Friday, 18 November 2011

The First 5 Minutes

    C'mon Newcomer, Follow Me

I have often said I could write essays about how good the opening 5 minutes are ... so it's about time I actually did! It's as good a place as any to start on a massive journey of deconstructing the game, but will probably be the only time I do things chronologically. I've also realised that I will have to work on the assumption that anyone reading agrees that what i'm talking about IS good, so as to avoid the rhetorical splurging of admiration I could otherwise throw on every aspect. I would otherwise be literally saying 'I love this bit' every sentence otherwise!

Before I start, I recommend re-watching the intro, here:

     Six Movements

Precisely speaking, the opening 5 minutes break down the key components of the spirit of the whole 40 hour experience, and interpreted as follows:
  • Scale and Priming the Viewer
  • Juxtaposition with human contact
  • Scale of adventure
  • Drive into Action
  • First Contact
  • What Am I Doing?
I'll talk about each individually.

     Scale and Priming the Viewer
Few games tackle the scale of material like FFVII.

For me, the theme of the game is variety. I will talk about this at length another time, but for now I'll just say that. It wouldn't be true to say that its an action game, because that disservices the emotional depth. It wouldn't be true to say it is a dramatic game because it is hugely playful - quite often encouraging the player to remove all serious thoughts and focus on the pure absurd.

And for the intro, what better way to sink that idea into the mind of the audience that by a vast, sweeping vista of the universe.

But the view isn't considered. It isn't laboured or set to a course - the overriding feeling is that of disorientation, a swaying head being born into unknown, only bolstered by the non-commital noises adding to the ambience. Where are we, where are we going? There's no landmark in sight, only the intense feeling of loneliness that bravely endures the first full 45 seconds.

The effect of this introduction, for the immediate, is to lull the viewer. The opening moments commit fully to setting a tone that will in short moments be ripped open. This approach to contrast is what I think sets FFVII apart from so many other games - the creators clearly understood how to juxtapose elements in order to guide the desired response. The noise and fanfare that follows is only heightened because of this confident introduction, evoking these emotions with startling efficiency. It may 'only be space', but its as distinctive, if not more so, than any other game that decides to open with the clashing of swords.

Throughout this blog I will be  comparing and contrasting to other games and media, where I think either similar effects have been used, or sometimes complete opposite. In this case, the opening to Ocarina of Time on the N64 does a lot to set the same tone:


Very little is shown, but it places you directly in the seat of where the makes want you to be. It's mood is very clear - and foreshadows the mysteries of everything you will see without spelling anything out explicitly.

FFVII foreshadows the later plot revelation of JENOVA - the calamity from the skies, Cid's eventual trip into space, Sephiroth's Supernova, Bugenhagen's observatory and of course, Meteor and THAT closing shot.

In 1979, Douglas Hoefstadter wrote a book called 'The Eternal Golden Braid'. Whilst I do not suggest that he invented the idea, one key component he illustrated within the work was the presence of loops within great work - how science, maths and art has a meaningful resonance when ending the way it starts out. This effect, also known as ouroborus, is an effect I have seen many times in my own personal favourite works of music, art and film. The overwhelming feeling from this is that of a journey - a reflection of everything you have seen, and how far you have come and how much has changed.

FFVII famously ends on a similar screen to how it begins - a starfield and Aeris' face. Whilst it may be only my own personal conjecture, I feel it goes someway to adding to the impact of why the game is held in high regard.

     Juxtaposition with Human Contact

Aeris doesn't need to backflip to get your attention

 Going straight from the starfield, just as the 45 seconds of voices and whale noises are starting to dictate your mood into calm rhythm, out of the void appears a serene human face - bringing you gently into your first contact with a character. The lighting is low, the setting is unclear - linking this with the previous scene, the assocation of scale relating to this person is set subconsciously. This person will indeed eventually effect everything. Basket in hand, with pink clothing, her presentation gives no indication of any aggression, and the game is currently at peace. The music gives nothing away through the held notes - only the sense of time standing still in anticipation. Footsteps echoing in a lonely street bolster the sense of solitutude. The camera speeds up, setting the scene on edge ...

     Scale of Adventure
After 45 seconds of almost nothing, 15 seconds later the camera confidently begins pulling away from the unknown girl, occassionally offering glimpses at bizarre, steampunk vehicles surround by film-noir silhouettes, all the while accelerating upwards. There is a sudden sense of familiarity - this is no longer the complete unknown, rather a distorted version of our own every day reality with billboards and wheeled metal vehicles driving about. The music rises to match the movement, and whilst youre starting to get your first glimpse of where the game will be going, the music climaxes, the logo is displayed and you're suddenly punched awake. The city makes little sense - what is it, why is it round? Is it even a city?

It is worth noting, this shot is one of the most iconic of all of Final Fantasy VII. The version normally seen is slightly different, but as an icon it is incredibly strong. The technical and artistic direction, especially in context with everything up until this point is confident and visionary.

I mean that's cool, right?

Before you have time to think about it ...

     Dive into Action
Flashes of trainwheel. The music ramps up, train chugging along, a far cry from the serenity happening only yards away. The destination in the scene is foreshadowed by these flickers - the alternative would be to have followed the train in all the way, or end up at the destination without any sense of how you got there. The intelligent, sincere and emotional tone of the game to come has been set previously without boring the audience, but now the momentum builds and the game effortless reveals its trump card - seemlessly integrating the otherwise entirely cinematic opening directly with gameplay. Polygonal characters leap from the train - barely distinguishable as humans - oozing with personality and dynamic action. Like origami miniature art installations, they forward flip and high kick their way onto the screen.

      First Contact
A couple of seconds of field navigation leads you straight into your first fight encounter, without first falling onto random battles that would otherwise have been very confusing. No tutorials are given at this stage, but only one real option is available - Attack. The fight is simple, but doesnt patronise by explaining that you need to defeat these people as they continue to attack you.

Pretty basic, but he's got a gun and you've got a sword - who's more badass?

 All the while the music has continued from the front of the game ...

... without letting up. Normally the main music of the game - the field music - is broken by the battle theme music, giving a sense of compartmentalization - here, the dedication to the continuation of the energy start from the opening moments drives you forward. This follows through the whole game - a sense of artistic vision laid down by a group of people, an journey they wish you to experience in the way that they have decided is right for what they want to say. A large amount of consideration has been given across the game for when this effect is to be used, and this is only the first.

     What Am I Doing?

The game enters a dangerous territory - the most important thing has been set down - the tone, breadth and scale, and the sense of energy and a demonstration of the type of gameplay. This is all very well, but why should I care?

Here is an excerpt from the opening dialogue of the game. I'll paraphrase the significance of the ordering, and the goddamn awesome efficiency:

        "C'mon newcomer. Follow me."
(approachable colloqualisam 'c'mon'. This guy isn't an uptight, he's a DUDE.
Newcomer - establishes your status to him, and alligns the character with 
yourself - you're a newcomer too!
First simple direction - following is easy, right?)  
(Short demonstration of gameplay)
         "Wow! You used to be in SOLDIER all right! ...Not
everyday ya find one in a group like AVALANCHE."
(SOLDIER in caps (to denote as a name being different to the role of a soldier. Character seems impressed - SOLDIER must be impressive? Establish that you're in a group called AVALANCHE. Creates the feeling that this is unusual - special circumstances. Not mundane!)

         "SOLDIER? Aren't they the enemy?" 
         "What's he doing with us in AVALANCHE?"
(Establishes that SOLDIER is the enemy (most games take a LONG time 
to get to this vital information) 

         "Hold it, Jessie. He WAS in SOLDIER." 
         "He quit them and now is one of us." 
         "Didn't catch your name..." 
(Character background, reinforces again that he has left (in case you missed it the first time - take note Bayonetta). Doubles up on the confirmation that youre with AVALANCHE)

(The PLAYER names Cloud) 


         "Cloud, eh? I'm..." 

        "I don't care what your names are. Once this job's over... I'm 
outta here."
(First thing that Cloud says - prerogative open. So far you now know the enemy and their name, the good guys and their name, the main characters name, what your personal mission is (follow Barret) and what your character's goal is.)

(Barret comes running up from offscreen.) 

         "The hell you all doin'!? I thought I told you never to move in a 
         "Our target's the North Mako Reactor. We'll meet on the bridge 
in front of it."
(Barret establishes himself as leader to you and others, and gives clear orders with the sense of urgency)

(The group heads through the gate. Barret stops and turns to face Cloud.) 

         "Ex-SOLDIER, huh? Don't trust ya!"
 (Immediate relationship between Barret and Cloud developed. Simple facts, and Barret's stand on SOLDIER 
and your past is clear)

This game doesn't hang about or waste time - many games struggle to convey a reason to play this early on, and sometimes not at all. The game HAS given you unique terms for things in this world but the developers have very wisely decided to give normal world terms, making it much easier to remember. SOLDIER and AVALANCHE have connotations within themselves (for example, not l'Cie, FF13 - fantasy doesn't have to mean stupid names that mean nothing. Not that the game is completely without its weird names - for example, Shinra, Midgar and Jenova, but they do not fly in the face of common familiarity with everyday pronunciation). The game has already set the tone, now it's straight into action and cold hard facts. The camera tilts up to reveal the target - the mako reactor (ohhhh, so thats what those things were around the ring of Midgar), and the game shows feels cinematic without showing you a 'cutscene'.

A few fights later - the reason for blowing up the reactor is revealed:

         "The planet's full of Mako energy. People here use it
every day." 
         "It's the life blood of the planet. But Shinra keeps suckin' the 
blood out with these machines." 

Whilst the ramifications of what this means, and the depths of sincerity the game reaches later can only be hinted at here, the overarching message is clear: this is a ticking clock, killing the most important thing - the planet. This by itself of course isn't enough - it is only when seen in conjunction with the serene opening, the peaceful girl and the fantastic, imaginative city that this has any real weight. Saving a planet is on its own merit not necessarily a good thing after all - i'm not sure i'd be bothered about saving a planet full of armour clad, bloodthirsty football jocks (Gears of War).

But saving a planet hanging, bobbing precariously in space like our very own earth, an innocent flower-seller in dark and dirty streets, and people who talk like real %£$&! people - yeah, I'll go with that.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think by dropping me a comment or an email at
Next time I'll be jumping ahead to a broader topic - "Real People, Real Planet"

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A Brief/Long History of me and FFVII

     So I Heard You Like FFVII?

In December 1997, at the age of 14 I played Final Fantasy VII for the first time.

14 years later I'm writing a blog to finally try and put to rest why this game has had such an impact on me and so many others, and why to this day I still hold everything that it achieved as a shining example of what interactive media can be. For years I have been waiting for someone to discuss at length why this game is so celebrated, and their thoughts as to what made it so good - I've been waiting literally half my life! I've reached the point where I've decided I need to do it myself!

I intend to take on the task of breaking down and considering every single aspect of the game - from the visuals, mechanics, music, story - even the the broken little quirks like the bad translation. Every article I will try and talk about something new and try and do it in an interesting way, hopefully providing new angles. I want it to be a fun and sentimental exploration into something I'm very passionate about, and hopefully provide some entertainment from it, both for other fans and for myself!

But before I do that, I'll indulge a little history about my own experiences with it, and how it is gotten to this point after all this time.

         Final Fantasy ... what?

Going back through the mists of time my first recollection of hearing of Final Fantasy VII was in the November 1997 issue of Playstation Plus (I still have the very same copy!). I had only just bought my Playstation two months previous after having worked the entire 6 week holiday to save up for it, and was naturally very excited to see what I might be able to get myself for Christmas. When I flicked through the magazine I stumbled across the review, taken aback by the 97% score. To my understanding (back in the day when percentages seemed to make sense) this made it 'the best game on the Playstation'. I delved deeper, sat on the floor in my grandparents living room, reading every word, astounded by the visuals and the heaps of praise thrown on the game by the writer. I remember being confused as to where the other 6 games were but it didn't matter -

I had to get it.

The same month I picked up the December issue of Official Playstation Magazine and on the front was a black-bottomed demo CD with an 'exclusive' video of the game in actio. (If you havent played the game and intend on doing it 1) dont watch the vid and 2) sorting your life out and playing it. If you dont intend on playing the game, watch the vid, and you should want to)

(Pretty amazing that someone uploaded the identical video, from that exact disc! More on that later ...) ...

And even now, that video blows me away. But as a teenager, who had never before even heard of an RPG, and only 2 months previous had graduated from the SNES, I was basically throwing up. My mind couldnt take what I was seeing. This was ... a game?

Luckily, it was my birthday that very month. I went on the bus all the way to the rotting pizza of Lincoln and put notes on the table - and bought Time Crisis! When it came down to it, the temptation of a gun game was too much: I loved that game in the arcades - I was top of the table on every machine in Skegness. However, the Playstation version was terrible so 2 weeks later I took it back and with the cash made the proper purchase - £44.99 brand new 3 disc Final Fantasy VII (apparently I also bought Parappa the Rapper and Resident Evil: Director's Cut on the same day - I still have the receipt!)

I got it home and stuck it straight in. I was about to leave for a band practice that very evening so my look was very brief , but I was blown away. I had a quick tinker around the reactor before it became quickly apparent that I needed a memory card, and I'd just spent all my money. (the idea of having a console with no way of saving these days is laughable, but the Playstation was still quite frequently using passwords, and I was only JUST weening myself off the SNES).

So i resigned to getting a 1MB memory card for Christmas. Only a few weeks to wait right?

On the weeks leading up to Christmas, I played the first part at least 3 times - 2 of them just to show other people how great the game was. Don't get me wrong - I wasn't totally in love with the game at this point, I was just showing people to demonstrate how amazing it looked. When the time finally came to being able to play it on Christmas day, I sat at my great grandparents house (now deceased, more on that later) and got all the way up to where I had previously - and was now able to save.

             Bombing Mission

And then it started. And before I knew it, it had ended. But all along the way, in the blur of excitement and confusion I remember very strong emotions that I had. I've had 14 years to think about the emotions since, analyse them and I'm also dubious as to how many of them are real memories, and others just constructed, but I do remember some key points:

I remember first leaving Midgar at 2am, getting to Kalm, going for a leak, knowing I should go to bed but continuing for another 2 hours. I remember standing at the toilet muttering to myself how amazing the game was.

I remember walking home from the local family pub with my dad at 1am, telling him about the scene at Cosmo Canyon in the obersvatory, and thinking at length for the first real time what happens when you die (the following 2 months saw me get into Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead ...)

I don't remember crying when Aeris died, but I do remember very clearly wondering if I could have prevented it if i'd said different things to her (which i recently read in an article was the deliberate effect they were after). I found the scene unbearably emotional on my 2nd playthrough.

And I remember, when the game ends and the starfield appears, just staring at it for at least 20 minutes, just thinking ... thinking 'what the hell do i do now?'

And strangely, it wasnt until the game had ended did it really start to get its claws into me. Reflecting on what i'd seen, experienced, and most importanly been encouraged and allowed to THINK about along the way without doubt made a massive change in my core aesthetics and expectations at such an impressionable age, and therefore me as a person.

          500 Years Later ...

With varying degrees of success I persuaded some of my friends to give it a go - one of them is as an indirect result, 12 years later, still my best friend. 2 years later, Final Fantasy VIII was coming out and for my art GCSE studied the artwork meticulously for that. For my A Level, I studied Final Fantasy VII - and that was when I started to realise I wanted to do THAT (whatever THAT was) for a living. So I created a website on angelfire, joined, created the online name 'Omnislashed', studied every picture from it (downloaded at terrible resolution from the internet), drew everything at A2. We had to carry our art around the school in a see through wallet, and the latest picture I was working on would often get a lot of questions! My art teacher encouraged me to do what I was interested in (and to this day, I owe him more than I can put into words). One picture in particular that I copied was this:

I spent 60 hours copying that in coloured pencils! (I might also add, I had to make a lot of the details up myself as the image I was drawing from was only about 100 pixels high!).

In 2001 I joined an online forum called Fantasy Fighters, the first place I was welcomed where people were actually fully into Final Fantasy! Until that point, it was only im magazines and a few people at school who knoew about it. Suddenly the whole thing opened out. With those amazing people I was encouraged through projects to develop my own style - to compete and cooperate artisticly, all the while FF7 remaining a firm favourite.

In 2002 me and my best friend, inspired by Magic the Gathering and other trading card games, decided to begin work on a card game version of the game (which we still havent finished, but ... we'll ignore that part)

Cloud soon became a character I would draw over and over to explore new styles in without having to also come up with new designs at the same time! (good practice!). In 2004 I spent 10 hours on a picture and shared it on deviantART, receiving a Daily Deviation award (a big thing for me at the time).

In 2005 I joined Teesside University as a result of someone from the aforementioned forum suggesting the course to study Computer Games Art. And only 2 weeks before starting the course, I eagerly watched Advent Children - which blew me away and renewed my love for the game all over again!

In 2007 I started a Placement Course at computer Games company Blitz Games, and went out for drinks with some housemates from the place I was staying at. Whilst at the bar I got chatting to a girl from the house, and she asked me what I did - I said computer games art (thinking i'd be laughed at for being a geek), she asked me if I knew Tetsuya Nomura (character designer on Final Fantasy VII), I said of course, and then we couldnt stop talking about Final Fantasy for the whole evening ...

And the last 4 years we've been happily in love!

In 2011 I revisited FFVII for the first time in a long time so as to go through it with a mate who hadnt played it. We played it over the course of 6 months, grabbing free evenings where possible, and wrapped it up at the end of October. Revisiting it again has only confirmed to me, largely through the fresh eyes of a friend, that the game is still everyting it was in 1997.

And in November 2011, with my girlfriend of 4 years and my best friend I made with no small part through introducing to FFVII, we went to the Royal Albert Hall in London to see Nobuo Uematsu himself and the music from Final Fantasy.

And I still love it, more than ever in fact. It is my favourite game of all time, my most (aesthetically) influential thing of all time - and I think it is an astounding achievement.

Is it an obsession? Is it blind fanboy loyalty? Is it a link to my youth? Or is it actually so good, so well crafted, so full of character, emotion, humour and creativity that it genuinely does put other things to shame?

Well thats the point of this blog - to find out. And if nothing else, it should prove for a great exercise cataloguing and retrospecting about all my feelings on the matter - to the point where hopefully I can stop boring people's ears by talking about it all the time! :D

If youve gotten to the end of this, then thanks for reading. And well done! Heres a Chocobo!