Revisiting Final Fantasy VII (Part 2)

Occasionally I fall prey to the fear that I’m going to run out of ideas for blog posts, and that fear is usually what drives me to write about esoteric things like games or comics that I liked when I was a kid.

These are specialized interests, I know, and if I were exclusively concerned with expanding my readership, I’d probably stick to big topics like religion and current events, because those are typically the posts that get me the most traffic.

Of course, this blog is a personal project, so the heck with trying to maximize my traffic (because I’d rather live in a wonderful dream world where the quality of my writing, regardless of the subject, attracts regular readers).  With that, on with the esoteria!

At its heart, Final Fantasy VII is about humanity’s relationship with its environment.  I recall that the lead creative director, Yoshinori Kitase, once said that the central theme of FFVII is “life.”  As themes go it’s kind of simple (I was taught in high school that a text’s themes are always sentences, never words), but it’s broad enough that it effectively captures the significance of all the different story threads.

Drawing of a brown-haired girl with green eyes holding a large staff. She wears silver bracelets, brown boots and a shin-length pink dress that buttons up with the front with a red bolero jacket.

Aerith Gainsborough. She causes so many headaches… Art by Tetsuya Nomura. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

When I last left off, Aerith had just hired Cloud to be her bodyguard while she walks home from the church where she grows flowers.  The trip is uneventful, except that the slums of Midgar are apparently overrun with giant killer robots that are shaped like houses.

Y’know, perfectly normal.

Though I’ve played FFVII a couple times in the past, I can’t help noticing this time just how bizarre it is.  In theory, it’s the start of the modern JRPG with its modern, sci-fi influenced setting and highly serious plot (that doesn’t revolve around saving a princess), but little touches like the killer robot houses remind me that this game is still very much part of a different era when even the most serious and melodramatic stories were still tinged with lots of silliness.

And it gets sillier after Cloud and Aerith get back to her home where we discover that Aerith has an entire garden full of flowers just behind her house, leaving us to wonder why she braves the slums to tend a much smaller bed of the same flowers in the abandoned church where anyone from the megacorporation can just walk right in and try to kidnap her.

It’s small plot holes like this that make me dislike Aerith, because I can’t help feeling that she deliberately puts herself in danger.  Perhaps she’s secretly dissatisfied with her boring life as a flower girl, which might explain why she latches on to a guy who falls from the sky without explanation using the rather flimsy excuse that he reminds her of her last boyfriend.

So our heroes make it back to Aerith’s house, where her mother tells Cloud that he shouldn’t involve Aerith in any further funny business (I’m not entirely sure why Cloud would), but this naturally ends up being pointless, because she follows Cloud on his way to Sector 6.  It’s in this part of Midgar where things take a turn for the weird.

Yes, it gets more weird.

As a kid, I didn’t really get the point of Wall Market.  Yes, it was scandalous that there was a skeezy town that had its own brothel, and Cloud cross-dressing to infiltrate the mansion of the town pimp was funny, but it never came across to me when I was younger just how absurd the set up here is.

To back, up, Cloud and Aerith arrive in Wall Market and catch a glimpse of Tifa being taken to the home of Don Corneo.  They decide they need to rescue her, but find that the Don only allows pretty girls to come inside and meet him, leaving Cloud with a dilemma.  Aerith could go in alone to see what’s going on, but that would leave our manly hero stuck outside with nothing to do; the only option is to put on a dress and pretend to be a girl.  Setting aside the blatant sexism of Cloud feeling like he has to rescue Tifa, who is a trained martial artist in a world where the laws of physics aren’t quite the same as our own, it’s a good set up.

This whole sequence is full of strange humor as Cloud has to run around Wall Market completing odd tasks to get the items to complete his outfit.  He can get some perfume from a woman who’s stuck on a toilet with indigestion if he finds her some medicine, and in order to procure a wig, Cloud must compete in a squat contest at a gym for cross-dressing bodybuilders.  These events are presented with relatively little exaggeration, and Cloud takes them in stride.  We also find out later that everything he’s done to get his disguise together has been part of a minigame to determine who Don Corneo’s going to pick for his “bride,” with the distinct possibility that Cloud could be chosen because he makes a very lovely woman.

While the Wall Market episode is nothing but absurdity on top of absurdity, it fulfills an important role in the story: comic relief.  For several hours after this point, we’re going to have a lot of action and a lot of people dying, and then a lot of navel gazing about what’s going on in this world.

As for the “life” theme, I suppose this segment presents an odd twist.  Much of FFVII deals with environmentalism and the effect that people have on their surroundings.  Midgar, the setpiece for about the first six hours of gameplay, is an industrial dystopia where only the most wealthy can afford to live on top of the plate, which is a dark, sterile place, and everyone else lives on the ground in the slums.  Everyone you meet is just trying to survive and make the best of a bad situation (and in Barret and the rest of AVALANCHE’s case, make the situation a little worse while trying to make it much better).  Everything is pretty much a wreck in the slums; all the buildings are more or less just shacks built out of whatever scrap metal gets dumped below the plate.  Except for Aerith’s flowers, there’s almost no plant life below the plate (probably because of the lack of sun).

Well, except for Wall Market.

It’s a sleazy place with lots of unsavory characters, but one thing that Wall Market has, which nowhere else in Midgar does, is grass.  It’s a small detail, but walking around this little town, you can see that the paths are not just beaten dirt, but there’s some greenery.  It’s an odd juxtaposition, because Wall Market is meant to be the most dangerous place Cloud visits in Midgar (aside from the raid on the Shinra building that happens in the near future), but it’s also the most alive.

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