Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Final Fantasy VII Retrospective as Told Through My Twenty Favorites From the Game's Soundtrack (Part One of Four)

Yesterday was Final Fantasy VII's eighteenth birthday. I'd never actually been cognizant of its anniversary until now, it had always been a thing that happened last week, or that I noticed was happening next week and then forgot about. Yesterday, I knew about it. I'd played the game too recently (and have too many other games to work on in its stead) to replay it in honor of the date, but didn't want to let the day pass me by without any special acknowledgement. I decided to listen to the game's soundtrack instead, which stands as one of my favorite in the medium. There's nothing more than can be said about Nobuo Uematsu that hasn't been written already, he's one of the living legends. Final Fantasy VII stands as one of his crowning achievements, though. It's always a joy to hear the game's music.

I decided to figure out my favorite twenty tracks and then write a little thing about each of them. Eventually, I realized the music often speaks for itself and I'm generally not very good at writing about music. Thus, in most cases, I've opted instead to write about what each song makes me think of, mostly memories about the game, but also some discussion of the game's themes and narrative, letting the songs dictate a more general retrospective of the game.




Page 1 (20-16)
Page 2 (15-11)
Page 3 (10-6)
Page 4 (5-1)

On the Other Side of the Mountain (listen)

Final Fantasy VII has a thing for the pastoral. It fits, of course, that your ragtag group of environmental terrorists would find themselves more comfortable in the simpler small towns of the game world than the oppressive, dystopian cityscape of Midgar, where you begin the game. After several hours navigating that remarkable slice of hyper-urban hell, to finally leave the big city and (figuratively) smell the fresh country air is, well, a breath of fresh air.

Every town you visit after Midgar has two things in common with all of the others: First, the people within have had their livelihoods threatened and/or ruined by the city or the corporate dictatorship that rules it (and by extension, the world). Second, it's still a better place than Midgar. Even Corel, a severely impoverished shanty town that may as well be built entirely out of dirt, seems preferable.

None of the towns in the world of Gaia, however, have it as rough as Nibelheim. Cloud and Tifa's hometown is depicted in flashbacks as perhaps the most idyllic of Final Fantasy VII's small towns-- quaint, warm, inviting-- but who's to say they all weren't like that five years ago? Things happen. On that infamous day, five years prior to the events of FFVII, the Shinra Electric Power Company sent a team from one of their many elite mercenary squads on a routine mission to the town's reactor. Sephiroth accidentally discovers some dark secrets. He loses it, the town gets burned to the ground. There is only one survivor. She swears revenge and becomes a wanted terrorist. Things happen. The town as it stands in the game's present day becomes one of the most uncanny ghost towns in the medium.

Those brief moments of childhood innocence, viewed only in flashbacks, go up in flames along with the town. Final Fantasy VII is a game about a lot of things, but one of the more prominent themes is that of lost innocence. It's a game about corruption and decay. These towns are rotting away. The planet is rotting away. Its people are rotting away. The only reason anyone is willing to fight is because it wasn't always this way. Final Fantasy VII's playable characters are (with one notable exception) all completely average people within their world. They are nobody special. They're just regular men and women who've had their lives ruined by the "big city," and have a bone to pick. Their towns, planet, and selves are rotting away.

Towards the end of the game, the plot necessitates that Tifa and Could relive their childhood memories one last time. The player is treated to the mother of all flashback sequences, a virtually-complete history of their Nibelheim memories. The truth of what really happened that day, when the town was razed, finally comes to light. Nestled somewhere in the middle of their shared trauma and the startling revelations they come to about said trauma, a brand-new flashback. Tifa makes to climb the town's mountain because she believes she'll find the ghost of her mother. Cloud worries for her safety and follows. She falls, and Cloud falls trying to save her. Tifa's injuries are severe, Cloud's are not. Cloud blames himself for being too weak, and resolves to become a world-renowned mercenary like his hero, Sephiroth.

It's a touching moment, one final, brief reminder of the innocence they would soon lose. That it happens so late in the game makes the scene something of a closing statement on Final Fantasy VII's pastoral narrative-- big people from small beginnings, life before Shinra and their big city. This song, which plays during the scene in question, evokes that beautifully.

Judgement Day (listen)

It's only a matter of hours until the man you idolized in your youth will destroy the entire planet in a crazed bid to ascend to godhood, and it's technically all your fault. You return to the scene of the crime, where you unwittingly hand-delivered the artifact of your world's undoing to a man long-thought dead, so you can make him dead for real this time. It's also where the entire mess began-- a horrific alien being that corrodes all life on a planet before using the withered husk as a vessel to travel the stars and find its next meal left this horrible scar on the face of your planet thousands of years ago, and she's waiting for you too. For all you know, this won't even save the planet. You just have a score to settle.

You've been to the highest mountain's peak. You've been to the deepest part of the ocean. You've gone to space. It used to be a big deal that you'd successfully blown up a couple of power reactors, but in hindsight that was little more than a humble beginning in your journey. The very lifeblood of your planet-- the stream into which all departed life flows, and from which all new life is sourced-- is seeping out of every crack and crevice as you descend deeper into the ancient impact crater. This shit is technically toxic, but who cares? You just have a score to settle.

You're not even doing it for yourselves. You're here for Aeris' sake. You're here to avenge her. You want to make sure she didn't die for nothing. If you can do this, hopefully she can do the rest. It would be hard not to press on when the final dungeon theme is this inspiring. You can practically hear how far you've come. You just have a score to settle. Go get 'em, tiger.

Mark of the Traitor (listen)

Barret's Theme is an honorable mention for this list. In a game packed with memorable character themes, it's one of the more memorable. It's all blusterous confidence, assured ideals, and drunken swagger, like the man it belongs to. If his theme played everywhere I went, there'd be nothing I couldn't do, even if it weren't always pretty or graceful when I did. The track falters just before the loop, however-- the wind goes from its sails and it briefly trails off with uncertainty. It suggests something beneath the surface, some kind of vulnerability beyond the hard exterior. You don't think much more of it.

Then you get to Corel. A meek, downtrodden rendition of Barret's theme is playing. Everyone in this shanty-town hates him. They blame him for their misfortune. There's some history here. We learn about Barret's dark past, his greatest shames and failures. We learn what prompted him to found the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE that you are now a member of. It all comes back to that idea of lost innocence. It makes your struggle against Shinra all the more personal, and if at any point you forget what it is you're fighting for, you need only return to Corel and hear for yourself what Shinra has reduced Barret to. Barret's Theme sounds like it fly off the rails at any given moment. Mark of the Traitor sounds like you're dejectedly picking through the wreckage.

Turks' Theme (listen)

Shinra might have started out as an electric power company, but their monopoly on the market means they have their fingers in a lot of pies. They're the de facto rulers of the world, the leading weapons developers, and have the world's largest and fearsome military force. Behind the scenes, they obviously need a lot of dirty work done. Kidnapping, extortion, torture, high-profile assassinations-- all within wheelhouse of a secretive group called The Turks. You've got Reno, the lanky, pony tailed wisecracker with the devil-may-care attitude. You've got Rude, the burly, stoic, bald man who serves as their enforcer and never once removes his sunglasses. You've got Tseng, the slimy business-exec type who serves as their commander and has a particular interest in kidnapping Aeris. Rounding them out, you've got Elena, the rookie Turk who is clumsy and slightly-incompetent but takes her job very seriously. The Turks need a theme song that makes them seem like the coolest, most professional motherfuckers on the planet, so they get it.

The Turks are interesting for a lot of reasons. They fulfill one of my favorite video game tropes-- the "rival boss battle," the idea of a recurring boss fight on even footing against your rival(s). They repeatedly stand in your way, and might be in cahoots with one of the main antagonists, but aren't actually the antagonists themselves. Sometimes, in the most dire circumstances, they might even help you out. The Turks are one of my favorite groups of video game rivals.

They show up at several key points in the game, seemingly by accident, and attempt to stand in your way. Whenever you drain a Turk's HP in battle, rather than the usual death animation, they simply look at their watch and casually walk away. One of these times, since the Turks were only fighting you to slow you down, Reno declares, "We may be retreating, but we're still victorious." Any time a Turk enters the scene on Official Turks Business, this theme plays until they leave. They're the only characters in the game who always seem to be in complete control of the situation at hand, but they do so in such a casual manner that it's hard not to admire them. It's just a job to them, but they are compellingly good at their jobs.

Even cooler than your battles with them are the times you're not fighting them. During one of the game's sidequests, you encounter the Turks on vacation, hanging out in a bar, and they utterly refuse to fight you because they're off-duty and would much rather get drunk. At the very end of the game, you run into the Turks one last time. The world is about to end, and its clear Shinra isn't able to stop it. Orders are orders, but at the same time, Cloud and company might be the only ones who can save the world. So, they put the question to you: do you want a final battle with the Turks, just to settle the score? Or do you have more important stuff to do? It's an excellent moment, and the Turks even manage to make effectively quitting their jobs the coolest thing in the world.

Weapon Raid (listen)

Where were you when Final Fantasy VII became a fucking Godzilla movie? Just when things seemed like they couldn't get any worse, it turns out the planet has a race of giant monsters called Weapons that lay dormant until a bonafide emergency and the planet needs to defend itself, at which point the Weapons awaken and start laying waste to everything so the planet can try to start over fresh.

Sapphire Weapon (aided by this track) is responsible for one of the game's most memorable sequences: your party gets captured and thrown in jail to await your televised execution only to have Sapphire Weapon show up and lay waste to Junon (where you are imprisoned), creating enough of a crisis that you're able to sneak away and steal an airship (that you keep for the rest of the game!)

In short, any time a Weapon shows up, it's chaos. The game becomes a Kaiju film. It's also a convenient excuse to show off some of the cool stuff that the Playstation (and the CD storage it afforded the development team) could pull off. A FMV of Sapphire Weapon blowing up a chunk of Junon, and next thing you know there's a gaping hole in your prison cell you can escape from. Their raids are always exciting and unexpected, and they serve the purpose of giving the mid-late game some memorable boss battles (to say nothing of Ruby and Emerald Weapon, the game's two extra-difficult ultimate bosses).

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That does it for the bottom five (20-16) of my top twenty FFVII tracks. Click here for numbers 11-15!

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