cloud and company through, but he eventually relents once he concludes that their mission is just. At this point, he dumps out all the information about the Lifestream and Mako reactors.
Cosmo Canyon is still a part of someone's arc, but this time it is Barret.
Up until this point, everyone knows that Mako reactors are potentially dangerous but no one was aware that they threaten the entire planet. Bugenhagen's explanation as to how they really work adds an additional layer to Barret's actions, moving him from vindictive terrorist to - potentially - protector of the world. In doing this, Bugenhagen doesn't absolve Barret for all the deaths he's caused. Rather, he offers Barret some clarity: You've done awful things for all the right reasons, so what are you going to do next?
All of this continues Barret's redemption arc, one that doesn't conclude until much later when he saves North Corel, proving that he can protect life as well as end it.
The Sephiroth Issue
Sephiroth has become a surprisingly divisive character among RPG enthusiasts. Some like him a little too much, some hate him entirely too much.
A lot of the grief that people heap on Sephiroth is wholly undeserved, most of it stemming not from FFVII itself but from what happened in video games in the years following its release. Yes, the Evil Bishonen became a heinous trope after this, but as I find myself telling young writers on a regular basis: A cliche isn't a bad idea, it's an overused idea, and often it has become overused because it is (or was) a very good idea.
Sephiroth is a brilliantly designed character who became iconic for a reason. That's not the problem. The problem is that he isn't the right villain for this story.
A lot of recent critics have argued for FFVII as some sort of pro-environmentalist or even anti-capitalist story. These people are wrong. It's very likely that this is what the writers intended, but all of that changes when Sephiroth is introduced at the end of the Midgar sequence. Before that, the bad guys are all affiliated with Shinra and there's a clear political angle to the story. But after the Nibelheim flashback, the Shinra people are demoted to minor figures in Sephiroth's story, taking any socio-political content with them.
Sephiroth's own goal is to destroy the planet. Destroying/ruling the world was the stock standard motivation for villains in JRPGs and video games in general up until that point. As a result, the plot of FFVII becomes far more conventional than it would have been had the members of Shinra remained the chief antagonists. Sephiroth isn't a bad villain by any stretch, but he's the wrong villain for the cutting-edge story the writers wanted to tell.
The funny part is that, while excising Sephiroth would remove most of the game's more iconic moments, it wouldn't change the central plot all that much. Jenova could stay in the story, which means that the Reunion (or something very similar to it) could still happen. The apocalyptic endgame could still happen with a few tweaks - attributing more importance to the "Promised Land" and the release of the Weapons, for example.
On the other hand, keeping Sephiroth opens up avenues to complicate the plot in interesting ways. The fact that Sephiroth wants to destroy the world makes him an enemy of Shinra as well as Cloud and his allies. This could have set the stage for a more complex mid-game, with an uneasy truce forming between Shinra and Cloud's group. This is something that would be distasteful for many of the characters and could lead to some serious gray areas if Cloud and company had to overlook Shinra's misdeeds.
Ultimately, I've opted to keep Sephiroth where he is for the sake of coherency, but he was miscast. Despite his grandiosity, I feel that he'd be a much better fit for a more intimate, character-driven story.
This is where my notes end, and thus where this article ends. If there is any interest in continuing to the next part, please let me know.
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