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:
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?
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.
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:
Barret "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?)
(FIRST EASY FIGHT)
(Short demonstration of gameplay)
Biggs "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!)
Jessie "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)
Biggs "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 "...Cloud." Biggs "Cloud, eh? I'm..." Cloud "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.) Barret "The hell you all doin'!? I thought I told you never to move in a group!" "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:
Barret "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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Next time I'll be jumping ahead to a broader topic - "Real People, Real Planet"