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What modern JRPG writers can learn from Final Fantasy VII

My original post got taken down due to me not following the posting rules. I hope I have posted it in a manner that follows the rules now however, if not I apologise.

I recently played through Final Fantasy VII again after not having revisited it for well over twenty years. To be frank I was surprised at how well the writing still held up, and started thinking about why I don't really play JRPGs anymore. This evolved into an essay in which I talk about what modern JRPG writers can learn about character, story development and themes by looking at Final Fantasy VII.

Do you think today's JRPGs holds the same quality when it comes to writing as they used to?

The complete essay can be found below. If you'd rather read the essay at my home page a link to that can be found at the bottom of this post (no ads and no revenue gained from visitors, just a way of sharing my work).

The essay:

I first played Final Fantasy VII twenty-four years ago. At eleven years old I’d not had much experience with these mythical JRPGs. For some reason us Europeans didn’t get many RPG releases in the SNES era. You had to get an NTSC converter and import your games from the US if you wanted to play them, and it was expensive for a kid like me. The only RPG I’d played thus far was Breath of Fire 2, which my local retailer had one copy of which I blew all my savings on, and I loved it. But I knew of Final Fantasy. My local gaming magazine had a column dedicated to all the latest news on that front that I devoured each month.

Then the Playstation released. I rented it a couple of times but it never sold me on its games until Final Fantasy VII came out. I wanted it so bad. It was on the top of my christmas list in 1997, along with the console. I didn’t have high hopes of getting it, my parents already thought I spent too much time playing games. But then, on christmas eve (the day we celebrate in Sweden) it was there, under the tree. I ripped the packing off and spent the rest of the day glued to the screen.

At the time, a game having a fleshed out story was not the norm. Most of the time any kind of plot was just an excuse for some good platforming, or to shoot alien baddies. RPGs were the exception. And while you’d be hard-pressed to say I was a connoisseur at the age of eleven, I could tell Final Fantasy VII was special. It felt deep, like it talked about the world in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I played through it multiple times, leveled all my characters to level 99, defeated Emerald and Ruby weapon. I cried when I accidentally overwrote my original save file with a brand new one, and vowed to after that point always be careful of pressing buttons too fast when saving. It has since become the norm to have the cursor start at “no” instead of “yes” when you try to overwrite a saved game.

The point is I’ve played this game a lot, more than any other RPG besides maybe World of Warcraft. But I haven’t returned to it since I was a kid. I reckon it must be over twenty years since I last played it. Until a couple of weeks ago when the Switch had a sale. I bought it, played through it, and now I’m going to talk about why it’s still one of the best JRPGs out there, and what the JRPGs of today can learn from it.

The downfall of the genre

For a guy like me who spent his teenage years enamored by the magical role-playing games from the east, it’s been tough watching the decline of the genre I used to love. I tried playing the Tales games, but had to stop due to the frankly abysmal writing. I played Final Fantasy XV and while I didn’t hate it, it didn’t really have a story worth talking about. I played Bravely Default and hated it, filled with clichés and bobbleheaded youngsters as it was.

To me, it feels like the genre has become less about telling a good story, and more about satisfying anime tropes and juvenile power fantasies. And it saddens me. Young people aren’t stupid, they can appreciate a good social commentary as much an adult. Companies need to stop creating carbon copy fourteen year-old protagonists who end up being the chosen one and saving the world. It’s not interesting, has been done to death, and tends to pigeon-hole their games into a certain age group.

I don’t know why this happened. Maybe the sales were plummeting and developers realised they needed to fall back on a safe card. Maybe game development has become too expensive to the point that hiring good writers is not feasible for a smaller company. I just know it turned me off of the genre, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. But enough of the negatives, let’s talk about what today’s writers can learn from Final Fantasy VII.

Why mature themes create depth

While playing through Final Fantasy VII again, I was constantly amazed by the writer’s willingness to tackle mature themes. We’ve got the love triangle between Cloud, Tifa and Aeris, where so much of what is important happens between the lines. There are no I love you’s, no kissing, no heart-felt proclamations of affection. Just three people and the awkwardness that ensues when two of them like the same person. What is most impressive about this part of the plot is that the characters never get into conflict about it. They handle it like adults, realising there are more important things at stake. And this was the first thing in the game I could appreciate more as an adult. Telling Aeris that Tifa was my girlfriend or not suddenly had real implications. I pondered it for about five minutes, then reloaded and made another choice. Choosing between Tifa and Aeris when forming a party always left me feeling bad for Aeris since I let her walk around with Red XIII for the majority of disc one, knowing the way she felt about Cloud. As a kid I don’t remember really caring about these things. Love had not entered my life yet. I hadn’t had to make difficult choices that risked hurting another human being.

Then we’ve got Wall Market, Don Corneo and the prostitution going on there. I mean, when you enter the Honeybee Inn you can peek into keyholes and pretty much hear a sexual act as it happens. Don Corneo is a rapist mob boss who lures girls into his mansion and then has his way with them. It is implied these girls do it for the chance of a better life. Not that far off from the mail-order wives of today, or something even darker. For a game from 1997 I’m surprised this got through censorship. And again, as an adult I suddenly realised why it is so important to save Tifa from going after him alone.

We’ve got the adoption theme when Barret meets his old friend Dyne under the Gold Saucer and we find out Marlene is his daughter, not Barrets. The conversation happening between these two former friends has a good amount of depth to it. You both want and don’t want Marlene to know who her real father is, and when Dyne throws himself over the edge of the cliff you feel a pang of sadness as you know this means Marlene will never meet her biological dad.

Perhaps the most important theme of all that is highly applicable today is the fight for the planet. What is a life worth in the grand scheme of things? When Avalance blows the reactor up in the prologue it undoubtedly leads to some casualties, both Shinra employees and civilians. The thing is, Shinra is just a company. It’s got workers like you and me going there every day, putting in the time to make ends meet. It’s the management that’s rotten. Is it worth killing a few innocent people to ensure the planet doesn’t die in a hundred years? I don’t know, you tell me. I just know that Avalance’s fight has a lot more nuance now than it did in 1997, at least for me. And I think many governments struggle with the same questions in our world of today.

So far we’ve tackled some interpersonal themes and some structural ones. We’ve got one more category left. Existential themes. One of the major plot points of the story in Final Fantasy VII concerns Cloud coming to terms with who he really is. And while this is where I feel like the story becomes more “gamey”, it’s still worth talking about. What does it mean to know oneself? What happens when the image you have of yourself is shattered? A psychologist might say that finding out you’re not who you thought you were would damage your self-esteem, potentially leading to anxiety and depression. But what Cloud finds out is bigger than that. He finds out his entire life has been a lie. Because of this (and some help from mako energy) he goes into a catatonic state, being confined to a wheelchair for a part of the game. It’s only when his childhood friend Tifa helps him come to terms with who he really is that he’s able to bounce back and become the hero once again.

It’s a brave move to so utterly devastate a character in the eyes of the player. I mean, Cloud is cool as hell, right? Former SOLDIER, wielding a big-ass sword, kicking ass left and right. Then you find out he was just a lowly grunt in the Shinra army. It’s easy to see how this could go wrong. If I wrote this I would probably have been scared to make this happen to a main character. I would place the story beat with a side character, someone that isn’t holding the entire narrative up by his shoulders. But not Square, they decided to take chances. And it more or less works, even though I’d argue that the latter half of the game is the weaker one, in part due to how the story is handled. More on that later. Choosing to warp the player’s view of the main character like this is a pretty ballsy thing to do, especially in a genre that thrives on having strong main characters. Breaking that power fantasy allows for more layers in the story.

The point is that when you allow your story to handle mature themes, it automatically gains depth. A child’s world might be immersive and magical, but it is also protected from the harder things, boiling down to whether to beat the baddie or not. Working with grayscale instead of black and white is a good way to make fleshed out characters and make the player think.

Why character age matters

When I play an RPG where the main character is thirteen years old and all the others are between ten and nineteen, I tend to lose interest in them. Perhaps not a surprising thing since I’m 35 now. I’d argue that there is a place for the coming of age-story in JRPGs, but it comes with some severe downsides. One, it limits the themes you can use. Imagine if the members of Avalance were all fifteen, would you take their plight as seriously? Would you care about Cloud’s character if the game started with his mom sending him out to gather berries and he ended up being the chosen one who is destined to destroy the evil Sephiroth? I wouldn’t.

And two: How many times have you played a JRPG where one of the characters was constantly referred to as an old man, and it eventually turned out he was like 32 years old? Way to alienate a big part of your customer base. And yes, I realise some of the games I complain about are aimed at teenagers, I do, but I can’t overlook how much this kind of characterisation has pervaded the genre in later years.

When you have a diverse cast of characters, you automatically create interesting conflicts. Take the way Barret acts against Cloud in the opening hours of Final Fantasy VII for example. He treats him like an adult, but also like a little brother. The age gap creates more nuance to the conflict between these two characters. The same can be said of Yuffie. Her childishness works because she’s not in the majority. Having her act this way and contrasting it with all the other party members creates comedy. Again, the age gap does what it’s supposed to.

A great example of how I feel Final Fantasy VII botches a character when it comes to age is in Cid. Cid looks about 45. He curses like a sailor, constantly smokes and has a complicated history with his assistant that hints at something romantic which both of them denies, and yet the game puts him as 32 years old. A captain of a space rocket and a renowned pilot. Come on Square, just let him be the age he should be. When you act like a character has given up on life but write him like he has a great career behind him, make it show in his age.

Barret on the other hand is a great example of when a character’s history and mannerisms perfectly reflect his age. He’s 35, has a young kid and is responsible enough to warrant the lifespan he’s had while at the same time not acting like a wise old guru. He’s a person with ups and downs and him being 35 is totally believable. In fact, I’d argue Final Fantasy VII is generally very good at this, it’s basically just Cid that breaks the pattern. President Shinra is a wonderful antagonist at the start of the game. A ruthless, 60-something corporate tycoon that’s fought and clawed his way to the top. When he dies and his son Rufus takes over, you buy into his young age because it wasn’t a planned succession, it was due to his father being killed by Sephiroth.

The problem of scale

I’ve talked about this in some of my other essays, but it’s worth bringing up again, because it’s the only thing where I feel the story of Final Fantasy VII goes downhill. After the frankly perfect opening hours you’re let loose in the great big world. There are so many great moments here, like walking into Kalm for the first time and realising there’s a whole other world out there, far from the industrial highrises of Midgar. You make your way past the Midgar Zolom, over to Junon where you have to sneak on a Shinra ship, then on to the other continent with some great story beats in Corel, The Gold Saucer, Cosmo Canyon and Nibelheim. Then you meet Cid, fight some Shinra baddies and end up on a broken down plane in the middle of the ocean.

This is where the game opens up, and it feels so good to be able to explore. You’re still limited in where you can go, but that’s ok because knowing there are so many unexplored places makes the world seem vastly bigger. The end of the first act culminates in chasing Sephiroth to the Temple of the Ancients, then to the northern continent where Aeris famously meets her end. Up until this point the story has been constantly engaging, emotional and well-paced. It dips a little bit on the second disc but ultimately still manages to keep going, with the way your two antagonists contrast each other; Shinra’s cold and calculating capitalism and Sephiroth’s mystery and madness.

But then, somewhere at the end of act 2, Shinra is removed from the equation. Rufus dies, Sephiroth puts his plan to destroy the planet in motion, and you no longer have an overseeable goal to pursue. Sure, you know you need to stop Sephiroth, but the writers make it all about a great big apocalypse and the lifeblood of the planet and I just lose interest. It’s not bad writing by any means, but it suffers from the same problem of scale that many other stories do. Fighting a mostly evil capitalist company that is sucking the lifeblood of the planet: great stakes, relatable, with enough nuance to make you think. Fighting a mad super-soldier who attacks the planet, along with fighting the planet’s massive living defense systems: cool, but wouldn’t it have been even better if Shinra was still in the game?

The climax of the game has you descend into the Northern Crater, fighting your way through floor after floor until finally you meet Sephiroth, or the essence of him, this is never made perfectly clear. There’s basically no dialogue happening between you and him, no justifications or conflicts resolving, just a couple of fights with his many forms. And then it ends, the planet saves Midgar from being destroyed by Meteor, and the credits roll. This is where my revisit to this game had me frowning. Really? This is the end to one of my favourite games of all time? Yes, it is.

For every great piece of writing in Final Fantasy VII, the game deserves to be called a classic and one of the best JRPGs ever made. But I can’t with a good conscience call the ending great, because it feels… flat. They had so many good character arcs to work with, yet it all becomes about saving the world, like so many other stories. And it doesn’t have to not be about saving the world, as long as you make the small stories a part of it.

Why not have the protagonists have to make a deal with Shinra, everything they fought so hard to defeat, to bring Sephiroth to his knees? This is explored in a very minor way on a revisit to Junon, but then it turns out Shinra wants to execute you and that hint of working together goes down the drain.

Why not have Barret choose between spending what might be his last days with his daughter or with his group? Staring at imminent doom is a great way to make character’s face their darkness. Every one of them save for maybe Vincent and Yuffie has such a good backstory that there’s a myriad of angles to go in, and in the end the writer’s don’t go down any of them. I would have loved to see more of Cait Sith for instance. Make Reeve (who it is heavily implied controls Cait Sith) stand up to his superiors a bigger deal, and show the aftermath of it. Maybe make him do something extremely risky from the inside.

None of this happens. Act 3 is just a race to the finish line. Maybe the more open world of the third disc is to blame for this, but I still think they could have done so much more what with the great buildup they had and the amazingly mature story beats they had going so far.

A few words about the remake

As most of you probably know, last year Square-Enix released the first part of their remake of Final Fantasy VII. While I had my doubts, I bought it, and I liked it. A solid 7 or 8 out of 10 for me. But when I thought more about it, I started wondering how much of that was nostalgia and how much was actually a good game. If I had no relation to Cloud, Tifa, Barret or Aeris, would I still have liked it?

Revisiting a classic is always a shot in the dark. You have the choice between being faithful to the original or taking a risk and doing some innovating. Square-Enix chose the latter. They stretched the first few hours of Final Fantasy VII into a full-length game, with all that entails. They kept the skeleton of the story intact, but decided to skew the timeline, hinting that things will be different in later parts. All fine and dandy if you can support it with good writing.

The problem is they can’t. While the story is still good (it is more or less the same, after all), the dialogue and portrayal of key characters falls flat. The maturity I liked so much in the original is put on the back burner, and they fall back on the same tropes I hoped they would avoid. Jessie is given a much bigger role, which is fine, but she’s written like all the other infatuated teenage girls of modern JRPGs. Sidequests are abundant, but their writing is so bad that it feels like playing an MMO. For the love of god, don’t add content when the way it’s told is so much worse than the original story that it feels like another game.

What’s most frustrating about the remake is that there are snippets of greatness in there. Cloud and Tifa are portrayed beautifully. Aeris is great. Barret is good. It’s just that everything that goes on around those core characters feel out of place because of the dip in quality.

I sincerely hope that the next part remains more faithful to the original, because I don’t think the writers can handle branching out.

There is hope

For every criticism I’ve aimed at the genre throughout this essay, I want to stress that there is hope. While JRPGs have mostly been pigeonholed into a specific trope, other japanese games carry the torch. Basically anything From Software does has great storytelling. The Nier games as well. But for those of us that appreciate the gameplay formula of the JRPGs of old, some work needs to be done.

Before I’m bombarded with good examples of storytelling in traditional JRPGs: Yes, I’m sure there are. I’ve not played as many games in the genre these last few years. But from what I can see, the genre is clinging desperately to some image of what it used to be, without understanding the core of that image. You can drape a game in the same clothes as its predecessors, but without a good foundation to stand on it becomes all fluff and no depth, something we’ve seen a thousand times already.

Put more money into hiring good writers. Take inspiration from western RPGs. Not everything, but the themes they use, how they create conflict. Not everything has to be dark and dreary, but there are many, many people who grew up playing JRPGs, and there’s a golden opportunity there. Let the genre evolve. Target a different demographic with some of your games. If a game from 1997 can still impress a 35 year old guy, imagine what you could do with a fresh coat of paint.

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