Final Fantasy VII is one of the most important RPGs of all time, cementing Square’s reputation for strong storylines and interesting characters, and helping Sony’s PlayStation to become a huge success across the world. Director Yoshinori Kitase and Art Director Yusuke Naora discus the creation of a masterpiece.
Without hyperbole, Final Fantasy VII is the RPG that changed the genre. Opening the Western floodgates to Japan’s own style of role-playing and popularising the entire sub-genre, the 10-million-plus-selling game was, for many players, their introduction to the potential of interactive storytelling and the first videogame narrative to leave a mark on them. It’s also divisive, anecdotally referred to as the most returned game of all time and often criticised by Western RPG veterans – yet such cynicism can’t mask the impact it had upon release in 1997. Along with Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy VII shifted millions of PlayStation consoles by demonstrating the machine’s capabilities, captivating gamers with a fictional universe of unrestrained scope and style that would govern an entire corner of the industry. Back when the game was being created, Square (today known as Square Enix) was a company in transition, and the influx of talent that brought FFVII into being, as well as a development culture that fostered creativity, was ultimately responsible for this deservedly celebrated RPG.
You can’t hear it here, but the music in battle scenes is amazing.
At the 1995 SIGGRAPH computer graphics convention in Los Angeles, the company formerly known as Square presented an interactive demo to the world that showcased its Final Fantasy property in unprecedented fashion. This project depicted three characters from Final Fantasy VI fighting a Golem enemy in full 3D, a jaw-dropping contrast to the SNES-based 2D roots of the game, complete with visual effects and cinematic in-battle camera angles that implied a future beyond the static staging of the series’ stories up until that point. When you look at the tech demo now, you can absolutely see the founding technical conceit of Final Fantasy VII embedded within it. Squaresoft saw that Final Fantasy could be so much more on a platform that allowed the company to experiment with such high-end technical ideas.
The SIGGRAPH project would form the ‘seed’, as producer and creator Hironobu Sakaguchi dubbed it on a promotional video for the game, of Final Fantasy’s move into the next console generation. To any seasoned gamer, the most well-known part of the development of Final Fantasy VII is the defection that started it all. Long considered a Nintendo stalwart since the original Final Fantasy’s release on the NES in 1987, Square shifted to the PlayStation for its CD-ROM capabilities over the N64’s comparatively limited cartridges. This fit the grand ambitions of this new sequel.
“We were fans of Nintendo’s hardware, although in order to use CG movies in the game like we intended, we needed a lot of storage space, and for that reason decided on a platform that used the higher-capacity CD media,” director Yoshinori Kitase tells us.
How ironic that this franchise would soar on a Sony platform, given that Nintendo publicly broke away from a CD-enabled SNES collaboration with the electronics giant earlier in the decade. The emerging disc format enabled Final Fantasy VII to be far more cinematic than its forebears – an important factor, especially to Sakaguchi. Yet an interesting factor in all this was the set of technical influences on the team, many of whom were from Western game development, as Kitase explains to us: “We looked at trends in the foreign-made PC games of the time, such as Alone In The Dark and Heart Of Darkness [and so on], and made it our objective to combine together smooth action sequences using polygon-based characters and clever camera work with the insertion of effective CG movies at a high level. I believe that we pretty much achieved our goals in this regard.”
There were plenty of mini-games to break up all the adventuring.
When it came to setting and story, Final Fantasy VII would similarly be a departure from series convention. While the previous entry in the series had a pronounced steampunk theme, the set of environments in the seventh game would vary massively from continent to continent, from a vast, polluted metropolis to backwater towns; that clash of futuristic technology against these remnants of a beautiful old world.
We asked Kitase to discuss the inspirations for the planet’s creation, and he graciously passed our questions on to FFVII’s art director, Yusuke Naora. “Initially we wanted to try something new by having a corporation as the major enemy while still keeping the game broadly in the fantasy genre,” he explains, referring to the Shinra Electric Power Company. “Having decided on this concept, we actively included many steampunk-like elements to try to merge the appeal of traditional high-fantasy ‘brick-built’ structures and sci-fi elements at a high level. However, as there was to be magic present in this world, it would have been hard to have cyberpunk-esque unknown future technology sitting comfortably with the other influences, so we tried to keep that aspect down as much as possible.”
Naora continues: “On the design side, we were also very much inspired to mix in things from many different periods in a semi-chaotic manner, including things from our everyday lives such as the newer buildings in Tokyo, the streets of Ginza, and the Shibuya station building.” All this led to a laudably diverse set of environments, which still felt like a cohesive part of the same world.
The setting was closely connected to the narrative – the backdrop of Final Fantasy VII’s story is that the planet is suffering, being mined of resources by the ruthless Shinra, which is also a prominent military force. Yet the central conflict of the story is actually smaller-scale than that. For the developers, it was more about the symbiotic struggle between the hero, Cloud, and the calculated villain, Sephiroth, that drove the game forwards, as Kitase explains: “Throughout the story I really wanted to depict Sephiroth as an overwhelmingly powerful threat. However, if you have a villain as an actual opponent who appears before the heroes then however strong or charismatic you make the character, he will still feel very much ‘life-sized’ and limited in scope, reduced to another minor evil.”
Some of the attacks you have access to are extremely powerful.
What source of inspiration helped the team tackle this issue? You’d be surprised. Kitase continues: “To solve this problem, I decided to present Sephiroth indirectly, making the player aware of his existence through hints and stories but not having him show himself before them much. The player sees the aftermath of his ruthless deeds but does not arrive at the source of the evil for a long time. This was the same method used by Steven Spielberg in the film Jaws. Finding the butchered President Shinra on the top floor of the Shinra building and the impaled body of the Midgar Zolom are moments symbolic of this approach.”
Players don’t properly encounter Sephiroth until they’re around ten hours in, and even then it’s in fleeting glimpses – we see him prominently in flashbacks, leading to the discovery about his sad origins and subsequent breakdown. He, along with the attached musical theme, One-Winged Angel, would become iconic aspects of FFVII upon release. Cloud, the amnesiac hero trying to piece his distressing memories back together, was an equal point of fascination for players. It’s this dynamic, with their subsequently explored history of bloodshed and trauma, that players hadn’t seen before in Final Fantasy. “Furthermore, however far the player pursues him, Sephiroth is always just out of reach, and because of this our image of him becomes more and more idolised and idealised,” explains Kitase. “This story structure also overlaps with the reasons that Cloud has such a complex about his own past, and I believe it is an effective tool for showing the relationship between the two characters.”
All the character designs and their personalities were left in the hands of the designers, a break from previous games, where Sakaguchi would oversee their conception. This was also the first project where Tetsuya Nomura would be the sole character designer, who, having contributed work to Final Fantasy V and VI, replaced Yoshitaka Amano from the previous titles. A Famitsu interview with Nomura (translated by Andriasang) explains that Cloud was essentially his creation, yet Kitase told us that determining both the looks and personalities of every one of Final Fantasy VII’s iconic cast of characters was “largely the responsibility of [Nomura]”. It marked a sea change for the series. Gone were the primarily medieval, dreamy heroes of Amano, and in came a fresh, exciting array of heroes that would have an extensive impact on Japanese popular culture – not to mention birth a string of ideas that would be appropriated into character clichés, like spiky hair and giant swords. Amano would still contribute character sketches and the iconic meteor logo, however.
The immense back story for these heroes and villains was fine-tuned by scenario writer Kazushige Nojima, while many of the actual narrative ideas came from a unique exercise that once again showed Squaresoft’s experimental approach. “When designing the game, we asked all staff on the Final Fantasy team to submit possible episode ideas for character back stories and created the overall stories by putting these together,” says Kitase. “It was the scenario writer, Mr Nojima, who managed to put together a complete and detailed story from this massive pool of ideas, a process that was much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
This exercise led to an intriguing collection of stories across the cast of heroes, with one main plot driving it all: the planet’s impending destruction at the hands of Sephiroth, where he would harness the world’s natural defences – known as the Lifestream – for himself. The cast of Final Fantasy VII, including the tortured, unfocused Barret; last of an ancient race Aeris (or Aerith – a misspelling in the game’s translation, as you probably know); and down-and-out pilot Cid Highwind; as well as more esoteric faces like the tomb-dwelling, optional companion Vincent Valentine, struck a chord with gamers, as their stories dovetailed skilfully with the main narrative.
These small tales, even Sephiroth’s, traced back to the all-encompassing Shinra plot device – this corporation that is draining the planet of its resources. Given that Final Fantasy VII was made in the mid-Nineties, you could draw obvious parallels with the real-world environmental issues at that time. Yet environmentalism, surprisingly, was not part of the team’s storytelling agenda, Kitase explains: “We did not particularly plan on bringing out environmental destruction as a major theme of the game but rather intended the story to depict the internal struggles of Cloud and Sephiroth.
“However, if pushed I would say that this theme was not so much that of concern over destruction of the environment but more about how we wanted to show how civilisation and the environment coexist. Cloud and his companions first appear in the game as a group trying to take down the Mako reactors, but in the end we see them getting help from the Lifestream that is the source of that energy, and going forward into a future of coexistence with the planet. I believe that this theme of how we can strike a balance and live in harmony with the environment is one that is shared by all of us.”
You can read the rest of our Making Of Final Fantasy VII in issue 96. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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