Can't Get it Out of My Head

A Play within a Play


It seems a mystery that a problematic game like Final Fantasy VII could be so, well, unforgettable. Its villain was even worse than cliché, its translated dialog conjured images of poorly dubbed Godzilla movies, its blocky graphics reminded me of children’s artwork, and its love triangle came straight from that novel the 15-year-old captain of the chess club hides in his violin case. So why do industry experts consistently cite this game as a “defining moment for our industry”? Critics are at a loss to explain its massive success. One blogger, desperately trying to explain this, said – I swear I’m not making this up – the masses of Final Fantasy VII fans were all part of a group delusion caused by the shock of seeing the first CGI graphics integrated into a large RPG world; all else was just nostalgic fondness.

Perhaps it’s time to learn the true lesson of Final Fantasy VII: Even a mediocre game can be made great through incredible “Emotioneering.”

Diamond Characters
Coined by David Freeman in his book Creating Emotion in Games, Emotioneering is “the vast body of techniques that can create, for a player … [a] depth of emotions … [or immersion] in a world or a role.” Freeman, a successful TV writer, found it intriguing to bring evocative techniques to gaming. Freeman believes we will create “the next revolution” in electronic entertainment by bringing emotional impact to the medium. He may just have a point, as the success of Final Fantasy VII proves.

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. Though, on the surface, he’s a stereotypical action hero that only cares about himself, before long we’ll see that it’s all just a facade meant to conceal his fear of failure. Cloud has what Freeman calls a “character diamond” – a diamond has four points, just as a nuanced character has at least four defining characteristics. Cloud’s character diamond might look like this:

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.

Any two of these and Cloud risks being a walking cliché. All four and Cloud becomes interesting. We later discover that Cloud’s seemingly contradictory traits are caused by deep emotional pain from his past, adding real depth to the character. The designers have effectively used Freeman’s “character deepening techniques” and “character interesting techniques” (so called because they, uh, make the character interesting).

The other two main characters are Tifa and Aeris. Tifa is the shy, yet popular and gorgeous (of course) girl that Cloud pined over while growing up. Aeris is the mysterious flower-girl from the opening scene. The trio develops over the course of the game, and we can’t help but emotionally empathize with their predicaments and pain. As we empathize, they become “real” to us. Every moment, our emotional connection to the characters grows, thanks to liberal use of dialog, cut scenes and in-game events.

For example, at one point the captured main characters wake up in a prison. Because of the thin walls, Aeris hears Cloud in the next cell but is unaware that Tifa is there as well.

This is their dialog:

Aeris: “I knew that Cloud would come for me.”
Cloud: “Hey, I’m your bodyguard, right?”
Aeris: “The deal [for you being my bodyguard] was for one date, right?” (Tifa sits up.)
Tifa: “…oh, I get it.”
Aeris: “…!? Tifa! Tifa, you’re there too!”

In just 29 words of dialog, the designers have exposed us to the trio’s character diamonds, while simultaneously establishing tumultuous and conflicting feelings between them: Aeris’ flirtatious nature, Tifa shyly changing subjects and Aeris quickly redirecting her attention to Tifa. Freeman would call the realistic layer of feelings between Tifa and Aeris, close friends fighting over the same man, an example of “NPC to NPC chemistry” and “relationship deepening techniques.”

Square also encouraged the young male demographic to identify with Cloud because two women admire him. Freeman calls this a “role induction technique.” Yet, the positive feelings of having two women admire Cloud are offset by the knowledge that someone must eventually get hurt. Freeman calls this an “emotionally complex situation.” Final Fantasy VII uses Freeman’s techniques so frequently, we ride an emotional roller coaster over the main characters’ plight.

The Death of Aeris – A Watershed Moment
Sadly, the game’s oedipal-complex -ridden villain, Sephiroth, grasps desperately for characterization before coming up wanting. He has no character diamond; his motivations remain virtually indecipherable to the very end. As far as I can tell, he goes on a killing spree because (I’m not kidding you) he finds out his mother is a headless monster that fell from space. The game designers, sensing Sephiroth’s shortage of character, gave him a 20-foot long sword to compensate.

And yet gamers revere Sephiroth as one of the greatest videogame villains of all time. Sephiroth actually deserves his infamous spot in videogame history, because he’s the only villain to ever kill a beloved and fully developed character – Aeris. In this one act, Sephiroth becomes the proof in Emotioneering’s pudding.

Aeris’ death became a watershed moment in videogame history, raising the level of FFVII to art. This “plot deepening technique” literally moved people to tears.

Later on, the death of Aeris is repeated via a flashback. But the second time, it’s given a different meaning. Initially, Aeris’ death marks Cloud’s ultimate failure to protect a loved one, causing him to lose hope and eventually plunging him into a downward spiral. But when it’s discovered that Aeris died saving the planet, the very same disaster becomes symbolic of the rebirth of hope and obtaining victory from failure – the story’s reoccurring theme. Freeman calls this technique “enhancing emotional depth through symbols.”

Where is Our Shakespeare?
Centuries after Shakespeare’s death, he has become immortal through his works. The great writers of our day still look to him for inspiration. Copying his genius too closely is the definition of “cliché.” Is Final Fantasy VII our industry’s equivalent to Macbeth?

Roger Ebert once gave his opinion that videogames are not art. Though Ebert has no experience with videogames, he pointed out that “to [his] knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” On this point I believe he is correct. Our infant – no, embryonic – medium has yet to have its Shakespeare. Though the future Hamlets and Macbeths of electronic entertainment are yet to be, I wonder if Emotioneering, when skillfully utilized as in Final Fantasy VII, points the way.

Did players cry over the death of Aeris because they lost their best magic casting unit? Do fans fantasize about a “might have been” romance between Aeris and Cloud because the graphics in the game blew them away? I suspect not.

Without its incredible Emotioneering, Final Fantasy VII would have slipped into obscurity – just another box passing through its two-week shelf life in Gamestop. FFVII used a worn out bag of tricks, but succeeded because of its strong emotional content. Little wonder there are so many web shrines built to Aeris, Cloud and Tifa but none to Prince Rurik of Guild Wars.

Bruce Nielson’s short experience as a game producer left him cold and he’d rather be a game consumer anyhow. If you’re stupid enough to want to hire him anyhow, please offer a very large salary. He can be reached via The Online Roleplayer, which he runs.

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