Sunday, 22 March 2015
A Final Fantasy VII Retrospective as Told Through My Twenty Favorites From the Game's Soundtrack (Part Four of Four)
Page 1 (20-16)
Page 2 (15-11)
Page 3 (10-6)
Page 4 (5-1)
Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII (listen)
Midgar's really something. It's around four hours of something. It starts to feel a bit like a prison, or a cage. You started the game in Midgar-- are you going to end in Midgar? Is this entire RPG set in this one megacity? Does anything even exist outside of Midgar? If it does, is it relevant? All of these questions are eventually answered (no, no, yes, yes), but for four or so hours, you're kept wondering. It's not that those hours are trying or troubling-- Midgar is an excellent little slice of a big darn game-- but it begins to seem almost ominous how you are trapped within Midgar's steel and concrete walls. From the game's opening minutes, your mission is to save the planet. You have no indication whether it is a planet worth saving.
I've spoken already about the narrative phase which begins once you leave Midgar, but let's recap. You travel from town to town, and each one has their own sad little story about how Shinra has ruined them. The shackles which had bound you were forged in the flames of these peoples' despair. It might make sense from some warped utilitarian perspective that these people suffer to make Midgar as great a city as it can be, but you've spent more than enough time within those walls to know that their suffering is for naught. Your perspective on the central conflict shifts. Mako Reactors might be sucking the planet dry, but they are merely symptomatic of Midgar itself. Sephiroth is a distant threat, sure, but your pursuit of him (which takes you to every corner of the globe) opens your eyes to the one much nearer. Blowing up Mako Reactors is the first step on a long road that ends with Shinra-- and the world order that made them possible-- being summarily excised from the planet. Final Fantasy VII as pastoral narrative does not begin until you leave the city, and discover this much for yourself.
Which brings us to the moment you leave that city. You've seen and done so much within its walls, and it's climaxed with a totally-bonkers motorcycle escape sequence (complete with janky action-focused minigame) along a huge stretch of under-construction highway. You fight a giant robot pursuer, and it's all in a day's work. The sun rises as your party recollects themselves atop an unfinished overpass. You are on the inside, looking outward. The scalability of polygonal character models proves its worth-- your party are but ants as you see the outside world for the first time in the game. It stretches for miles, the first signs of orange peeking up from over the hills. The first of three music tracks begins to play. It is a variation on the game's main theme. It sounds worn, downtrodden. You've heard it before-- it carries the weight of its cast's collective pasts. Everyone looks out towards the rising sun. Cloud announces that he needs to find Sephiroth, and settle a score. Barret announces that he wants to save the planet, so he's coming too. Aeris announces that she has questions that need answers, so she makes three. Tifa says something you never thought you'd hear-- "I guess this is good bye, Midgar."
Everybody descends a length of rope, and their feet land on soil outside of Midgar's walls for the first time in the game. The camera is now on the outside, looking in. Midgar looks strangely small, from this angle. The second of three music tracks begins to play, and it's your first time hearing it. It, too, is a variation on the game's main theme, and such a dramatic shift in tone from the last. Harps, a twinkling piano, and the main string motif made to sound warm in a way that suggests Nobuo Uematsu might actually be a magician in musician's clothing. These two moments are but ends of a spectrum, an intentional juxtaposition of the two prevailing-yet-opposing moods of this precise moment in the game. So much about the journey ahead is uncertain, tense, couched in a peculiar sort of dread or unease. Yet, it's so liberating to finally leave those walls behind. Anywhere's better than Midgar, after all.
You take a few steps towards the camera's bottom boundary in the hopes that maybe the next scene transition will inform you how you really ought to be feeling right now, and... world map.
The third of three music tracks begins to play. It is the first time you're hearing it, but it will not be your last. It is the world map theme, and it is also the main musical theme of the game (if the numerous variations of it didn't tip you off). Most of all, it does not have the answer you're looking for. Or maybe it has all of them. Encapsulated within these six-and-a-half minutes of music are musical approximations of nearly every emotion the game seeks to invoke at the precise moment you leave Midgar, and for nearly every moment to come. It shifts effortlessly between the majestic and mournful, between triumph and despair, between hope and dread.
I'm not sure what else I can say, except that sometimes when I play Final Fantasy VII and leave Midgar for the first time, I'll just idle on the World Map and turn away to do something else for a few minutes. I do not mute the game when I do.
One-Winged Angel (listen)
Let's get one more cliche out of the way. I suspect a lot of people who have never played Final Fantasy VII have at least had some amount of exposure to the game's final boss theme by way of internet osmosis. Maybe they played Kingdom Hearts and heard it there. Maybe they played any general-purpose Final Fantasy spin-off title, such as Dissidia or Theatrhythm, and heard it there. Maybe they were listening to some random "symphony performs video game music" concert and heard it there (maybe it was even the the only piece of music from FF7 to make the cut). Maybe they were just looking at some internet top-ten-final-boss-theme list and heard it there.
I think it does One-Winged Angel a disservice to hear it anywhere except at the end of Final Fantasy VII.
Final Fantasy VII shipped on three PlayStation discs in 1997. It was the first-ever Final Fantasy game to land on a non-Nintendo console. The switch was necessitated due to Nintendo's decision to go with cartridges as the physical media on which games shipped-- cartridges are expensive to produce, and have severe space limitations. CDs are cheaper, and can store more data. Final Fantasy VII was too big to fit on one CD, which meant it could never fit on a cartridge.
CDs afforded developers a bunch of new tricks for their games. For the first time, they had adequate storage space to insert generous helpings of .wavs into their game instead of relying on what they could wrangle out of a sound chip. The PlayStation, and its success, meant that voice acting became an industry standard, and many smaller games on the console were able to use CD audio for their soundtracks. Square had big plans for Final Fantasy VII, however. The size and scope of the game, as well as the high storage requirement for its pre-rendered backgrounds, necessitated three discs. There was no way they could have possibly fit voice acting or CD audio into the game, unless they wanted to ship it on even more discs. So, Final Fantasy VII is an unvoiced affair, and the game's stellar soundtrack is being lovingly-rendered on the PS1's sound processing unit.
By the time you are confronting Sephiroth's final form, you have listened to all but three of the game's music tracks. You've practically heard it all. Nothing can truly surprise you anymore, this is the endgame. Cacophonous symphonic instrumentation, the opening bars meant to invoke Purple Haze but imbued with all the pomp and circumstance of any self-respecting JRPG final boss, jumps out in the tinny, sampled manner you've grown to expect. It sounds great, either way. The track begins to build. This is final boss music, alright. Nothing out of the ordinary, and then...
Oh my god. They're singing.
Like the other musical cliche that I've included in this list, what strikes me most about this track is the level of restraint that Uematsu shows before employing it. Forty to fifty hours of restraint. Sometimes I like to imagine him, with the same adorable smile he has in nearly every photo ever taken of him, as some sort of air force bomber type. He's got a goofy kinda pilot's skullcap on, and he's standing around on a plane, all smiles, ready to drop some fuckin' bombs. But he always waits until the exact right moment. Any of the other eighty-four pieces of music in this game could have been the first in the series to have vocals attached to it, but he waited until the very end. One last surprise, in case you thought you'd seen it all.
Mako Reactor (listen)
"Yo! This your first time in a reactor?"
Everyone remembers their first time. It's the third piece of music you hear. The first is Prelude, a series staple that plays before you start a new game. The second, Opening~Bombing Mission, was one of the shortlisted tracks for this list, an iconic piece of music that starts as the the bombastic accompaniment to an intro FMV that demonstrates the sheer immensity of Midgar before seamlessly transitioning into a pulsing, driving background track for AVALANCHE's first-ever bombing mission. It's an empowering soundtrack for cutting down faceless Shinra goons in a series of fights that are probably too easy to actually lose.
You cross a screen transition, and enter the reactor. Empowerment goes out the window. It's your first exposure to a masterclass in atmosphere that will continue for the game's duration. Each fixed camera angle you navigate your character through is angled downwards, such that Cloud's field model gets smaller and smaller as you progress, descending staircases and ladders, deeper into the belly of the beast-- a malleability that Mode-7 could only dream of. Everything is rusted metal, labyrinthine pipes and steam jets. The Bombing Mission theme might've set the scene, but the Mako Reactor theme sets the place. That you're inside a Mako Reactor supersedes the fact that you're here to destroy it.
You reach the bottom, and make to set the bomb. The screen tints red, Cloud clutches his head as his ears begin to ring and an unseen voice yells, "Watch out! This isn't just a reactor!" You defeat the first boss, and you're off to the races-- but not before the game has warned you. It's not just a reactor. The voice meant something else when it said that, but the fact remains that you've just had your first run-in with Final Fantasy VII's brand of techno-terror. Even the magic in this game is the result of an industrialized process. Everything that's bad in the world of Final Fantasy VII is, in some way, of human invention-- the innumerable blemishes of so-called "progress."
Valley of the Fallen Star (listen)
When your party leaves Midgar, they spend some time wandering. The only thing the team can think to do is follow the path that Sephiroth has carved ahead of you. You go from town to town, you witness the hardships that each has faced. You recruit a couple new teammates, and learn the dark secret that's gotten Barret so worked up about bringing Shinra down.You find the occasional clue as to Sephiroth's direction, and continue in your vague hunt. When you reach Cosmo Canyon, the tribalistic pilgrimage site for all who wish to learn about the Lifestream, is when the story's pieces begin to click into place.
You learn the true nature of the Lifestream. Aeris learns of her unique heritage. Red XIII comes to terms with his father. Barret reminisces that AVALANCE was formed in that very same canyon, and resolves to continue his fight. Tifa voices some concerns about Cloud. For the first time since leaving Midgar, everyone starts to find some direction within their quest. Of course, this being Final Fantasy VII, they're only setting this up so they can tear it down later, but Cosmo Canyon still marks the first in a series of turning points in a narrative that, thus far, has seemed strangely serialized and only loosely-connected. It's the first page of a new chapter in Final Fantasy VII's plot.
But Cosmo Canyon is also compelling as a location, effectively the antithesis to Midgar. It's a town that exists as one with the land it rests on, not in spite of it, and is the only settlement in the game that seems to exist completely outside Shinra's sphere of influence. In a game that's so willing to juxtapose the natural order against humanity's unnatural technological evolution, a location like Cosmo Canyon is necessary to offset the world around it, and it couldn't have been more beautifully realized. Sun-scorched rocks illuminated by a healthy number of torches to account for the perpetually-setting sun, a series of huts built into the side of a cliff, and an extensive cave network contained there-in, leading up to an observatory atop the canyon itself. It's one of the most distinct locations in a game that is nothing but distinct locations, and with background music like this, it's unsurprising that it's easily the most homely. The party must return to the canyon a couple more times in their quest, and it's enough to make Cosmo Canyon feel like your unofficial base of operations, no matter how long a time you spend away from it.
You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet (listen)
Well, here you go. This is Final Fantasy VII.
How else can I say it? It's a heavy synth line layered on top of plucky harps, tolling bells and a simulated choir. It is a perfect representation Final Fantasy VII's central juxtaposition. It's beautiful, and a little bit unsettling. Mysterious, yet slightly comforting.
I'll try to say more. Within ten minutes of hearing this, Aeris will likely be dead. It is the first in a series of several tragedies that will befall your party. They are minuscule in the grand scheme of tragedies. You are in a city that is older than humanity, and the people who built it no longer exist. Tragic. The vampiric alien that killed them was sealed away by the few to survive her wrath, until Shinra dug it up and rendered their sacrifice in vain. Tragic. Shinra has supplanted that alien as the vampire sucking all the life force from the planet-- literally the souls of all who have died and all who are yet to be born-- and the planet's new heirs are taking it lying down. Tragic.
The entire planet is driven by a cycle of death and rebirth. It's immense in a way that makes your quest seem equal parts foolish and futile. Jenova-- the Calamity From The Skies, as the Cetra called her-- was extinguished, and, in a sense, was reborn as Shinra. The very force that jeopardizes the planet's inherent cycle is, itself, capable of rebirth. Cruel irony. You walk a path which has been walked millions of times before, yet have not been walked in millennia. This city was the Midgar of its time. The city remains, its people do not. The Cetra went extinct trying to rid the world of Jenova. Will humanity go extinct trying to rid the world of Shinra? What about Sephiroth? Hell, what about Jenova? She's still running around, thanks to those other two. If humanity does go extinct, who will take their place? Will they, too, extinguish themselves to rid the world of their own calamity? Only the planet will know for sure, but as Barret so eloquently stated at the beginning of the journey, "the planet's dyin', Cloud!"
Before tragedy befalls you, you became intensely aware of the tragedy that has preceded it. You become aware of the immensity of that tragedy. No one remembers it as well as the planet. Who knows how many times this has happened before? The planet can't tell you, it can only howl in pain. Cosmo Canyon is the first time your party finds their place in the world, and the Forgotten Capital is where they lose it-- or rather, become aware that they'd likely never actually had one in the first place.
At the outset of this list, I wrote, "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." The Forgotten Capital is when you realize that it may, in fact, always have been this way. You have no way of knowing, no right to know. Final Fantasy VII is the only time a video game has truly made me feel like a tiny, insignificant speck in an incomprehensibly large world-- not necessarily in terms of geography, but in a four-dimensional sense. In casting the planet itself as a living, breathing entity, it makes one aware of the frightening age of the cosmos and the rocks contained therein. How many civilizations came before the Cetra? How many will come after? Stack them against our own. Try not to have an existential crisis.
In a 1997 interview with PlayStation Underground, Hironobu Sakaguchi said of Final Fantasy VII, "When we were creating Final Fantasy III (NES), my mother passed away, and ever since I have been thinking about the theme 'life.' Life exists in many things, and I was curious about what would happen if I attempted to analyze life in a mathematical and logical way. Maybe this was my approach in overcoming the grief I was experiencing. This is the first time in the series that this particular theme actually appears in the game itself."
He speaks, of course, of the Lifestream. Attempting to represent all the life and death in the history of a planet not unlike our own as a quantifiable, tangible "thing." It is an impossibly immense concept in ways I could not hope to ever express, yet this dumb and poorly-translated video game about a spiky-haired swordsman with dissociative personality disorder travelling around the world to fight a long-haired swordsman so he can avenge his would-be girlfriend is somehow able to express it. It's a profound accomplishment.
Well, there you go. That was Final Fantasy VII.
Now that you've read way too many words about "this dumb and poorly-translated video game about a spiky-haired swordsman with dissociative personality disorder travelling around the world to fight a long-haired swordsman so he can avenge his would-be girlfriend," it seems prudent to express that it's a game that is far from perfect, even narratively. It's not exactly fine literature. But, as I've hopefully demonstrated, it has provoked many thoughts and touched me in a myriad of ways, most of which I didn't even realize until several years later. It's a gift that has continued to give. I don't think enough has been written about Final Fantasy VII outside of surface-level evaluations (i.e: "it's amazing" or "it sucks,") and so one of the reasons I wrote this was an effort to give back to it.
The second reason I wrote this is because I wanted to play Final Fantasy VII in honor of its eighteenth birthday but decided that would be a poor use of my time (having completed the game at least five times). Having said that, and having written this, I'm more excited than ever for my next playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, whenever that may be. I hope to continue to find interesting things within its world.