The gaming industry has been pushing pretty hard on the boundaries between video games and high art legitimacy, in spite of some notable detractors. Roger Ebert, arguably the greatest film critic of all time, declared publicly that “video games can never be art.” He wasn’t subtle about it either; his claim appeared in an essay titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” See? Not subtle. Since then, we’ve had indie art hits like Braid and Journey, along with major studios versions such as Heavy Rain or Last of Us. But before any of this, the paradigm example of how a video game might be considered a work of art was Final Fantasy VII. It bore that flag in the early days of the gaming-as-art movement in a way that no other game had prior, and now it’s being remade. Thus, the question becomes: what did it do that was so special?
The *SPOILER* Death:
Aerith dies. Now, naysayers will point out that this is not the first time a major playable character died in an FF game, but if you study the other examples (such as “Galuf” in FF5), you’ll see that Aerith’s death does not really compare. Characters like Galuf in the FF universe are kind of like Red Shirts in Star Trek episodes. From a narrative perspective, they are very expendable. It’s not a surprise when they die. Aerith was the primary love interest, the first face we see in the game, and the magical being who serves as the rising action for the entire story. If she dies at all, and usually she does not, it’s in the final act – not ever on disc 1 of 3. When the game breaks the conventional story structure, the gamer is deeply rattled at both the conscious and subconscious level.
If Helen is the face that launched a thousand ships, Aerith is the death that launched a billion wasted hours of endless searching through every corner of the FF map to find the key to her resurrection. “Surely,” said a generation of gamers, “there has to be SOME way.” There isn’t. She’s dead, and many from that generation learned a poignant lesson about coping with loss through a pixelated fiction that never even existed. We grieved her. That means something.
Neo is a nothing. He is boring and unimportant. Then Morpheus comes along and informs him that he’s actually the most important person in the whole universe. Since we’re riding shotgun with Neo due to the protagonist effect, we get to feel like we’re special too. An older generation had Dorothy of Oz, who was nothing, except she was everything, it turned out. Most young adults these days were raised on Harry Potter, someone so unimportant that he didn’t even deserve a bedroom, except, of course, it turned out that he was very important. Sometimes called “the Messiah Complex,” our culture recognizes our collective sense of unimportance, and feeds us protagonists who are wrong about that and actually very, very, very important. It’s an ego stroke on an epic (often literally) scale, and kind of a simplistic fantasy trick when you think about it. FFVII has it too, to some extent (the hero does save the world), but it presents the reverse of this much more prominently. You start the game as an arrogant, spikey-headed douche – the greatest soldier in the world, and fully conscious of it. Except, you’re not. It’s a delusion. You’re not special at all – in fact, you’re worse than not special. You’re actually a failure, a discarded experiment on the way to creating a better soldier – the soldier you wished you could be. The narrative then unfolds around your hard-won acceptance of this fact, and your decision to save the world anyway, not because you’re special, but because the power you have is the same power that everyone has, and with enough help, you can still get the job done, even when confronted by someone who IS truly special as your opponent. It’s a refreshing inversion of the messiah complex/fantasy, one that has symbolic value and meaning beyond a temporary escape from the banality of our ordinary existences. We’re not superheroes, just people, but that means something.
The Apocalypse Thing:
Remember how I said you still save the world anyway? You do, but only in the abstract sense. You also kind of kill every human being on the planet to do that….Yay?? In the end, your party takes martyrdom to the scale of genocide. Humanity lays down its life so that the planet can recover. It’s the kind of ending that could only seem possible if Albert Camus & Franz Kafka had opened up a gaming development company, yet here it is in the flagship title for the first major CD-Rom-based console. That had to take guts. Like the death of Aerith, this creates dissonance on an epic scale, leaving the gamer to ask complex existential questions within a genre that usually ends in the style of a Shakespearean comedy, with a bunch of characters dancing at a wedding or a feast while happy music plays. There’s no dancing here, however. We don’t get off that easy, and that means something.
The Love Thing:
It has to be noted that there are a ton of things I’ve failed to note here, but I think they all boil down to a game that was made with love: from hand-painted backgrounds, to complex character back-stories, to the most beautiful music ever heard in a video game before or since. FF7 was a triumph, and if a remake can bring one tenth of that triumph to a new generation of gamers, that seems like a noble goal to me.
Just don’t fuck it up, pretty please.