84: A Play within a Play

"From the moment the first cut scene plays, we're immediately assaulted with Emotioneering techniques. A beautiful and mysterious flower-girl walks the streets of the grotesquely industrialized city of Midgar. We're intrigued and pulled in by the girl. Who is she? The mystery motivates us to keep playing. Freeman calls mysteries a 'motivation technique.' The visual incongruence of the fantastical city pulls us out of our reality and into that of the game's in an emotionally resonant way. Visual incongruence is a "world induction technique," because it pulls the player into the fantasy world.
"Moments later, the main character, Cloud , nimbly leaps from a train and prepares for combat. By the cut scene's end, we already know Cloud is an athletic action hero looking for a fight. Cliché? Just keep playing; a cliché Cloud is not. "
Bruce Nielson highlights the long-lasting player endearment to Final Fantasy VII's characters as an example of "Emotioneering" in game design.

A Play within a Play

The "Emotioneering" slant of the article is interesting but let's remember a key fact: The book was first published in 2003, and FF VII came out in 1997.

The Final Fantasy team did not use "Emotioneering techniques" per se, they just designed a great game. I point this out to emphasize that excellent games and good game writing exist independent of how-to texts, consultants, and buzzwords. While Freeman did useful work to identify, formalize, and codify techniques -- and I too am a big fan of his "character diamond" -- no game developer should expect to be able to find cookbook answers to the thorny and complex issues of plot and character.

The FF team did not use "emotioneering techniques" at all. Mr. Freeman invented absolutely nothing in his overblown, self-congratulatory book, aside from applying highly amusing, overly capitalized terms to describe techniques that have been used in literature for hundreds of years. After reading his book, I cast a jaundiced eye over Mr. Freeman's list of credits in the games industry, wondering exactly how much influence he actually had on any of those titles. Some of the techniques he described in his book were unuseable in all but the very slowest-moving of video/computer games. And who in the world uses a painting of himself instead of a photograph for the author's bio on the cover?

Regardless of what you think of the book or the author, this article still raises some very valid points about what makes a good story compared to a forgetable or overly cliche story.

The so called "emotioneering techniques" described in the book are very valid methods of story writing, that have been around for a long time. Freeman has simply given them a name and attempted to claim some credit for pointing out what the best authors already knew. But isn't that what most non-fiction books do anyway?

To say that the final fantasy team didn't use emotioneering techniques would not be entirely accurate. That would be like saying that nobody ever used gravity before newtonian physics gave it a name. I think you would have been better off pointing out that Freeman based his book (and his newly coined methodologies) on the techniques used by already successful storytellers like the final fantasy team.

The choice of example for this article was really unfortunate. On the other hand, I agree with virtually nothing else the author says, so perhaps it was appropriate.

FFVII may not be everyone's idea of a great game, but anyone looking for some clever explanation for its "surprising" success would do better to start by asking if it's really surprising at all. FFVII is packed with stuff. It's got enough plot for five or six games compared to most competing titles. The standard of continuity between the many interweaving plots is breathtaking. The array of genuinely different monster and equipment types is vast. There are lots of playable characters. There are enough secrets to keep even the most dedicated player busy, but some are accessible enough for even the greenest novice. It's got quite a number of decent mini games... Oh, and a soundtrack so awesome it still sells CDs and fills concerts more than ten years later.

Games are getting shorter all the time to extent that some games clearly want to be movies. FFVII by contrast is an epic tale. Until someone creates another such work (is it even commercially viable anymore ?) FFVII will continue to be namechecked for far more reasons than its character design.

Lastly, anyone who thinks Sephiroth's character design was lacking needs to talk with the target audience more often. He's one of the most popular villains in the history of videogames because he's so damn cool - not because he killed Aeris !

Wow, Dom, you make a lot of really good points about why FF 7 is such a great game. I wish I had enough space to write another article's worth on what you bring up. I'd love to spend time talking about all the things FF 7 did right. You listed several excellent points. I'd add to that nice little touches like working arcade games to subtle touches like allow the player's actions to decide who Cloud goes on a "date" with. The date in particulary was such a small thing, but it makes a real difference on how one interprets Cloud's feelings for his group.

I could go on and on about why FF 7 is such a great game, particularly after reading your post. So I'd have to agree with you that I was premature calling it mediocre. (Though actually I didn't call it medicore, I just said that their techniques could help even a medicore game. Still, it was implied.)

But I'd ask you to honestly assess my actual thesis. Why did people respond emotionally to FF 7? Why did people cry at the death of Aeris? Why did it become a watershed moment in game history? I think you'd have to agree that the variety of monsters, the lots of playable characters, and the fact that it was packed with "stuff" really didn't cause any emotional reactions to the game. They may make FF 7 a great game but they don't necessarily explain the emotional resonance people felt with it.

The article asserts that FF 7 nailed their emotional content and that is why we connect with it emotionally. You may still disagree with my ideas. If so, feel free to come up with your own explanation. Personally, I'd love to hear your ideas. I'd be shocked if one 1400 word article really established the whole explanation of why FF 7 was so emotionally successful.

bnielson:
They may make FF 7 a great game but they don't necessarily explain the emotional resonance people felt with it.

Yep, you're right, I can't really disagree with that.

I'd be shocked if one 1400 word article really established the whole explanation of why FF 7 was so emotionally successful.

Well yes, we can reasonably expect things to be a little more complex than that. Which is the problem with emotional responses to things in general - different people's reponses are so varied it's really hard to generalise validly.

Still, I wasn't really trying to criticise on the basis that the article ought to somehow cover every possible angle. The problems I had with it were more over what was said. To pick up on a specific example from the article:

Square also encouraged the young male demographic to identify with Cloud because two women admire him. Freeman calls this a "role induction technique."

At the risk of perpetuating unfair stereotypes I have to say that I wouldn't expect a typical young male gamer to find himself in this situation. Consequently what we're really talking about here is a kind of wish fulfillment along the lines of "I want to be Cloud because girls like him". That makes a sort of sense, but before we can take it too seriously we need to look at the rest of who Cloud is (during the early phases of the game). In fact, most of his dialogue makes him come across as surly and dislikeable. Indeed, he could scarcely do a worse job of interacting with either Aeris or Tifa. Additionally, whilst Barratt and his allies are fighting for heroic moral reasons, Cloud appears to be essentially a mercenary. Not only that, but he seems to have previously been a Shinra soldier. There's not much to look up to there.

None of this in any way invalidates role induction as a concept, but personally I am left here not with a sense that I now understand why Cloud works as a character so much as a vague feeling that he probably shouldn't work !

Matters become even further complicated if we compare Cloud to Squall, the protagonist of the not-quite-sequel FFVIII. He's a very similar kind of character in all kinds of ways and yet doesn't work nearly as well. For a theory of character to be considered a success I feel it should be able to adequately explain this sort of thing.

You may still disagree with my ideas. If so, feel free to come up with your own explanation. Personally, I'd love to hear your ideas.

Thankyou, but I think you're being a bit too kind here. It's much easier to advance criticisms than to form one's own theories and models. I don't think I have anything particularly insightful to offer on the subject of character design. If I do come up with anything, I'll probably try to turn it into an article... :-)

A very fair response, Dom. I can't say that I disagree with you. In some ways it really is a mystery as to why Cloud worked so well. I too agree that Squall was almost the same yet not as good, for reasons I can't entirely explain.

If I were working on a disertation in Final Fantasy, it would be fun to explore my original ideas further and attempt to list out the role induction techniques between Cloud and Squall and try to put a finger on it.

There does seem to be a bit of a balance. On the one hand we want people to relate to Cloud... to actually *be* him. For young males having girls like him certainly helps, but couldn't possibly explain the entire role induction that most player experienced. (If it could, there are a million games out there that should be succeeding equally. Having a member of the opposite sex like the protaganist is one of the very few really common role induction techniques.)

The problem is that there is so much more to it. Yes, Cloud isn't particularly likeable at first, but we're quickly introduced to why he acts that way. His reasons turn out to be rather understandable and we end up "rooting" for him because it's not his fault. (That's a technique I couldn't fit into my article: Rooting interest.)

In other words, I am just trying to point out in the article the clever use of techniques throughout; I'm not trying to show how they all relate together and why some offset others. That really would have been a much longer article. More like a book. (And I'm frankly not up to the task.)

In any case, even Final Fantasy VIII liberally uses emotion techniques more so than the average game does. So we could even learn a lot from Squall. :)

You guys have brought up a very interesting question that really got me thinking. If the diamond was truly the only major boon to Cloud then why is another diamond character of similar creation origins, traits, and mannerisms sitting in his shadow? This character is Final Fantasy VIII's protagonist Squall Lionhart. Let's compare each character's diamond point.

Cloud Strife

"Action hero: He leaps dramatically from trains and looks great on a motorcycle. Oh yeah, and the size of his sword rivals only the size of the spikes in his hair.

Distant and uncaring: He's just here to do a job and get paid. Save the planet from Shinra Corporation? Who cares!

Born Loser: Cloud does everything wrong. He loses the girl - two actually - and hands over the means of destroying the world to his archenemy. His companion must save the world because he can't. He's having a bad life.

Split Personality: He hears a voice in his head because he's buried his real personality so deeply that he's started thinking he's someone else."

(Please note not all points expressed are universally shared.)

Squall Lionhart

Action hero: He jumps from the roof of one of the tallest buildings to steal a nice car to run down the enemy. Not to mention sporting a curiously alluring scar and a weapon that is just as curious.

Distant and uncaring: You'll do what you'll do and he'll sit back and say, "Whatever."

Socially Inept: All his encounters, from dancing with the beautiful stranger to leading a whole organization of teenaged mercenaries, can be described with one word; awkward.

Devoted Lover: He will leap into space and ride a machine that he doesn't actually have access to the controls to save the woman he loves.

(Please note not all points expressed are universally shared.)

So why is Cloud considered an "epic videogame hero" while Squall a sort of footnote protagonist? The answer seems to lie more in the concept of size and severity, and no, that's not their swords. While both characters have unusual circumstances the personal obstacles that Cloud is forced to overcome in his character development are more numerous and severe.
Personal obstacles meaning flaws and personal issues each character must internally overcome. So this is not necessarily plot obstacles.
Squall's personal obstacles are all very relatable. Most are issues that everybody faces with rare cases of abnormality. Cloud's personal obstacles are bizarre and typically rare with the occasional normal issue.
So why is Cloud more popular than Squall? It's more than likely because Cloud had to overcome more than Squall to be a hero. This makes Cloud more ideal in the moral that all challenges can be overcome with the right tools.
To add to this trend, many of Squall's issues are phasic. For example, when I first played the game in my early teens I could more easily relate to Squall and identify with him; however in coming back and playing the game in my early twenties his issues now feel tripe and juvenile. In contrast, many of Cloud's issues are nearly universally problematic. This allows Cloud to be understood by broader audiences.
Naturally, this is not the only explanation if you can contribute it to any one thing, but it seems to play a very vital roll.

Also, I have to agree with Dom that there was more to Sephiroth than Aeris' death and a long sword. Sephiroth was actually incredibly detailed but information on him is scattered in such a way that his details are simply overshadowed when compared to more prodominate characters such as Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris.

Wow, what an intelligent thread!
I wonder if I can still write in it :)

When I first read the article I was a bit shocked at the statements you made. That Sephiroth is the most cliche villain? That the dialogue is terrible? That the love-story is of the likes of Twilight?!

I think you over-evaluated Final Fantasy 7 and put it to '00+ standards, when this is a '97 game, when you mention the graphics. For 1997, this was the dog's bollocks (and still is in my opinion - amazing graphics don't make an amazing game for me, but they do help) and its short cinematics are still incredible to this day. Weapon attacking Junon... still gives me the shivers just thinking about it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jia6sRbA2Lc

Can you watch that and still seriously tell me the graphics remind you of a child's artwork?
However on that subject, I think one of the reasons the game was so hugely successful was because of the block-like designs and simple features of each character. It gave people room to interpret each person's features to our own ideas (although we're given a small picture of them in the menu frame). That way we weren't inhibited by a tear down one person's cheek, or an evil grin unless it was purposefully shown by Square. I also find the lack of sound for the dialogue to support my views on this, as we can interpret the way they say things in whatever manner we see fit.

So for many viewers, reading a few lines on a blank-faced block gave them a unique ability to project things they like onto the characters. Hence why girls always fall over Cloud and guys... uhh... just look up Tifa on Google Images with safe search turned off. You'll know what I mean.

If you really think about it - how many characters have you disliked because there was something wrong with their appearance or voice? The simple styles and colours of their clothing even emphasize this.

Wow, this really is turning into quite an essay.

I have to defend Sephiroth, though. It's my duty as a loyal fan.

My interpretation of Sephiroth begins as a character who is neither Good nor Evil. He is just inherently corrupt as a specimen as opposed to a human being. And a division of Hojo, no less. He is a quiet, indestructible hero serving ShinRa and doing his duty with no real feelings towards anything in either direction. Upon finding his true 'origins' so to speak in the Mako Reactor, he goes into the mansion to discover more about JENOVA, the Ancients and so on and so forth. Sickened by this, he chooses to burn Nibelheim to the ground and heads for the reactor to fetch his 'headless monster' of a mother and attempt to free her from being the eternal slave to ShinRa. He then gets (presumably) killed by Cloud and his mother, and his mothers' head is shipped off to Midgar for safe keeping. This is where the game begins on Disc 1 of FF7.

So Sephiroth died, and his physical form is destroyed - however his 'spirit' is so powerful from the JENOVA infusions and various other things that he has the ability to resist merging with Lifestream.

Already we have a motherless experiment-gone-wrong who's died and come back to life again. If this is "shortage of character [that game designers felt the need to give] him a 20-foot long sword to compensate", then by God... what the heck do you call a complex one?
For full details on Sephiroth's character and WHY he is the most impressive, entertaining and down-right bad ass villain of all time, you should read: http://www.ffshrine.org/ff7/ff7_theory_sephiroth.php

It gives a slightly more thorough outline of what we 'know' from the game. I have a feeling when you played FF7, you missed out a few important plot points that would have definitely persuaded you to think otherwise about our One-Winged Angel.

On a lighter note, I do agree with your points about emotionally manipulating the player with a lot of heavily suggestive and exposing dialogue (not in those ways :P) - as well as how you pointed out the character diamonds. However as other people have stated... this is what all great writers use to avoid cliche and make loveable and unforgettable characters.

I hope this cleared things up and isn't overlooked or ridiculously too late.

 

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