Friday, March 19, 2010

The Sensationalist: A Melodramatic Fantasy

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

I listened to both the Giant Bomb and Gamers With Jobs podcasts week and both shows had some of their hosts describing their experience with Final Fantasy XIII. Inevitably, the question of "Should I play it?" came from the cast members who were still apprehensive. The answer was basically another series of questions: "Do you really like the Final Fantasy series? Do you have time to invest at least ten hours before the whole battle system is unlocked? How do you feel about the characters?"

This seems like a long way from the kind of reverence the series got in the late 1990s. In 1997 (and perhaps even today) the answer to the question "Should I play Final Fantasy VII?" was commonly "Do you own a PlayStation? If not, get one and then play it."

I think that melodrama is one of the major reasons why so many folks, including myself, have such strong emotional ties to the game. As Michael has written, melodrama at its most basic level is using music to heighten the impact of a story. Final Fantasy VII, devoid of the benefits and pitfalls of voice acting, uses its music to convey its story on an emotional level. The overworld map music is a prime example of how Final Fantasy VII uses music to communicate its themes while also retaining its importance to a huge number of players.

Before I go any further, I will offer a disclaimer: I am no music critic. Possessing only the scantest bits of formal musical knowledge, I aim only to fumble through and describe the sentiments and feelings of the music. For more refined and (let's face it) qualified analysis, I heartily recommend visiting Dan Bruno or Ben Abraham.

Distilled to its most basic structure, Final Fantasy VII's convoluted plot is one that stresses mutuality. It is a story in which the entire planet is threatened with destruction and the solution to this threat is the interconnectedness of life itself. Regardless of allegiance, belief, or geographical location, each character in the story is invested in stopping Sephiroth. In a story that would probably please Al Gore, all the planet's inhabitants, and even The Planet itself, unite to face a challenge to their collective existence.

The game's overworld music constantly reminds the player of their mission and reinforces the theme of unity:

Unlike many other Final Fantasy overworld tunes, the song has a slow buildup. While the overarching melody is introduced in the first ten seconds, the subsequent measures mirror the ambivalent, apprehensive state in which the player finds themselves upon hearing the song for the first time. The initial hours of Final Fantasy VII take place in Midgar, a huge industrial metropolis whose grand scale and internal politics make it feel like a world unto itself. After a dramatic escape, the concept that Midgar is but a small part of the world is daunting. Even more frightening is that the evil encountered within the city gates is not contained within them, and in fact has already spread across the world.

At the one minute mark, the melody is formally introduced in a relatively straightforward, as if to ensure that that we remember its basic form. Cloud, as well as the player, has a basic idea of what must be done, but the scope of the mission and the size of the world is still shocking for someone who spent spent so much time in the city looking at the small picture.

At about 1:55, the song goes on a bit of a tangent: while it retains the hints of the melody in the background, sharp keyboard strokes allude to one of gaming's most beloved characters: Aeris.

Aeris represents the countless individual sacrifices made throughout the struggle, and those haunting keystrokes speak to the frailty of one individual against an overwhelming force. After her sacrifice, Aeirs lives on through her friends as well and the many anonymous people that join in the communal struggle against Sephiroth.

At 2:40, the world map music provides a grand reintroduction to the original melody. This time, the full orchestra is brought in to reveal the narrative's broad scope and the myriad of people all fighting towards a single end. Over the course of the game, Cloud and company traverse the entire world exploring everything from Gothic mansions to beach resorts. Every corner of the map contains people whose lives were touched by the growing threat. Whether soaring over mountains with a would-be astronaut or visiting the salt of earth at an old mining camp, Final Fantasy VII's world is full of unique people with a common goal. Their diversity of experiences and the grandeur of their mission is mirrored in the music's crescendo, and their shared existence is echoed in its familiar melody.

However, victory is not assured The song retreats from its bombastic statement at 3:50 to remind us of the planet's tenuous state. At 4:10, a slow, ominous rhythm kicks in to warn us of the creeping, mysterious evil working its way across the globe. Sephiroth might not always be present, but the sense of doom he spreads is a constant undercurrent that provokes a sense of urgency, even in times of relative peace. The threat will not yield or rest, and so neither must Cloud.

At 5:15, the melodic forces of hope, grandeur, and destruction collide. The outcome is neither triumphant nor tragic; it is more inquisitive than anything. Strains of the original melody trail off, as if they are possibilities rather than eventualities. Success for Cloud and the player hinges on their ability to marshal all of the world's energy to complete the task at hand. Despite its magnificent variety, the world and its inhabitants are ultimately a vast network with a single future. Success is uncertain, and it relies on facing the danger together.

Final Fantasy VII is a story about how, even in a complex world, people are fundamentally connected to one another. This is a powerful lesson, and often comes as a profound revelation as people transition into adulthood. The game remains important not only because of its technical and gameplay accomplishments, but because it told a story that coincided with the coming of age of a generation players who now find themselves in a world that is both profoundly troubled and increasingly interconnected.

Final Fantasy VII's story is melodramatic in the best way. Time is often cruel towards games; graphics, game mechanics, and storytelling devices are easily worn down over the years. By crafting a musical version of its story, Final Fantasy VII uses melodrama to insulate it from the ravages of time. Just as John Williams' score helps Star Wars retain its impact, Nobuo Uematsu has given us music that that both burnishes and perpetuates Final Fantasy VII's popularity. The music encompasses the game's themes and provides players with an anthem that simultaneously appeals to their individual and shared experiences.


  1. Great write-up, Scott! I'm currently playing the crap out of FFXIII for a review - without wanting to render early judgement, I'll say I'm finding a lot to like in the game, but also that a lot of it confounds me - and the single strongest element is the music.

    It makes me wonder... if FFXIII had been text-only, and let the music do the emotional heavy lifting, how would it have been? And if, as has been rumored for a while, they remake VII with full voice acting, will the impact be diminished?

    The title screen in XIII is just lovely on its own - with headphones, you can hear the sustain pedal on the piano moving, real instruments slowly developing of that six-note motif... some of that delicate beauty gets lost once everyone starts throwing spells and paradigm-shifting.

  2. Well done! You've hit on something that I hadn't noticed before in FF VII - it's one of the very few games whose melodrama was its strength, rather than its weakness. The games after it - I'm thinking of FF VIII and FF X specifically - really don't carry the emotional punch that this game does, despite using all kinds of melodramatic devices to carry things along. FF VII manages to evoke what I think of as "genuine" melodrama - the kind that doesn't try to manipulate you into false emotion for its own sake, but exaggerates the emotion of a scene to draw you into the story even more.

    I'm going to skip FF XIII - the series has become too long in the tooth, too formulaic - it's something meant for FF fans.

    One last thing: you're dead right about the "Do you own a PlayStation?" bit. I ran out and bought FF7 the day I saw the commercial. I didn't even bother to check with anyone if it was good: I *knew* it was going to be good. I had several friends who outright bought a PS the day it was released. I miss the excitement of buying consoles just for the sake of one game!

  3. Hey Kirk!

    Every time I think that the re-make rumor dies, it rises from the ashes.

    For a while, I was interested in a remake, but I've grown less enthusiastic as time has passed for the reasons you hint at: You just can't go home again, especially when "home" has been overrun by terrible voice acting.

    I'm looking forward to reading more of your FF XIII thoughts. I need someone to convince me to try it...

    Hi Chris!

    This is where I somewhat sheepishly admit that God of War III was what I was thinking about when I bought a PS3... ;-)

    I ran out of room in the post, but I also think it's interesting how different the world map theme to FF VII is from the other two PSOne Final Fantasies:

    Final Fantasy VIII

    Final Fantasy IX

    Again, I'm in no way a competent musician, but those two strike me as much more ambient than narrative. Strange that FF VII is an outlier even within its generation.

  4. Great write-up! I am a huge fan of FFVII's music fitting with the story so well - I love the sense of anxiety/hesitation/wonder that a lot of the songs convey, and the depth of the World Map Theme has always amazed me.

    As for FFXIII, one thing I noted was the jarring vocals added to a lot of the songs - It seems like it really dates the music and the game and cheapens each track. I enjoyed that the quality of FF music often conveyed untold words, and having the vocal tracks there have just irked me. Most FF theme/world music lets me think about where I've been and where I'm going and thus pulls you in well... Adding vocals to the tracks seems to serve as the opposite effect, and further distances me from the characters.

    Maybe the vocals get better as the game goes on, but I seriously don't want to hear another word about winning battles and making wishes while I'm exploring...

  5. Hi Auilix!

    Yeah, I was surprised by all the vocals in Final Fantasy XIII as well. It's probably because they signed Leona Lewis to do the main theme (Apparently she's popular with the kids these days? I must be getting old...).

    If you really want to see some world-class awkwardness, just check out the promotional video she did for the game.